Worried about global warming? Q and A with Linda Marsa, author of “Fevered”

I couldn’t put this book down.

Fevered cover image (1)

Initially, I decided to blog about it because I know Linda professionally and I like her — I try whenever it feels right to support other authors. I know what it takes to get a book commercially published!

But when this book arrived, I started reading it dutifully, prepared to be bored or overwhelmed.

Instead, I found myself touring the world, from the outback of Australia to my birth city of Vancouver, from the condo towers of Miami to Manhattan’s High Line, from Amsterdam to New Orleans. Linda found great interviews everywhere, with people whose eloquent passion for this issue make this potentially grim and tedious topic completely compelling.

This book is really a tour de force and I urge every one of you to read it, today.

She’s done something truly remarkable and damned difficult — taking one of the most complex issues facing the planet today and making it completely relatable, from little kids in L.A. whose asthma is out of control due to dusty, dirty air to victims of “Valley fever”, a disease now spreading through the U.S. Southwest.

You’ll also learn a whole new vocabulary: fierce winds such as derechos and haboobs and diseases like dengue fever and cocolitzli. You may have heard of El Nino — meet the Indian Ocean Dipole, and why it’s hurting Australian farmers and threatening its cities.

Here’s my Q and A with her; her book, “Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health — and How We Can Save Ourselves” is on sale as of today.


Tell us a little bit about you: where you live, how you got into writing/journalism and what sorts of things you typically cover.


I’ve lived in Los Angeles since the 1970s, after growing up and attending college and graduate school in NY and Pennsylvania. I became a journalist after stints as a labor organizer, inner city school teacher and waitress.   Not happy with any of these jobs, I took night school writing classes and found my bliss and began my career at a scrappy local city magazine in LA’s beach cities.  I stumbled into science and medical writing in the mid-1980s, and discovered I had an unexpected knack for science.  I like to rake the muck—and the heavily research driven stories are ones that galvanize me–but writing about scientific discovery is a welcome palate cleanser from digging up dirt.


Where did you get the idea for this book and when?


My “beat” for a long time was the pharmaceutical industry.  But I had gotten pretty burned out writing about bad drugs and Big Pharma malfeasance.  I thought hard about where I could focus my energy in a productive way that would also be intellectually satisfying and I realized that climate change was the most important science of story of our times.  So much had already been written on the topic but when I saw a study in the Lancet in 2009 about how our health will be affected by climate change, that fell directly in my wheelhouse and I thought there might be a book there.  I did a cover story for Discover on the spread of vector borne diseases in a warming planet which won some awards and became the springboard for the book.


Was it a difficult book to sell to an agent or publisher?


I already had an agent, who was on board with the idea.  So after doing the Discover story, I spent much of the summer of 2009 writing the proposal.  After some revisions, the proposal went out right after Thanksgiving and the book was sold in January of 2010.  I think what sold the book was that this was a fresh take on the climate change story.


What were the most challenging aspects of reporting or researching the book?


The most challenging aspect of writing the book was taking an abstract idea—climate change—and breathing life into it in a meaningful way.  I searched long and hard to find compelling stories to illuminate key points and to drive home the point that climate change is affecting our health right here in the U.S. and right now.


Tell us a bit about your research for the book – where you went, who you spoke to, how you found sources.


I did tons of reading to bring myself up to speed on what had already been written, and started talking with the usual suspects—i.e., scientists who are doing research on climate change and public health doctors who are witnessing the effects of a warming planet.  But I realized about halfway through my research that I needed to get beyond the science and talk to real people whose health is already being harmed by a changing climate.


I went to places where we’re starting to feel the effects of hotter temperatures.  In California’s Central Valley, for example, outbreaks of Valley Fever have become endemic because of hotter temperatures and the air has worsened due to the increased heat that’s cooking particulates, creating that smog which contributes to skyrocketing rates of asthma, allergies and respiratory ills.  I spent over a week in New Orleans to see what happens to the public health system in the aftermath of extreme weather events like Hurricane Katrina.  I was in Australia—which is on the front lines of climate change–for nearly a month to see the effects of wild weather in an advanced, industrialized democracy.  Aside from the cities, the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rain Forest, the world’s most ancient rain forest (one of the high points of my career), I drove about 1,500 miles in the bush– on the “wrong” side of the road–visiting rural communities that have been flattened by floods, fires and droughts.  And I visited New York and Vancouver, which are way on their way to becoming sustainable cities, and are pioneering model programs that will smooth the transition to a cleaner, greener future.  


How I found people to interview was where the hard work came in—scouring newspaper stories, talking to people like the PR person at the Rural Doctors Association in Australia—who was a tremendous help; signing up for ex-patriate blogs to find Americans living in Moscow during the heat wave in 2010; querying friends and social networks for personal contacts, (how I found many of the real people anecdotes for the New Orleans chapter).  Journalist pals helped a lot, too, and generously shared sources and contacts.



How long did it take you, from signed contract to delivered manuscript?  Three years.




Was this faster or slower than you anticipated?


Much slower for a number of reasons, mainly family issues that required my attention.


What did you enjoy most about working on the book?


Hitting the road and interviewing real people—although the prep work for research trips often took many weeks.  When I’m talking to regular folks, I’m always reminded of why I became a journalist—to give voice to the voiceless and to bear witness to human suffering.  And the writing itself was a sheer pleasure—taking all the pieces I had gathered, distilling them down to their essence, and assembling them into a seamless and engaging narrative. 


What was the least fun part?


Sorting out the complicated science—sometimes my head hurt.  I had to come up to speed on ocean currents, atmospheric physics, water management, insect life cycles, farming techniques and on and on.  It was challenging and difficult, and because climate change remains controversial here in the U.S., I was careful to make sure everything I wrote was based on solid science.


Who do you see as readers for this book?


Everyone.  Climate change threatens the very underpinnings of our civilization.  The fate of humanity hinges upon the steps we take in the next decade.  This is not a fight any of us can sit out. 


Initially, when I began my research, climate change wasn’t on most people’s radar screens and I despaired that we were heedlessly careening into the abyss. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover that civic leaders across the country take climate change very seriously and many cities were implementing innovative programs.  We can fix this—and preparing for climate change may be a catalyst for creating a better, more livable society–but we must start now.  That’s the message I want to get across.


If you have written other books, how is this one different – in tone, content, approach?


The other book I wrote, Prescription for Profits, was about how the commercialization of academic research threatened public health.  While interesting, I think that book was too “inside baseball” for the general reader.  The timing wasn’t good either as a spate of books on the subject came out soon after. 


Fevered is targeted much more towards a general audience and is about a subject that has an immediate impact on their lives.  And the timing, unfortunately, could not be better.


What advice would you offer a would-be non-fiction author?


Books take a long time to write. Consequently, you’ve got to find a topic that will hold your interest for—literally–years.  Plus, you need to determine if your topic is worthy of a book, or is simply a long magazine article. You also need to immerse yourself on what’s been written on a subject to see if you have something fresh to say and if it will be relevant in three years—which is the normal time lag from idea to publication.  And finally, you need to find an agent who not only believes in your idea but believes in you.


22 thoughts on “Worried about global warming? Q and A with Linda Marsa, author of “Fevered”

  1. nirbhayasindia

    How very interesting this sounds. Isn’t it a pity that such a crucial issue has to play second fiddle to a huge number of silly ones.

  2. Thank you for posting this. A wonderful interview, and I must look out for this book – which seems to ask the obvious question about ‘what practical effect will climate change have on real people and their everyday lives’? Important, particularly for this subject which has otherwise been politicised and emotionalised in ways that draw us away from what should be the real grounds of discussion.

    The insights into length of time for producing non-fiction are spot on. Non-fiction is never quick. My personal record, currently, is over a decade – this February I provided a manuscript to Penguin in fulfilment of a contract I’d signed in 2003. The book itself won’t be published for another couple of years, I fear.

    1. Thanks…I really like how she makes clear what will happen to many of us…not some distant, abstract discussion.

      In this case, the book was delayed for personal reasons. That happens, too.

  3. Steve

    Did you get any notion of who or how many scientists she interviewed that did NOT have the preconceived conclusion that there even is such a thing as global warming? I’ve looked into the subject quite a bit and have found that there are myriads of scientists who DO NOT believe that there really is such a thing, at least the are skeptical. Seems that after the last twenty years or so the data actually suggests just the opposite. I remember as a kid,main stream “science’ was telling us that we were heading for another ice age. I find it curious that the conclusions drawn are so polar opposite from data collected over such a relatively short time period. What I find even more fascinating is what is being touted as the cause and what the solutions are.

