By Susan Casey
My muse is the ocean, which means I’m engaged in immersion journalism, literally. Both of my books – The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean and The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks – required reporting when wet; much time on sailboats and Jet Skis and surfboards and research vessels, underwater, in the water, and on deck, wearing bathing suits and wetsuits and a special armored flotation vest that might have helped me survive a tumble on, say, a 70-foot wave. Or not.
One time, in especially wicked conditions, I rode behind The Wave’s main character, Laird Hamilton, on a Jet Ski as he surveyed the faces at a break called “Jaws,” most of which topped 50 feet. We were in the channel but the swell was powerful and shifty, and the waves were not always coming from the same direction. It wasn’t hard to get caught inside, beneath the lip of a breaking wave. “If I fell in the pit,” I asked Hamilton, “What would my chances be?”
“Of making it out?” he said, turning to look at me. “50-50. That’s all we ever get.”
To write truthfully about something you have to know it, and not just in an intellectual way. Being in aquatic environments, I believe, is essential if I want to tell meaningful stories about them. Without making that deeper dive you simply won’t get the gems, the flashes of insight, the nuances, the way the water looks at dusk when there are thunderclouds in the sky or, for that matter, the way it smells. That’s right: When storm energy meets water, there is a palpable and unusual scent, a moist chemical smell, not unlike angry dry cleaning. (I learned this one summer when a tornado suddenly descended as I was swimming across a lake.) To create a true, emotional bond with readers, you have to take them into the world you’re describing in a way that engages their senses and their imaginations.
The only method I’ve ever discovered for doing this is total immersion. If the book’s about Irian Jaya, then I’m not just visiting that godforsaken place, I’m moving there. If it’s about great white sharks, I’m getting into the water with them. If it’s about 70-foot waves, then the reporting isn’t complete until I’ve seen one, until I’ve felt that visceral terror myself so I can convey it to others.
Excerpt from the introduction to The Wave:
The clock read midnight when the hundred-foot wave hit the ship, rising from the North Atlantic out of the darkness. Among the ocean’s terrors a wave this size was the most feared and least understood, more myth than reality—or so people had thought. This giant was certainly real. As the RRS Discovery plunged down into the wave’s deep trough, it heeled twenty-eight degrees to the port, rolled thirty degrees back to starboard, then recovered to face the incoming seas. What chance did they have, the forty-seven scientists and crew aboard this research cruise gone horribly wrong? A series of storms trapped them in the black void east of Rockall, a volcanic island nicknamed Waveland for the nastiness of its surrounding waters. More than a thousand wrecked ships lay on the seafloor below.
Captain Keith Avery steered his vessel directly into the onslaught, just as he’d been doing for the past five days. While weather like this was common in the cranky North Atlantic, these giant waves were unlike anything he’d encountered in his thirty years of experience. And worse, they kept rearing up from different directions. Flanking all sides of the 295-foot ship, the crew kept a constant watch to make sure they weren’t about to be sucker punched by a wave that was sneaking up from behind, or the sides. No one wanted to be out here right now, but Avery knew their only hope was to remain where they were, with their bow pointed into the waves. Turning around was too risky; if one of these waves caught Discovery broadside, there would be long odds on survival. It takes thirty tons per square meter of force to dent a ship. A breaking hundred-foot wave packs one hundred tons of force per square meter and can tear a ship in half. Above all, Avery had to position Discovery so that it rode over these crests and wasn’t crushed beneath them.
He stood barefoot at the helm, the only way he could maintain traction after a refrigerator topped over, splashing out a slick of milk, juice, and broken glass (no time to clean it up—the waves just kept coming). Up on the bridge everything was amplified, all the night noises and motions, the slamming and the crashing, the elevator-shaft plunges into the troughs, the frantic wind, the swaying and groaning of the ship; and now, as the waves suddenly grew even bigger and meaner and steeper, Avery heard a loud bang coming from Discovery’s foredeck. He squinted into the dark to see the fifty-man lifeboat had partially ripped from its two-inch-thick steel cleats and was pounding against the hull.
Below deck, computers and furniture had been smashed into pieces. The scientists huddled in their cabins nursing bruises, black eyes, and broken ribs. Attempts at rest were pointless. They heard the noises, too; they rode the free falls and the sickening barrel rolls; and they worried about the fact that a six-foot-long window next to their lab had already shattered from the twisting. Discovery was almost forty years old, and recently she had undergone major surgery. The ship had been cut in half, lengthened by thirty-three feet, and then welded back together. Would the joints hold? No one really knew. No one had ever been in conditions like these.
