Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest Author, Television Host and Singer, Peter Jennings. Before relocating to Muskoka, Ontario, Peter spent his career in corporate communications in Toronto running agencies handling marketing, advertising, branding, public relations and production of multimedia content, including websites and social media elements. He has recently published Shark Assault: An Amazing Story of Survival.
Norm: Good day Peter and thanks for participating in our interview.
Peter: It's my pleasure Norm, and thanks so much for your interest in my work. I'm honoured to chat with you and the Bookpleasures' audience.
Norm: How often have you been confused with the Canadian-American journalist the late Peter Jennings and how do you react?
You know, more often than you might imagine. I'd say once a week
someone will say to me, "Aren't you that news guy?" I
calmly explain that the late Peter Jennings and I share a name and
our Canadian heritage, but that's where the similarities end. He died
in 2005 and I like to think I'm very much alive.
He lived in New York City whereas I live on a lake in Muskoka. He anchored ABC News where I was a radio announcer early in my career, but it was small town and long ago. I don't mind the question, I'm just amazed people would think I'm him. By the way, a coincidence: Peter's father Charles was a vice president of the CBC and by chance, I named my first son Charles.
Norm: How did you become involved with Nicole Moore, the subject of Shark Assault: An Amazing Story of Survival?
Peter: I'm a lucky guy in that stories seem to find their way to me. Following the brutal, savage shark attacks, and the numerous surgeries Nicole endured to save her life, she began speaking to groups. A friend of mine, Sharon, attended one such presentation and was blown away by her story. She went up to Nicole and said, "You've gotta write a book about this!" Nicole responded that she didn't know anything about writing or publishing, and added that she has dyslexia, which would make the exercise onerous. "Then you have to meet my friend Peter," the always redoubtable Sharon countered. "He's a writer, I know the two of you will hit it off. Can I have him contact you?"
Somewhat reluctantly, Nicole agreed. I did a ton of research about her and then headed out on a snowy day in 2013 to meet her at her Orangeville residence. We talked for a couple of hours and I shared my vision for the book. To my surprise, she said, "Peter, I trust you to write this story. Let's do it." I was stunned, not expecting her to agree to anything right then and there. But I've since learned she's good at making prompt decisions. And so began what's become a fascinating voyage of discovery.
Norm: What motivated you to write Shark Assault: An Amazing Story of Survival?
Peter: There were two factors. The first was the challenge of taking the readers to the beach where this terrible incident occurred and getting them involved with the action. Advocating for the readers by giving them a real "fly on the wall" vantage is a test for any writer, but I felt I could do that. The second factor was to have this book serve as a point of inspiration for people facing life's challenges. This was very important for me because I knew it echoed Nicole's motivation for having the book written in the first place.
Norm: What were your goals and intentions in this book and how well do you feel you achieved them? As a follow up, what purpose do you believe your story serves and what matters to you about the story?
Relating to the previous question, my objective was to have readers
feel like they were actually present when the shark attack happened.
I also wanted them to realize how rare this incident was. To that
end, I interviewed three of the top shark experts in the world who
recreated for me the "perfect storm" that underscored this
very unusual event. (Norm, do you realize that statistically, you are
more likely to be stuck by a bolt of lighting than experience a shark
attack. Now, that's rare!)
More than this, however, I wanted the reader to realize what I had come to understand: Nicole is a truly amazing, exceptional individual. When you learn about the tests she's been made to endure in her life, and the fact that she has been able to overcome adversity to be a positive, hopeful and happy individual, this is a message I needed to share. I get regular notes from readers telling me what an inspiring story "Shark Assault" is and that matters a lot, both to me and to Nicole. I'm gratified I was able to achieve that.
Norm: What was the time-line between the time you decided to write your book and publication? What were the major events along the way?
Interviews got underway in February 2013 and publication occurred on
November 28, 2015. Writers often ask me how you write a book like Shark Assault: An Amazing Story of Survival and I explain
that with this kind of non-fiction book, you are an investigative
journalist before you are a writer. Writing is creative work.
Reporting is tough slogging. But the former does not come into being
without the latter.
And so, for several months, I delved into
detecting the participants who could complete the storyline. I
interviewed Nicole at least 10 times. I talked with her friends who
had travelled to Cancun with her for what was supposed to be a
fun-filled getaway. I interviewed her father, husband and children.
Also, people in Mexico such as two young nurses who just happened to be there when this awful event happened, the hotel manager, a man on the beach who helped staunch the immense bleeding from her arm and leg (Nicole lost 60% of her blood in the ocean and on the beach, a condition we as humans are not meant to survive). And the doctors and nurses in Toronto who battled to save Nicole's life. And of course those shark experts who helped me piece together the puzzle of how this event ever happened.
