Swimming with the Fishes: An Interview with Juliet Eilperin

Juliet Eilperin

Juliet Eilperin

Juliet Eilperin is a journalist who started working for the Washington Post in 1998, covering politics. In 2004 she switched to covering the environment, which led her to writing about our world’s oceans and then sharks. Demon Fish is her first book. In the interview she talks about how she got started as a journalist, what it’s like writing for the Washington Post, and whether she thinks humanity will ever come to full accept sharks. Read the interview . . .

Demon Fish

“Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks” by Juliet Eilperin (Pantheon, 2011)

Demon Fish

If you’re reading this, chances are you have some sort of fear of sharks . . . and maybe by discovering what Demon Fish is about, you will confront these fears, learn more about these incredible fish, and in turn come to respect them as the amazing creatures that they are.  Well, if there was a book that could help you with that, Demon Fish is certainly it.

Juliet Eilperin works for the Washington Post.  Her first book was on politics, Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the House of Representatives, but in April of 2004 she covered the environment for the national desk, reporting on science, climate change, and the oceans.  If there were a comprehensive biography of the ancient, long-lived fish known as the shark, Demon Fish would qualify.  Eilperin begins with an introduction of her first meeting with these majestic yet powerful and terrifying creatures, and how she grew to appreciate them.  She tells the story of the World-Famous Shark Callers found on the island of Papua New Guinea, who have been hunting these fish for centuries with a ritualistic method that involves calling the shark, then capturing it; once killed every part of the fish is used in some way.  But Shark Calling is a dying art, especially when there are other companies that use more modern technology to deplete the nearby shark populations.

Eilperin’s chapter on “An Ancient Fish” presents a full history of the shark, starting long ago during the time of the dinosaurs when they were massive creatures feared by just about everything beneath the waves (and above no doubt), to the smaller but no less frightening versions of today.  The shark is in fact one of the oldest, longest living creatures on the planet, and now has over four hundred species.  Eilperin travels the world, visiting and working with different people who interact with sharks in different ways: whether it’s fishing for them, taking tourists out to see them and attempt to catch them, or tagging and conserving and protecting them however they can.  She devotes a significant portion of the book to the shark fin industry, which is the biggest threat to this fish, as the restaurants of Asia (as well as many others around the world) continue to serve shark fin soup, even though it doesn’t taste of much – as Eilperin makes clear – but is a cultural expectation, not just in Asian restaurants but expected to be served at weddings as a sign of the bride’s family’s noble standing.

Demon Fish doesn’t attempt to convince or convert or proselytize on the threatened numbers and species of shark around the world; Eilperin just presents the facts and realities for what they are in many different places across the globe.  It is clear that things are not fine with this ancient fish, and when the likes of Jaws and other similar stories continue to perpetuate this fear of a gravely misunderstood creature, Demon Fish does an excellent job of informing and educating, making one realize at the end that the shark is simply another one of the incredibly unique animals populating this planet and has just as much right to live and breed and exist as all the others do, including the many humans who fear it.

Originally written on September 23, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

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An exclusive interview with Juliet Eilperin will be available on BookBanter on November 15th.

An Interview with Juliet Eilperin (November, 2011)

Juliet Eilperin

Juliet Eilperin

Juliet Eilperin is a journalist who started working for the Washington Post in 1998, covering politics. In 2004 she switched to covering the environment, which led her to writing about our world’s oceans and then sharks. Demon Fish is her second book.

Demon Fish

Alex C. Telander: When did you know you wanted to be a journalist?

Juliet Eilperin: I got into reporting at college, where I covered the university’s administration for The Daily Princetonian. I loved figuring out how people in power were making decisions that affected people’s lives, and I’ve done that ever since.

Alex: What is it like working for the Washington Post?

Juliet: On the whole it’s a great job—I’ve got generous colleagues and I never run out of story ideas. Plus, your articles have real impact, which is fantastic.

Alex: You’ve worked there for some time; what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen at the Washington Post and in print journalism?

Juliet: We’re short on money and staff, like almost every newspaper in America. It’s a huge challenge to produce quality journalism when the vast majority of the public doesn’t feel like paying for that service.

Alex: How did you switch over to environmental reporting?

Juliet: I got burnt out covering Congress, and asked to switch over to the environment in the spring of 2004. It was the smartest move I ever made.

Alex: Where do sharks enter the picture?

Juliet: I started covering oceans because they don’t get that much coverage from the mainstream media. After diving with sharks in Bimini in 2005, I decided sharks were a compelling way to explore what was happening to the sea across the globe.

Alex: Did you or do you have a fear or phobia of sharks?

Juliet: No, I don’t have a phobia, though I’d say I’ve got a healthy dose of fear when it comes to the most dangerous species.

Alex: What was it like researching and writing Demon Fish?

Juliet: It was fascinating. I got to travel the globe and both meet people from an array of cultures and backgrounds, as well as explore the underwater world. I enjoyed the research more than the writing, but in the end, I’m happy with the final product.

Alex: What do you hope readers get out of reading your book?

Juliet: I hope people get a sense that we’re more closely connected to sharks, and the sea, than we might think. Also, I’d like it if people felt better about sharks after reading the book.

Alex: Are you still in contact and possibly following up with some of the people you met and discussed in Demon Fish to see how they’re doing now?

Juliet: I see a lot of the scientists and policymakers I interviewed for the book on a regular basis, and I’ve been in e-mail contact with some of the fishermen since the book’s come out. I’d love to get back to some of the remote places I visited, such as Papua New Guinea, but I’m not sure when that would be.

Alex: Do you feel that researching and writing about sharks is something you will continue to cover in your career?

Juliet: I think I’ll write about sharks in the future—I just had a big  piece on them come out in the Post on Oct. 26—but they won’t be my exclusive focus.

Alex: Your first book was Fight Club Politics.  After writing Demon Fish, do you feel you understand politicians and politics any better or perhaps see them differently?

Juliet: I think sharks are, for the most part, more ruthless than many politicians, but they’re more direct, which is refreshing. And I’d certainly opt for jumping in the water with most species of sharks over attending a press conference featuring a bunch of politicians.

Alex: Do you have plans for another book or project?

Juliet: I’m writing a magazine piece for WIRED about the future of the solar industry, so that’s a departure for me. At some point I’ll probably write another book, but not right away.

Alex: Who do you like to read/who are some of your favorite authors?

Juliet: I enjoy reading Tom Zoellner and Barry Estabrook for non-fiction, and I like a range of fiction, from British classics to Andrew Sean Greer and Sam Lipsyte. Then there’s David Eagleman, who’s talented enough to write both fiction and non-fiction beautifully.

Alex: What are you reading right now?

Juliet: I just started Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” I just finished “The Hare with Amber Eyes” by Edmund de Waal, which I really loved. It also made me feel a little insecure, since here’s a fantastic work of non-fiction written by a potter.

Alex: What do you like to do in your spare time?

Juliet: I spend time with my family and friends, read, hike, and cook from time to time.

Alex: Do you feel that humanity will come to look and respect sharks differently in time, or is it more of a losing battle?

Juliet: I think we will come to view sharks differently over time, which is a good thing. I think the only question is how long it will take to make this shift, and what will happen to sharks in the meantime.

07/02 On the Bookshelf . . . “Demon Fish” & “Fort Freak” & “Velocity”

Demon Fish    Fort Freak    Vortex

Looking forward to an interesting new shark book, Demon Fish, after being disappointed The Devil’s Teeth.  This will be my first read in the Wild Cards series edited by George R. R. Martin with Fort Freak, plus it features a story by Cherie Priest.  And finally we have the final volume after the great Spin and Axis with Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson