Interview with Jonathan Franklin, Author of 438 Days

jonathan franklin _Morten Andersen

On November 17, 2012, fisherman Salvador Alvarenga and his crewmate Ezequiel Córdoba were fishing off the coast of Mexico when they were caught in a 5-day storm. The storm destroyed their motor and most of their survival gear, and everyone back home thought they were dead…until Alvarenga showed up on a mostly deserted island 7000 miles away 438 days later. Investigative journalist and author Jonathan Franklin spent hundreds of hours interviewing Alvarenga and various experts to chronicle Alvarenga’s journey in his latest work, 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea. SuperheroYou spoke to Franklin to find out what he learned in writing this extraordinary book.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

SuperheroYou: What inspired you to write 438 Days?

Jonathan Franklin: I didn’t actually believe it. I thought that it sounded so incredible that somebody had lived at sea for 14 months that I figured, if it was a fake or a fraud it was an awesome story, and if he actually did it, it was an even better story. So I went in there with a pretty open mind just letting the facts bring me in. And I’m 100% convinced that it actually happened, and there’s not really any doubt about that. But it was just kind of this mystery of, “was it really possible?”

SHY: What convinced you the story was real?

JF: First of all, I think as reporters we have pretty good bullsh*t detectors. And I’ve been a reporter for about 30 years. Within an hour of talking to Alvarenga, the details were just too precise, I thought, to have been made up. He didn’t seem to have any motive for making it up. He hated talking about it. He didn’t really want to go back and revisit this, which is the exact opposite of a scammer. A scammer would have had a lawyer, a PR team and a speech ready to go. This guy had no lawyer, no PR team, all alone, and the first thing he did when he hit shore was tell the reporters to leave him alone. So that part didn’t really add up. What’s the point of a scam if you’re going to keep it a secret? But then what I would do is, I would double-check a lot of the facts that he told me with top scientists around the world. If he said the ocean current swirled around for a month, I would check, and sure enough, ocean currents do swirl around for a month like that. Or if he said the storm clouds were a certain color or shape, then I would go talk to a climatologist, and sure enough, that was it.

SG: Why did he choose you to write this story? How did you get that story?

JF: Well, there were a lot of people who wanted to write it, but I spoke fluent Spanish. I’ve lived in South America for almost 20 years. And I had written the book on the Chilean miners called 33 Men. That book was translated into 19 or 20 languages. So I could say, “Look, I’ve done a big book about a survivor before. I can do it again.”

SHY: You seem to be drawn to your stories about survivors and death-defying feats. Why is that?

JF: Well, I told somebody recently, maybe it’s because I have 7 daughters and I’m kind of an extreme survivor also. I like to live on the edge myself. And I appreciate people who, when they’re stuck on the edge of life and death, are able to design their route to safety, whether it’s the miners designing a way to cook underground or whether it’s the fishermen figuring out how to catch fish. I love this inventiveness. I think we’ve all got a lot more of it inside us and it gets deadened by working in office cubicles too long.

SHY: If you could have a reader take away one lesson from this book, what would it be?

JF: There is never a reason to kill yourself.

SHY: Can you elaborate a little?

JF: That was actually Alvarenga’s thoughts as much as mine. He would repeatedly say that after what he suffered – hunger, thirst, loneliness, terror – if he didn’t kill himself, then he really thought that anybody who was suffering extreme depression might be able to find a way out and a solution without killing themselves. He was a firm believer that his extreme suffering might someday help others put their own suffering in perspective.

SHY: How much of this is Alvarenga’s story, and how much of this is your story? What was that process of telling this tale like?

JF: Well, it’s kind of funny. It’s almost like the story was buried in him and I was the archeologist who had to pull it out because often he would not like to talk about this for more than 40 minutes. So we would break the storytelling sessions up into small sections of about 30-40 minutes, then take a break for 3 hours. We would do that repeatedly for over a week on end. And I would tape record the interviews and I’d transcribe them. So it’s mainly his story. What I do is I give you some context. I talk to the experts – the turtle expert, the ocean current expert, the survival psychologist, the Coast Guard, the Navy SEALs, the Royal Navy – all of these outside voices who are both able to verify a lot of what he says but also just put it in context. There’s people who’ve sailed through this part of the world. They describe the storm. There’s fishermen who describe fishing. I try and give the readers different voices but all at the water level of what it’s really like to be out there.

SHY: Can you talk a little bit about what some of the biggest challenges were in writing this book, and translating somebody else’s story?

JF: I guess the biggest challenge was how to structure this story because he’s out there for 14 months, but I don’t think anybody wants to read a book like Day 212, nothing happened. So what I tried to do was think about the book in 3 sections. The first section or the first act is him: who he is and him leaving shore, and of course he gets trapped by this terrible storm. The second act is him all alone trying to figure out this brave new world. And the third act is him hitting land and getting ambushed by cheesy lawyers and paparazzi photographers and all this attention he never really wanted. So I structured it that way, and I think it was really good that I interviewed him over the course of a year, because I think it was 3 or 4000 questions I asked him, maybe more. There were weeks where I’d go through lists of 700 questions. So we’re talking thousands and thousands of questions, and even if he was a little brain-dead at times, he could still answer “yes” or “no” and that would help me eliminate possibilities or lead me to new questions, so I really drilled down asking the same questions over and over and also in more and more detail. If he said he caught a shark, what color was it? How big was it? How did he cut it open? What did he eat first? Did he eat the eyes? Did he not eat the eyes? So I think a lot of this was just patience and just lots and lots of interviewing.

