24 Jan Episode 195: #FromPeopletoSciAmerican with Lydia Denworth
How do you become a science writer? What if you didn’t even think you liked science as a kid? What if, instead of “serious journalism”, you spent the first half of your career covering celebrities and royals, even becoming the London Bureau Chief for People magazine?
Then you’re in perfect shape, at least if you’re our guest, Lydia Denworth. She tells us how she made that transition, going from People through Redbook to Scientific American using the dual powers of curiosity and ignorance (and more relevantly, the willingness to admit it). We also discuss getting grants for non-fiction research, pitching scientific topics and the literary aspect of science writing—and Friendship, which just happens to be both the topic and the title of Denworth’s latest book.
Episode links and a transcript follow—but first, did you love last week’s #WritersTopFive: Top 5 Ways to Win at Newsletter Subject Lines? Because I did (and I’m winning.) This Monday: Top 5 Things to Do When Your WIP Feels Like It’s In Flames. Support the podcast you love AND get weekly #WriterTopFives with actionable advice you can use for just $7 a month.
As always, this episode (and every episode) will appear for all subscribers in your usual podcast listening places, totally free as the #AmWriting Podcast has always been. This shownotes email is free, too, so please—forward it to a friend, and if you haven’t already, join our email list and be on top of it with the shownotes and a transcript every time there’s a new episode.
LINKS FROM THE PODCAST
#AmReading (Watching, Listening)
Jess: Open Season (Joe Gunther Mysteries #1), Archer Mayor
Lydia: The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission that Changed Our Understanding of Madness, Susannah Cahalan
The Ruin, Dervla McTiernan
Bonus Book Rec for Lydia: The Mountains Wild, Sarah Stewart Taylor (because “those Irish really know how to do dark”).
Our guest for this episode is Lydia Denworth.
This episode was sponsored by Author Accelerator, the book coaching program that helps you get your work DONE. Visit https://www.authoraccelerator.com/amwritingfor details, special offers and Jennie Nash’s Inside-Outline template.
Follow KJ on Instagram for her #BooksThatWon’tBumYouOut series: short reviews of books that won’t make you hate yourself and all humanity.
If you enjoyed this episode, we suggest you check out Marginally, a podcast about writing, work and friendship.
Transcript (We use an AI service for transcription, and while we do clean it up a bit, some errors are the price of admission here. We hope it’s still helpful.)
KJ: 00:01 Hey there listeners, it’s KJ. Our guest today is a science writer extraordinare, and we’ll be talking everything from grants to the literary and storytelling aspects of that form of nonfiction—but before we do, here’s something else for the nonfiction authors out there: If that’s the your kind of work, our sponsor, Author Accelerator, can help—and you don’t have to go all in with full-on book coaching if you’re not ready. Check out their new four-week long nonfiction framework program that will help you nail down your structure before you start to write (or after you’re writing and realizing—dang, this thing needs a backbone!). Authors of self-help, how-to and academic texts will find the shape of their books, create a working one-page summary that reveals that shape at a glance and develop a flexible table of contents to guide you through the drafting and revision process. You can find a lot more (including previews of much of the material) by going to https://www.authoraccelerator.com/nonfictionframework. Is it recording?
Jess: 01:11 Now it’s recording.
KJ: 01:13 Yay!
Jess: 01:13 Go ahead.
KJ: 01:14 This is the part where I stare blankly at the microphone like I don’t remember what I was supposed to be doing.
Jess: 01:14 Alright, let’s start over.
KJ: 01:14 Awkward pause, I’m going to rustle some papers.
Jess: 01:14 Okay.
KJ: 01:14 Now one, two, three. Hey, I’m KJ Dell’Antonia and this is #AmWriting. #AmWriting is the podcast about writing all the things. Writing fiction, nonfiction, short fiction, long nonfiction, short nonfiction, I could probably go on like that forever. We are the podcast about writing pitches, proposals, essays, and essentially, as I say, every week, this is the podcast about sitting down and getting your writing work done.
Jess: 02:00 I’m Jess Lahey. I am the author of the Gift of Failure, How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. And a forthcoming book about preventing substance abuse in kids. So I’m not so much writing this week as I’m deep, deep in the edits. You can find my work at the Atlantic, the New York Times, Washington Post, and at jessicalahey.com.
