Still in harm's way - and loving it

Catching Up With ... Sebastian Junger

October 13, 2002|By Valerie Feldner | Valerie Feldner,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK - At 40, Sebastian Junger seems like the kind of guy who should be out roughhousing with a big dog. He surfs, jogs seven miles a day, owns a boat and has spent weeks backpacking the West.

But he doesn't own a dog. He needs to be able to take off at a moment's notice. Chasing stories down as a "foreign reporter" can't compete with creature comforts, home fires or even a home, for that matter. Domesticity simply doesn't lure him like jumping into stories in Afghanistan or going undercover in a brothel in Kosovo, for Vanity Fair.

Ironically, it's working alongside men in ditches in Afghanistan where he can truly relax, working without the fetters of fame, a condition wrought by his TV appearances (as a reporter for ABC News, among other things) and, of course, his two books: The Perfect Storm, the best seller about the mega-storm and the disasters it wrought, and his latest, Fire. Success, he says, "eats alive the very thing that gave birth to it."

When laboring on The Perfect Storm in obscurity for almost four years, he says, "I knew 10 people, had no e-mail, no cell phone. ... I lived in a house in the woods and maybe got a phone call a day."


"Phone and e-mail - just for starters - there goes three hours. Then there's things people ask me to do and a lot of them are worthy things and it's very hard to say no."

All of which has taken him from doing something he truly loves.

"My calling wasn't to be an author in the U.S. The profession that seemed truly interesting and noble was foreign reporter. Even though the level of visibility and financial compensation is negligible compared to being a well-known author. But that gig did not draw me and the foreign stuff did. So I went back to it as soon as I could."

`Totally intoxicating'

At his small walk-up apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side, it's clear that Junger isn't interested in owning things.

Looking around his low-key office and living room, one feels that he must have another apartment where he does his living. Or perhaps there's a giant storage room just out of sight? His apartment is like a staging area for his next story.

As Stuart Krichevsky, his longtime agent and friend notes, Junger can't get too tied down because it would prevent him from chasing important stories.

His handshake is firm and welcoming. Tanned and barefoot, he has the loose-limbed saunter of the athlete he was 20 years ago at Wesleyan University, when he ran 120 miles a week. He's almost breezy as he talks about his work. But if you look closely, there's a hint in his eyes of how much he cares for his subjects - mostly working men and soldiers - and their soulful, wrenching stories.

These are men's men, pitting themselves against nature and each other. Their efforts are sometimes individually redemptive but rarely, if ever, shining for the human race as a whole. That's evidenced by one of the most sobering pieces in Fire, "Dispatches from a Dead War," which won a National Magazine Award for Vanity Fair in 2000.

A reading of Fire, just released in paperback (HarperCollins, $13.95), proves a loose history of Junger's evolution as a writer. Not in the book, though, are his first professional efforts, free-lance pieces he wrote for Washington's City Paper.

He moved to the district, he says, because, "I thought very naively if you're going to be a journalist, that the news comes out of Washington; it's like a spring that [news] boils out of." Yet he found himself stymied. He couldn't make a living writing about the arcane subjects (the history of the Anacostia River, for example) he loved.

But then an editor assigned him a story about the city's dubious cable contract. He calls it probably the only truly "investigative piece" he's ever done. "I was told that every council member had a copy of my article and the mayor even sent an unmarked police car and parked it in front of the City Paper offices in sort of a threatening way. For me, it was totally intoxicating."

It was then, in the mid-1980s, that Krichevsky met Junger. The agent says Junger "paid no attention ... to what the market was for stories. He made no effort to cultivate editors and figure out how to get assignments. What he did do was make some money [doing tree surgery, waiting tables], and get in the car and go someplace he thought was interesting."

Attracted by danger

One of those adventures is the title piece from Fire. After leaving Washington and feeling frustrated, the topic of dangerous jobs kept coming up for him, Junger says. "I wanted to be a forest firefighter, I wanted to be a war correspondent."

So he made his way to Idaho to cover a raging fire. But he seems almost wistful about his choice to remain a writer. As he admitted in a TV interview: "If I could have switched from being a journalist to being a smoke jumper right then, I'd have done it and never looked back. ... It has all the drama of war without the ugliness."

Not surprisingly, Junger wasn't at home in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. He was in Moldova, the former Soviet state, when he heard garbled news of the attack.

"We heard the White House was gone, the Pentagon was gone, the World Trade Center was down and I thought all hell was going to break loose," Junger recalls. "I thought, `Not only is this WWIII but [damn], I'm going to end up settling down and marrying a Moldavian girl and living my life as a farmer."

With a big dog, no doubt.

Sebastian Junger will discuss and sign his book Fire Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Bethesda. For information, call 301-986-1761.

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