SG: And he was able to remember all that? This book has so much detail.

JF: I think by the time I finished interviewing him, I had something like – just from his interviews alone – 300 pages of transcripts. And then I had hundreds of pages of transcripts from outside experts. So there was enough to write 3 books here. So it was actually a luxury. Let’s say I had close to 1000 pages of really high-quality material, and from that I narrowed it down to 300 pages. He has a very good memory, and he would never say that things happened in a month. He would say, “That was the 6th or 7th full moon,” or “That was at the end, about 2 full moons before the end.” His reference for time was almost always the number of moons that had passed up to that point.

SG: So he did have a good memory about what happened?

JF: Fantastic memory. And it’s interesting because he can’t read or write. So I think he’s accustomed to keeping a lot of information in his head. You’d ask him the same question 6 months apart, and it was almost verbatim. It was incredible how precise his answers were. There was very little difference. Sometimes he might say, “Oh, that was 6 months,” and then if you interviewed him a year later, he’d say “Oh, that was the eighth month.” There were a couple of times he’d get confused or wasn’t exactly sure. But by and large, his telling of this story has been incredibly consistent.

SG: Can you talk a little about the skepticism that surrounded Alvarenga’s initial tale?

JF: I think a lot of the initial skepticism has to do with the fact that when he hit land, he was kind of brain-dead. He hadn’t seen or spoken to a human in about a year, and he was scared of people, and nobody spoke Spanish at first. So he would say I left Mexico and they would say, “Oh you’re Mexican,” and he would hear the word Mexico and shake his head yes. So people accused him of lying, saying he was Mexican when he’s really from El Salvador, but there’s really nothing to that. There was a confusion about did he leave in November or did he leave in December? He was living illegally at the time in Mexico, so he lived under an alias. So there was different names he had used in Mexico. He used the name Cirilio Vargas. And he didn’t want to talk to the press, and there was one man who disappeared. So the press just had a field day with his silence, filling in the blanks rather than giving him the decent downtime he needed.

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SG: What was the process like of mapping and dating Alvarenga’s journey throughout the world when he was at sea?

JF: What we did is – the U.S. Coast Guard spends a lot of money and a lot of time tracking lost sailors and lost boats. They have software that can say the ocean currents are doing XYZ, the wind is doing this, and then they can put in the simulation of a boat and a boat’s characteristics. Is it 20 feet long or 200? Does it weigh one ton or 10 pounds? And then they’re able to predict where a boat would drift. So we had them do their modeling and then we combined that with some top ocean current experts at the University of Hawaii who have also been studying this part of the ocean for years, putting in drifters and tracking them, and they’ve got hundreds of GPS-marked drifters in the ocean. So they have a very good idea of the currents now. So working together, the U.S. Coast Guard and the University of Hawaii came up with our best guess of where he was. Fortunately, the University of Hawaii, just a month after Alvarenga went missing, had put some buoys in the water, so there was a lot of hard data behind that estimate.

SHY: But it is an estimate, ultimately.

JF: Ultimately, yeah. So we never know exactly how many miles he went because the straight line is about 6000 miles, but the experts say between 20 and 40% more for the ups and downs. So that means we’re probably talking about between 7 and 9,000 miles that would be the full length of his journey.

SG: The first half of the book focuses very heavily on the contrast between Alvarenga and Cordoba, and why one survived while the other didn’t. Can you talk a little about that choice and what that was like? What do you think was the biggest difference between Alvarenga and Cordoba?

JF: On that part of the book, I went to the Navy SEALs trainers and I asked the Navy SEALs to give me a private briefing on who survives and who doesn’t. One of the first things they asked was his height, his weight and his age. It was almost like it was an actuarial table for life insurance. And I said he’s about 5’7, 170 pounds, 35 years old, and they’re like, perfect. He nailed it. He’s not so big that he needs a gazillion calories. He’s not so small that he has no extra flesh. He’s at the age where he still has most of his strength, but he also has lots of experience. They talked about these muscleheads at 22 just getting killed because they do dumb things or the really big guys dying because they need so much more calories to survive. So, first of all, he was at the perfect age and he really had lots of experience. He’d been living on boats since he was 11 years old. He’d run away from school. And he’d been eating raw crabs and raw fish since the age of 11, so not only did his taste buds very much like that, but his body was used to processing pretty much anything raw that came out of the ocean. This is a guy who used to hunt raccoons and eat raw raccoon. Pretty nasty, if you ask me. Whereas on the other hand, Córdoba was always vomiting. He hated the taste, hated the idea of eating seabirds. He literally could not stomach a lot of that. So a lot of it had to do with just life experiences. Córdoba was more used to fishing close to shore; he also worked in factories. So one man had this lifelong love affair with the ocean. Another guy was a little bit of a rookie.

SG: In the book, you talk a lot about the mental differences between Alvarenga and Córdoba, the different ways that they were able to deal or not deal with being alone. Was that something Alvarenga wanted to do, or was it something you wanted to do?

