A few months back, Joe Sharkey‘s 1993, out-of-print book “Above Suspicion” was selling for a penny.
Plus shipping. Still, the listed price was just one, skimpy cent.
“That’ll give you some humility — to see your book selling for a penny,” Sharkey laughs.
Not these days.
The price has spiked to more than $200 for a copy — tack on an extra $3.99 for shipping — now that Hollywood’s turning his true-crime book about an FBI agent who killed his mistress informant into a movie starring British actress Emilia Clarke.
Now Sharkey’s never seen “Game of Thrones.” But, he knows Clarke portrays the Mother of Dragons on the popular HBO series and is in the current tearjerker “Me Before You.” Once he heard the British actress had signed on to play the poor, drug-addicted coal miner’s daughter who becomes an FBI informant and stumbles into a complicated relationship with the agent and his wife, Sharkey did some research. Which comes as no surprise. He is, after all, a reporter.
The 69-year-old University of Arizona journalism professor’s bylines have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. For most of his 19 years as a Times columnist, he wrote a weekly business travel column. These days, he contributes to Business Jet Traveler magazine.
As you’d imagine from a longtime travel columnist, he has his share of horror stories, like that time he was stuck in a middle seat next to a kid who started licking him. But the one that tops them all — Sharkey survived a midair plane crash over the Amazon in 2006. He was one of seven people on a business jet who lived; all 154 aboard the 737 commercial airliner died.
“One story I always hesitate to tell,” he says. “It’s a buzz kill.”
Now, a journalist’s job is to tell other people’s stories. But here’s the thing: Sharkey’s own life is worthy of a book-turned-movie.
“Over 50 years, you have adventures,” he says, modestly.
Like the time in 1978 he spent an entire day covering a shootout in Philadelphia in which a cop was killed, only to come into the newsroom to hear, “The pope just died. You’re going to Rome.” Sharkey had such unrestricted access that he could sidle up right next to Pope Paul VI’s body.
Or that time the former mobster in the witness protection program casually relayed that he shot another mobster but thoughtfully wrapped the corpse in carpet because he knew the dead guy’s wife had just had the floors done.
Or that time Sharkey appeared on Maury Povich’s talk show and annoyed the heck out of the host because he kept calling him “Murray.”
Of course, nothing can compare to that plane crash, which is coming up on its 10th anniversary on Sept. 29. It’s not a milestone Sharkey plans to commemorate.
“It was nothing but travail and misery,” says Sharkey, who was on a freelance assignment at the time.
The American-owned, $25 million executive jet was cruising 37,000 feet above the Amazon rainforest when the seven on board felt a horrific jolt and heard a loud bang. The plane had been hit, by what no one knew. Sharkey peeled back the sun shade and peeked out the window. He saw jagged metal at the end of the wing — and nothing where a 5-foot-tall winglet should have been.
“For 25 minutes, we knew we were going to die,” Sharkey recalls. “I’m an atheist, I’m not praying. Your life goes before you — that takes 10 minutes. I think, “I’m about to catch fire. This is terrible.’”
He decided to use the time he had left to write a note for his wife, Nancy. He said he loved her and that their life together had been golden.
“It was short and sweet,” Sharkey says.
He tucked it into his wallet, hoping it might be found.
As the pilots fired off Mayday signals and scanned their instruments trying to locate an airport, amazingly a runway appeared. Sharkey still shakes his head at the crazy twist — the pilots spotted a military base tucked deep in the jungle.
Sharkey shakes his head. He refuses to think that. “It’s just too weird. Dumb luck.... If it was a miracle, why didn’t those 154 people survive?”
Relief soon spiraled into frustration and anger as the Brazilian government treated the seven survivors like criminals, detaining them for three nights.
“We were treated as perps,” Sharkey says. “It’s really weird to be on the other side.”
Sharkey — whose account of the collision appeared on the front page of The New York Times — freely spoke about the disaster to national and international media. He defended the pilots, who were held for months, and was critical of Brazil’s air traffic control system, which the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board ultimately found at fault.
“The basic cause was Brazilian air traffic control put these planes on a collision course,” Sharkey says. “It was a monumental screw-up.”
