Author Biography: Sebastian Junger is the author of the international bestseller The Perfect Storm and a National Magazine Award-winning journalist. He lives in New York.
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About the Author
Sebastian Junger is the New York Times bestselling author of The Perfect Storm, A Death in Belmont and Fire. He is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and has been awarded a National Magazine Award and an SAIS Novartis Prize for journalism. He lives in New York City.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:January 17, 1962
Place of Birth:Boston, Massachusetts
Education:B.A. in Anthropology, Wesleyan University, 1984
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One Fire 1992
Late in the afternoon of July 26, 1989, a dry lightning storm swept through the mountains north of Boise, Idaho, and lit what seemed like the whole world on fire.
A dry lightning storm is a storm where the rain never reaches the ground. It evaporates in midair, trailing down from swollen cumulus clouds in long, graceful strands called virga. The electrical charges from a dry storm do not trail off before they hit the ground, however; they rip into the mountains like artillery. On July 26, 1989, lightning was hitting the upper ridges of the Boise National Forest at the rate of a hundred strikes an hour. Automatic lightning detectors at the Boise Interagency Fire Center were registering, all over the western states, rates up around two thousand an hour. By nightfall 120 fires had caught and held north of Boise, little one-acre blazes that eventually converged into a single unstoppable, unapproachable front known as the Lowman fire.
For the first three days Lowman was simply one among hundreds of fires that were cooking slowly through the parched Idaho forests. Around four o'clock in the afternoon of July 29, however, the flames reached some dead timber in a place called Steep Creek, just east of the town of Lowman, and the fire changed radically. The timber was from a blowdown two years earlier and was so dry that when the flames touched it, the entire drainage went up. The fire created its own convection winds, making the fire burn hotter and hotter until the fire behavior spiraled completely out of control. Temperatures at the heart of the blaze reached two thousand degrees. Acolumn of smoke and ash rose eight miles up into the atmosphere. Trees were snapped in half by the force of the convection winds.
The fire rolled across Highway 21 and right through the eastern edge of town, detonating propane tanks and burning twenty-six buildings to the ground. A pumper crew was trapped at the Haven Lodge, and they hid behind their truck and finally stumbled out of the blaze an hour later, safe but nearly blind. The fire had attained a critical mass and was reinforcing itself with its own heat and flames, a feedback loop known as a fire storm. The only thing people can do, in the face of such power, is get out of the way and hope the weather changes.
Which they did, and which it did, but not until a month later, after forty-six thousand acres of heavy timber had been turned to ash.
I saw the site of the Lowman fire in 1992, three years afterward, when the ponderosa seedlings were already greening the hillsides. A roadside plaque said that eight million ponderosa and Douglas fir would be hand-planted by the mid-1990s. The plaque went on to describe how the land had been treated with enzymes so that water and microorganisms could penetrate soil that was now seared to the consistency of hard plastic. Thousands of flame-killed trees had been dropped laterally along the slopes to keep the land from washing away, and thirty thousand acres had been planted with grass and fast-growing bitterbrush. In a hundred years, more or less, the area would again look the way it once had.
I was driving a big, painfully beautiful loop from Ketchum, Idaho, around the Sawtooth Mountains and down the South Fork of the Payette River toward Boise. It was late afternoon when I drove through the Lowman burn, and the quiet darkness of the dead valleys depressed me. The West was well into one of the worst droughts of the century, and I was out there to see the wildfires that it was sure to produce. My idea was to go to Boise -- where all the fire-fighting resources were coordinated -- tell them I was a writer, and hope they let me on a fire.
I pulled off down an old logging road and pitched my tent in a clear-cut. It seemed to get dark very quickly that night, and I cooked spaghetti on my camping stove and went to sleep listening to the weekend traffic die down on Highway 21. The Lowman fire, I'd heard, had burned so hot that Highway 21 had melted. There were places, I'd heard, where fire trucks had left their tread marks as they rushed from Boise to fight the flames.
