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.

 

'It's worse than AIDS': Interview with 'Superbug' author Maryn McKenna

Rob looks like a doctor...
Make sure he's washed his hands!Image by juhansonin via Flickr

It’s extremely rare that I start a book, certainly non-fiction, never about science, and can’t put it down because it reads like a thriller. Maryn’s book, “Superbug”, published today, is an astonishing read — I gulped it down in one sitting.

It’s not an easy read but it’s essential: terrifying, sad, powerful, persuasive.

She’ll be interviewed today by Terry Gross on her NPR program, “Fresh Air”, every writer’s dream. I spoke to Maryn, a friend and colleague and fellow member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, about it:

Tell us a little about yourself. Why journalism? Why science and/or medical journalism?

I was born in Brooklyn, NY; raised in England where my father was working on an engineering project; high school in Texas, college in Washington, DC. At Georgetown I took an English honors degree in 16th-c theatre and 20th-c poetry, which meant I was very well educated and completely unfit for the job market.

I looked around for a graduate program that would be quick but give me a credential to make me marketable, and went to Northwestern to study journalism. After I got my degree I started the painstaking climb up the ladder of newspaper circulation. My first job was in finance journalism, but after the market crash of 1987 I was a bit burned out, and my paper offered me an open job covering science and medicine and the environment, and it was a good fit.

A bit of career history: where you worked and why you chose those places.

I had internships at the American Banker and as Washington correspondent for the Oak Ridger of Oak Ridge (TN), home of the Manhattan Project. Full-time jobs at the Rockford (IL) Register-Star (3 years), Cincinnati Enquirer (2 years), Boston Herald (5 years) and Atlanta Journal-Constitution (10 years). For the first half of my newspaper years, I was mostly an investigative reporter focusing on public health, and for the second half, I was the only U.S. reporter assigned to full-time coverage of the CDC (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

I left my last newspaper job in mid-2006 when it became clear opportunities were contracting — I kept hearing, “We don’t see you doing any projects for us” — and went freelance.

When and where did this idea for a book come to you?

About a month before I left my last job, I had the incredible good fortune to meet Sara Austin, news and health features director of Self magazine, at a conference. My first story for her, published in Feb 2007, was the genesis for “Superbug”. I’ve since done two other major features for her and am lined up to do several more. I’ve also written for Health, More, Heart-Healthy Living, and am a regular contributor to the Annals of Emergency Medicine. My first stories as a freelancer were for Susan Percy at Georgia Trend, for which I will always be grateful.

That first story for Self was on the unappreciated threat that community-strain MRSA posed to women and children — because, even in 2007, people were still talking about MRSA in the context of prisoners and athletes, groups that were mostly male. The story was published; it was picked up by the TODAY show and by Montel, which suggested it had broad demographic appeal; and my in-box exploded with notes from dozens of women and some men wanting to tell me how MRSA had changed their lives. It was clear there was a larger story there.

Where and how did you find your agent?

I’ve heard other authors describe how difficult it can be to find an agent, and every time it makes me realize how fortunate I’ve been. In the summer of 1998, I was taking a year off from my newspaper job to do a year-long fellowship at the University of Michigan, in the Knight-Wallace program (which is amazing and refreshing; I can’t recommend it enough).

A colleague, Gary Pomerantz, had been to the same program shortly before, and had come out with a book. I wanted to do a book too, and he introduced me to his agent, David Black of the David Black Literary Agency, who pointed me toward Susan Raihofer there. The book I had in mind didn’t come together, and so for the first three years of our acquaintance I didn’t have anything for her to agent.

But during the 2001 anthrax-letter attacks, I embedded with a CDC investigative team working on Capitol Hill, and that gave me the idea for my first book, BEATING BACK THE DEVIL, a narrative and history of the CDC’s “disease detectives,” the Epidemic Intelligence Service. We sold that in 2002 and it came out in 2004.

Describe selling the book.

