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Powell’s Q&A: Susan Casey

Describe your latest book.
The Wave is about the quest to encounter one of nature's most powerful forces: the 100-foot wave.

Extreme waves are fascinating, in part because (as with many things in the ocean) we understand them so poorly.Extreme waves are fascinating, in part because (as with many things in the ocean) we understand them so poorly. For decades and even centuries, a startling number of large ships have vanished without explanation — even now, on average, two dozen ships larger than 500 tons disappear each year, often without so much as a final Mayday. Giant waves were long suspected as the cause, and some clues pointed squarely in this direction, but by the rules of linear physics, they shouldn't have been able to exist. Recently, however, new technologies have proved they do, and in startling numbers. "Scientists Baffled by Giant Walls of Water," the New York Times reported; "Existence of 100-Foot Waves Confirmed." And as climate change brings increasingly volatile ocean conditions, as the global population clusters along the coastlines, and as commercial ships venture into every last corner of the sea, we will be reckoning far more often with what the great explorer Ernest Shackleton — who encountered a 100-foot rogue wave near Antarctica — referred to as, "a mighty upheaval of the ocean."

I have spent the last five years living with, traveling with, and going into the largest waves in the world with Laird Hamilton and other elite tow surfers, as well as scientists studying these monsters, ship captains trying to survive them, and marine salvagers whose jobs require them to rescue people and boats that are caught in the ocean's most perilous conditions.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
One of my favorite sentences of all time is the last line in Tom McGuane's novel The Bushwhacked Piano: "I am at large."

How do you relax?
Swimming. When I'm stressed out all I can think about is getting into the water.

What is your idea of absolute happiness?
Spending time in the ocean every day.

What is your favorite indulgence, either wicked or benign?
I've been known to like a good pinot noir.

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
I read a lot of poetry, especially when I'm working. In particular, I love Rainer Maria Rilke and T. S. Eliot. Great poetry is breathtakingly hard to write; the discipline and the ear required are phenomenal. The beautiful cadence of a Rilke poem never fails to inspire (I especially love Stephen Mitchell's translations), and I marvel at Eliot's precision with words (and his delightfully twisted sensibility).

Do you read blogs? What are some of your favorites?
I love Jezebel, a smart, irreverent blog for women; Treehugger's fantastic for environmental news and commentary. Both are fun and well written.

Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
All of the above!

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.

Five great books about the ocean:

Song for the Blue Ocean by Carl Safina
Eye-opening look at the state of affairs below.

The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson
People remember Rachel Carson for Silent Spring and tend to forget that she was a marine biologist. Reading this book, not only will you see that she understood the ocean's magnificence — she was also brilliant at articulating it.

Blue Frontier by David Helvarg
Helvarg is a passionate advocate — and chronicler — of the ocean. Read this book and you'll feel like you've gotten a doctorate in ocean issues.

Blue Meridian by Peter Matthiessen
A fun, elegant book from a master. And it's about my favorite animal: the great white shark.

The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck
No author reveled in the wacky creatures of the sea more than Steinbeck and his sidekick Ed Ricketts.

The Universe Below by William Broad
Wonderful page-turner about the mysteries of the deep.

Seven great works of literary journalism:

Dispatches by Michael Herr
Newjack by Ted Conover
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
Up in the Old Hotel: and Other Stories by Joseph Mitchell
Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain by Michael Paterniti
Any book by Michael Lewis

Five great science books:

Biophilia by E. O. Wilson
The Future of Everything by David Orrell
Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory by Brian Greene

÷ ÷ ÷

Susan Casey, author of the New York Times bestseller The Devil's Teeth, is the Editor-in-Chief of O, the Oprah Magazine, and has also served as creative director of Outside magazine.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of...
    Used Trade Paper $4.95
  2. The Bushwhacked Piano
    New Trade Paper $15.95
  3. The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues,...
    Used Hardcover $9.50
  4. The Universe Below: Discovering the... Used Trade Paper $3.95
  5. The Log from the Sea of Cortez... Used Trade Paper $9.00
  6. Blue Meridian: The Search for the... New Trade Paper $16.00
  7. Blue Frontier Saving Americas Living Sea Used Hardcover $7.50
  8. Silent Spring
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  9. Song for the Blue Ocean: Encounters... Used Trade Paper $7.50
  10. The Sea Around Us Used Trade Paper $6.50
  11. Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across...
    Used Trade Paper $3.95
  12. Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble,...
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  13. The Orchid Thief
    Used Trade Paper $4.95
  14. Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  15. Dispatches
    Used Trade Paper $5.50
  16. Up in the Old Hotel: and Other Stories
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  17. A Short History of Nearly Everything
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  18. Packing for Mars: The Curious...
    Used Hardcover $9.95
  19. Future of Everything: The Science of... Used Trade Paper $6.50
  20. Biophilia Used Trade Paper $13.00
  21. The Elegant Universe: Superstrings,...
    Used Trade Paper $4.95

Susan Casey is the author of The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean

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