Interview with Juliet Eilperin, author of Demon Fish
PBR: You did a tremendous amount of research for this book; Demon Fish. What inspired you to write about sharks and the in-depth and fascinating history of this mysterious fish?
Eilperin: I love writing about the ocean, and I was drawn to sharks both because they’re such amazing creatures, and because they offer a way for me to explore what’s happening to the sea. Also, I love both diving and traveling around the world, and that’s what you’ve got to do if you’re chasing sharks.
PBR: How did you discover the ancient tribes in Papua New Guinea and others who revered, even worshipped this animal for generations in their lives?
Eilperin: I was lucky enough to meet two Papua New Guinean officials—one based in New York, and one in Washington D.C.—who told me about this unique cultural tradition. After they talked about it with me, I saw a 1980s documentary about shark callers, and I was determined to meet them myself.
PBR: Was most of your research for this book done on location or remotely?
Eilperin: Much of my research entailed traveling to countries and coastal communities around the world, though I did plenty of research by conducting phone interviews and looking through documents in the Library of Congress.
PBR: How long did your research take?
Eilperin: I spent about a year or so researching the book, and nearly two years writing and rewriting it.
PBR: What fascinated you most as you began and completed this journey of writing Demon Fish?
Eilperin: I was shocked to learn about our evolutionary connection to sharks—the fact that the bones in our inner ear, and the muscles we use to chew and to talk—come from sharks. Also, it amazed me to see how differently cultures around the world, and through history, viewed sharks.
PBR: What became your biggest challenge in this work?
Eilperin: I think the toughest part was tying together all these different threads and themes into one coherent piece of work. But in the end, I think I managed to do that.
PBR: You have a strong reporting background mixed with environmental issues. How did this book differ from that, if at all?
Eilperin: I reported out the book in the same way I would report a story. But in terms of writing it, I used a much more personal voice, and I also constructed the overall narrative in a different way from a news story.
PBR: How do you personally view sharks after swimming with them so closely and writing this documentary of their species?
Eilperin: I have a tremendous amount of respect for sharks now, and I appreciate their physical beauty in a way I hadn’t before entering the water.
PBR: Would you change anything about this book now?
Eilperin: There are a few scientific studies that have come out since I finished the manuscript which I wish I could have included in the book. Also, I might have included a couple of additional popular references, like the “land shark” in Saturday Night Live.
PBR: What’s next for you?
Eilperin: I’m sure I’ll write another book, though it won’t be exclusively about sharks. I love the idea of learning about a new topic, and mastering it. In the immediate future, however, I’ll focus on doing my day job as The Washington Post’s national environmental reporter, and spreading the word about Demon Fish.
Read the review of Demon Fish!
Born-and-bred in Washington, D.C., Juliet Eilperin graduated in 1992 magna cum laude from Princeton University, where she received a bachelor’s in Politics with a certificate in Latin American Studies. In the fall of 1992 she went to Seoul, South Korea on a Luce Scholarship, which allowed her to cover politics and economics for an English-language magazine. Returning to Washington, Ms. Eilperin wrote for Louisiana and Florida papers at States News Service and then joined Roll Call newspaper after the Republicans seized Congress in 1994. In March 1998 she joined The Washington Post as its House of Representatives reporter, where she covered the impeachment of Bill Clinton, lobbying, legislation, and four national congressional campaigns.
Since April of 2004 she has covered the environment for the national desk, reporting on science, policy and politics in areas including climate change, oceans, and air quality. In pursuit of these stories she has gone scuba diving with sharks in the Bahamas, trekking on the Arctic tundra, and searching on her hands and knees for rare insects in the caves of Tennessee.
During her first year at the Post Ms. Eilperin was the most prolific writer on the news staff, writing more than 200 stories. In the spring of 2005 she served as the McGraw Professor of Journalism at Princeton University, teaching political reporting to a group of undergraduate and graduate students. This spring Rowman & Littlefield has published her first book, “Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the House of Representatives.”