Last fall, Oahu’s Kimi Werner was featured in Outside magazine, a thrill for anyone. But when the spearfishing champion and waterwoman highlighted it on social media, her excitement was not as much about the article, but about its author, Susan Casey.
When she learned that Casey would be writing the story, Werner posted, “I just about lost my mind!” Praising her as “a woman who had the courage to follow her dreams,” Werner described her experience with Casey as “an absolute gift.”
That happens a lot to Casey, who lives on Maui. The extraordinary writer, author of the New York Times bestsellers The Wave, The Devil’s Teeth, and her most recent, Voices in the Ocean, is the only female member in an elite cadre of extreme adventure writers. Her compatriots–writers like Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) or Jon Krakauer (Into Thin Air)–have nothing on the petite blond, who has faced down dolphin-massacring Solomon Island tribal chiefs, been tossed around a sailboat like human chaff during a vicious storm in the great white shark-laden waters of San Francisco’s Farallon Islands and ridden behind surfing legend Laird Hamilton on a jet ski down a 40-foot wave at Jaws.
“Susan has a sixth or seventh sense about story,” says Terry McDonell, the iconic magazine editor (Rolling Stone, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, among others). She’ll look at a story–and it will be obvious to all of us that there’s a story there–but there will be another story that is not completely obvious, which she also sees. This is what makes her such a good and complicated writer. She’s good at natural history, science and phenomena, but also the humanistic science and philosophy beyond it.”
McDonell, Casey’s mentor, confidante and former editor, adds, “When you read Devil’s Teeth, you may not think you’re reading about the emotional lives of great white sharks, but you are. Her dolphin book is so strong because, in addition to the storyline, she understands and translates science and philosophy so well.”
Laird Hamilton, the focus of The Wave, praises her ability to report unintrusively. “She doesn’t impose herself on a situation,” he says. “Plus, she loves the ocean and there’s no doubt that it impacts her work, whether she’s writing about animals in the ocean, riders of waves or the storms. She’s connected.”
At first glance, Casey seems an unlikely badass. At 5’4,” with a heart-shaped face, wide-set sapphire-blue eyes, flawless skin and model-quality cheekbones, she presents a fragile delicacy. Judging her that way would be a grave error. Her muscular arms and shoulders are testaments to her decades as a competitive swimmer. Then there’s her piercing intelligence, sardonic wit and authentic nonchalance at the riskiness of many of her assignments.
She wasn’t always a writer. She attended the University of Arizona on a swimming scholarship, but transitioned to majors in French and philosophy when she realized she was never going to make it to the Olympics. Always drawn to media, she began as an art director at a series of Canadian magazines, before winning a U.S. green card in a lottery (the same lottery President Donald Trump wants to abolish). After a brief stint as a creative director at a San Francisco clothing company, she moved to Santa Fe to work at Outside. A highpoint of her tenure as creative director was suggesting that a writer be sent to Mt. Everest. Ultimately, Jon Krakauer joined an expedition and turned the ensuing disaster into a best-selling book and several movies.
Outside led to a dream job in New York City at Time, Inc. There, Casey, as an editor-at-large, offered design and story input to all the company’s magazines, in addition to creating new ones. She also began to write her first book, Devil’s Teeth, a white-knuckle recounting of her Farallon Island experience with a pair of biologists studying great white sharks.
Her growing stature as the writer to call for “immersion” assignments led to a series of stories that further burnished her reputation. She trained as a sharpshooter to go on a Colorado elk hunt; she waded through the Gulf Coast environmental apocalypse following the oil spill. She even wrote in Esquire about a stint as a mermaid in a New York bar’s giant fish tank.
In 2009, Casey’s New York-based career apexed when she was named editor-in-chief of O, The Oprah Magazine, then the most profitable title in the Hearst publishing empire. During her tenure, the magazine won numerous high-profile awards.
Says McDonell, “She’s the only person ever to win a National Magazine Award in three categories: As a writer for Esquire, as editor-in-chief of O and as a creative director at Outside. No one has come anywhere close to that. It’s astonishing.”
In 2010, her second book, The Wave, became a hit as giant as the 100-ft waves she so brilliantly explored, although writing it at the same time she was overseeing O was brutal.
In 2013, she moved to Maui to write Voices in the Ocean, a look at humans’ kinship with dolphins from the beginning of recorded history through its more problematic present. It was published in 2015 to wide acclaim, and this month a new version–directed specifically at young readers–will be released.
I didn’t know Casey when I first read–no, inhaled–The Wave. As soon as I turned the last page, I ordered Devil’s Teeth. Her writing was dazzling, intimate and just so freaking smart. I agreed with one fan’s description in an Amazon review: “Casey is fluent in ‘gnarly’ and proficient in ‘wonk,’ and she writes lucidly so the rest of us can come along for the ride.”
When my husband and I moved to Kuau, I was delighted to discover that she lived in a beautifully restored plantation-style cottage across the street. Since then, we have become great friends with her, her partner–the photographer Rennio Maifredi–and their two magnificent Maine Coon cats. To be Susan’s friend and neighbor is to enjoy a constant exchange of books, news, ideas and lively conversation. And I will reveal this: beneath her take-no-prisoners bad-assery beats a warm heart. When I rescued a three-week old kitten from the middle of Hali‘imaile road last spring, she was there with sage advice and a steady stream of kitty presents so perfect that, eight months later, they are still his favorites.
