Diving writer Eric Douglas comes up for air

Lawrence Pierce
Cross Lanes native, scuba diver and aquatic author Eric Douglas has returned home to stay after nearly 15 years away.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The people you meet often can change the course of your life. It happened to Eric Douglas.He recently sat, sipping iced tea in the Bluegrass Kitchen, and explained how things began to change for him after he sat down at an interview, not unlike this one, 20 years ago with Barry Bishop, a renowned mountain climber and writer/editor for National Geographic magazine.Bishop, the chairman for the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration, spoke at West Virginia Tech in 1991.Back then Douglas was a reporter for the Charleston Newspapers' Metro section. He'd scarcely been out of journalism school more than a year. For an eager young journalist, the chance to talk to someone from a major national magazine was a plum opportunity."Dr. Bishop came to give a talk," Douglas said. "And after I'd got what I needed for the interview, I asked him, 'How do you get to work for National Geographic?'"Bishop's answer was blunt. A writer like Douglas didn't have much of a shot. He told Douglas, "We only hire established writers. So go write a couple of books, go write for some magazines and travel."Bishop didn't promise anything. He just told him where to start.Douglas grinned broadly: "And that's where my life has been headed the last 20 years."He has written books, among them three novels and a children's book, "The Sea Turtles," that's being published this spring as a serial through the Newspapers in Education program.He's written for magazines, most notably Scuba Diving, where he has a regular column called "Lessons for Life." Douglas has also traveled the world, explored the ocean and lived a coastal life that might seem very alien to a kid growing up in the landlocked West Virginia."But I got my first 60 dives at Summersville Lake," Douglas added.Douglas got into diving right out of college."It was just something I'd wanted to do for a while," he said.Douglas grew up in Cross Lanes, graduated from Nitro High School in 1985 then went to Marshall University, where he studied journalism.He joined the Metro staff in 1990. By the summer, he decided to take some diving lessons at Summersville Lake. It was just a hobby.
When he met Bishop, a spark was lit. He started looking for opportunities. In 1993, he got one. After the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union, the vast country was trying to put itself back together. The education system was in shambles. A group of educators from West Virginia were part of a team invited to Russia to help them restore their curriculum."A friend invited me to go along," he said. "So I took out a loan and went."It was my first plane ride."The first trip was two weeks. Fifteen months later, he went back to Russia. Then that August, he returned again and stayed for three months, writing freelance."After that I really needed to get a job," he laughed.
Douglas went back to work. Meanwhile, he developed his writing. In 1998, he decided to take a refresher course on diving. During the course, he met the director of the Professional Association of Dive Instructors. The association published a magazine through their Diving Science and Technology division, and they needed an editor.The job, however, was in California.Douglas had recently gotten married. His wife was from Charleston. He asked her, "So what do you think about moving to California?"He said she told him to go for it.
The two of them moved west where Douglas wrote for the magazine and went on hundreds of dives in the Pacific Ocean."I learned a lot while I was there," he said. "I learned a lot about underwater photography and even topside photography and design."Two years later, Douglas took a job with a company in North Carolina that specialized in the production of diving medicine. Douglas continued to write and also worked on his first novel, "Cayman Cowboys," published in 2004. Other books followed, and Douglas wrote for several ocean-related magazines.Douglas' marriage ended in 2010. His ex-wife and two daughters moved back to West Virginia while he stayed on the coastline of North Carolina, but the biweekly grind of driving back and forth to see his daughters wore him out."And it seemed to me that in this day and age you can do a lot of the kind of thing I do from anywhere," he said.All you need is an Internet connection.Douglas has been back for a little over two months. He's closer to his children and also to his family. Many of them never left."I can't get over how much things have changed," he marveled. "There are a lot of things here that you just didn't see much of 20 years ago."He motioned to the restaurant in which he was sitting."A place like this," he said. "You didn't see that. Everything in Charleston back in the early 1990s was mainly chain places. It was very generic."There's more character here, he believes. The city and the state are more sophisticated and diverse than he remembers, and part of what he wants to do now is show that."I've always been proud to be from West Virginia," he said. "It was very frustrating sometimes. I'd meet people and they'd catch the accent and ask me where I was from."Certain negative stereotypes, Douglas said, persist and too many people from the outside perpetuate them."I don't think West Virginia does a very good job of telling our stories," he said. "So what you end up with is 'The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.'"The documentary film, produced in part by daredevil reality show "Jackass" creators Johnny Knoxville and Jeff Tremaine, followed the exploits of the notorious White family in Boone County.The film is not seen as a positive representation of life in West Virginia.Douglas said while living in North Carolina, he earned a certificate from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University."It kind of relit those journalism fires," he said.Among other things, Douglas would like to maybe teach what he's learned to other people, help them tell their stories."There's more truth to West Virginia than just the Whites."Douglas hasn't given up on his dreams of writing for National Geographic. He's still working toward that, but life has a funny way of taking you in odd directions.After Douglas went to Russia and wrote a few things, he corresponded with Bishop at National Geographic. He sent some of his newspaper and magazine clippings. Bishop was kind enough to critique them and encourage him to keep pushing outward.Bishop died in 1994."He died in a car accident," Douglas said. "He was one of the first Americans to summit Mount Everest. He traveled with Admiral Byrd and died in a car accident near his home."Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.
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