Brazilian TV crews ambushed him when he returned home. The widow of a passenger sued Sharkey for defamation and libel — for blog comments that he didn’t make — in a lawsuit that was later dismissed. Sharkey says he was completely blindsided by the anti-American sentiment that erupted in Brazil over the incident.
Definitely a case of truth being stranger than fiction — all of it pretty crazy stuff for a kid who grew up in Philadelphia, the oldest of seven and product of 12 years of Catholic schooling who figured he’d never have any adventures.
The first time Sharkey traveled anywhere, it was courtesy of the U.S. military, when he was drafted into the Navy and shipped off to Vietnam, specifically Saigon, as the Tet Offensive was winding down. Sharkey, who’d studied English at Penn State, wrote for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. Realizing he had a knack for journalism, when he returned home he applied for and landed his first civilian gig as a general assignment reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Though Sharkey happily admits to scouring The Daily Mail online, he describes himself as a “hard-core newspaper guy.” The proof: three different, daily papers neatly stacked on the dining table. More proof: Framed, original tearsheets hanging in his office chronicle the Titanic sinking and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The history buff has copies of The New York Times dating all the way back to the 1860s. His wife Nancy — whom he met while they both worked at the Albany Times Union — is also a journalist, and she’s the reason they ended up Tucson transplants. She came here to do a story on dude ranch, which led them to Tanque Verde Guest Ranch. The desert grabbed them, barrel-cactus hook, line and sinker.
The Sharkeys live out east, snugged up to the raw beauty of Saguaro National Park East. They have three kids and three grandkids along with a rescue racehorse and two parrots, one with a bad paper-ripping habit. Luckily for Rosie the African grey, Sharkey’s home office is a shreddable smorgasbord — coffee-ringed computer printouts sit in one corner of his desk while manila folders neatly labeled with red Sharpie spell out current projects like his summer journalism class. On this morning Rosie — who loves to hang out on a twisted rope suspended from Sharkey’s office ceiling — leaves her perch and goes to town, making piles of confetti from one end of the desk to the other.
“Uh, Joe,” Nancy says, motioning for him to check the damage. He just chuckles.
The folder containing the annotated script for “Above Suspicion” manages to survive her beak unscathed.
Sharkey figures the book, which chronicles the fall from grace of FBI agent Mark Putnam — a real-life Dudley Do-Right is how Sharkey describes him — was optioned about 15 times over the years. He doubted anything would ever materialize.
“There’s so much baloney in Hollywood,” he says.
Then in February, a producer contacted him. By March he was in on lunch meetings with the showbiz set, and in early May, Variety reported Clarke and actor Jack Huston were attached to the film to be directed by Phillip Noyce.
“I still didn’t believe it. I’m a reporter, I’m skeptical,” says Sharkey, whose co-authored novel “Lady Gold” about a woman NYPD detective has been in development for years with Mel Gibson’s production company. Yeah, and there’s another good story — ask Sharkey how he offended Gibson during a conference call back in ’02.
A consultant for the movie, Sharkey cultivated some back-channel sources associated with “Above Suspicion” and says, only half joking, “I told them, when you start production, I need to know there’s film in the camera.”
With behind-the-scenes photos popping up on social media, Sharkey’s now a believer. He plans to head out to Kentucky later this summer to visit the set and do additional reporting for an updated edition of the book to be published.
Sharkey views this whole foray into the world of movie making with extreme amusement.
“It’s an astonishing thing,” he says of the wide world of Hollywood. “I’m used to working alone, just me and a notebook. It’s fascinating.”
He’d like to take a crack at screenwriting himself, perhaps adapting his book “Death Sentence” about the 1971 case of John List, who killed his family. But topping Sharkey’s summer to-do list is starting work on a series — he’s thinking three novels — about a travel writer who hates to travel, which makes the protagonist very much like the author himself.
“I hate to travel,” he says. “I dread going to the airport, not because I’m afraid, but I don’t like the hassle. I like to drive.”
So could a flat-out autobiography, the Joe Sharkey story, be in the works?
“No” is the emphatic answer.
“I’m not interested in myself, I’m really not,” he says. “I find myself of very little interest. I’m just a working stiff.”