JF: No, I really followed Alvarenga’s storytelling. Obviously, I couldn’t interview Córdoba. So just like we made our best guess of what his physical journey was, I had to make my best estimate of the mental relationship between the two of them. And because Alvarenga’s accounts were very consistent and because I had the time to interview him over and over again, I felt like he was able to explain pretty thoroughly everything from their fights to their beautiful time together looking at the stars, to the jokes, to the songs. So I think I was able to understand the depth of this very crazy relationship that comes out. They’re strangers, and 3 months later, one of them is dying in the arms of the other. And it’s extremely painful because they’re brothers in arms, literally, at this point. So I think that it wasn’t any choice on my part to really focus that way. It was just what I got when I explored the relationship between the two of them. And for me, it was really important to give Córdoba as much dignity as possible. Unfortunately, I was unable to talk to his family. They live in the middle of nowhere in Mexico. Both times I went to their house, they were away. Traveling in rural Mexico at night is still pretty dangerous in some parts, so there were some security issues about how many times I could go back. But I really tried to understand their relationship as best I could.

SG: Someone had prophesied to Córdoba that he would die at sea just a few weeks before and then Alvarenga goes through this journey and sort of found God. Could you talk a little bit about these ideas of fate and destiny and luck and how Alvarenga’s views were affected by this journey?

JF: Córdoba had been told by somebody in his church who’d gone on a fast and after her fast, it sounded like it was a long fast – some people told me 12 days, some people said 14 days, but a long fast – started having visions and one of the visions she allegedly had was that Cordoba would die at sea. And he had been told this story. So when they hit this storm and things are going bad, he starts to imagine it’s the prophecy come true. But he’s also religious and his mother has married an evangelical preacher, so there’s a lot of music and singing around. So he begins to teach Alvarenga hymns and songs and they really start to develop this relationship based around their idea that there’s a god that’s going to save them. But it’s interesting that that same faith is kind of what drags Córdoba down because he also believes in the prophecy. So you have the very religious, faithful man slowly sinking into what he thinks is this fateful prophecy. And you have the agnostic Alvarenga who’s absorbing all this faith by being alongside a religious man and then using those same very tools to save himself later on. So there’s a whole switch of faith and destiny and mortality here.

SG: Do you think that Cordoba’s belief in this prophecy contributed to his slow mental deterioration?

JF: Oh, definitely. I spoke to some very top survival psychologists, literally the people who have written the book on survival psychology. And they described how obviously losing your sense of optimism is key and if you’ve been told you’re going to die, you’re less optimistic. He lost his sense of humor which was also key. He became a bit resigned to the fact that he was being called. Alvarenga recounts that Córdoba would say, “I can’t fight it – it’s destiny,” whereas Alvarenga would say, “All I’m going to do is fight. I don’t know if there’s a destiny or not, but I’m going to fight.” But I defintely think that the prophecy hurt Córdoba’s ability to see this as an accident. According to what Alvarenga told me, he began to feel it was all preordained. 

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SG: Would you say that Alvarenga is more religious now?

JF: I don’t know how long it’s lasted. I don’t think he’s very religious. He thanks God. He is more religious than when he started, for sure, but he goes up and down. He’s not a man who goes to church. He has certain very strong religious beliefs now, but he’s fairly private about that and he doesn’t go to church. I’ve never seen him or heard of him praying. But he does give thanks to God. And he does think that he can be a power of goodness by working with God to share the story of his survival.

SG: What is Alvarenga up to now?

JF: Right now, he is in El Salvador. I think he’s going to buy a couple boats and maybe build a house. He’s kind of settling down a bit. He’s likely to rent out the boats, maybe not go out there all the time, go out sometimes but use some of his money to buy boats and then rent them.

SG: Other than this understandable trepidation of the ocean, what is the biggest difference between Alvarenga now and Alvarenga before he went on this journey?

JF: I think he’s a lot more thoughtful now, judging from what people told me about him before. I interviewed a lot of his friends. I spent about a month hanging out with his buddies in Mexico just hearing stories about him. So I’d say the biggest difference is – he’s much more thoughtful now. He’s always been a generous man, even before, he was always generous, and he doesn’t party one tenth of what he used to party, so he’s definitely calmed down a lot. He used to be a party animal. Now he’s pretty chill.

SHY: What was Alvarenga’s life like before he went to Mexico?

JF: He was a kid who was never much into school. He repeated 1st grade a bunch of times and was always wanting to hang out on the beach and work with fishermen. He was just driven to the life at sea. He drank and partied a lot, got into some fights, had some problems. From an early age, he saw the ocean as his refuge, as his safety net, a place where you could go and nobody would bother you. So it’s kind of interesting that his safety net became a spiderweb and trapped him, but it also transformed him and then let him go.

SG: One of the big unspoken characters in this book is the ocean and environment itself. How did your views of the ocean change as you wrote this book, and what do you think Alvarenga wants us to take away from it?

