The Story Trumps Everything: an Interview with Deborah Blum

21 May 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Talking to Deborah Blum about writing, teaching and murder. (Image: Matthijs van Heerikhuize, www.vanheerikhuize.nl)

If I had to hatch a murder plot with a science writer, Deborah Blum would be my first choice.

Like Agatha Christie, Blum’s work frequently references poisons, skulduggery and murder most foul. Unlike Christie, Blum’s work is nonfiction.

An award-winning journalist, Blum has written about issues ranging from primate research to the science of sex. But in recent years her focus has been on, broadly speaking, the science of murder. Her 2010 book, “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” chronicles an exciting era in the evolution of forensic medicine – complete with chapter after chapter of real-life murder mysteries solved (in large part) through the efforts of a pair of New York scientists. If you need a book to convince someone that chemistry is exciting, this is it.

She’s also a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin, a blogger for Wired Science and – good news! – hard at work on her next book.

I wanted to know how she approaches her material, how she keeps from going nuts when writing about serial killers and why she left the newspaper business for academia.

Communication Breakdown: You started off as a reporter, and won a Pulitzer for your work covering various aspects of primate research. That work led to a book, “The Monkey Wars.” But many of your later books, such as “Love at Goon Park” and “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” go well beyond traditional science writing and delve into the history of science. What led you to expand into exploring the history of various research disciplines?

Deborah Blum: So I see everything I do as connected (although maybe just in my own mind). “Love at Goon Park” is focused on a scientist who’s actually the subject of a chapter in “The Monkey Wars,” a controversial, provocative, brilliant, chain-smoking, alcoholic, poetry-writing workaholic scientist named Harry Harlow. After I finished the book, my editor at Oxford said to me “this is the most interesting person in your book. Maybe you should write a biography.” And I said no, no, I wanted a break from primates, I wanted to explore other stories. But it simmered at the back of my mind. I came back to it when I was ready and I came back to it when I wanted to try a different way of telling a story. (You’ll see me talk about this regarding “Poisoner’s Handbook” as well).

I think many journalists do this, actually. Keep an idea, let it simmer, come back to it. I heard Sandy Blakeslee, from the New York Times, describe this once as keeping “string files,” a reference to people who lived through the Great Depression and afterwards stockpiled everything, including string. Journalists hold onto things, breathe new life into them.

CB: What was it like to transition from writing news articles to writing books? Did you run in to any challenges that you weren’t expecting?

Deborah Blum

Blum: My first move into books was to turn the series I’d done on primate research into a book, as you mentioned. I got an agent (not that hard after you win a Pulitzer) and she recommended that I come to New York and talk with the editors interested in the project. So I did that and one of them flat out told me that she wouldn’t buy it because newspaper reporters didn’t tend to really know how to write books. They tended instead to write “very long journalism.” And although I was taken aback, that was a very useful thing for me to hear. It made me think a lot about how to build the structure, the style, the rhythm of a book author rather than a very long journalism author. And the voice – books, whether first person or not, require a strong narrative voice which standard newspaper stories don’t need. So I had to work on that too – not just a generic writer's voice, but one that was mine.

CB: You’ve written books on the science of affection and the science of sex. Your 2010 book, “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” is quite a bit darker, examining crime, toxicology and forensic science. What drew you to writing about poison and murder?

Blum: “The Poisoner’s Handbook” is the third narrative science history that I’ve done. And the funny thing is that I’d been lobbying for it for years. There were a couple of reasons for that. I grew up reading my mother’s collection of early 20th century murder mysteries (Christie, Sayers) and I had this sort of writerly idea of telling a story of toxicology, set in that time period, that would unfold with something of the detective feel of a mystery novel. And then I love the science of chemistry and so I also had an idea that I could use my detective approach to subversively weave chemistry into a story. I’d actually pitched it for a number of years. And after my 2006 book on the science of the supernatural, “Ghost Hunters,” was done, my agent told me that she thought I was ready to write the poison book, that I’d gained enough mastery, I guess, as a narrative writer to pull off this very complicated idea of a book. And off I went.

CB: One of the things that struck me about “The Poisoner’s Handbook” was the sheer volume of material you were covering. There are the stories of the forensic scientists, Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, which run throughout the book. There are the stories of individuals whose deaths they investigated. There is the science behind their investigations. There’s even the story of New York City itself. How do you organize all of this information in order to shape it into a compelling narrative?

Blum: Books are always a phenomenal amount of work; I have a friend who keeps threatening to found “Book Authors Anonymous” in which, when a book-length idea occurs to you, a mentor talks you out of it. I think my organization approach is pretty standard. I start planning from the beginning. I use spread sheets and files, cross files under both subject headings and dates, big picture lists and small detail lists, chronologies and people, so when I’m ready I’ll know where to find everything.