It went very quickly. I did a 20-page proposal in about a week, and then reworked it with Susan’s guidance over a very long weekend. She sent it out to a selected group. There were some expressions of interest and then couple of bids, but the high bidder was Free Press, [an imprint of Simon and Schuster] who had published my first book. From start to sale, it was very quick, probably less than a month.

How long did it take you, start to finish?

It depends on when you start counting! Three years from the time the contract was signed; 3.5 from when I started work on that Self story, a tiny portion of which appears in the book. But I first got interested in MRSA during research for my first book in 2003, when I shadowed CDC disease detectives in Los Angeles through an investigation of MRSA infections monitoring gay men who visited sex clubs.

So it may have been gestating for twice as long as I thought.

You name so many people in your acknowledgments — tell us about building so wide a set of sources and why that mattered to you — and to other ambitious writers tackling complicated topics.

The horror of doing a book like this is that, to make the problem real to an average reader, you have to find victims who are like average readers themselves. The benefit of doing a project like this now is that, thanks to social media, you can tap networks much more reliably and reach further than I think you ever could before. I was offered a lot of contacts thanks to that Self story, and to one I did for Health magazine a year later — but still, I worked my networks relentlessly. For every victim in the book, I probably have 10 others whose stories were moving, but not exactly what I wanted.

Overall, between victims and scientists, I did about 200 interviews.

Tell us about the Dart and Kaiser fellowships and how they helped you.

I’m a big believer in fellowships, which I think are the best way — maybe the only way, in the current environment — for journalists to study up on any particular topic. I got a Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation fellowship for “bridge funding” when I left newspapers; the idea was to spend a year of overnight shifts in ERs to see what the overcrowding was like. I thought I would do a book on ERs but saw so much MRSA that it fueled “Superbug” instead.

Then in 2009, I went after a fellowship with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, at Columbia, because I had collected so many stories of awful things happening to people as a result of MRSA that I realized I needed some help in processing them. I wanted to find a way to tell them that preserved the victim’s dignity and autonomy and wasn’t just disease-porn.

The Dart fellowships are a week-long immersion in both learning about the effects of trauma, and being helped through whatever processing you need to do for any traumatic events you have witnessed as a journalist. After 20 years as Scary Disease Girl, I had seen a lot of trauma, and the fellowship helped me get some distance on those events.

What did you enjoy most about writing the book?

I think people whose work has been newspaper or long-form magazine stories, but who haven’t written a book, tend to think, “Ooooh, a book, that will give me all the space I ever wanted to tell a story.” Well, no. You are still, always, making decisions about what to leave out. This book is about 85,000 words, but it could have been twice as long, and deciding what to cut was very painful — because I’m extremely detail-oriented and like to describe the smallest granular aspects of events. At the same time, I loved having that length in which to tell a braided, complex narrative.

The thing that was most challenging, though, was how time-consuming it was. I worked, without exaggeration, 12 hours most days, 6 days most weeks, for 3 years. I felt that this was a story that needed to be out soon, and that I couldn’t take the time to explore it over 5 years or more — someone else would beat me to some part of it. And to tell it with credibility, I needed to be immersed in the subject. But I made a lot of personal sacrifices to do it.

Are you now scared of doctors or hospitals? How — seriously — do you think most of us will ever challenge a doctor (if we are scared of MRSA) when we are scared or in pain or facing surgery? How scared should we be?

It is not my intention to make people paranoid, really. I don’t want to frighten people away from hospitals. But I do hold hospitals responsible for not doing better, and because they do not, I do think we have to defend ourselves.

What that means is doing due diligence before going into the hospital — if you are in a state where there is a mandatory-reporting law for hospital infections or MRSA, look up the institution’s metrics. And when you are in the hospital, try to find the courage to ask health care workers if they have washed their hands. It’s an easy thing to recommend, a very difficult thing to do, because it challenges the power differential in the relationship between health care worker and patient. But I think it’s necessary.

Next book? current projects?

One of my favorite parts of the book is tracing the detective story of the “third epidemic” of MRSA in food animals, It got me thinking about how complex and multi-national our food system is now. So I think my next project will turn in that direction, probably toward the difficulty of making food safe.