JF: I was a little nervous about writing this book, because I don’t know that much about the ocean. So very early on, I contacted the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, which is a really world-class research facility, and I explained the book and asked them if they could help me backstop the science. They were very kind and allowed me to interview all sorts of experts. If I had questions on sharks, they found me a shark expert. When I wanted to know about the ICTZ, the Intertropical Convergence Zone, they got me an expert on that. So it was a fascinating journey for me to learn more and more about the Pacific. One of the comments that most stood in my head was a member of the space shuttle saying that even the space shuttle at 24,000 miles an hour takes a long time to go over the Pacific. I remember looking at charts with Coast Guard officials and each block on these vast charts was the size of New England or something. Just huge amounts of water out there. So that was fascinating. But it was also very disturbing because there began to be a theme of trash as tool. If you read the book, you can see that he probably wouldn’t have lived if there hadn’t been so much trash out there. He found a big barrel that became his water supply holder. He found 75 plastic water bottles that he could store water in. He found a floating piece of Styrofoam that pretty much saved his life because this big chunk of styrofoam was visible to migrating birds, so they would interrupt their transpacific migration to land on the styrofam mattress that he had found. So there was this really weird combination of him being in the middle of nowhere with no contact with civilization, but all of civilization’s garbage floating was by him. To him, it was actually a reminder that there was a life out there. He, one time, found a fresh bag of garbage, about only a week old, and it had rotten milk and carrots and some cooking oil. For him, it was almost as if he had just touched civilization. It was that close. So I immediately wanted to do a book on the Pacific Ocean itself. I just found it fascinating. I’m not going to do that because Simon Winchester just released a book on that (Editor’s Note: Pacific) and it’s a great book. But I really see this story as a love story between the man and the ocean. He never had a bad word to say about the ocean. Even when he was out there he would say, “I never asked you to carry me. Why don’t you just throw me up on land? Why are you wasting your energy on me? Dump me off. I must be a burden.” He was always very thankful for the ocean for not killing him, for not flipping him. And as a fisherman, he loved to be out there. He would go day after day just to fish. So in a lot of ways, it’s a love story between a fisherman and his ocean.

SG: It’s also about a dying way of life, since Alvarenga is an old-school fisherman or “shirker.”

JF: One of the reasons Alvarenga got caught was because the oceans have been so fished out. Before you would go to 20 miles, now you go to 100. Before you could catch fish in 4 hours, now you need 4 days. One of the really disturbing things I learned about this was the complete collapse in shark populations. Anything we think we know about sharks today by studying them is kind of like studying the survivors of a mass extinction. There’s just remnants of what there should be out there. So it’s pretty terrifying to think of what’s happened to the ocean in just a few decades. The fishermen are dying out. Many fish are gone, or at the tipping point where their populations will collapse.

SG: Do you think you could have survived?

JF: No way! No way! I think I’d have a really hard time eating the raw seabirds, and I’m not sure I’m a good enough hunter. He’s a very good hunter. He hunted his whole life. He can catch fish with his hands. And he’s also just really clever. He took apart the outboard motor and built fish hooks. He made sandals from sharkskin. He’d slice up the sharks and make sandals out of their skin. I really think he’s one in a million who can figure out the food, water and shelter, and then it’s another one in a million who can keep from going completely mad. If you cross those two, he is literally like one in a billion. I think he’s the end of an era too. Given the surveillance going on in the world, given the fact that there’s so many GPS and drones and satellites, I think there’ll be a point where getting lost like this will seem very romantic and almost a luxury. People talked about the closing of the frontier when the transcontinental railroad went through in the States. But in another way, there’s a closing of a frontier as people more and more lose their ability to get lost.

SG: What is the biggest lesson that you personally learned from Alvarenga and writing this book?

JF: That there’s always a solution. Even now when I’m fixing my bicycle, and I get frustrated because I’m missing a part or I’m missing a tool, I’ll think, well, Alvarenga would have solved it. What would Alvarenga do?

SG: That sounds like a lot of pressure.

JF: It’s great though, because usually there’s a solution. It’s been very helpful. I’m much better at fixing things now that I try and think like Alvarenga.

SG: What is your real-life superpower?

JF: I can see news events coming way ahead of the time. I can predict things, like, crazy stuff. I even had a notebook entry from my diary about mushroom fireballs over New York City, Bin Laden’s dream and that was about 2 years before 9/11.

SG: Who is your real-life superhero?

JF: Hunter Thompson, because he was the best political analyst America’s ever had and also just a mad free spirit.

SG: What is something that you do every day that you think everybody else should do?

JF: Walk a lot, because we’re a migratory species and this whole thing about being sedentary goes against every part of your mental development. We were not designed to sit still.

SG: How would you like to be remembered?

JF: A great storyteller and a good dad.

SG: If your daughters were to read this book, what would you want them to take away from it?

JF: Whatever problems they have, put it in perspective. When they complain at dinner there’s no more food or they’re hungry, I say yeah, the miners went 17 days without eating. And then the little one who’s 3 will say, “But we’re not miners!”

SG: Do you have anything that you think is important for our readers to know that I didn’t ask?

JF: I think mainly that the strength of this book is that it really is a love story between a man and the ocean, and a man who finds a need to reinvent himself. Alvarenga’s now a much better father. He’s more thoughtful. So, the more I research this, the more it seemed like a modern day myth. It’s a classic tale of a man trapped in a hell, just about dying, almost buried alive by the water, and then reinvents himself. Reinvents a world and is literally reborn by being thrown on this deserted island halfway across the world. I just hope that people can see that it’s not just about surviving at sea. There’s a lot of mental health issues buried in this book.

Liked this? Check out our review of 438 Days!