Ledes are challenging because you’re trying to do so much at once: hook the reader into the story, introduce characters, describe a setting, touch on a premise or theme. Starting The Wave with the RRS Discovery’s ordeal allowed me to accomplish several things in short order. First, it established the book’s main thesis: that far more extreme waves exist out there than scientists had previously realized. Dropping readers onto the deck of that ship – in the winter North Atlantic, during a violent storm, facing 100-foot waves in the dark – was the most visceral way I could think of to convey that idea.
It was especially fun to write this scene because I’d spent a week in Southampton, England, with Penny Holliday and the other scientists who’d been on that ill-fated research cruise and they gave me tons of detail, really rich stuff like the captain standing barefoot at the bridge because his refrigerator had toppled over and the floor was slick with milk and orange juice, covered in shards of glass. Penny also provided copies of the emails she’d sent from the ship so I could follow her thoughts, emotional states and scientific observations as things went to hell in a handbasket. When telling this story, I felt confident that it was coming to readers in 360-degree Technicolor.
I always knew that I didn’t want to start the book with a surfing scene. It wouldn’t have had the same resonance. Establishing how powerful these giant waves are – i.e., they can easily take out huge ships – was important context for the scenes when the surfers actually faced these elements. If a 100-foot wave can snap a bulk carrier like a pencil, what can it do to a human body? And one step farther: Why would anyone want to ride these waves? What kind of person thinks this is fun?
Tom Wolfe’s descriptions of the test pilots in The Right Stuff inspired me when I was writing about the tow surfers. After all, when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier he had no idea what would happen. Scientists worried that he wouldn’t make it back, that the human body or the plane – or both – would come unglued in catastrophic ways. Likewise, the outcome was unknown when Hamilton first approached the wave called “Jaws,” with its 70- and 80-foot buzz-saw faces. Disaster seemed imminent, almost guaranteed. But Hamilton went anyway, and like Yeager he broke through that barrier and continued down the road to even greater challenges. For the reader to fully grasp the jeopardy of Hamilton’s quest, though, first I had to establish the ferocity of what he was facing.
“Wave Good-bye” from The Wave:
No one understands the risks of an unruly sea better than Lloyd’s of London, the British-based insurers of most of the global shipping fleet, a huge swath of the planet’s most valuable real estate, and just about anything else you can think of. When a freighter disappears in the North Sea, Lloyd’s pays. When storm waves surge into a low-lying city, Lloyd’s pays. When an earthquake cracks the seafloor, sending a tsunami barreling toward a densely populated coastline, Lloyd’s pays. There is nowhere a person could go to get a more exact reckoning of how dangerous and destructive the giant waves can be than One Lime Street, Lloyd’s headquarters in London’s financial district. …
Since its earliest days Lloyds had kept detailed records of ship losses in publications known as Lloyd’s List and Lloyd’s Casualty Reports. The original ledgers were archived in a nearby library; I’d spent previous days poring over their pages. From start to finish, they were testaments to the wisdom of staying on dry land. …
The ships that met disaster most were bulk carriers, a type of cargo ship developed in the 1950s to haul commodities like grain, coal, iron ore, cement, and timber. Bulkers were the Clydesdales of the sea, enormous workhorses. Three or four football fields in length, they sat low in the water and were flat across their decks. There was nothing supple or nimble about these ships, nothing that allowed them to do anything in big waves but lumber doggedly through them, take a heavy beating, and roll and twist and groan. ...
According to the UN’s International Maritime Organization (IMO), from 1990 to mid-1997 a total of ninety-nine bulk carriers were lost. Then, in a dire encore, twenty-seven vessels along with 654 people were lost during a four-month period in the winter of 1997-98. Oil tankers slipped from the radar, leaving only black slicks to show they’d ever existed; rescuers responding to emergency calls arrived at the coordinates and found, instead of the vessel, mangled bits of debris. “In some cases ships had simply broken apart like a snapped pencil,” an IMO report read.