In 1965 the U.S. government established the Boise Interagency Fire Center to coordinate the three federal agencies -- the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Forest Service, and what was then known as the Weather Bureau -- that were engaged in fighting wildfire in America. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Park Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service were added later, and the name was ultimately changed to the National Interagency Fire Center. Two years after BIFC was established, the Northern Rockies were hit with a catastrophically bad season that culminated in the Sundance fire in northern Idaho. BIFC managed to deploy thirteen thousand men and thousands of tons of supplies, prompting a study by the Office of Civil Defense, which was trying to figure out how to handle a similar crisis in the event of a nuclear war.
BIFC is located next to the Boise airport, across the interstate, south of town. The lobby is filled with the sort of display that, were you even vaguely inclined toward a job fighting fire, would make you move out west on the spot. There is a smoke jumper mannequin in full jump gear, including a wire face mask for when the jumper goes crashing into the treetops. There is a board with everything -- food, medical supplies, tools -- a jumper needs for forty-eight hours on a fire. There are color photos of air tankers dropping retardant and sheets of flame rising from stands of trees. One photo shows a fire in dense forest ...Fire. Copyright © by Sebastian Junger. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Table of Contents
|BLOWUP: WHAT WENT WRONG AT STORM KING MOUNTAIN (1994)||43|
|THE WHALE HUNTERS (1995)||57|
|ESCAPE FROM KASHMIR (1996)||73|
|KOSOVO'S VALLEY OF DEATH (1998)||95|
|DISPATCHES FROM A DEAD WAR (1999)||111|
|COLTER'S WAY (1999)||147|
|THE FORENSICS OF WAR (1999)||155|
|THE TERROR OF SIERRA LEONE (2000)||175|
|THE LION IN WINTER (2001)||199|
An Exclusive Interview with Sebastian Junger
Barnes & Noble.com Science & Nature editor Laura Wood met Sebastian Junger at his New York City restaurant, The Half King. This interview was conducted later via email.
Barnes & Noble.com: In the introduction to Fire you make an interesting observation about humans' fascination with danger. Rather than simply a morbid fascination, you speculate that instead there is a feeling of amoral awe. Can you elaborate on that?
Sebastian Junger: Humans are curious, and I think that curiosity can be mistaken for lack of compassion. A fatal car accident or a forest fire or war -- or a human birth, for that matter -- are rare events to witness. As uncomfortable as these things can make us, in some ways we should consider ourselves lucky to have been at the right spot at the right time. We can learn a tremendous amount from these things and apply them to our lives in ways that could be very positive. The criterion I use is: Am I actually making a situation worse -- am I increasing the total amount of human suffering in the world -- by doing what I'm doing? Clearly, turning my head to see a car accident doesn't hurt anyone, but taking photographs at a private funeral might. One is immoral and the other amoral and, possibly, a source of understanding.
B&N.com: As you point out in the title essay, "Fire," smoke jumpers don't exactly make a huge salary (I love the calculation that the actual jump earns them 21 cents!), but since it's so competitive there are obviously people who would rather risk their lives than make more money sitting behind a desk.
SJ: Frankly, I can't think of something that should be less interesting to a 22-year-old than money. The 22-year-olds who have lots of money -- movie stars, heiresses, the occasional musical genius -- invariably seem to lead tragic, unfulfilled lives. That a 22-year-old would prefer -- for a few years, at least -- to jump out of airplanes and put out fires seems to me to be the most natural thing in the world. Of course, there's a time in a person's life to stop doing those things, but that comes much, much later. Ask smoke jumpers if they're happy. Then ask a 22-year-old behind a desk in an office if they're happy. Take their blood pressure. Check their pulse. Ask how much they drink or smoke, and whether they are happy with the relationship they're in. Then decide which is the richer life.
B&N.com: Physical danger is one thing, but there are other kinds of dangerous pursuits. Writing itself can be thought of as dangerous. What do you think the risks of writing are?
