“There’s a lot of darkness, but there has to be some sort of sliver of light that we keep going. I do think these stories help us feel less alone. I do.” Amanda Fairbanks explains how her career as a journalist shaped her approach to both researching and writing her first book The Lost Boys of Montauk. She also shares what the experience taught her about grief, trauma, and personal histories.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Amanda. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” in person for the first time in a year and six months, to talk about The Lost Boys of Montauk.

Amanda M. Fairbanks: Thank you so much for having me. It is such a pleasure to be here. I’m such a fan of yours. Thank you.

Zibby: I literally devoured this book. As I was just saying to you, I wanted to drive out and go see the memorial. I went all over the internet looking for pictures. This story alone and the way you told the story was just so immersive and captivating. Tell everybody how you found this story, your connection at The Star, how it all evolved, and how this whole book became what it is.

Amanda: I’m a long-time newspaper and magazine writer. I’ve worked at The New York Times. I’ve worked at The Huffington Post. We were living out here. We tried living here for a year sort of as an experiment year-round to see if we could handle it. I had a new baby at the time. I showed up at The Star offices late one summer afternoon. David Rattray hired me as a staff writer. One year turned to three and a half years at The Star. I wrote feature stories and investigative stories and profiles. I had never before worked at a small-town newspaper before. I was used to the anonymity of working for a large news organization and never having to run into sources the next day after a school board meeting while I was getting my coffee, that type of thing. This would’ve been the winter of 2016. A man by the name of Biddle Duke, who’s now a close friend of mine, was newly hired as an editor. They had launched a magazine called East. He was getting ready to come up with what that was going to look like. We were brainstorming different story ideas when he started telling me the great untold story of the so-called “Hamptons.” The Star uses “The Hamptons” in quotes, which is kind of interesting.

Zibby: I saw that. You have a ban on it at the paper, it said. You have to call it the East End or something.

Amanda: South Fork, East End, right, exactly. So Biddle started going on and on about this fishing boat that went down off the coast of Montauk in 1984 and these four young men who lost their lives. During the same conversation, he started talking to me a lot about Mary Steadman, who was the widow of the young captain and who’s now in her early sixties. He’s going on and on and on. It’s clear that this is not just any story that he’s telling me about. There’s a very personal tone to it. He sits up taller. His eyes widen. It was just unlike anything I had heard him speak of prior to that. I said, “Why don’t you want to write it?” He was a summer kid. He had been here all of his life. “This seems like a natural fit for you to do.” He’s like, “You know, this is a very personal story. My wife was very close with one of the men, actually, that lost their lives on the boat. It would just create too much friction. It really needs an outsider to come in and do it justice.” After that conversation, I was very intrigued. He put me in touch with Mary. That summer, things weren’t aligning. I actually moved to California with my family for two years that following fall. Mary and I kept in loose contact.

When I was back the following summer on a vacation, we had met for our first interview. She actually kept cancelling. I thought I would get on the plane and not have the interview. I soon discovered sitting in the East Hampton Library for the first time, this captivating, rich, complex, just fascinating woman. Little did I know at the time, I would spend the next few years of my life trying to understand her many different layers. Honestly, at that point, I still thought of it as a magazine story. I flew back to the West Coast. We continued talking. She has a photographic memory. We would never not speak for two to four-hour chunks at a time. We could spend a whole day on March 27th, 1984, with just this intense, amazing amount of detail. Then as she started passing me along to five sources and five more sources after that, as tens of thousands of interview notes started to accumulate, I realized it wasn’t just a newspaper story or a magazine story, but really, the beginnings of a book. Toward the end of that year is when I wrote a book proposal. Then we sold it that January of 2018.

Zibby: Wow, but you hadn’t written it then?

Amanda: I had not written it, no. For most nonfiction, you have to write a proposal, which is a chapter and an outline. You probably know all this.

Zibby: I do. It’s okay.

