The writer’s week: 131-yr-old magazine killed and a last-minute TV gig

By Caitlin Kelly

Sunday

Into Manhattan to see a fantastic play, The Junket, written by Mike Albo, a fellow freelance journalist who used to write a popular shopping column in The New York Times Styles section — earning him $1,800 a month — until he went to Jamaica on an ill-advised press trip. The Times fired him for a breach of its ethics code, (which is a long, detailed and fairly intrusive document for people not on their staff), and Albo wrote a funny, tart one-man show about it.

I meet an editor from a local paper, who comes out for dinner with us after the show; she mentions, halfway through the meal, she has a story to assign and needs a writer. I mention I’m available and win an assignment in the middle of our meal.

Monday

I have to find sources for a story so I turn to my two usual places: HARO, which stands for Help A Reporter Out, and my large network on LinkedIn.

Tuesday

Chasing down pitches made to a few editors, invoicing for work completed last week, getting ready to two days at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. I’m really looking forward to seeing dear old friends from all across the country and from my own country, Canada.

Freelancing is lonely and isolating, working alone at home all day every day, and while writers talk often by Facebook, Twitter and private listservs, there’s nothing better than a huge hug and a chance to cheer each other face to face.

Jose’s 30-year-old duffel bag, which I took with me to Nicaragua and shredded by dragging it on the ground, comes back freshly repaired by manufacturer Mountainsmith, in Boulder, Colorado. Between us, as two travel-hungry journo’s, Jose and I have a lot of luggage!

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Wednesday

I head into Manhattan to meet Linda Marsa, an award-winning science writer whose latest book” Fevered” is amazing. I have no specific interest in climate change, (other than trying to adapt to it), so I agreed to review and write about her book as a gesture of friendship. But it’s so well-written, deeply-reported and compelling that I couldn’t put it down — and when the NYT finally reviewed it, was thrilled for her.

I just returned a few weeks ago from Nicaragua and she had just returned from Belize, so — even though we’d only met once before, at last year’s conference — we had plenty in common to talk about.

It’s comforting and fun to talk to a woman as passionate and driven as I am, even after decades in this crazy business. I tell her I hope to retire in a decade and she laughs, kindly.

“You love this business,” she says. “I do?”

“You just have to get rid of the bullshit.”

And she’s right.

We go to a trendy West Village Italian restaurant for lunch and order the chicken — JW chicken. Who the hell is JW? The waiter points proudly to a man sitting two tables away; the chicken is named for him. It’s delicious and juicy, but it’s just chicken! We order a side order of potatoes for $9. Nine bucks! They’re delicious and crunchy but it’s a small portion of…potatoes.

New York sometimes feels like a wallet-thinning machine.

Thursday

Day one of the conference and I’m on the 7:22 train from our suburban town. I normally don’t even get out of bed before 8:00! But it’s good to get dressed up and meet my peers.

The very first person I see — of the hundreds who have arrived — is an old friend who is another science writer, Dan Drollette, who’s had a terrific career, winning a Fulbright and then working for four years in Geneva at CERN. I tell him I’m eager for more international assignments and he offers a fantastic lead.

Like every conference, some panels are better than others. Linda’s, on long-form narrative journalism, assembled three extraordinary writers who talk about the many challenges of reporting their books, including fear of personal injury, even death. It’s exciting to sit a few feet away from some of the best in our business and hear them speak.

Huge news — the death of Ladies Home Journal, a 131-year-old women’s magazine, one of the “seven sisters” of American mass-market women’s magazines, costing 32 editorial jobs — people who will now enter a crummy job market for journalists and/or compete for freelance work.

My husband, photo editor for The New York Times business section, runs photos with a fun story about companies whose products have sassy names, like this cereal, made in the same small British Columbia town where my mother lived for years.

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Friday

At the conference, I run into a writer from Montreal I met there in February 2013 who introduces me to a blogger from North Carolina I’ve been following for months, who offers to help me with some questions. The Montreal writer also mentions a potentially useful conference in Toronto in June — it’s $1,300 though, a fairly huge sum for me.

The two days here cost me $358; unlike others, all I have to do is take the commuter train in ($20) and walk two blocks, saving me probably $1,000 in additional airfare, meals and hotel costs.

Saturday

Having a horrible time lining up a final source for another story due two days after that one. I keep finding people and they keep refusing to participate. That’s unusual and stressful. I can’t write without sources!

At 11:15 a.m. — I’m fried from a busy week and ready to chill out — the phone rings.

It’s Al Jazeera America, doing a segment on American gun culture, seeking an expert to speak on television today at 4:00 p.m.  We arrange for car service to come and get me, (normal when TV needs you, and it’s an hour’s drive door to door from my home), and discuss their questions in advance.

I rush to a local hair salon to get my hair looking TV-ready; they will do my make-up. Good thing I have a few clean dresses always ready to go.

I’m given 3:30 to speak — a long time in television — but the host of the show asks me none of the questions I’ve discussed with the producer. I give it my best anyway, buy a bag of sugared peanuts from a street vendor, then slip back into the waiting car.

Time to go home and eat Jose’s fried chicken.

 

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.

linda.heatshot

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.