KJ: 02:22 I am KJ Dell’Antonia. I am the author of the forthcoming novel, The Chicken Sisters as well as How To Be a Happier Parent, which is out in hardback now. And will be coming in paperback soon to a bookstore near you and you can find me on Instagram at kjda and everywhere else at kjdellantonia and kjdellantonia.com.
Jess: 02:48 We have a guest today. We have a very patient guest. We’ve had to reschedule this guest an embarrassing number of times and I’m so excited that she’s finally with us. And this is really timely because we’ve had some questions about exactly what this writer does in the #AmWriting Facebook group. So I would love to introduce to you Ms. Lydia Denworth. She is a science writer. She is a contributing editor to Scientific American, she writes the Brainwaves blog for Psychology Today, she’s written three books, one called Toxic Truth on lead. A book that I really, really love called I Can Hear You Whisper. I keep it in the literacy section of my bookcase, actually, along with some other fun books, like Language at the Speed of Sight and her new book that will be coming out at the end of January on January 29th called Friendship. So this is a really appropriate and wonderful and exciting book to talk about on this podcast. Since of course I get to podcast with my best friends. So Lydia, welcome so much to the podcast.
Lydia: 03:59 I am so happy to be here. Thank you.
Jess: 04:02 Well and again, thank you so much for your patience. We’ve had a couple of recording dates fall through and so I’m just so glad you stuck with us through our timing snafus.
Lydia: 04:12 Not a problem at all.
Jess: 04:15 Well, we have burning questions. Not only ours, but some of our listeners, but we always love to start with the question of how you got started, how you got started writing and how you landed in the genre that you landed in.
Lydia: 04:30 And that in my case is a pretty interesting story because it is absolutely the case that science was the last thing I would have predicted that I would do. I was the person who took the bare minimum of science classes all through high school and college. And I was intimidated by it, I didn’t think I was all that interested in it. I always wanted to be a writer and I wanted to be a nonfiction writer. So I was that kid who read the New Yorker and John McPhee and things like that when I was in high school and said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ But science did not come into it and I have had a relatively long career. And the first half of it was all general interest journalism, kind of. I worked for People magazine, if you can believe.
Jess: 05:37 Do you feel the need to go back and comment on the important social issues of our day?
Lydia: 05:41 I so do not, but at one point, I was a London Bureau Chief at the time that Princess Diana died for People magazine. So I have this whole past as a celebrity journalist and I worked for Newsweek for a bunch of years. And it was only when I was writing my first book, so about 15 years ago, after let’s say a good 15 years in journalism, I that I really sort of became a science writer. And at that point I was doing – the way I describe it as I was freelancing and I was doing those social issue features that you would find in women’s magazines, like Redbook and Good Housekeeping. So maybe it was sex harassment or lead poisoning. But I came to the issue of lead from a children’s health perspective more than anything. I wrote a lot about education, Jess, you’ll appreciate that. And you know, I did things like that and it was in writing that first book that I suddenly found that this, it’s basically a dual biography of two of the men who were way out ahead of people understanding that lead was as harmful as it was. And then they got into this massive fight with industry over it and you know, their scientific careers were almost ruined, but they fought on, they are heroes, and they got lead taken out of all kinds of things. We know now with Flint that the story’s not done. I first got into this because I was interested in a guy named Herb Needleman who was a psychiatrist and was looking at lead in kids’ bodies, but the other guy was a geochemist at Cal Tech. And he was the one that understood that lead was all around the environment. And I started having to read his journal articles and oh my God, they were impenetrable to me.
Jess: 07:42 It’s such an education, not only just being able to get through the language, but getting at the statistics. I mean, that’s a big part of understanding whether you’ve been looking at something worth reading or citing.
Lydia: 07:55 Absolutely. And so, the long story short was that in working on that book, though, I found that I actually was better at all of that than I thought. And I happen to think, that to some extent, my lack of background in science has worked in my favor. I am not afraid to admit complete ignorance. I do it on a regular basis with really brilliant people. And so I just keep asking questions and I think that everybody has to do that as a reporter. But you’re especially humbled when you’re digging into something that you don’t know anything about.
Jess: 08:42 Well, and your second book, you started writing about hearing because of your own personal experience. And that happens to be the area of nonfiction that I love – when it’s sort of your own personal investment and personal experience that then turns into scientific exploration. So it’s not just about intellectual curiosity, it’s about emotional curiosity as well. And that’s what really comes through in I Can Hear You Whisper because it is also partly your story.
