Skip to main content


June 16, 2015

Robert Kurson on How His Dad Inspired His Storytelling

Posted by emily

Robert Kurson is an award-winning journalist and author, whose writing has appeared in Esquire, Rolling Stone and The New York Times Magazine. He is known for his exhilarating nonfiction, and his latest, PIRATE HUNTERS: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship (out today) does not disappoint. Robert may have been a born storyteller, but he credits his dad --- no slouch in that department either --- with fostering that talent…as well as fueling it with stories of his own.

My father, Jack Kurson, owned a small motorcycle paints and lubricants business. He also was its primary traveling salesman, spending months every year driving across America and telling customers about his products. He liked my company (I can still feel that in my earliest life memories) and took me along at every chance. This required missing a lot of school, a fact my teachers didn’t always appreciate. Soon, however, I had experiences different from all my friends. By the time I was eight, I’d been to industrial parks in all 48 of the continental United States, eaten hamburgers with tough guys at motorcycle hangouts, understood the role of viscosity in oil.

And I’d heard stories.

My dad told me stories for hours in his huge Lincoln Continental (he needed a big car not because he was fancy but because he was fat). He was a master at unfolding a narrative, and he understood what made characters tick. He never rushed a story (we had hundreds of miles to cover between appointments), and he knew how to reveal things just a piece at a time, always making me want to know more. For years, as we crisscrossed America, I marveled at the worlds he could imagine and remember. All this would have made for leisurely travel in the passenger seat if my dad hadn’t been a stickler for reciprocity; if he told you a story, you owed him one.

And boy, did he love a story well told! Yet he never critiqued mine, never gave me suggestions for making them better; I could just see in his smile when I’d hooked him, hear in his laugh if I’d brought him along. More than anything, he loved when I (or my characters) noticed something that wasn’t obvious. To my dad, there was all kinds of beauty just below the surface.

I became a lawyer when I was 27, a terrible mistake, and soon quit to try my hand at the one thing that seemed to make me happy --- telling stories. I went to work at the Chicago Sun-Times as a data entry clerk --- a foot in the door --- and hoped someone there would give me a chance. After a time, I got a byline. My dad died a few weeks later. At his burial, I threw a copy of the newspaper into his grave and told him I had a story in there for him to read.

That was 20 years ago. I’ve since written award-winning magazine stories, published two bestselling nonfiction books and optioned my work for film. But the best part of my job is that it requires me to travel. When that happens, I pack up my car and take along one or both of my own young sons. Not all of their teachers like it, but I tell them not to worry --- that the boys and I will be telling stories every step of the way.