    1. Your reply does not surprise me.

      I’m not going to argue the point — I am not a scientist nor climatologist or expert. The people who are very eager to tell us this does not exist are those who are often heavily invested — politically and economically — in voters and consumers and shareholders believing them, thereby protecting their considerable economic interests. There are billions of dollars in play. There are billions of lives in play.

      Every book, like this one, is an argument for or against something. It is not a newspaper article full of “he said” “she said” faux “balance.” That’s the point of a book, an extended argument. You don’t have to buy it or believe it or agree with it.

      I have ZERO interest in the current crop of best-sellers written by people SWEARING they have been to heaven and returned. But they are best-sellers and therefore popular and comforting to many people. I view their “reports” with the same amount of credence as you might give for this book.

      I am merely urging readers to read this well-written book. Draw your own conclusions.

      1. Steve

        Sorry. I wasn’t trying to be confrontational with you. I was merely asking a question. You did the interview and asked the questions. I have not read the book and was trying to determine if BOTH sides of this very controversial subject was covered in her book. I know that there are lots of people making money over this issue, Al Gore quickly comes to mind. It’s hard to ascertain the truth if one presents only evidence that supports a preconceived conclusion. That’s all I was trying to find out.

      2. No, the book is very one-sided in this respect — the point I tried to make.

        A newspaper story, de facto, is expected to offer both sides’ arguments. But magazine articles and books can and do take only one side and argue from there. I agree with Linda’s way of writing the book — which is to take the scientists’ word for it and write accordingly. If she had done a constant back and forth, he said, she said, it would have proven totally unreadable as a work of narrative. To gain a different POV, then, you would have to read another or different book that makes the counter-vailing argument.

        Linda’s book focuses on the fact of climate change (according to her research) and then on its effects on our health as a result. I praised the book not for its science per se (I am not a scientist!), although I found her data persuasive. I also really admire how she tells a really complicated story well.

  4. JB

    Excellent Q&A, Caitlin. It IS a fascinating book. As Linda has explained, most the rest of the world finds it odd that Americans still think there IS a debate on this issue. There isn’t. Every government in the world is planning for climate change — our military, especially. The CDC, the forestry dept, BLM, FEMA, Corps of Engineers, various parks depts, state governments,etc. Every large corporation and every large insurance company in the entire world is planning for climate change for one reason: they know, without a doubt, that it is real — and escalating faster than the models predicted. There are no longer serious scientists on the other side.
    Linda mentioned how she stuck with solid proven science — not conjecture, not “for-profit” fake science — because of that small percentage of Americans who deny climate change. . I understand why she did that — but I also know someone who fervently believes the moon missions were all faked. This man can rattle off a few dozen websites and books that “prove” this to him. Should we “balance” all discussions about NASA missions because of people like him? At some point, I think we have to just figure that about 10% of Americans live in a different world, wish them well and wave to them as we move past.

    1. Thanks for such a long and thoughtful comment…

      What I found most compelling and persuasive was that Linda went all the way to Australia and interviewed a wide range of people there, including farmers and politicians. They all told her that Australia is the canary in the climate change coal mine and they know it. I literally started looking at the world differently after finishing her book. That’s a first for me.

  5. Hello all: I’ve been so busy promoting the book that I hadn’t had time to read all the comments. There is virtually no debate as to whether global warming is “real.” 99% of scientists say it is happening, even former deniers. We need to move on and figure out ways to stem emissions and adapt to a warmer world. Thanks again, Caitlin, for all your support. Delighted you liked the book. The fate of humanity hinges upon what we do in the next couple of decades. None of us can sit out this fight.

  6. Hi Caitlin. After reading this post, I put “Fevered”it on my wish list for Christmas, and voila, Santa delivered. It is an excellent read. In passing, I recommended it to David Nelson over on Smile Calm, when I read his post he wrote about the present draught in California –

    He’s a retired Public Helath worker and he was interest in reading the book too. Thanks for the heads up. Thanks, to both you and Linda Marsa.

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