There are so many books and authors we’re stoked about for this year’s Authors Night from the East Hampton Library at Herrick Park this Saturday, August 12, from 5 to 7:30 p.m., it’s impossible to know where to begin, or which book to crack open first. But one novel that’s standing out for us — as much for how unusual its setting is, as how familiar it is to our water-rimmed surroundings — is the just-released Underjungle (Unnamed Press, August 2023) by journalist and water-obsessed wader into the realm of fiction, James Sturz. As a journalist and native New Yorker, Sturz has covered the East End but this is the first time the tables have turned on him, as an answerer of questions instead of the one doing the asking. And he had some really fascinating things to say…
Southforker: Let’s just start with – where did this come from?
James Sturz: I put everything I had inside me into this book—it’s a story of love and heartache, and of grief, hope, and fear. But what I didn’t find inside me, I found in the ocean, where all of us are from. Maybe that makes the ocean the source of all emotions, too. If my novel is about what lurks inside us, we know that most of that is water. We’re 78 percent water when we’re born. So Underjungle’s also a book about the water. What it’s like to live in liquid, in a thick and cohesive realm, where everything you know and need—whether it’s minerals, food, mates, oxygen, songs, or ideas—would surround you, caress you and engulf you, until you were part of their surge and saturation, too.
SF: Elevator pitch: how do I tell someone about your book in one paragraph or less?!
JS: I like to say Underjungle’s a tale of love, loss, family, and war—set entirely underwater. So War and Peace, but three-thousand feet deeper. And considerably shorter. And maybe a little funnier, too. But beyond this, it’s the story of a sentient ocean species who discover a sunken corpse, the effect the discovery has on their civilization, and the questions it raises about their world and ours. And naturally it’s also about the ocean—not just what it is, but what it’s like.
SF: Has being in and near the water always been an important part of your life?
JS: I’ve always been a water person. I snorkeled for the first time as a boy in a bathtub in New York City and pretended that the living room shag carpet was finger coral and that the view from our 12th story windows was of a deep coral wall. I was first certified in scuba diving in upstate New York in college (we saw trout), as an ice diver in New Hampshire, a rescue diver in North Carolina, a divemaster in Florida, and as a free diver in Hawaii. Now I split my time between Manhattan and Hawaii’s Big Island, where my house is in a pasture by the coast, and I look out at tall grasses, cows, and whales. But even before writing Underjungle, I covered the ocean as a journalist for The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Outside, Men’s Journal, National Geographic Adventure, Scuba Diving, and Sport Diver, among many others. So I’ve been fortunate to make the water part of my professional life.
SF: You open the book with a quote that makes my stomach tense – “All the little fish of her laughter fled before the shark of her awakening rage,” from the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. Wow, that feels ominous! Why did you pick this?
JS: I’ve been a fan of Yehuda Amichai’s since I first read Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell’s translation of his poetry in The Paris Review, and I’m grateful that I heard him speak in New York while he was still alive. The epigraph in my book is from his poem, “The Visit of the Queen of Sheba,” a masterpiece that rocked me when I first read that line, not just for the idea behind it, but for how it feels, the rocking of the queen’s transitioning mood, and how quickly and effortlessly joy can turn into terror. Naturally, there are sharks in Underjungle as well.
SF: In the acknowledgments, you write: “Our world has changed. We must change too.” How does the book break the surface (pun intended!) of this idea? Why was water the medium?
JS: I wrote much of Underjungle during the pandemic. Water wasn’t just the medium for my story, but also an escape. It’s a novel about the pressures inside and around us, distanced from our terrestrial mess. Whether it was Covid, Russia’s war on Ukraine, or the environmental devastation that has become a daily part of our lives, I was disgusted by the harm we were doing to one another and to our planet. So I thought, What if I could set my story someplace else, and just talk about different things? But the characters in my novel end up being surprisingly like humans, also bound by heartache, love, and conflict. I call them yc, which is the Mongolian word for water but sounds a lot like “us.” Of course, I haven’t set my novel in a fantastic, faraway world. I’ve merely set it in the ocean, the one you find lapping at every coastline and that covers 70 percent of our planet, of which only 5 percent of it has been mapped. We barely know it or understand it, but we’re already destroying it, too. That’s the change we need.
SF: Sometimes it seems easier for people to attach meaning to things they can see – burning forests, smoke in the sky, murderous tornadoes, and other calamities of nature and their painful effects on human beings. That old trope – the personal is political. But with water… we just can see the pretty surface and not everything we’ve done to mess up what lies beneath. Do you hope your book creates a deeper curiosity for it? And maybe even an attachment for all that life beneath?
JS: An ocean view is a nearly universal dream. The water is deeply comforting. You smell and taste and hear and touch it all at once. It’s sparkly and mesmerizing, and maybe even mildly hypnotic. Even you prefer skiing, you’re seeking out the water, too. But the ocean is vast; it isn’t only at the surface. All of us know that, but it’s easy to forget the parts we don’t, or may never, see. In the Pacific, the Mariana Trench descends some 36,000 feet, where probably none of us will ever go, but we fly that high most times we board an airplane without giving it a second thought. Today, we know of 240,000 marine species, and there are likely 500,000 to 10 million more. So the ocean is an unknown, beguiling, and entrancing world. Even more than creating curiosity, I hope I can engender love. Because there will never be any real conservation if the ocean is only something we study. We need to connect to it with our hearts.