Thursday, August 6, 2020

Q&A with Eric Jay Dolin

Eric Jay Dolin is the author of the new book A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of America's Hurricanes. His many other books include Black Flags, Blue Waters and Brilliant Beacons. He lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the history of American hurricanes in your new book?

A: For almost all of my books, I come up with the topic. I prefer it that way, since then there is a high level of ownership from the outset, and I know that it is a subject I am passionate about.

But, for A Furious Sky, inspiration came from a different direction. I was pitching book ideas to my agent, when he got an e-mail from my editor and the former head of sales at Liveright (my publisher), who wanted to know if I was interested in writing a book on the history of America’s hurricanes.

Unbeknownst to them, I had long been thinking about writing a book on a single hurricane, but hadn’t found the one I wanted to cover. So, when they approached my agent with the idea of writing a narrative history of all of America’s hurricanes, I was primed to say yes, and I am glad I did. It was a really fun book to write.

Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about hurricanes?

A: The most common perception is the most obvious, that hurricanes are the world’s greatest storms, and they can devastate the areas they strike, leaving death and destruction in their wake.

Another common perception is that hurricanes cannot mount a sneak attack. By virtue of satellite imagery, ocean buoys, and reports from ships and aircraft, you know that a hurricane is coming long before it arrives, although the exact path it will follow is often somewhat unpredictable until it actually makes landfall.

One common misconception is that hurricane winds cause the most deaths, when it is really the massive storm surges and torrential rains that account for nine out of every 10 direct hurricane-related mortalities.

Another is that some locations along the Gulf and East Coast are immune from being clobbered by a hurricane head on. With respect to the latter, even if your slice of the coast has never experienced a hurricane, or has received only glancing blows, your time, too, will likely come.

Q: You begin the book with a description of 1957's Hurricane Audrey. Why did you start there, and is that hurricane emblematic of others you write about in the book?

A: The goal of every writer is to get people to read one’s work, which is not only emotionally and professionally satisfying, but it is also critically important if writing is your career and your livelihood depends on it.

One of the best ways to get a potential reader to become an actual reader is to grab their attention in the first few pages and make them want to continue by pulling them into the story. This is especially important since people are very busy, and there are a huge number of wonderful books to read, as well as many other fun things to do with their limited time.

So, if you don’t command their attention right away, they are unlikely to continue reading.

There are exceptions to this rule, and there are many readers who will give the author more time to draw them in, but, in my case at least, if I don’t enjoy the first five to 10 pages of a book, I will rarely read more, unless it is a book I need to read as part of my research for writing a book.

This is why most of my books start with a brief story or vignette that introduces the subject and, hopefully, hooks the reader.

With A Furious Sky, I knew I wanted to tell a story about a single hurricane with vivid detail and compelling characters. I also knew that it had to be a hurricane I didn’t talk about later in the book.

I considered a few candidates, but when I read a book on Hurricane Audrey, and learned of the Clark family’s terrifying ordeal, I knew that was the story to use. It was dramatic and compact, and it captured two of the key elements of any modern hurricane narrative—the role of forecasts leading up to the arrival of the hurricane, and the tragedy that inevitably ensues when a powerful hurricane roars ashore.

I hope the Hurricane Audrey story also gives the reader the idea that this history packs a powerful punch. There are other hurricane stories that could have launched the book, and many of them are found throughout the text, but using Audrey just felt right. It certainly hooked me.  

Q: Toward the end of the book, you discuss climate change and its impact on hurricanes. What do you see looking ahead?

A: Global warming has already made the impact of hurricanes worse. Because sea level has risen as a result of the thermal expansion of the oceans and the melting of glaciers, storm surges are higher and more destructive.

As MIT professor Kerry Emanuel pointed out, “Had Sandy struck New York a century ago, there would have been substantially less flooding, as sea level was then roughly a foot lower.” Continued warming will only add to this problem.

In the future, as the world’s temperature continues to rise, I fear that the hurricanes will become more intense, with stronger winds, and they will be accompanied by higher amounts of precipitation.

But there is a caveat. Despite the understandable desire to point to a clear, indisputable cause-and-effect link, at this moment nobody can say with absolute certainty exactly how hurricanes will change over time as a result of global warming.

Scientists would be the first to admit that there are still many unknowns, as well as limitations in data and modeling, that make it exceedingly difficult to predict the impact of a warmer world on these massive storms. The mounting scientific consensus that an increase in global warming will likely make future hurricanes worse, however, is not encouraging.

Since A Furious Sky focuses on hurricanes, it does not consider the many other serious threats to our future posed by global warming and, more broadly, climate change—among them the increased frequency of droughts and heat waves, shifts in agricultural zones, coral bleaching, and an uptick in the number of “climate refugees.”

These and other threats make it imperative that society take serious action to reverse global warming. And, I believe, the likely impact of global warming on hurricanes only makes that policy argument stronger.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am writing a book on privateers during the American Revolution and how they greatly influenced the progress and outcome of the war. Privateers are men who sailed on armed vessels owned and outfitted by private individuals who had government permission to capture enemy shipping during the revolution, and claim those vessels and their cargoes as prizes.

It is a fascinating story with many twists and turns. The cast of characters is befitting an epic of American history, and includes, among others, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and Paul Revere.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on writers, publishers, and booksellers. Book launches have been muted, book talks have been cancelled, book sales are depressed, and many smaller, independent bookstores are facing serious financial pain – sadly, some of them will not survive.

As I write this in late April 2020, most people throughout the country are still at home, waiting and hoping that life returns to some semblance of normal in the not-too-distant future.

The virus has, of course, affected me my book as well. Since I typically work out of my home office, being forced to stay in the house most of the time has not been a big change, and I have been able to make good progress on my new book on privateers.

But I am no longer alone during the day. My wife is teleworking, as is my daughter, who left New York City early in March to be with us. And my son also came back from college and finished his semester online.

While it has been wonderful to be together again, and our bonds have grown stronger, all of us are heartbroken by the steady stream of tragic stories in the news, and we have grave concerns for our relatives and friends, some of whom are in high-risk groups.

A Furious Sky was originally scheduled to publish on June 9, but the publication date was moved to August 4, the hope being that things will have settled down a bit, giving the book a better chance of finding an audience. Also, if the situation improves, I might be able to give many of the book talks I already have scheduled in August, September, and October (see

Still, with many months to go, a number of my talks have already been cancelled, and I am sure more will be. And even if the talks happen, my guess is that they will feel different and fraught.

While I am understandably concerned about my own situation, and the success of my new book, I am even more concerned about the future of reading and bookselling. I hope that when we emerge from our homes, and reconnect with each other, we also reconnect with the joy of buying books, reading books, and attending book talks. I have confidence we will rebound, but it will be a new normal. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Eric Jay Dolin.

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