A challenge I faced was getting the order of events aligned. There were so many operations Nicole endured at Sunnybrook Hospital that she had to recollect the correct order. Understand that during this trying period in which doctors were fighting to keep her alive – eventually having to amputate her arm and nearly her leg as well – she was on very heavy measures of painkilling drugs. Add that to the shock and trauma from two savage bites to her body from the bull shark, the nastiest shark in the sea. It's no wonder her memory was sometimes cloudy, but other times spot on. It fell to both of us to weed through events and present the story with a logical flow.
Norm: What is the biggest thing that people THINK they know about the subject of your book, that isn't so?
Peter: That sharks are to be feared and that shark attacks are significantly on the rise. One of the people I connected with was Wendy Benchley, widow of Jaws writer Peter Benchley. She told me how Peter regretted writing that book because he created a level of fear about sharks that is simply unwarranted. Dr. Eugenie Clark (the "shark lady" who died last year at 93 and was still scuba diving for research) told me, "Peter, the fact is, most people fear sharks because they do not know them or they have been influenced by media and books like 'Jaws.' But once people learn about and understand sharks, their perception often changes to respect and awe." I think "respect" is the operative word here.
As for shark attacks occurring more often, there are caveats. Statistics cite the rise in shark incidents between 2008 and now. But wait a minute: 2008 was the beginning of a worldwide recession. One result: fewer people travelling to vacation spots, fewer people swimming in the water, fewer shark incidents. As George Burgess (who runs the International Shark Attack file at the University of Florida) told me, "The earth's waters are warming which is bringing sharks further north into areas they haven't visited before. Swimmers need to be aware of this and keep their distance." By the way, knowing that I am an ocean swimmer (so is Nicole, still), George told me, "Peter, when you swim in the ocean you are at all times within 50-100 yards of sharks. The ocean is where they live. And they really have no interest in you unless you provoke them."
Norm: Was the writing of the book improvisational or did you have a set plan?
Peter: Hmmmmm... I suppose the only plan I had was reportage first, creative writing second. I had to work around Nicole's schedule so, when she was unavailable, I would devolve to plan B and contact other people to interview them. I had to be flexible. Had I committed to a firm plan, I would surely have been frustrated by events outside of my influence. One example: the young daughter of a friend of Nicole's contracted brain cancer. Nicole was devastated and had to beg off working with me for some time while she dealt with helping her friend. At times like that, you have to step back, give your book's "heroine" her space, and concentrate elsewhere.
Norm: What was the most difficult part of writing your book?
Peter: Actually Norm, the two difficulties I perceived ended up being less onerous simply because of Nicole's accommodating attitude. After interviewing her a few times (on each occasion seeking to have her provide a different viewpoint on the story: "Tell me how you felt emotionally?" "Tell me about the pain you experienced." "How long did it take from the first shark bite to get to the hospital in Cancun?" etc.), I began to feel my neck. Surely I was putting this poor lady through an extremely traumatic time. I should respect the hardship she must be experiencing in dealing with me. But when I confessed this with apology, Nicole calmed my nerves by saying with a smile, "Peter, I have no nightmares. No PTSD. I've dealt with it and have no problem discussing this. Ask away..."
There was a second difficulty I faced. As you know, there are more female readers than males. That means guys like me have to put on our "female sensitivity hat" when writing in order to be an advocate for the ladies. I knew that I'd have to ask Nicole things like, "You have only one arm: how do you put a bra on or off?" Or, due to the scarring on both her thighs and stomach, "What is sex like?" I broached my concern with her one day, suggesting I'd like to ask some personal questions. She immediately put me at ease, laughing, "Peter, I'm a nurse. Ask me anything. It's all good." And so, another difficulty disappeared.
Norm: What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
Peter: I love writing. I love harnessing creativity. And so, after the journalistic acquisition of facts, the fun came in crafting the story. Here's an example. Where I normally write with flowing sentences, I chose to use a short, compact – almost point-form – structure in the two chapters describing the actual shark attacks. It was just "bump, bump, bump"... nothing lyrical about it, just hammering ahead with staccato facts as I recreated what happened on that tragic day. The other part of writing I enjoy is self-editing. I've done a lot of editing in my career and while every author needs an editor, to be able to self-edit your manuscript before submitting it to the publisher is satisfying work. It's refining and making it the best it can be. And for a writer, that's most agreeable.
But apart from the craft side of things, I have to say that meeting Nicole and having her trust me to narrate her memoir is the most gratifying and enjoyable part of writing "Shark Assault".
Norm: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Peter: I must tell you that I learned about the power of being positive, accepting, optimistic. I discovered this from Nicole. Her spirit rubbed off on me during all of our sessions, and since (because we now do joint presentations to groups about the book). She is truly an inspirational person and I find on those days when I might be feeling a little blue, I think of Nicole and immediately cheer up. After all she's been through, if she can be a "happy camper", I sure as hell can be too!