Written by Sasha Graffagna

On November 17, 2012, fisherman Salvador Alvarenga and his crewmate Ezequiel Córdoba were fishing off the coast of Mexico when they were caught in a 5-day storm. The storm destroyed their motor and most of their survival gear, and everyone back home thought they were dead…until Alvarenga showed up on a mostly deserted island 7000 miles away 438 days later. Investigative journalist and author Jonathan Franklin spent hundreds of hours interviewing Alvarenga and various experts to chronicle Alvarenga’s journey in his latest work, 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea. SuperheroYou spoke to Franklin to find out what he learned in writing this extraordinary book.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

SuperheroYou: What inspired you to write 438 Days?

Jonathan Franklin: I didn’t actually believe it. I thought that it sounded so incredible that somebody had lived at sea for 14 months that I figured, if it was a fake or a fraud it was an awesome story, and if he actually did it, it was an even better story. So I went in there with a pretty open mind just letting the facts bring me in. And I’m 100% convinced that it actually happened, and there’s not really any doubt about that. But it was just kind of this mystery of, “was it really possible?”

SHY: What convinced you the story was real?

JF: First of all, I think as reporters we have pretty good bullsh*t detectors. And I’ve been a reporter for about 30 years. Within an hour of talking to Alvarenga, the details were just too precise, I thought, to have been made up. He didn’t seem to have any motive for making it up. He hated talking about it. He didn’t really want to go back and revisit this, which is the exact opposite of a scammer. A scammer would have had a lawyer, a PR team and a speech ready to go. This guy had no lawyer, no PR team, all alone, and the first thing he did when he hit shore was tell the reporters to leave him alone. So that part didn’t really add up. What’s the point of a scam if you’re going to keep it a secret? But then what I would do is, I would double-check a lot of the facts that he told me with top scientists around the world. If he said the ocean current swirled around for a month, I would check, and sure enough, ocean currents do swirl around for a month like that. Or if he said the storm clouds were a certain color or shape, then I would go talk to a climatologist, and sure enough, that was it.

SG: Why did he choose you to write this story? How did you get that story?

JF: Well, there were a lot of people who wanted to write it, but I spoke fluent Spanish. I’ve lived in South America for almost 20 years. And I had written the book on the Chilean miners called 33 Men. That book was translated into 19 or 20 languages. So I could say, “Look, I’ve done a big book about a survivor before. I can do it again.”

SHY: You seem to be drawn to your stories about survivors and death-defying feats. Why is that?

JF: Well, I told somebody recently, maybe it’s because I have 7 daughters and I’m kind of an extreme survivor also. I like to live on the edge myself. And I appreciate people who, when they’re stuck on the edge of life and death, are able to design their route to safety, whether it’s the miners designing a way to cook underground or whether it’s the fishermen figuring out how to catch fish. I love this inventiveness. I think we’ve all got a lot more of it inside us and it gets deadened by working in office cubicles too long.

SHY: If you could have a reader take away one lesson from this book, what would it be?

JF: There is never a reason to kill yourself.

SHY: Can you elaborate a little?

JF: That was actually Alvarenga’s thoughts as much as mine. He would repeatedly say that after what he suffered – hunger, thirst, loneliness, terror – if he didn’t kill himself, then he really thought that anybody who was suffering extreme depression might be able to find a way out and a solution without killing themselves. He was a firm believer that his extreme suffering might someday help others put their own suffering in perspective.

SHY: How much of this is Alvarenga’s story, and how much of this is your story? What was that process of telling this tale like?

JF: Well, it’s kind of funny. It’s almost like the story was buried in him and I was the archeologist who had to pull it out because often he would not like to talk about this for more than 40 minutes. So we would break the storytelling sessions up into small sections of about 30-40 minutes, then take a break for 3 hours. We would do that repeatedly for over a week on end. And I would tape record the interviews and I’d transcribe them. So it’s mainly his story. What I do is I give you some context. I talk to the experts – the turtle expert, the ocean current expert, the survival psychologist, the Coast Guard, the Navy SEALs, the Royal Navy – all of these outside voices who are both able to verify a lot of what he says but also just put it in context. There’s people who’ve sailed through this part of the world. They describe the storm. There’s fishermen who describe fishing. I try and give the readers different voices but all at the water level of what it’s really like to be out there.

SHY: Can you talk a little bit about what some of the biggest challenges were in writing this book, and translating somebody else’s story?

JF: I guess the biggest challenge was how to structure this story because he’s out there for 14 months, but I don’t think anybody wants to read a book like Day 212, nothing happened. So what I tried to do was think about the book in 3 sections. The first section or the first act is him: who he is and him leaving shore, and of course he gets trapped by this terrible storm. The second act is him all alone trying to figure out this brave new world. And the third act is him hitting land and getting ambushed by cheesy lawyers and paparazzi photographers and all this attention he never really wanted. So I structured it that way, and I think it was really good that I interviewed him over the course of a year, because I think it was 3 or 4000 questions I asked him, maybe more. There were weeks where I’d go through lists of 700 questions. So we’re talking thousands and thousands of questions, and even if he was a little brain-dead at times, he could still answer “yes” or “no” and that would help me eliminate possibilities or lead me to new questions, so I really drilled down asking the same questions over and over and also in more and more detail. If he said he caught a shark, what color was it? How big was it? How did he cut it open? What did he eat first? Did he eat the eyes? Did he not eat the eyes? So I think a lot of this was just patience and just lots and lots of interviewing.

