How Dinosaurs Actually Lived: an Interview with Brian Switek

16 April 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Image credit: Mark Stutzman (Click to enlarge)

To the best of my knowledge, everyone likes dinosaurs. But writing about the science behind dinosaur research requires more than a passion for the subject. It requires the attention to detail and ability to place research findings in context necessary for all science writing, while also keeping up with taxonomic name changes, entrenched public misconceptions about the subject and fierce academic feuds over how to interpret new findings.

Few writers are as adept (or as prolific) at covering the science of prehistoric life as Brian Switek. Switek has written for the Wall Street Journal, New Scientist and Smithsonian, among other outlets, and also maintains the Laelaps blog at National Geographic’s science salon, Phenomena. He is also the author of “Written in Stone,” and “My Beloved Brontosaurus,” which was published April 16.

Given the broad scope of paleontological research he covers, I wanted to ask Switek how he determines what to include in his books (and what to leave out) – and how he juggles his passion for doing fieldwork at dinosaur digs with his responsibilities as a blogger, freelance writer and author.

Communication Breakdown: You’ve had a life-long fascination with dinosaurs. What led you to become a writer who writes about dinosaurs, instead of a paleontologist who studies them?

Brian Switek: When asked what I do, I’m never quite sure what to say. I make my living as a science writer. I’ve been a full-time freelancer for two years now. But I also have done fieldwork in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico, volunteer in the fossil preparation lab at the Natural History Museum of Utah, and have written technical papers on paleontology. Some researchers consider me to be an amateur paleontologist, while others do not. What title I really deserve, I don’t know, but I’ve tried to use my writing career to give me the flexibility to chase prehistoric life in the field.

When I started college, I wanted to be a marine biologist. That didn’t work out. I failed out of Rutgers University twice, got an associate’s degree in education, went back to Rutgers and changed majors to ecology, and ended up leaving two classes short of my bachelors’. I still hope that someday I’ll be able to clear away the student loans and go back to school. There are some questions about prehistory that I want to find out for myself. But writing about dinosaurs and other ancient creatures is satisfying consolation.

I started writing about paleontology purely out of enthusiasm, and I have been able to parlay that into a writing career. I never set out to become a science writer. I started blogging about science a little over six years ago, just at the time when the science communication ecosystem was starting to open up opportunities to homegrown experts and writers. I am incredibly fortunate that my love of paleontology was rekindled at just the right time to give me an alternate route to the animals that fascinate me. A little bit of skill and a series of happy accidents led me to where I am now.

CB: You launched your Laelaps blog, which is still going strong, in 2006. Then, in 2008, you also became a contributor to Smithsonian’s Dinosaur Tracking blog. Why did you decide to start writing for two blogs simultaneously?

Brian Switek

Switek: I love dinosaurs, but they’re not all I write about. I like wandering into other areas of paleontology, as well as natural history and ecology.

I was thrilled that Smithsonian wanted to take me on as a dinosaur blogger, but I also wanted a writing laboratory where I could continue to play with ideas. In fact, I was just getting into composing “Written in Stone” at the time Smithsonian contacted me, and I wanted a place where I could freely experiment with other topics as a way to practice writing the manuscript.

At times, I feel Laelaps suffered because Dinosaur Tracking had more stringent demands for updates, but I think juggling two blogs really helped me prepare for my later career. Laelaps was my independent space where I could prattle off ideas as they came to me, and Dinosaur Tracking required that I sniff out good stories and work with an editor to regularly provide posts. Laura Helmuth – my editor at Smithsonian, and now the excellent science editor at Slate – helped me become a more professional writer, while Laelaps was more of a free-for-all that let me try on different tones, approaches, and subjects. Maintaining the two blogs for four years was tough work, but I think the effort was a critical exercise in working up to being a professional science writer.

CB: How did you manage any potential conflicts of interest, in terms of determining which stories to write for Laelaps and which to write for Dinosaur Tracking. I’ve got to think that there were occasional research findings that would have been a great fit for both (or either).

Switek: I actually didn’t worry about the conflict at all. From the start, Smithsonian was very clear that they wanted all my dinosaur material. And since the blog required new musings on dinosauriana five times a week, there was always a hunger for more material. Everything else – from fossil mammals to modern conservation ecology case studies – went to Laelaps. Finding to time to run both blogs was actually more of a challenge than determining where stories should go.