Amanda: Most people don’t. If you’re a writer of fiction, obviously, you submit the whole manuscript. If you’re selling nonfiction, you sell a proposal. Actually, I went back pretty recently and read the proposal. That was just based on three months of reporting. Then I went to do a whole nother year and a half’s worth of reporting before I started writing. That was a very minor layer of what the story would become for the book that I sold.

Zibby: That was one piece of the book. There were like 18,000 facts. I was sitting there being like, how did she even organize these or keep them all straight? You talk about, in the book, the interviewing itself. I called this guy. He didn’t answer the first two times. This is where I got this. The volume of information is astounding. Just even to organize it seems like a huge feat.

Amanda: Yes. That is a keen observation. It practically broke my brain because I hadn’t written a book before. Even though I had written tons and tons of magazine profiles and what have you, I basically went and just gathered enough material for three or four books on this topic, to be totally honest. The next book I do, I won’t research and report until the ends of the earth. I hope, dear god, I’ve learned my lesson. It was tricky to organize all of that information because it just went off in so many directions. It wasn’t just these men. It was the history of the area. It was the tilefish they were catching. It was grief and trauma and loss. Journalists, as you know, become mini experts on whatever they’re working on. I had to learn all of those things.

Zibby: Yet you did it.

Amanda: Thank you.

Zibby: It’s true. I literally could not put this book down. I was wandering around holding it. That’s a good sign. Really, it was so good. One of the things I really loved was the impact of the losses, not just emotionally, but even physically that it had on all the people and obviously for generations down the line, but even something like Mary’s hair turning white immediately and how she dyes it blond now or whatever. Who was it whose handwriting changed? His handwriting never went back to normal. All these things where you see it’s not just your mind, it’s literally everything before and after, tell me a little more about these long-term changes in every way.

Amanda: That was what was so fascinating to me. A lot of people will say this is a perfect storm book, but the drama in my book, obviously, the loss of these four men is the major tragedy that occurred. Most of the time we spend in this book on land with the survivors and how it was that this thing that happened all those decades ago changed their lives forever. One of the fathers of the young crew members, his handwriting changed. His secretary noticed it and shared it with his second wife. The young widow who was twenty-nine years old when her husband died at sea with three young kids, her hair turned bright white. All of these ways in which grief and trauma and loss change us fundamentally, in large ways, in small ways, in ways sometimes we can’t even really decipher and know at the time, that became a hugely fascinating piece of this reporting journey.

Zibby: Even how some people just never recovered, like Kim who had just been proposed to, perhaps, we think, right before her fiancé/boyfriend passed away on the boat. She just never got over it. You show what happened to her and how she’s working at a laundromat now and got so into opiates and all this stuff. Some people recover or seem to be able to pick up the threads of a normal life. Then other people, it breaks them forever. Who knows which way you’re going to go?

Amanda: Absolutely. I think that was the piece for me, was that for the residents that live here, it was sort of like their 9/11. They knew where they were standing or where they were working when they first heard the news that this boat had gone down. Back in the early eighties, this was a really small town where everyone knew one another. You’re right. You don’t know after that trauma, which side you’re going to come out on. Actually, for this year and a half, two years that I spent reporting and interviewing — literally, it was just one conversation after another about really intense grief and loss and how each of these people put themselves back together, some more successfully than others. Honestly, I didn’t know how to end the book. I don’t want to have any spoilers.

Zibby: The ending of the book, oh, my god. I was like, .

Amanda: It wasn’t until the captain’s eldest son really let me in on his healing journey and how it was that he has pieced himself and — I’m not saying the work is done and he’s totally okay. No one’s okay after losing your father at sea and not having that type of closure. The human mind needs a body and a period at the end of a sentence. When you don’t have that, it creates this insidious effect that some people dealt with better than others. I have a tremendous amount of empathy for everyone involved in this book.

Zibby: Is her name Jill, the mother who was never convinced that her son was dead?

Amanda: Yes, she died believing —

Zibby: — She could never believe it.

Amanda: Right. She scoured the ends of the earth, flying —

Zibby: — Putting missing posters. Oh, my gosh, heartbreaking.