SJ: There are risks to writing, mainly failure. The other risk is wasting your time. Think of all the interesting things you could have been doing -- like working as a smoke jumper -- while you were at home struggling to find something interesting to say. Writing isn't an end in itself, like yoga. It's a way to express ideas. If you haven't yet acquired the ideas to express, you're risking all kinds of things by pursuing a career in writing. Get dirty and come back to it later.
Sebastian Junger Catches Fire
From the September/October 2001 issue of Book magazine.
Sebastian Junger’s bedroom -- the one in his parents’ house, where he still sleeps from time to time -- looks out on a lush, verdant landscape. Above a small desk are the bows and arrows he crafted when he used to build lean-tos in the woods to see how long he could survive in the wild. There are summer camp photos here, books about Native American tribes and aboriginal peoples, as well as one book Junger no longer needs -- about how to make a living as a professional writer.
This is where Junger grew up -- on a tree-lined lane in a Boston suburb, where SUVs careen around cul-de-sacs. Here, Junger wrote some of his first stories, in Belmont, Massachusetts, founded in 1630 and known as "the town of homes," where every house looks like a bed-and-breakfast.
It’s only a half-hour drive between Belmont and Gloucester, Massachusetts. But that distance defines the contradiction of Junger. Gloucester, America’s oldest seaport town, was founded in 1623. It is a partly quaint, partly hardscrabble village where muscular fishermen shoot pool, glug Budweiser, and listen to the Allman Brothers Band on the jukebox in a bar called the Crow’s Nest. It is the town from which the crew of the Andrea Gail set off on a fishing expedition in 1991 and never returned. That tale was chronicled in Junger’s 1997 book, The Perfect Storm. Junger, with his permanent five o’clock shadow, weatherbeaten good looks, loping gait, and vaguely punch-drunk patter, could pass for an able-bodied seaman in a Gloucester oceanside bar. Junger might have liked to come from here. But he didn’t.
Straight Out of Belmont
"It was a hard place for him to be," John Vaillant says of Belmont. Vaillant has known Junger since the two were five years old (they attended grade school together). "It was really staid and suburban and prosperous and extremely quiet. He felt like a Martian there."
"He’s always had troubles with the fact that this is the suburbs, and an elegant house in the suburbs is not what he likes," says Junger’s mother, Ellen Sinclair.
In Belmont, Sinclair sits in her living room with her husband, Miguel Junger. The Junger house is filled with antiques and books. One shelf is stacked with volumes about fine artists; another contains leather-bound antique manuscripts inherited from Miguel’s family, who lived in a passel of European countries. Miguel, a retired physicist who ran a consulting company and taught at MIT, is currently reading three books in three languages (he speaks six): One, Peter Nichols’s A Voyage for Madmen, was purchased for Sebastian. Inside it, he has written the following inscription: "For Sebastian, my good shipmate. From the ancient mariner, Miguel."
"We live very, very well, very comfortably," says Sinclair, an artist whose family used to own and operate an amusement park in Canton, Ohio. "But Sebastian doesn’t like this house."
The Perfect Dorm
Sebastian Junger ("Seb" to his buddies), age 39, war reporter, bestselling author, is heading home to his Manhattan apartment to pack for Macedonia. Vanity Fair is sending him to investigate the looming conflict between the Slavic majority and the Albanian minority, as well as the human trafficking there. Loping up the stairs of his Lower East Side walk-up, Junger stops to greet a workman in a white undershirt and soiled jeans.
"You go on vacation," the man says, smiling.
"No, no," Junger says, intent on making his point. "Not vacation. I’m going on assignment."
"Vacation." The man smiles again.
"Not vacation," Junger repeats. "Work."
Junger walks with the purpose and determination of a man who thinks all eyes are upon him but will not allow himself to be distracted. He has a focus and intensity -- which clash with his predilection for self-deprecation -- suggestive of someone who recently discovered he has a secret power but is still uncertain of what it is or how he can harness it.
Arriving on the third floor, Junger slaps loudly on a door.
