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.

 

Powerless twice this month, I'm one of 500,000 Northeast homes affected by storm

Storm Damage
A typical sight here now...Image by Tobyotter via Flickr

The Westchester hotel parking lot was filled with Mercedes and Lexus, with MD and DDS plates — hotel refugees fleeing their suburban homes after this weekend’s brutal wind and rain. The diner across the street from it was so full we could barely find a spot to eat breakfast. Our newspaper delivery man — God bless his work ethic — had braved six dark flights of stairs to bring us our New York Times and New York Post.

On Friday morning I watched the tree on our terrace, the sixth and highest floor of our 50-year-old suburban New York apartment building, rocking on its base like a metronome in 50 mph winds before we brought it indoors for protection.

We lost electricity at 7pm Saturday evening, just as we were starting dinner. We often eat by candlelight, but this was now a necessity. Reading required so many candles, (we did have a flashlight), we gave up and were asleep by 8:30. Makes you appreciate 18th-century life in a whole new way.

We’re very lucky to have a hotel three blocks from our home and the rate wasn’t terrible, so, for the second time — we lost power recently in a huge snowstorm, and shared a room there that night with my Dad, visiting from Toronto — we checked in there Sunday afternoon. I can handle having no power — but when it goes, our building also loses heat and hot water and the temperatures here are still in the lower 40s.

One night in a hotel, luckily for those who can do it, is an affordable adventure; two or three, plus meals out, quickly adds up.

One occupant of the room next to our practiced cello for seven hours, lovely at first, annoying after endless sawing and scratching. They had several dogs with them. The dining room, normally an elegant quiet space, was filled with screaming infants and restless teenagers. I had hoped to use the indoor hotel pool — but it was closed due to fears of a lightning strike.

The damage to homes, landscape and people is frightening and sobering. Six people have been killed, as my former Daily News colleague Russ Buettner reports in today’s New York Times:

The scenes of devastation in the New York area were so widespread that some compared what they saw to the worst of natural disasters. Nearly everyone had a storm-related tale, mixing inconvenience and a sense of wonder at forces that effortlessly ripped trees from the ground, roots and all. And there were stories of loss and tragedy.

By the time the worst of the weekend’s storm was over, at least six people were killed, countless vehicles and homes were smashed, scores of roadways were left impassable and more than 500,000 homes had lost power — many of them to face darkness for days to come.

On Sunday, the storm’s lingering effects — and the recovery it required — became clearer…

Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Power Authority, called the storm among “the top five or six weather events that have impacted Long Island in the last 40 years.”

One of the many issues that is not receiving coverage — people who are ill, disabled and elderly who do not live in single-family homes. While news  reports and photos inevitably focus on the terrible damage done to private houses — trees crashing through windows and ceilings — millions of us here also live in multi-story apartment buildings. On our top floor, a 96-year-old woman lives alone, but usually has a a day-nurse and has a nearby daughter; we make it a point to check up on one another down the darkened hallways.

I’m under doctor’s orders right now to avoid walking and stairs until I get an injection in my hip — and had to climb down six flights of stairs to leave. The pain was so bad I wept, and I had managed to leave my codeine pills upstairs. Advil helped.

I am home now writing this on my desktop, tea freshly made, fridge humming, lights on.

How long will it be until the next time?