CB: Your freelance writing gigs for mainstream news outlets didn’t pick up until 2009 – and really took off in 2010. Even writers have to eat. How did you support yourself before the freelancing picked up – and still find time to write?

Switek: Looking back, I probably picked one of the most chaotic times in my life to begin writing. I started my blog just after I got married to my wife Tracey, and I had just started an office job for an agricultural regulatory group based at Rutgers University. The job had nothing to do with my interests or passions, but it was far better than working at Target. And I was still taking classes at Rutgers University, as well, so I blogged when I could between work and class.

I kept that office job until I moved to Salt Lake City in the spring of 2011. My wife worked in the same office, and between the two of us we were able to make enough to keep the lights on at home. I’d work and take classes during the day, and then I would write as much as I could during the evenings. I wasn’t making very much money at all to start. Both blogs brought in a little, but I didn’t really start getting regular freelance work until 2010. I kept pushing from there, until I knew I could get enough work to give full-time freelancing a shot. I never expected that I’d be able to make a living as a freelancer, but the time was right to take the risk. Moving to Utah was part of the equation. Not only would I be closer to the fossils I loved, but the cost of living is significantly lower here than in New Jersey. The timing worked out amazingly well, and I count myself as very lucky that I’ve been able to persist as a freelancer.

CB: The blogs gave you a great platform to explore your ideas on extinct forms of life, paleontology and evolution. What made you decide to write a book exploring those issues, 2010’s “Written in Stone”?

Switek: I actually wanted to write a book even before I started blogging. I was tired of seeing books about evolution gloss over paleontology as an unimportant discipline. So I got the unreasonable idea of trying to write one myself despite having never written anything more substantial than a high school newspaper op-ed in my life.

I had no idea how to write a book, and it took at least three years before “Written in Stone” came together in a coherent way. My blogs were my training grounds. They offered me a space to practice any time I wanted to, and also to collect and store ideas that might be useful for the manuscript.

More than that, writing the blogs allowed me to meet wonderful friends and colleagues who gave me the contacts to eventually get an agent and sell my first book to Bellevue Literary Press. Here’s what happened. I had written three chapters and put together a rudimentary proposal. I sent all this over to Ed Yong to see what he thought of it, and half-jokingly said that I’d be grateful if Ed mentioned my book to any agents he knew. Ed said he didn’t know any, but a few days later I got an excited email back saying that he had run into an agent at an event and that he told said agent about my book. That agent was Peter Tallack, and he and I very quickly agreed to work together on what became “Written in Stone.”

I don’t think I would have had the opportunity to write a book so early in my career without the help of Ed and the many other friends and mentors I’ve met through science blogging. (Even now, my best friends are people I’ve met virtually through blogs and in-person at ScienceOnline.) I’d like to think that my story is an example of how science blogging can open up a rich array of options for aspiring writers.

CB: Your new book, “My Beloved Brontosaurus,” touches on your childhood fascination with dinosaurs, how research is constantly changing our understanding of these creatures and why studying dinosaurs improves our understanding of evolution and – ultimately – of life on Earth. That covers a lot of ground. You also focus on specific aspects of dinosaur-related research, such as dinosaur sex and how dinosaurs may have sounded. How did you decide what to include in the book, and what to leave out?

Switek: I knew I couldn’t include everything. I didn’t want to write a dinosaur encyclopedia. There’s already a spate of those. Instead, I tried to pick out specific facets of dinosaur lives that we are just finding out about. Tales of dinosaur social behavior, mating habits, coloration, and senses immediately spark my imagination, and so it was only natural to use those subjects as anchors for the science that is continuing to change our understanding of dinosaurs. When I see a dinosaur skeleton, that’s what I can’t help thinking about – how the dinosaur actually lived.

Even then, there was more than I could ever possibly include. Every chapter could probably be a book on its own. I tried to identify evocative examples that I felt readers would quickly grasp, particularly findings that altered our understanding of familiar dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, and, of course, Apatosaurus. Part of the point of the book was shifting classic baselines of what we think dinosaurs were like, so it made sense to focus on how familiar dinosaurs have changed. I really do wish that I could have spent more time on recently-discovered lineages and genera, but they just didn’t fit as naturally into the narrative. Maybe one of these days I’ll get around to some of the recently-discovered oddities that I only briefly treated in “My Beloved Brontosaurus.”

CB: Once you’d decided what you wanted to include, how did you go about organizing such a wide variety of material so that it would make sense to the reader?