Quick aside. Nicole and I have a friendly disagreement about her being inspirational. She feels she's normal. I feel she's exceptional. As a friend says, "If Nicole's the new normal, then millions of us are screwed!"
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and Shark Assault: An Amazing Story of Survival?
Peter: We have a WEBSITE. There you can see and hear media interviews that Nicole and I have done so far, and you can see where we'll be next with various media events. You can also learn what to do to avoid interacting with sharks. (Both Nicole and I stress to people we meet that there is no reason to avoid swimming in the ocean if you enjoy this. But there are things you can do to avoid being a shark's lunch, and we cover that in the website). As for me, my website peterjennings.me reviews my projects and also features my blog.
Norm: What is next for Peter Jennings?
Norm, I'm one of those guys who always has a number of projects on
the go at once. I talked earlier about stories seeming to find me,
and that's just what happened with “I’ll Never Smile
Again: How a Downcast Canadian Girl Electrified Frank Sinatra’s
Fame” which I'm writing now.
Last summer by chance I met Tom
Sandler, son of the late Ruth Lowe, who wrote the songs "I'll
Never Smile Again" and "Put Your Dreams Away" that
became Sinatra standards. Tommy (he's named after Tommy Dorsey
– how cool is that?) talked to me about his mother's
incredible life and how he wanted to have a book written about her.
Our discussion turned to music and he came to realize that another part of my life was a touchstone: I'm a singer, with a focus on the Great American Songbook standards. "Peter, would you do me the honour of writing the story of my mother's life?" he asked. I was blown away. What an opportunity! And right in my wheelhouse. I must say it's a neat project: I'm interviewing people like Sir Tim Rice, Oscar winning lyricist Alan Bergman, Frank Sinatra Jr., Paul Anka, etc., and also Muriel Cohen (Mickey to her friends, of which I'm now one), Ruth's 95 year old sister who has incredible memories. It going to be an amazing book.
Another project I'm
involved with is “A Life Destroyed: The Day Freedom Died,” in
which readers will encounter the unthinkably true tale of destroyed
civil liberties that has shockingly occurred to Robert Ireland. Bob
is a well-respected member of his Sechelt B.C. community, a former
policeman, a social worker. He's married to a lovely wife, Lisa, has
kids and for more than 20 years, has operated an admired, exemplary
foster home (Bob and Lisa are credited with helping more than 60 high
risk youngsters find stability).
But one day, with absolutely no warning, one of the female children they were patiently, lovingly, raising went to the authorities and anted up this accusation: "He's been sexually abusing me, not just now, but for years." There are virtually no words to describe this lie. It is a total fabrication, an assault on Bob's life and all that he stands for. It penetrates his very self-image, good name and reputation. Even the most cursory research quickly revealed that the child condemning him had laid the same charge on four other men, each of whom had been found innocent. Even her brother says, “She’s a nut case. She has detachment issues. She has a pattern of making these claims every time she feels like a she’s losing her connection with a man. She’s sick.” In fact, it is well known the girl has fetal alcohol syndrome amongst her other challenges, causing periods of delusion.
But, amazingly, the various authorities investigating this case ignore the facts. They went on to muck up their tasks, making serious mistakes. The police were called in but all they did was demonstrate a mindset of treating every suspect as guilty. What’s really horrifying is that they ended up taking the lying child’s side. The result: Bob's faith in “the system” is destroyed. His self-esteem and social standing in his small town are cast aside. The children under his roof are escorted away. He's stripped of his authority to run a foster home. His new, tainted police record prevents him from finding work in order to sustain his family. He finds himself having to swallow his pride and mortgage his residence simply to put food on the table. His life is destroyed. His freedom has died.
So far, I've spent four days in Sechelt interviewing Bob, Lisa and various other people as I compile the facts. I'm hoping to complete the book in 2017.
Sorry Norm, I realize I'm going on... I just get enthusiastic about writing books!
Norm: As this interview comes to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has?
Peter: What a great question. I suppose it would be, "Now that you've written Shark Assault: An Amazing Story of Survival, you must hate sharks, right?" And the answer is no (as it is with Nicole as well, by the way). One hundred million sharks are being slaughtered each year for shark fin soup and fish and chips. These animals can't reproduce fast enough to stop this trend, meaning they could become an endangered species, or even extinct. No less than my friend Dr. Peter Sale, an internationally noted ecologist, says, "When the sharks are no longer plentiful in the sea, there go the reefs. And when the reefs disappear, so do the seas. It's a nasty cycle."
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.
Peter: Norm, it's been my pleasure and I thank you again for your interest.