Amanda: Putting missing posters and believing that the boat had been shipwrecked and they went on. Maybe her son was in South America. She just couldn’t wrap her mind around it. As a mother, that broke me, that feeling of not knowing what happened to your child.

Zibby: Then there was the whole fisherman and Montauk community that rallied behind Mary and rallied to — even the search and rescue that you talk about, and not giving up and raising funds to keep going even when the coast guard gave up, the commitment and loyalty — and the fact that so many of the same community felt like maybe the boat wasn’t really up to snuff. What were they going to do? Mike had already bought the boat. Now what are you supposed to do? That also goes to, how much are you supposed to get involved in your friend’s business? It’s so much. What happens to a community?

Amanda: What I have to say, there was not one fisherman with whom I either met in person or I picked up the phone and called who was not just incredibly gracious and wonderful and knowledgeable and didn’t talk down to me even though initially I had no idea what longlining for tilefish meant, just really incredible people. People who become fisherman are not doing it for the paycheck. They make a decent living, of course, but they’re doing it because it’s their passion. They love it. It came across time and time again that this was a real community of men, largely, that would scour the ends of the earth to find their tribe.

Zibby: You know how some families — my husband’s family, they come from a family of, everybody cooks. Some people own restaurants. Some people do this. Everybody cooks. It’s in their blood.

Amanda: I love that.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, this is why my pants are all a different size. Thank you very much. Yes, it’s amazing as a wife to have as a perk. That’s in their family DNA. In here, some of them had seafaring men as part of their DNA. They come from a line of fisherman. It seemed so part of who they were, is to be on the water either surfing or fishing or whatever. It’s the elemental things, water, food. Yet not everybody falls into one of those categories.

Amanda: In some ways, they all reminded me of the classic American male that’s attached to the natural world, and idealistic and searching for their identity in a real way, in a way that requires brute strength and real intelligence and paying attention to shifts in migratory patterns and all sorts of things that I’ll never understand, to be quite honest. I think that was really very much at the heart of why they all found themselves on that boat. They were all really looking for something.

Zibby: And the relationships with their dads, of course, which you went into.

Amanda: So fascinating. A lot of this book for me, even though it’s, of course, a story of four men who lost lives, but it’s really also a story of these women that they left behind. I still can’t help thinking now that I live in Sag Harbor, which is a former whaling village, for hundreds of years, these men would go off to sea. Obviously, they weren’t text messaging or sending notes home. Some of them just never came home. There would be years between their absences. These women were running households and children. It’s a long line of women that have lost their men, if you think over the past few hundreds of years, that go through this. It was just so interesting to think of the more modern-day version of that.

Zibby: Even all the signs that you wrote about, all of the signs that Mary got and all these people who dreamed about something related to this before the big shipwreck happened, all this premonition. I feel like many times people must have commented to you — I know they did because you wrote that they did — how there was this witchy element to Mary. I feel like she’s one of the central characters in the story, really. What do you think about that? Do you think there was a witchy-ness? Did you get that vibe when you met with her?

Amanda: You know, I do. I think people use witchy sometimes as sort of a putdown. I mean it with deep reverence. There is something truly captivating and sort of otherworldly about her. I think she possess a very unique intelligence. I do think, looking back on the six months prior to her husband’s passing, that the signs were there, even going back to the moment that he saw this boat that he had to have. She immediately knew that that wasn’t the right boat. Yet she couldn’t dissuade him from that. She’s so fascinating. I’ll never stop thinking about her and wondering about her as a woman.

Zibby: When you were saying you had these hour conversations with her, I’m like, oh, I’m jealous.

Amanda: Hours long.

Zibby: Maybe I’m not jealous for all the hours. After reading this, I want to sit down with her and be like, oh, my gosh, what was that like? You got to do that.

Amanda: Sometimes I would literally be in my office with the tape recorder on lying on the floor by the end because it was so long and intense, not that I wasn’t interested. I almost had to lie down as she was recounting this afternoon from almost forty years ago.