One of the reasons I decided to write The Wave was because I’d encountered so many outlandish facts about giant waves. I remember one haunting New York Times article titled: “The Mystery of the Disappearing Tankers,” by William Broad. It was on the front page of the science section, and Broad laid out the issue of long, low bulk carriers being swallowed by enormous rogue waves. The notion that approximately two freighters per week went missing really blew my mind.
We’ve managed to decode our own genome, split the atom, use satellites to find doorways, and we’re losing 1,000-foot ships – with regularity? It seemed impossible, but it was true. Merely presenting a bizarre situation like this is provocative, but I wasn’t worried about squandering impact because I knew that later in the book I’d be going to Lloyd’s of London, and adding far more narrative texture to this fact.
Here’s a general rule: Lead with spectacular material. In this short-attention-span age there is much to be said for aggressive hooks. I want my stories to burst out of the gate, not trickle or limp. Herman Melville may have successfully deployed a 15-page description of baleen, but these days the audience won’t go there. In The Devil’s Teeth, I used the same fast-entry strategy, starting with a bloody shark attack and then pulling back incrementally to describe the full context. I guess my motto is: Action First, Talk Later. Especially up front. I love painting a scene with vivid colors (nuance tends to accrue over the course of the book). If, early on, I can stream in gems like this quote from Bill Sharp (the promoter who created The Odyssey, a multimillion-dollar surf competition to crown the first man to surf a 100-foot wave): “The Odyssey is Jacques Cousteau meets Evel Knievel meets Crocodile Hunter meets Jackass,” I’ve done my job.
To really do justice to your characters, I believe you have to follow them around for a good long time, preferably for so long they forget why you’re there and simply perceive you as part of the scenery. (For this reason I try to be as unobtrusive as possible when recording or taking notes, which is basically: always.) As a result of this philosophy, it takes me about five years to complete a book. Also as a result of this philosophy, I am divorced. But that’s another story.
For both The Wave and The Devil’s Teeth, the first year was about general reconnaissance, reading for background, establishing relationships with the subjects and writing a proposal. I tend to write lengthy outlines, in the 12,000-word range. For the most part, I do this to convince myself the story is best expressed as a book, and not merely a magazine feature. I’ve found ambitious proposals to be useful things for many reasons, but especially because they force you to focus your thoughts early in the game.
After that first year I aim to have a story, connections to the places and people I need to tell it, a fully baked proposal, and a deal that allows me to report in depth. The second and third years then involve full on immersion, whatever that requires. In The Devil’s Teeth, I faced daunting access issues: The book’s main location, the Farallon Islands, were off limits by federal law, so I had to grapple with those restrictions before I could get out there. In the end, my solution (an imperfect one) was a combination of cadging permits, renting a sailboat and anchoring it offshore, and, when it couldn’t be avoided, visiting the islands illegally. For The Wave, I relocated to Maui, renting a house next door to Hamilton, after traveling to England, South Africa, Tahiti, California and Mexico to do research and hang out with other characters. During my reporting period I fill notebook after notebook; record and transcribe hundreds of hours of conversations. (A note about transcription: I always do it myself. I don’t know how else to download all the quotes, information and background I’m getting. Yes, it takes forever. But it’s a critical part of the process.)
During the fourth and fifth years, I write. The reporting continues though, and I’ll stick close to the characters until the manuscript’s gone to the printer (and possibly even after that: I’ve since bought the land next to Hamilton’s house). The Wave’s epilogue, a huge storm at Jaws, took place two years after the book’s last scene. I got lucky. This big event came along right at the end of my deadline, and it assembled all the main players so everyone was on hand for both a reunion and an update.
“At the Edge of the Horizon,” from The Wave:
I was sitting sidesaddle on the Jet Ski, content to watch wave after wave until the sun went down, when Hamilton drove up. “Jump on,” he said, indicating his Ski.
I wasn’t sure what he had in mind but I climbed on behind him, and we motored back to the lineup, where [Sierra] Emory waited in the water with his board. Hamilton turned and examined my flotation vest, checking that it was cinched tight and fully operational. Then he threw Emory the row rope, nodded at a set on the horizon, and hit the throttle. “Let’s get a wave,” he said, and made straight for the takeoff zone. I tensed my legs, hugging the Ski, and I tightened my grip on a seat strap that suddenly seemed very flimsy. Hamilton stood, looking over his right shoulder at Emory and at Jaws building behind us, the Jet Ski pinned at full speed. Emory cut back through the wake and snapped away from the rope, dropping it. Now we were on the wave itself, near the top of the face as it began to stand up, and I knew that any second Hamilton would exit stage left and peel off the back, circling around the side of the pickup.