SG: And he was able to remember all that? This book has so much detail.

JF: I think by the time I finished interviewing him, I had something like – just from his interviews alone – 300 pages of transcripts. And then I had hundreds of pages of transcripts from outside experts. So there was enough to write 3 books here. So it was actually a luxury. Let’s say I had close to 1000 pages of really high-quality material, and from that I narrowed it down to 300 pages. He has a very good memory, and he would never say that things happened in a month. He would say, “That was the 6th or 7th full moon,” or “That was at the end, about 2 full moons before the end.” His reference for time was almost always the number of moons that had passed up to that point.

SG: So he did have a good memory about what happened?

JF: Fantastic memory. And it’s interesting because he can’t read or write. So I think he’s accustomed to keeping a lot of information in his head. You’d ask him the same question 6 months apart, and it was almost verbatim. It was incredible how precise his answers were. There was very little difference. Sometimes he might say, “Oh, that was 6 months,” and then if you interviewed him a year later, he’d say “Oh, that was the eighth month.” There were a couple of times he’d get confused or wasn’t exactly sure. But by and large, his telling of this story has been incredibly consistent.

SG: Can you talk a little about the skepticism that surrounded Alvarenga’s initial tale?

JF: I think a lot of the initial skepticism has to do with the fact that when he hit land, he was kind of brain-dead. He hadn’t seen or spoken to a human in about a year, and he was scared of people, and nobody spoke Spanish at first. So he would say I left Mexico and they would say, “Oh you’re Mexican,” and he would hear the word Mexico and shake his head yes. So people accused him of lying, saying he was Mexican when he’s really from El Salvador, but there’s really nothing to that. There was a confusion about did he leave in November or did he leave in December? He was living illegally at the time in Mexico, so he lived under an alias. So there was different names he had used in Mexico. He used the name Cirilio Vargas. And he didn’t want to talk to the press, and there was one man who disappeared. So the press just had a field day with his silence, filling in the blanks rather than giving him the decent downtime he needed.

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SG: What was the process like of mapping and dating Alvarenga’s journey throughout the world when he was at sea?

JF: What we did is – the U.S. Coast Guard spends a lot of money and a lot of time tracking lost sailors and lost boats. They have software that can say the ocean currents are doing XYZ, the wind is doing this, and then they can put in the simulation of a boat and a boat’s characteristics. Is it 20 feet long or 200? Does it weigh one ton or 10 pounds? And then they’re able to predict where a boat would drift. So we had them do their modeling and then we combined that with some top ocean current experts at the University of Hawaii who have also been studying this part of the ocean for years, putting in drifters and tracking them, and they’ve got hundreds of GPS-marked drifters in the ocean. So they have a very good idea of the currents now. So working together, the U.S. Coast Guard and the University of Hawaii came up with our best guess of where he was. Fortunately, the University of Hawaii, just a month after Alvarenga went missing, had put some buoys in the water, so there was a lot of hard data behind that estimate.

SHY: But it is an estimate, ultimately.

JF: Ultimately, yeah. So we never know exactly how many miles he went because the straight line is about 6000 miles, but the experts say between 20 and 40% more for the ups and downs. So that means we’re probably talking about between 7 and 9,000 miles that would be the full length of his journey.

SG: The first half of the book focuses very heavily on the contrast between Alvarenga and Cordoba, and why one survived while the other didn’t. Can you talk a little about that choice and what that was like? What do you think was the biggest difference between Alvarenga and Cordoba?

JF: On that part of the book, I went to the Navy SEALs trainers and I asked the Navy SEALs to give me a private briefing on who survives and who doesn’t. One of the first things they asked was his height, his weight and his age. It was almost like it was an actuarial table for life insurance. And I said he’s about 5’7, 170 pounds, 35 years old, and they’re like, perfect. He nailed it. He’s not so big that he needs a gazillion calories. He’s not so small that he has no extra flesh. He’s at the age where he still has most of his strength, but he also has lots of experience. They talked about these muscleheads at 22 just getting killed because they do dumb things or the really big guys dying because they need so much more calories to survive. So, first of all, he was at the perfect age and he really had lots of experience. He’d been living on boats since he was 11 years old. He’d run away from school. And he’d been eating raw crabs and raw fish since the age of 11, so not only did his taste buds very much like that, but his body was used to processing pretty much anything raw that came out of the ocean. This is a guy who used to hunt raccoons and eat raw raccoon. Pretty nasty, if you ask me. Whereas on the other hand, Córdoba was always vomiting. He hated the taste, hated the idea of eating seabirds. He literally could not stomach a lot of that. So a lot of it had to do with just life experiences. Córdoba was more used to fishing close to shore; he also worked in factories. So one man had this lifelong love affair with the ocean. Another guy was a little bit of a rookie.

SG: In the book, you talk a lot about the mental differences between Alvarenga and Córdoba, the different ways that they were able to deal or not deal with being alone. Was that something Alvarenga wanted to do, or was it something you wanted to do?