The tricky thing is knowing when you are ready. Stories change due to research, your ideas about how to tell a story change. When I was done with research for “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” I took a couple week break, just thinking about how I wanted to tell that story. I mean at one level it’s the story of two civil servant scientists in New York City in the early 20th century. So I knew that it would only be compelling in the way I told it. Once I had worked out the structure – that it would be both a narrative story of these two crusading scientists AND an actual handbook of poisons – then I had to reorganize my resources. Yet again. Just a reminder that no matter how sophisticated the organization, it’s the story and how you tell it that trumps everything.

CB: “The Poisoner’s Handbook” has some macabre episodes, but more recently you published an ebook called “Angel Killer,” about a cannibal serial killer who preyed on children – and the debate about criminal insanity that was sparked by his arrest and trial. Maybe it’s because I’m a dad, but I could barely read about the case – much less devote many hours to studying up on it. You are also a parent, but you were able to really dig into the subject. When the subject matter is gruesome, how do you create enough distance between yourself and your subject to write about it?

Blum: Agreed, “Angel Killer” contains some horrific moments. (Although there’s an arsenic murderer in “Poisoner’s Handbook” who once sent me fleeing the house just so I could get away from the material). Mostly I deal with the grisly parts by staying focused on the point of the story itself. I wrote “Angel Killer” – which is the story of a truly insane murderer – because I was interested in the moral conflict in how we deal with such people. Do we simply seek revenge on the crazy, do we acknowledge the insanity defense as being legitimate, do we – as some scientists argued during the trial in my story – try to preserve such murderers as specimens, so that we can study them and learn to protect ourselves against them? We struggled with those questions in the 1930s and we struggle today. So I maintain a kind of intellectual distance from the darkest moments – try to accept them as evidence for the case or argument that makes the story worth telling.

CB: “Angel Killer” is your first ebook. Did the change in format affect your writing style at all? How was the actual publishing and promotion process different from your previous work, if at all?

Blum: It was a fascinating process. First, the length (about 11,000 words in my case) is a rather wonderful opportunity to tell a story with narrative style but without the incredible investment of time and space required for a full length book (which, let’s say, is roughly ten times that long). But there’s the same expectation – write it beautifully but more compactly – and I put a lot of pressure on myself about that. It helped that I had a great editor, Charlie Homans.

At the same time, I knew from the beginning that I needed to pay attention to the audiovisual elements of the story – photographs, possible news clips, old newspaper images, and I even hunted down all the street addresses linked to my killer to help make an interactive map. So it was more work in that sense – but work that encouraged me to see the story as a very living thing, full of sound and motion. I liked that a lot and when I look at the enhanced version of “Angel Killer” I love listening to the music, watching the 1920s film clip, seeing documents pop up. Oh, and I recorded the audio – it’s a little strange for me to listen to myself.

But I think this is a really great example of the new landscape for writers – being able to tell a story in this kind of multimedia way, thinking about all the new possibilities in storytelling. And I think I was exceptionally lucky to do this for The Atavist, which has been one of the real pioneers of this format.

CB: You started the Elemental blog on Wired Science in 2010, while still continuing to write freelance news pieces and working on your books. Given all of the outlets that you had for your writing, why start a blog?

Blum: Really it was the reverse process of “The Monkey Wars.” There I wrote a newspaper series and realized that there was a much larger story I wanted to tell, that it justified a book. Here I wrote a book and realized there were many smaller stories I wanted to tell – poisons that I still wanted to write about, stories that I’d left out of my book. And I wanted to bring the subject forward – to connect the toxicology of the past with chemical exposures today. That’s really important to me.

CB: You’ve been a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin since 1997. Why did you trade the newsroom for the classroom?

Blum: Oh, lots of reasons and I second-guessed myself all over the place on the move. Probably the biggest thing was that I really wanted to push myself as a writer and I thought that the university would give me room to do that – to move beyond the daily news style. And that was right, but then I spent at least a year mourning the daily deadline. The University of Wisconsin has been phenomenally supportive about giving me time to work on books, summer grants to work on books, and giving me the space to do exactly what I hoped – grow as a writer. So I’m very grateful for that.

CB: How have your experiences as a professor affected your approach to reporting and writing, if at all?

Blum: So having talked about my writing focus, I need to say that I actually really do love teaching. Part of it is that I’m a mother hen by nature – part of it is that I really admire so many of the students here; they dream of doing wonderful things as writers, they care about the written word, they push me to do better. So I don’t see it as a one-way street with me showering students with my wisdom. They make me smarter at what I do and they remind me that it matters. And, lastly, I’ve learned a lot from editing their stories. I’ve thought a lot about why stories work and why they don’t. It’s the never-ending question for a teacher – how do I help my students become smarter in what they do? And as you push yourself to figure that out, you become smarter yourself.

CB: “Angel Killer” came out in 2012 and “The Poisoner’s Handbook” in 2010. Can readers expect any new books or e-books from you in the near future?

Blum: I’ve actually got a contract – my third with Penguin Press – for a book that’s due to the publisher early next year. Slightly poisonous, of course. And I just edited an e-single for Matter on the polonium-210 murder of the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, which allowed me to explore another aspect of long-form story telling. It’s a wonderful format and, yes, I do hope to continue telling digital stories. But over the next year? Head down trying to finish the book?


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