Switek: I didn’t want the book to seem episodic or scattershot. The solution was relating dinosaur evolution and extinction to birth and death. Aside from the introductory chapters, the book starts with the origin of the first dinosaurs in the Triassic, followed by the section on dinosaur sex. I juxtaposed evolutionary birth with the biological process necessary to create baby dinosaurs. At the end, the chapter on dinosaur pathologies runs into the section on the end-Cretaceous mass extinction – individual death feeding into clade death.

Once I had those bookends, the remaining chapters fell into place relatively easily. Although I must admit that some chapters were cut down and subsumed into others so that the book didn’t stretch to a monstrous length. I had planned a chapter on dinosaur physiology, and I compressed that into a section within the chapter on why some dinosaurs grew to be so big. Dinosaur weaponry was supposed to be a separate chapter, too, but there was enough overlap that I decided to make it a part of the social behavior chapter. With so many stories to tell, my editor, Amanda Moon, and I tried to be conscious about how to get the story to build without repeating the same points over and over.

CB: Random question: the cover art for “My Beloved Brontosaurus” is pretty awesome. Who did it, and is that supposed to be you in the painting?

Switek: Artist Mark Stutzman did a fantastic job with the cover art. I heard a few ideas prior to his first sketch, but I was blown away by what he came up with. And Mark was a pleasure to work with because he asked so many questions about dinosaur appearance, social behavior and ecology. He was really committed to getting Apatosaurus right while still having fun with the concept.

And yes, that is me on the cover. A previous version of the cover had me wearing a solid green shirt, but they appropriately altered the final version to plaid. If I’m not wearing a geeky dinosaur t-shirt in the field, I’m usually sporting a plaid short-sleeve button down, so Mark’s artwork certainly captured the details of my personality. [Note: you can see a large version of the cover art by clicking on the image at the top of this post.]

CB: I know you enjoy doing field work with paleontology research teams. How do you make time for that while also writing books, freelance pieces and blogging?

Switek: Going out into the field takes a lot of prep work. I could be gone for two days or two weeks at a time. When I know I’m headed out, I try to rack up posts for the time that I’ll be gone so that the blog will keep running. And in a few places – like Ghost Ranch, New Mexico – I have the luxury of decent cell phone reception and wifi access, so it’s easier to work from abroad. In general, though, I have to put in a few extra-long days to make sure there’s enough blog material and that I don’t have any outstanding assignments. It’s draining, but getting a chance to go into the field is entirely worth it. I’ll take any chance I get to meet dinosaurs where they lie.

CB: How much time do you get to spend in the field these days?

Switek: How much time I spend out in the field depends on where the crew is going and whether or not I’m able to drive out or hitch a ride. Since I freelance, I’m usually not able to spend more than a week out at a time unless my bank account is cushioned just enough to let me stretch fieldwork a little longer. And how long I spend in any one place depends on the crew I’m with and their schedule. Last year, I spent a week picking at jumbled fossils in the Triassic rock of Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. But I also went out to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument for a total of two full days, broken up in the middle by the fact that a volunteer’s dog was bitten by a rattlesnake and I drove the canine and his owner to the nearest vet. (I’m happy to say that the dog is fine.) I wish that I could just take off the entire summer and go wherever the field crews are headed, but I end up just keeping my bags packed and heading out to the badlands whenever I think I have a little breathing room.

CB: Is there another book in your future? And, if so, any idea what it might be about?

Switek: Absolutely! If anything, I think I have too many book ideas stirring on my desktop right now. I’m not entirely sure what’s going to come next. The next book could be about using paleontology to predict the future of wildlife, the evolutionary origins of love and lust among animals, or an anthology of advice letters to animals (such as squid that want to fly). I love paleontology, but I’m trying to ease out of the past and consider other aspects of natural history and ecology. Whatever I do next, I want it to be a challenge.

CB: If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice as a science writer, what would it be?

Switek: Don’t forget to feed yourself. There are always exciting ideas to talk about and stories that need to be told. It’s easy to fall into a self-made trap of deadlines and drafts with no time to breathe – to take a little break and read something just for the enjoyment of it. Taking those time-outs is critical. Not only do they refresh my brain, but they often add references or ideas that just wouldn’t occur to me if I spent all my time scouring the technical literature. Despite the constant demands of Twitter, blogs, and pitching opportunities, it really is essential to slow down and nourish yourself if you’re going to survive the endurance run of freelancing.


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