JF: No, I really followed Alvarenga’s storytelling. Obviously, I couldn’t interview Córdoba. So just like we made our best guess of what his physical journey was, I had to make my best estimate of the mental relationship between the two of them. And because Alvarenga’s accounts were very consistent and because I had the time to interview him over and over again, I felt like he was able to explain pretty thoroughly everything from their fights to their beautiful time together looking at the stars, to the jokes, to the songs. So I think I was able to understand the depth of this very crazy relationship that comes out. They’re strangers, and 3 months later, one of them is dying in the arms of the other. And it’s extremely painful because they’re brothers in arms, literally, at this point. So I think that it wasn’t any choice on my part to really focus that way. It was just what I got when I explored the relationship between the two of them. And for me, it was really important to give Córdoba as much dignity as possible. Unfortunately, I was unable to talk to his family. They live in the middle of nowhere in Mexico. Both times I went to their house, they were away. Traveling in rural Mexico at night is still pretty dangerous in some parts, so there were some security issues about how many times I could go back. But I really tried to understand their relationship as best I could.

SG: Someone had prophesied to Córdoba that he would die at sea just a few weeks before and then Alvarenga goes through this journey and sort of found God. Could you talk a little bit about these ideas of fate and destiny and luck and how Alvarenga’s views were affected by this journey?

JF: Córdoba had been told by somebody in his church who’d gone on a fast and after her fast, it sounded like it was a long fast – some people told me 12 days, some people said 14 days, but a long fast – started having visions and one of the visions she allegedly had was that Cordoba would die at sea. And he had been told this story. So when they hit this storm and things are going bad, he starts to imagine it’s the prophecy come true. But he’s also religious and his mother has married an evangelical preacher, so there’s a lot of music and singing around. So he begins to teach Alvarenga hymns and songs and they really start to develop this relationship based around their idea that there’s a god that’s going to save them. But it’s interesting that that same faith is kind of what drags Córdoba down because he also believes in the prophecy. So you have the very religious, faithful man slowly sinking into what he thinks is this fateful prophecy. And you have the agnostic Alvarenga who’s absorbing all this faith by being alongside a religious man and then using those same very tools to save himself later on. So there’s a whole switch of faith and destiny and mortality here.

SG: Do you think that Cordoba’s belief in this prophecy contributed to his slow mental deterioration?

JF: Oh, definitely. I spoke to some very top survival psychologists, literally the people who have written the book on survival psychology. And they described how obviously losing your sense of optimism is key and if you’ve been told you’re going to die, you’re less optimistic. He lost his sense of humor which was also key. He became a bit resigned to the fact that he was being called. Alvarenga recounts that Córdoba would say, “I can’t fight it – it’s destiny,” whereas Alvarenga would say, “All I’m going to do is fight. I don’t know if there’s a destiny or not, but I’m going to fight.” But I defintely think that the prophecy hurt Córdoba’s ability to see this as an accident. According to what Alvarenga told me, he began to feel it was all preordained. 

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SG: Would you say that Alvarenga is more religious now?

JF: I don’t know how long it’s lasted. I don’t think he’s very religious. He thanks God. He is more religious than when he started, for sure, but he goes up and down. He’s not a man who goes to church. He has certain very strong religious beliefs now, but he’s fairly private about that and he doesn’t go to church. I’ve never seen him or heard of him praying. But he does give thanks to God. And he does think that he can be a power of goodness by working with God to share the story of his survival.

SG: What is Alvarenga up to now?

JF: Right now, he is in El Salvador. I think he’s going to buy a couple boats and maybe build a house. He’s kind of settling down a bit. He’s likely to rent out the boats, maybe not go out there all the time, go out sometimes but use some of his money to buy boats and then rent them.

SG: Other than this understandable trepidation of the ocean, what is the biggest difference between Alvarenga now and Alvarenga before he went on this journey?

JF: I think he’s a lot more thoughtful now, judging from what people told me about him before. I interviewed a lot of his friends. I spent about a month hanging out with his buddies in Mexico just hearing stories about him. So I’d say the biggest difference is – he’s much more thoughtful now. He’s always been a generous man, even before, he was always generous, and he doesn’t party one tenth of what he used to party, so he’s definitely calmed down a lot. He used to be a party animal. Now he’s pretty chill.

SHY: What was Alvarenga’s life like before he went to Mexico?

JF: He was a kid who was never much into school. He repeated 1st grade a bunch of times and was always wanting to hang out on the beach and work with fishermen. He was just driven to the life at sea. He drank and partied a lot, got into some fights, had some problems. From an early age, he saw the ocean as his refuge, as his safety net, a place where you could go and nobody would bother you. So it’s kind of interesting that his safety net became a spiderweb and trapped him, but it also transformed him and then let him go.

SG: One of the big unspoken characters in this book is the ocean and environment itself. How did your views of the ocean change as you wrote this book, and what do you think Alvarenga wants us to take away from it?