"Hey!" he shouts, still slapping. The apartment belongs to journalist John Falk. Junger and Falk recently co-wrote a screenplay with Scott Anderson, author of The Man Who Tried to Save the World. The screenplay, which concerns the three writers’ experiences in Bosnia when they were mistaken for CIA agents, was sold to Intermedia. The original title, Risk, has now been changed to Springtime in Sarajevo.
"He usually sleeps during the day," Junger says of Falk. "I want to freak him out."
He rings the bell a few times.
"Hey, what’s the matter? You chicken?"
"I guess he’s not there," Junger says, somewhat disappointed, and strolls over to his place. According to Junger’s agent, Stuart Krichevsky, The Perfect Storm sold more than 600,000 copies in hardcover and over 2 million in paperback; the paperback rights sold for $1.2 million, the film rights for $500,000. The Wolfgang Petersen-directed film starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Diane Lane was the fourth-highest-grossing film of 2000, raking in approximately $180 million. People has tagged Junger one of the sexiest men alive. Oprah has drooled over him. Fire, a collection of Junger’s articles -- mostly previously published -- about Idaho smoke jumpers, Afghani rebels, the Caribbean’s last whaler, and other people involved in dangerous activities in the world’s hot spots, is rolling out this fall.
"Things have gone very well and very smoothly for him," says Anderson. "Whether it’s prescience or luck, he’s repeatedly in the right place at the right time."
Nevertheless, Junger’s apartment is sparse and unassuming, more Gloucester than Belmont, more skid row than Gloucester. It’s a cozy two-bedroom (in any city other than New York, this would be called a one-bedroom), and it looks as if it’s still awaiting the next shipment of moving boxes. The living room contains three pieces of furniture -- a mushy couch the color of a very thin gravy, a chair and a table, atop which is a chessboard and a gag lighter in the shape of a bikini-clad woman (the bikini lights up when you flick it). A window is propped open with a hatchet that his sister Carlotta -- now an art director for a London publisher -- once found in the woods.
Junger divides his stereo equipment between the living room and his office; in the living room, there’s a Sony Discman, in the office, a boom box. In the living room, wooden crates house several dozen cassette tapes, most of them hand-labeled (artists include Harry Belafonte, U2, Los Lobos, Bruce Springsteen, and Portishead). CDs, some out of their cases, are stacked haphazardly on the floor. So are printouts of articles about Macedonia downloaded from the Web. There’s a smattering of artwork on the floor and the walls -- photographs and paintings by some of his friends, a couple of iron curiosities he found on the beach at Cape Cod and on the streets of New York.
The bedroom is sparser. True, the mattress is no longer on the floor (a recently purchased bed frame is a concession to his girlfriend, a science journalist). But aside from one of his mother’s paintings and a half-read copy of Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau, it’s basically the only thing in the room.
The most cluttered room is the office. A low shelf filled with reference books. A desk strewn with papers. A laptop. News clippings tacked to the walls -- an obituary of a matador, a picture of a sinking oil tanker. Here and there, other odd items: a temporary ID from Afghanistan, maps -- some on the walls, some rolled up and shoved into corners -- family pictures, snapshots with curling corners depicting Junger, arms around his buddies. (Note to burglars: The checkbooks are lying on the floor.) The window above the desk looks out onto a seedy, profoundly unspectacular New York cityscape -- a dingy Mexican restaurant, cluttered little grocery stores, wholesale clothing shops, their wares spilling onto the sidewalks. "Luxury just isn’t interesting," Junger says. "I really don’t buy expensive things. They just depress me; they always have." (Adam Langer)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
There are a couple things I didn't realize when I first picked up this book. One was that I thought this was a story about fires, as the title suggests, or perhaps other natural disasters and although the first two essays are about fires and the people who risk their lives putting them out, this is only a small portion of the book. Another thing I didn't realize was that this is a collection of essays ranging over the years of 1992 to 2001 rather than being one cohesive tale.I think part of the interest to this book is the author's progression from very green writer who actually went into journalism before having an actual job or credentials to do so, to a semi-seasoned correspondent. I thought that the first essay would be the end for me. Written much like a science textbook, this story of a fire and firefighters was written in a very dry and educational type manner that made my eyes roll back in my head (part of the problem I was never more than a C student in biology was my absolute boredom with the texts.) His second fire essay, written two years later had a more human take that I found to be much more appealing. From here the essays progress in quality and also take on a variety of issues ranging from whaling (from the non-PC whaler's point of view) to the questionable ethics of the diamond trade in Sierra Leone. The majority of the essays cover human conflicts and wars between countries I had previously only heard of in passing.These stories are not my typical reading fare. I tend to avoid the subjects of politics and religion like the plague and never, ever watch the evening news. Despite my usual aversion, these essays did hold my interest to a point, although they did not do much for my faith in humanity in general. I find it horrifying and troubling that people can do such things to one another.Taking this book for what it is supposed to be, I think it is well done. However, I don't expect I will go out searching for other essay collections such as this as the format and content didn't really appeal to me.