Zibby: It would be so neat to release part of that as a limited podcast with her audio footage. I would listen to that in two seconds, just little clips or something. I don’t know. Think about it, something to do with the footage. Wait, one more thing I wanted to know. There seemed like there was something going on with Dave that you kept referencing. I wondered if maybe you figured out at all what it was at the end or if you got any more information or what your theory was. It seems like right before this final voyage he had gone through a more difficult period. What was that about?

Amanda: I’ll never really know. No one that I interviewed knows for sure. As you know, toward the end of the book, a bunch of different personal secrets are revealed. This is the PG version. There were many more secrets that came out in the reporting, if you can believe it, that didn’t fit that are not in the book and that will never leave my computer or my notebook.

Zibby: I also have a podcast called “Moms Don’t Have Time to Have Sex,” so we could migrate this conversation over there if that’s what needs to happen.

Amanda: Absolutely, count me in for that. I do think several of the women in this book were sort of pioneers for their time. That could be a separate podcast. Definitely, count me in to talk about moms and sex. I think that toward the end of his life, Dave Connick was wrestling with a lot of different demons. The fisherman’s life is a hard life and a difficult life. I think he was reconciling this huge disappointment he had over the collapse of his parents’ marriage. Then it was intimated to me that he may have learned of this core secret involving paternity at the core of this story, and that that kind of had shattered his worldview, really involving the two people that he knew that were in love and happy and had the appearances of a wonderful marriage. Although, I’ll never really know all of the answers to that, but that was suggested to me by a number of people.

Zibby: I think that’s also what’s so haunting about it, is all the things we don’t know. It seems like by the end they had a pretty good theory of what happened to the boat and basically where it was and maybe even where it exactly is and what caused — they were so close.

Amanda: Just two weeks ago, this young shipwreck hunter calls me up. He’s in his early thirties or what have you, sweetest guy. I was driving back from the city. We’re talking for a really long time about coordinates. He’s also obsessed with the whole of the Wind Blown. He’s like, “I think it could be here.” Then he sends me all of these images and charts and all these things that I don’t really understand. He’s like, “I want to go out diving with my crew this summer.” I was like, “I have to be on that boat.” I’m not going down to dive. The mystery of this story continues. Obviously, pieces of the boat turned up during the search, but the actual vessel itself I think would provide a tremendous amount of closure.

Zibby: Now I’m seeing this more like Titanic. Someone’s on the boat. The divers go. You’re actually the character.

Amanda: It’s like the Amelia Earhart one as well.

Zibby: I didn’t see that. Did I see that? I didn’t see that one.

Amanda: It’s the same guy that found Titanic that is looking for Amelia Earhart’s body or remains of her plane which they think went down. It’s also just not that far from Montauk Point. It’s not like they went down hundreds of miles away.

Zibby: No, it was twelve miles or something.

Amanda: Right. They were coming right in. It was the most horrific storm. It was really bad, horrible timing, and just the randomness of life. Who knows?

Zibby: As the mom of two kids yourself, reading this story and so much about your reporting, not just this, but that amazing article you just wrote in The New York Times about Stephanie Reece and how her ex-husband had brutally murdered their kids and how you wrote about that, and the water, I just feel all these themes in your work. Where are we going?

Amanda: It’s time to lighten it up, as my husband would say.

Zibby: No, it’s great. I’m not sure I want to go swimming with you. Who knows what’s going to happen?

Amanda: You’re invited to my polar plunge anytime.

Zibby: Thank you. I’ll wear three lifejackets. How do you feel about all of this loss around children and mothers? How does it make you feel about your own role in your family?

Amanda: I just think the mother is the core of the unit. It’s a lot of pressure to keep all these balls in the air and keep it going. It was interesting. When I sold this book, one of the editors with whom we met, my agent and I, we were making small talk. At the time, I had a two and a five-year-old. She’s like, “That’s ridiculous because you’re never going to have time to report and write this book.” She was perfectly nice and being candid about it. She was probably right. Maybe I shouldn’t have undertook such a complicated story. I have always felt drawn to this story from the moment I heard about it. Increasingly, I just want to do work that I feel connected to in a very personal way, that does involve healing eventually. There’s a lot of darkness, but there has to be some sort of sliver of light that we keep going. I do think these stories help us to feel less alone. I do.