Except he didn’t
Instead, he held the line. I realized with a shock that we were soaring straight down the face of the wave: in effect, surfing Jaws. Emory was so close I could see him looking at us, his eyes wide with surprise. In a spasm of violence, the wave jacked up. It pressed us forward as we dropped down a wall so steep that I felt sure I would get pitched over Hamilton’s head. Emory veered right and Hamilton glanced up at the lip that now towered above us, calculating exactly how many seconds we had before Jaws swallowed. The G-forces made it hard to turn my head, but at the edges of my vision I saw spray and froth and the blood beat hard in my ears as the wave bellowed only yards behind us. … Hamilton shot forward in a burst of power and we outraced the falling lip, rocketing into the impact zone, heading directly for the inshore rock field.
He whipped the Ski around, avoiding the obstacles … “You don’t need a surfboard to surf, you know,” he said, smiling. “Up for another one?”
Clearly there are times during the reporting that aren’t conducive to easy notetaking (like the scene described above); the goal in these types of situations is to download as soon and as thoroughly as possible. When I can’t use a notebook or a recorder I am especially conscious of using my mind as a recorder, but even the most carefully stamped cerebral detail has a short shelf life. You need to get it down on paper – fast. An early editor and close friend, Tim Carvell (now the head writer of The Daily Show), gave me the best advice about note taking: It’s the most important thing you’ll do. No matter what happens, take notes. When you’re overwhelmed, take notes. If you’re upside-down, take notes. When you’ve been reporting for 18 hours straight and feel like you want to collapse in a heap on the floor, sit down with your notebook and debrief until you’ve got nothing left.
No detail is too small – write it down (and don’t forget to record your own thoughts and insights about the situation). And here’s the big one: Even when you’re absolutely, positively sure that you will remember the policeman’s great quote or what the sky looked like as the storm moved in or how the dead fish smelled, I’m here to tell you that you won’t. The quality of your notes is directly proportionate to the success of your story. Take extensive notes and everything else will be OK.
Also, I have a theory I can’t prove, but that I know is true: The deeper the veracity of detail, the more compelling a reading experience you’ll create. In other words, I believe that if I write from a place of absolute truth, the energy of the piece will be different. When details are true, they ring true. Calculated constructs, scenes leggoed together from memory (rather than extensive, in situ notes), reconstructed dialog, descriptions that were conjured up after the fact: Readers smell these things, even if they’re not fully conscious of it. And it’s not a nice smell.
A couple points about recording and transcription. Along with my notebooks, for The Wave I transcribed more than 100 90-minute tapes. (Likewise for The Devil’s Teeth.) The two books produced shelves of tapes and reams of paper, which I organize in binders and tag with post-it notes. Over five years, I transcribed until my hands hurt. Obviously this is a massive time investment, and often when I describe the practice to other journalists, they’ll press me to use their transcription service. But to me, the transcription process is a critical part of the method, up there with reporting. I need to hear the speaker’s inflections and the pauses in conversation, recall the look on his face and the way his mouth twitched – capture all manner of sensory detail. The tapes will evoke those moments, and it seems that the act of typing imprints the tapes’ content in my mind.
One of the biggest challenges in nonfiction is what I think of as “inventory knowledge,” an interior card catalog that logs every great quote, fact, and episode. It’s important to be able to summon this stuff at will. While writing The Wave I needed to remember, for instance, that Dave Kalama had an especially harrowing memory of falling on a 70-foot wave and being held down to the point of drowning. If I can’t summon the basic index of what I’ve got, I’m doomed before I start.
When you’re writing a scene you want to know what you’ve got in the bank, how you can add or illuminate or otherwise enhance the moment at hand. The best way to do this, I’ve found, is extensive familiarity with your material. This can be challenging when you’re talking about book-length works. For The Wave, my reference materials comprised about 60 binders (organized by subject), 10 yards of science papers and 300 books. It was a lot to digest, and that’s part of the challenge.
After I finish writing, when I look around my office at the blizzard of papers and index cards, the boxes of tapes, the shelves of research books about sharks and waves and other ocean mysteries collected over five years, I feel happy. Writing is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s also the most gratifying by far. So in the sixth year, what I try for is this: an idea for the next book.