JF: I was a little nervous about writing this book, because I don’t know that much about the ocean. So very early on, I contacted the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, which is a really world-class research facility, and I explained the book and asked them if they could help me backstop the science. They were very kind and allowed me to interview all sorts of experts. If I had questions on sharks, they found me a shark expert. When I wanted to know about the ICTZ, the Intertropical Convergence Zone, they got me an expert on that. So it was a fascinating journey for me to learn more and more about the Pacific. One of the comments that most stood in my head was a member of the space shuttle saying that even the space shuttle at 24,000 miles an hour takes a long time to go over the Pacific. I remember looking at charts with Coast Guard officials and each block on these vast charts was the size of New England or something. Just huge amounts of water out there. So that was fascinating. But it was also very disturbing because there began to be a theme of trash as tool. If you read the book, you can see that he probably wouldn’t have lived if there hadn’t been so much trash out there. He found a big barrel that became his water supply holder. He found 75 plastic water bottles that he could store water in. He found a floating piece of Styrofoam that pretty much saved his life because this big chunk of styrofoam was visible to migrating birds, so they would interrupt their transpacific migration to land on the styrofam mattress that he had found. So there was this really weird combination of him being in the middle of nowhere with no contact with civilization, but all of civilization’s garbage floating was by him. To him, it was actually a reminder that there was a life out there. He, one time, found a fresh bag of garbage, about only a week old, and it had rotten milk and carrots and some cooking oil. For him, it was almost as if he had just touched civilization. It was that close. So I immediately wanted to do a book on the Pacific Ocean itself. I just found it fascinating. I’m not going to do that because Simon Winchester just released a book on that (Editor’s Note: Pacific) and it’s a great book. But I really see this story as a love story between the man and the ocean. He never had a bad word to say about the ocean. Even when he was out there he would say, “I never asked you to carry me. Why don’t you just throw me up on land? Why are you wasting your energy on me? Dump me off. I must be a burden.” He was always very thankful for the ocean for not killing him, for not flipping him. And as a fisherman, he loved to be out there. He would go day after day just to fish. So in a lot of ways, it’s a love story between a fisherman and his ocean.

SG: It’s also about a dying way of life, since Alvarenga is an old-school fisherman or “shirker.”

JF: One of the reasons Alvarenga got caught was because the oceans have been so fished out. Before you would go to 20 miles, now you go to 100. Before you could catch fish in 4 hours, now you need 4 days. One of the really disturbing things I learned about this was the complete collapse in shark populations. Anything we think we know about sharks today by studying them is kind of like studying the survivors of a mass extinction. There’s just remnants of what there should be out there. So it’s pretty terrifying to think of what’s happened to the ocean in just a few decades. The fishermen are dying out. Many fish are gone, or at the tipping point where their populations will collapse.

SG: Do you think you could have survived?

JF: No way! No way! I think I’d have a really hard time eating the raw seabirds, and I’m not sure I’m a good enough hunter. He’s a very good hunter. He hunted his whole life. He can catch fish with his hands. And he’s also just really clever. He took apart the outboard motor and built fish hooks. He made sandals from sharkskin. He’d slice up the sharks and make sandals out of their skin. I really think he’s one in a million who can figure out the food, water and shelter, and then it’s another one in a million who can keep from going completely mad. If you cross those two, he is literally like one in a billion. I think he’s the end of an era too. Given the surveillance going on in the world, given the fact that there’s so many GPS and drones and satellites, I think there’ll be a point where getting lost like this will seem very romantic and almost a luxury. People talked about the closing of the frontier when the transcontinental railroad went through in the States. But in another way, there’s a closing of a frontier as people more and more lose their ability to get lost.

SG: What is the biggest lesson that you personally learned from Alvarenga and writing this book?

JF: That there’s always a solution. Even now when I’m fixing my bicycle, and I get frustrated because I’m missing a part or I’m missing a tool, I’ll think, well, Alvarenga would have solved it. What would Alvarenga do?

SG: That sounds like a lot of pressure.

JF: It’s great though, because usually there’s a solution. It’s been very helpful. I’m much better at fixing things now that I try and think like Alvarenga.

SG: What is your real-life superpower?

JF: I can see news events coming way ahead of the time. I can predict things, like, crazy stuff. I even had a notebook entry from my diary about mushroom fireballs over New York City, Bin Laden’s dream and that was about 2 years before 9/11.

SG: Who is your real-life superhero?

JF: Hunter Thompson, because he was the best political analyst America’s ever had and also just a mad free spirit.

SG: What is something that you do every day that you think everybody else should do?

JF: Walk a lot, because we’re a migratory species and this whole thing about being sedentary goes against every part of your mental development. We were not designed to sit still.

SG: How would you like to be remembered?

JF: A great storyteller and a good dad.

SG: If your daughters were to read this book, what would you want them to take away from it?

JF: Whatever problems they have, put it in perspective. When they complain at dinner there’s no more food or they’re hungry, I say yeah, the miners went 17 days without eating. And then the little one who’s 3 will say, “But we’re not miners!”

SG: Do you have anything that you think is important for our readers to know that I didn’t ask?

JF: I think mainly that the strength of this book is that it really is a love story between a man and the ocean, and a man who finds a need to reinvent himself. Alvarenga’s now a much better father. He’s more thoughtful. So, the more I research this, the more it seemed like a modern day myth. It’s a classic tale of a man trapped in a hell, just about dying, almost buried alive by the water, and then reinvents himself. Reinvents a world and is literally reborn by being thrown on this deserted island halfway across the world. I just hope that people can see that it’s not just about surviving at sea. There’s a lot of mental health issues buried in this book.

Liked this? Check out our review of 438 Days!

Written by Sasha Graffagna

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