Zibby: Do you know where that comes from in your own story?

Amanda: I wouldn’t say that I had the most idyllic childhood. I’ve done a lot of work on myself. I think I’m just comfortable talking with people about this because I’ve now been doing it for so long. For instance, it was such a natural fit in some ways to have done this book and then to have just randomly met Stephanie. Unlike people that aren’t so comfortable talking about grief and loss, I’m totally comfortable now talking about it. She could just tell me her story without feeling like she needed to sugarcoat things or I was becoming uncomfortable or that type of thing. I think we all just want to be listened to.

Zibby: I’m listening if you want to share anything else.

Amanda: I’m not revealing all of my deep, dark skeletons in our first conversation.

Zibby: What if it’s our last?

Amanda: That’ll be on the “Moms Don’t Have Sex” podcast. Then we can get into some really crazy stuff, “Moms Who Don’t Have Sex,” or “Moms Who Do Have Sex.”

Zibby: I guess we’ll find out then, oh, my gosh. So what now? You just finished this massive project. You’re perhaps writing the screenplay. We’ll see. Who knows?

Amanda: Perhaps. We’ll see. I would like to try my hand at that, but we’ll see. I recently had another family story shared with me that has nothing to do with the sea, you’ll be happy to know. There’s literally no water involved in the entire story.

Zibby: Okay, good to know.

Amanda: I am endlessly fascinated by families and histories and how complicated all of our lives are, how there are so many layers that are not revealed or that we can’t talk about or we don’t talk about or we’re shamed into not talking about. Those sorts of stories really intrigue me.

Zibby: I can’t wait to see what you set your tenterhooks into next time to really dissect, even without the — I feel like I should be using more fishing analogies or something. What advice do you have to aspiring authors aside, perhaps, from not choosing such a complicated topic? Although, I would disagree with that because then you get a really layered book and everything.

Amanda: What advice would I offer? I would advise becoming very, very comfortable with the feeling of rejection. I was listening to one of your podcasts earlier today. I think all of us as writers, you sort of see the aftereffects. They’ve written here. They have this byline there. They’ve published a book. Behind that is a whole host of agents, when I sent them my proposal, who didn’t get back to me or who said this could never be a book. You have to just keep going until you find your people that believe in you and stand behind you wholeheartedly and help you on that journey. This book also went through several different drafts, as Jackie Cantor will attest, painstaking drafts of how to structure it and which order this information comes. It was a puzzle. It could still have been put together in a different sequence. That was the really tricky part of it.

Zibby: Your Mary section was at the end.

Amanda: I know. Maybe I’ll rewrite it for the paperback. No, just kidding. Totally kidding. I will never look at this manuscript ever again.

Zibby: Never say never. I won’t hold you to that. Awesome. Thank you. I could talk about this book so much longer. It’s really just so fascinating and so sad. Knowing even as we’re sitting here that all this history has seeped into the land, if you will, and all around us, it’s a good way to give you pause on a Saturday afternoon. Now these men are in my consciousness forever and part of the landscape.

Amanda: I think about them every time I go in the water whether it’s in the winter or the summer.

Zibby: March 28th, right, that’s the day?

Amanda: March 29th. Interestingly, for all of the survivors, just March, the whole month, is a thing that still shows up in these weird ways. I think all of us have dates like that where there’s been a traumatic event. It lives with us. When you’re doing your grocery shopping or running an errand, we don’t show those things on the outside. It’s good to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Thank you so much for having me. Such a pleasure.

Zibby: Thank you. Thanks for coming.


THE LOST BOYS OF MONTAUK by Amanda M. Fairbanks

Purchase your copy on Amazon or Bookshop!

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts