Author Tristram Korten will be reading from his new book, “Into the Storm,” at the Island Free Library on Wednesday, Aug. 1 at 7 p.m. The Block Island Times spoke (by email) with Korten about his book and his ties to the island:
Q: So, we hear that you have a history out here on the island. Can you tell us about that?
A: Yes, a long history. My father first came out here in the late 1950s, well before I was born. Lore has it he caught an enormous striped bass that weekend and that was it! He brought my mother out and they were smitten. They bought Nellie B. Dodge’s house a few years later. I was on this island when I was two weeks old and have spent every summer here since.
When I graduated high school, my father retired as a professor at the University of Michigan and my mother sold her share of a restaurant she co-owned, and they moved out here full-time. My parents always wanted to be involved in island life. They were charter members of the Block Island Club and the Committee to Save the Great Salt Pond, etc. My mother wrote a cooking column for your esteemed paper called “Thought for Food.” In fact my first job as a journalist was out here, writing for The Block Island Times.
Q: Some people plan a career in journalism, others just happen to fall into it. How did you come by the profession?
A: When I left college I wanted to be a poet, which meant graduate school. In fact, to this day the Block Island Library has a chapbook of poetry I did with artist Brainerd Carey that we printed on Kim Gaffett’s beautiful letterpress printer. But I struggled with the form. Then I read a thrilling piece in The Boston Globe about some rogue judges skipping out on the job. A light-bulb went off in my head; This could be a fun career. I’ve worked for daily papers, newsweeklies and monthly magazines since. But with every staff job I had I chafed a bit at the constraints. About 12 years ago I went solo. Now I freelance for magazines, public radio, and sometimes newspapers. I’m based in Miami so I get around. I’ve reported from Haiti, Jamaica, Panama and the Peruvian Amazon, among other locales.
Q: Your book, “Into the Storm,” is about the fate of two ships during Hurricane Joaquin in 2015. Tell us how you came to hear about what happened to these two vessels?
A: I remember watching the news in Miami the evening of October 1, when the big cargo ship out of Jacksonville, El Faro, went missing on its way to Puerto Rico off the Bahamas in Hurricane Joaquin. I was stunned, how could such a big ship disappear? Growing up on Block Island had instilled in me a deep fascination with the sea, boating and fishing, etc., as well as a deep appreciation for the power of the sea. That ship’s disappearance was national news. Less well known was the sinking that same day of another cargo ship that had left Miami for Haiti. It was about 100 miles from the other ship. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter launched in the middle of the night, in a hurricane to find that ship and dropped a rescue swimmer in the water — again, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a hurricane. It was, to me, a tremendous act of bravery that was commonplace for those guys. That’s what they do.
Q: Not everything ends well. What was it like to live with this story during the course of writing it? You must have felt some connection to the people involved in the story. After all, these are real people.
A: That’s true. There is tragedy in this book and it was tough to talk to family members who had lost loved ones. But it was inspiring to learn about the various acts of bravery that come so naturally to both sailors of the merchant marine and men and women of the Coast Guard. I learned a lot about leadership and some of what it takes to act decisively in a life-threatening situation. So, to answer your question, as sad as it was to live with this tale, it was also ennobling.
Q: What was the most challenging thing you encountered while researching or writing the story?
A: I was on a tight deadline, so time was not my friend. There’s a bit of science in the book, as well. I write about hurricanes and the major factors in how they form, as well as how climate change will likely impact future storms, so being careful with the science to make sure I got it right was a constant challenge. But, in sum, the book was a joy and honor. The people involved deserve to be memorialized in some way. This is my way.
Q: You’re obviously out promoting the book, but do you have another project in mind? Writing a column for The Block Island Times, perhaps?
A: Ha! Someday perhaps. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for my first paper! But for now, I’m gearing up my magazine journalism again. The story that became this book first appeared in GQ magazine. They’ve indicated they are eager to work with me again, so I’ve sent story proposals to some pretty far-flung locales, Indonesia and Africa. I’ve done a fair amount of reporting from this hemisphere, the Caribbean and Latin America. It would be great to get a little more global reach to my reporting.