When MauiTime suggested that I sit down with her, it was a quick and easy “Yes.” Here are excerpts from our conversation.
MAUITIME: Voices in the Ocean for young readers? That’s a first for you.
SUSAN CASEY: I never thought about kids not reading my books. But after talking to my editor about Voices, I imagined reading it aloud to my niece and nephew and realized she was right. Maybe John Lilly [the controversial researcher who gave drugs to dolphins] and the Solomon Islands [a grim chapter on dolphin massacres] aren’t exactly what you want your kid reading about. So those chapters are gone.
MT: You’ve said that you really learned about writing at Outside.
SC: It was a great time to be at the magazine–like being in the original cast of Saturday Night Live. I was the creative director, but more important, I studied. I studied edits. I studied writers like Jon Krakauer, David Quammen, Tim Cahill. I remember the day that Jon’s Into Thin Air big thick manuscript came in–I took off the lid and thought, “Oh my God, this is like somebody’s soul in a box. I want to do that!” It’s what a friend of mine calls “hot tracks:” when you experience that moment of passion and think “that resonates with me.” That’s what happened with the Farrallones.
MT: Tell me about that.
SC: One night there was a story on the BBC showing a lot of great white sharks circling these two guys in a little rowboat. It was just the craziest scene ever, and I had to know more about it. When I found out it was the Farrallones, I couldn’t believe it, because I’d lived in San Francisco for five years and had never heard of them. I knew it was a story: great white sharks in the 415 area code. That book is the rarest thing: an American story that hadn’t been told. I’ll never get another one.
MT: You got another “hot track” with The Wave.
SC: I was really interested in tow surfing. I had seen pictures of Laird and the other guys who were doing it, and it blew my mind. So there was something, again–like the Farallones, there was something compelling about this big wave idea.
MT: You were starting your research on The Wave when Oprah Winfrey first offered you the O editorship, which you declined.
SC: Everyone thought I was crazy. I figured I had committed career suicide.
But the one person who believed that I should focus on the book was my dad. He said, “Are you going to take yourself seriously or not?” And of all the magazine work I had done, the real satisfaction had come in the books, and I knew that, so some big magazine job didn’t matter to me.
MT: It was after that conversation that your father–your role model–died unexpectedly. And you came to Maui.
SC: I was done with the reporting and starting to write, and it was very solitary, but I can’t think of any other place I would have rather been. That was when Maui really started to feel like home. I met wonderful people and felt supported. Plus Jaws–Peahi–really seemed like a magical place, like the Farallones.
MT: But the O offer came back and this time you took it and returned to NYC.
SC: Yeah. I was happy to be offered a second chance at that job, although the first six months were really hard. I would work at the magazine all day and then come home and work on The Wave until, like, three in the morning.
MT: You had great success. The book was a smash, the magazine thrived, you won awards. Kind of hard to picture you as a high-heeled, limo-riding New Yorker, though.
SC: Yeah. I would walk into that gorgeous Hearst building, where my office looked out on Central Park, and feel like my soul was being pulled out through my nostrils. Having a glamorous life in Manhattan was an interesting sociological experiment, but not what makes me happy. What makes me happy is to be next to the ocean in my bare feet. I like not having to wear high‑heeled shoes. I like not having to brush my hair.
MT: So when you decided to write Voices, you returned full-time to Maui.
SC: When I sold the proposal, I knew I would have to quit my job. I felt I’d accomplished what I set out to do at O. Plus, I was writing about the ocean, so it helped to be able to see the ocean and swim whenever I wanted. For me, the Pacific is the alpha ocean, and I like being in the middle of it. I really love being so far away from land. I think land is highly overrated.
MT: In all your story travels, what frightened you the most?
SC: The Solomon Islands. That was a scary trip. I was told, “Don’t come.” It’s a very rough place. I was in the main city, where the dolphin traffickers are connected to the government. It’s a lucrative industry, I was there to write about it, and they didn’t want it dragged into the daylight. I was alone and I was pretty nervous. But, you know, I returned in one piece.
MT: What about riding down a Jaws wave on the back of Laird’s jet ski?
SC: That’s a different kind of scary. That’s a good scary.
MT: Are you working on a new book now?
SC: I don’t want to talk too much about it, but will say this: one of the big underlying themes of all of my books is our relationship to nature, which is so disconnected. We can’t destroy the natural world and think somehow we’re going to thrive. The next book is around this theme.
MT: What’s your dream adventure?
SC: I want to go down in a submersible. I don’t care where, just as deep as possible.
Susan Casey on riding a Jaws wave on the back of Laird Hamilton’s jet ski:
“In a spasm of violence, the wave jacked up. It pressed us forward as we dropped down a wall so steep that I felt sure I would get pitched over Hamilton’s head… [he] glanced up at the lip that now towered above us, calculating exactly how many seconds we had before Jaws swallowed. The G-forces made it hard to turn my head, but at the edges of my vision I saw spray and froth and the blood beat hard in my ears as the wave bellowed only yards behind us… Hamilton shot forward in a burst of power and we outraced the falling lip, rocketing into the impact zone, heading directly for the inshore rock field.”
From The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Cover photo: Rennio Maifredi