In 2004, author (and former Chicago staff writer) Robert Kurson made the New York Times best-seller list with Shadow Divers, a true-life tale about two aquanauts who found a rare World War II German U-Boat off the coast of New Jersey. Eleven years later, Kurson revisits the world of harrowing dives and hidden treasure with Pirate Hunters. Featuring one half of the Shadow Divers duo, John Chatterton, and a new face, John Mattera, the book follows the travails of Chatterton and Mattera as they search for the remains of the Golden Fleece, a 17th-century pirate ship helmed by the “most notorious pirate of them all,” Joseph Bannister. Chicago chatted with Kurson recently to get the low-down on his most memorable reporting escapade, what it's like to find 350-year-old artifacts, and why real-life pirates are better than the movie ones.
When John Chatterton called you out of the blue three years ago, were you expecting him to be the basis of another book?
Well I didn’t know right during his first phone call, but when he mentioned pirates I got very excited. John Chatterton is the kind of person who always seems to be up to some kind of incredible adventure.
You spent three years reporting this story, including flying to the Dominican Republic to accompany Chatterton and Mattera on their diving trips. Got any memorable anecdotes?
The most exciting moment for me was when the treasure hunters took me to the top of an island about a hundred feet up. We began searching the island for metal and we discovered cannonballs that were fired by the Royal Navy in their battle against Bannister. I pulled one out of the mud; I was the first one to see or touch it since 1686. That was an unbelievable thrill for me.
Have you always been interested in pirates?
Yeah, I’ve always found them fascinating. And the more I learned about real pirates, the more exciting they seemed to me. They appeared to be even more dramatic than pirates of the movies or TV shows.
In what ways?
They seemed smarter. They seemed like good businessmen in real life and especially the idea that pirate ships were democracies a hundred years before the concept took hold in America. That part really struck me. They voted on everything. They had constitutions; the captain’s vote didn’t count anymore than the lowliest deckhand’s vote. All those things which weren’t played up as much in the movies really thrilled me about real life pirates.
Who’s your intended audience?
Everybody. I can’t think of any demographic who hasn’t showed up yet at a reading or who hasn’t written me telling me that they’re interested in this subject. Pirates seem to transcend demographics and it’s very gratifying for me to see the wide audience for the book.
Was there pressure after the success of Shadow Divers to come up with something that would be equivalent?
Well, I had another book between Shadow Divers and Pirate Hunters, [Crashing Through], but there is pressure when you have a very big book like Shadow Divers to follow up with something big. But you can’t let that pressure determine what you do. You just look for the best stories, and when you find a great one you tell it.