Like most of us, “I’ve always been aware of the various potential disasters hanging like icicles over our heads,” Sam Sheridan writes in his new book The Disaster Diaries: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse. Sheridan is a bit more familiar with those potential disasters than most of us, however; he’s wrestled with nature in ways many of us will read about rather than experience. He’s worked in Antarctica and also been a sailor, wildland firefighter, wilderness EMT and worked on a Montana ranch. When a rugged, self-reliant man like Sheridan admits that he felt increasingly unprepared to protect his newborn son and wife if an apocalyptic event were to occur, where does that leave the rest of us? (How about: really hoping someone will rescue me during the apocalypse.) Rather than showboating his manliness, though, or detailing how to become a professional prepper readying for some unknown, forthcoming doom, Sheridan uses The Disaster Diaries to confront fears all of us have, and he has a lot of fun doing so.
Each chapter of The Disaster Diaries begins with an imagined scenario after zombies have invaded Earth; then Sheridan describes meeting various survivalists who possess the knowledge Sherian is seeking. Sheridan is an engaging, amiable guide to characters such as John McPherson, an expert on “primitive living,” i.e., without any steel tools whatsoever. “Survival is a dictatorship of whoever knows what he’s doing,” McPherson tells Sheridan when he shows up at McPherson’s remote Kansas cabin. “While you’re here, you do things my way.” The Disaster Diaries is one slightly surreal adventure after another as Sheridan meets more survivalists who help him understand how to become more self-reliant. I talked to Sheridan recently about his tour through an America most of us never see.
One reason you were inspired to write this book is because of all the apocalyptic images we’re bombarded with nowadays – why do you think we have such an obsession with that now?
I think these things are pretty cyclical. As soon as you get into Biblical armageddon and prophecy, you start to see, even with the start of the U.S., a big scare every few years. We laugh now about the fact that people made plans at Y2K, selling houses. The Puritans who came over on the Mayflowers were big pre-millennial believers. It’s just a part of human nature. I was trying to get at the root of what the zombie fears are, the zombie apocalypse. What’s that about? I called a professor in Chicago who teaches a class on this. ‘It’s about technology, you’re buried under your email, you have these repetitive actions.’ Or ‘it’s about immigration, you’re surrounded by aliens you don’t understand. It’s red state vs. blue state, you’re surrounded by people who don’t listen.’ At the end of the day, it’s a lot simpler: We’re all facing a 100% personal armageddon.
You’ve carved out a pretty unique niche for yourself in publishing–writing in a literate way about primal, masculine urges. Has it been difficult creating that career?
I haven’t been kidnapped or sold in to childhood slavery in Nigeria, but when you’re publishing nonfiction, there is a unique quality to every success story. You have to find your own way in. And the way you get in isn’t the way someone else can get in. I was very lucky with an agent who helped me out and then you just do a lot of work. I’m certainly on the perspiration side, not the inspiration side. I read a lot and it goes on in layers. People get in trouble when they try to be perfect. You’re trying to produce writing that someone will pay you to create. You have to look at it at a very basic level. I really resent academic writing because I think, ‘This shit is so interesting and it could be so more interesting if you made it accessible to everyone.’ They get grant money and there’s no reward for them to write something commercial. So often it’s fascinating, but you’ve got to have narrative flow.
How did you get your wife to put up with you during this project?
I think she’s mildly amused and she knew what she was getting into when we got married, for sure. I’ve tempered a lot of the adventures for her and my son because I don’t want to miss stuff with them. Her father was a fighter pilot who died in service, so I don’t do risky flying but other than that, I get to do what I want. It’s reassuring, too–it’s a good, natural feeling to be a little prepared having food for the winter, having water for the earthquake. ‘Beneficient amusement’ is how she saw me.
Do you have tips for people worried the apocalypse is coming?
There’s not one best screwdriver. There’s not one workout. The Black Swan [by Nassim Nicholas Taleb] is maybe the best book I read–it’s about the nature of unpredictability. It’s the idea that you can’t predict things and how to live with that uncertainty – people should read that instead of paying $50,000 for a bunker in their basement.
You start out the book by saying you’re an optimist but how has writing this book and doing the research for it changed your life? Are you still hopeful or wary?
I’m very hopeful. It goes to increasing my understanding of how the world works. This book was such a revelation to me–there are so many fantasies that Hollywood pushes that we have about these events and what might happen and how we might act. To go and talk to people who know, to do the research, it really deepened my grasp of the world. That’s my whole deal, trying to find a better understanding of the world around me and myself and looking to come to grips with it. In that sense, it was just a blast. When you start to read all the other survivalists and you realize how dated they are, you see your own fears in a different light. The more survivalism you see–it’s all about the Malthusian population issue, saying that every couple of years away we’re going to run out of space for everyone–you start to look at your own fears differently and with a historical perspective. Being able to take care of yourself, that self-reliance, it’s a huge part of personhood. There’s a helplessness to modern society. ‘I couldn’t fix this phone or my computer. I can barely pop the hood on my car.’ So I think there’s a counterpoint: Understanding how to take care of yourself, you understand the world better.
Claiborne Smith is the features editor at Kirkus Reviews.