Not quite as engaging as the Perfect Storm, but well worth the $2.95 I paid for it (gotta love Adelaide STreet sales). An interesting look at the more dangerous occupations around.
The stories are so varied and there is so much to learn. Junger writing makes the foreign feel accessible and near.
10/01/03 I read an excerpt from this book in Adventure magazine and it did not let me down. This is a great set of stories and is simply riveting. Initial comments after reading this was that Junger must be crazy to put himself in these situations.
This book has a catchy title and cover, however, it has very little to do with wilderness fire fighting. Don't recommend!
Some of Junger's exploits are compelling, while the others drone on and on with violent and repetive prose. Junger has certainly led a dangerous life, however the drama and excitement of each treacherous voyage does not translate well in this book. He should have copied his excellent technique in "The Perfect Storm" by fleshing out the first story about firefighters to fill the whole book.
Sebastian Junger has covered stories that other writers don't dare to cover. Fire is another excellent example of the dangerous work that he does so well. This book should be on any readers' shelf.
Not up to the focus in 'The Perfect Storm'; but I knew that going into it. This pre-9/11 work certainly helps open our eyes to a need to better understand global affairs - perhaps a few years too late. Down with the Monroe Doctrine and up with 'Seb' and authors like him for helping us 'get out of the box'.....AT LAST. Looking forward to his insights as ABC's war correspondent - especially the 'behind-the-scene' stuff.
The most interesting stories were the first ones on fighting fires, the one on Sierra Leone, and the last one on Afghanistan, which provides some insight into the type of war being fought there. Junger is really an adventurous person who can bring the tension and urgency, when it exists, to the reader.
The book is a little interesting, but drones on documentary style of a few specific examples of extreme situations, but really leads nowhere. Usually a book is either entertaining, educational, or purely captivating in subject, and this book, in contrast to the excellent 'Perfect Storm', fails on those accounts. I unfortunately bought the tape which was also dry and dronely read. The stories came across to me as little more than an author facinated by the horrific but with little story line to follow. Perhaps a specific account of a single firefighter or a Kosovo survivor could have told the same story in a more interesting fashion.
This book was great, I read about the Author and his topics in mindsurfing. I highly recommend this book to anyone.
I first encountered Sebastian Junger in reading the `Perfect Storm.¿ As an award winning journalist he has honed his meticulous investigative prowess and prose. At this point in history, especially American history, Junger¿s writings on Afghanistan are timely. I also found his viewpoints on the genocide in Kosovo amazing. I also recommend Brad Steiger¿s `Alien Rapture¿ which is also timely as we are on the brink of WW III, using Top Secret black technology. I read his bio on mindsurfing.com and was quite impressed. Junger does a remarkable job, both unforgettable and comprehensible, of explaining diverse human phenomena in `Fire¿ and I will surely look forward to his future non-fiction books. `Fire¿ is highly recommended by this reader.