Lydia: 09:10 Absolutely. So I had done this one book of popular science in the lead book, but then the question is always, you know, what are you going to do next? And here was my kid, my youngest son, Alex is is now 16, but he was just little then and and he is deaf and he uses a cochlear implant. And so I kind of felt like I had this story sitting there. But then the thing that I came to realize is that because he had this cochlear implant relatively early in the world of cochlear implants that I was essentially living a cutting edge science story. And in addition to the technology piece of it, I realized it was really a story about the brain because sound getting into the brain and what comes from that oral language and literacy. And I’m thrilled that the book is in your literacy section, by the way. That’s just perfect. But you know, there was so much that I didn’t know about deafness, and hearing, and sound, and reading and how it’s all related until I had a kid. I mean, the first deaf kid I ever knew was my own son (in any meaningful way). So you’re just starting over, and it was several years before I said, ‘Oh wait, I think I really need to write about this.’.
Jess: 10:37 So your most recent book, the book that we’re just really excited to talk about, this book Friendship. This came at a really, really good time for me. In the sense of one of the statistics that you quote is that the strengths of your friendships at around 50 predicts your health at 80. And I’m just about to turn 50 and I feel like I’m at a phase in my life where I have really strong friendships and so I am feeling good about my health at 80.
KJ: 11:09 Me too. I really loved that line.
Jess: 11:09 I really liked that.
KJ: 11:11 I think we’re all at a moment when (and it may be sort of a cohort moment) but when everybody’s looking around and just going, you know, what really matters to me is my people. Like my people, people. I mean some of those are digital people and that’s cause some of those are real friendships, right? But lots of them are real people, or you know, real people that are like really right in front of you, and I just feel like this sort of decade or two of segwaying away from being able to touch the people you love when you’re with them has sort of really changed our perspective in a great way and I think your book really informs that.
Lydia: 11:54 Yeah, I hope so. I mean, I do feel, and I’m hearing from people, that yes, my timing might be good here because everybody’s thinking about this. People have seen the headlines that loneliness is a killer, which it is – as deadly as smoking. That’s always been the story. But the flip side of what does friendship actually give us and how is it protective and how does it make us resilient? And the fact that there is a biology and an evolutionary story to friendship is the piece that most people do not know. And you know, this is a book of science. It’s the science of friendship. But it is so personal and relevant to people’s lives and what I hope they do is come away understanding why friendship and relationships are as important as diet and exercise for your health. And I’m not trying to add to people’s burden for what they have to do. I think instead, I’m hoping to give them permission to go hang out with your friends. Your body will thank you.
KJ: 13:01 Well, I have questions about how you pitched the book because it has that dual identity, but let’s not start there, right, Jess?
Jess: 13:13 I know KJ and I have some very specific questions about the way the book Friendship came about in terms of not just the pitch, but also the funding aspect. And I wasn’t sure if that’s where you wanted to start, KJ, but I’m dying to know about your funding.
KJ: 13:31 Which came first, Lydia?
Jess: 13:31 Lydia has funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and every nonfiction writer wants to know, Oh my gosh, how can I get money to do this project? Because research is expensive. In fact yesterday I was just thinking about this because someone texted me yesterday saying, ‘If I don’t get a book contract soon, I’m not going to be able to write this book because I’m out of money to put into the resources.’ This is actually an AmWriting listener, so hopefully she’s listening to this episode. And I texted back, ‘I just dumped almost 200 bucks on a textbook that I must have in order to just make sure I’m really where I need to be with the research.’ So how on earth did you get the funding and which came first – the contract for the book or the funding for the book?
Lydia: 14:20 The contract for the book came first. So I had a contract with Norton and I had an advance, but I will say it wasn’t a stellar advance. My advances – so I’ve had three and they are all over the place and the middle one was by far the biggest. And so I was a little disappointed not to get more this time, but it also meant I had to get my butt in gear and get more money if I was going to do this. So fortunately the Sloan Foundation does do these grants for science writers, in particular. They are also (since a lot of this audience is female) people might be happy to know that they are looking to support female science writers and they are looking to support projects that are about women. In my case, this book is not specifically about women, but there happened to be quite a lot of female scientists featured in the book. They’re kick ass, they’re wonderful and they are all through the book. And so the combination of my being a female science writer and what I was writing about, they happily gave me a grant. The only thing I wish is that I had applied a little earlier. Since you all like to get into the nitty gritty of things, you have to make up a budget and there is a lag time from when you apply to when (should you be so fortunate as to get any money) when you start getting money. And so my budget, I originally had it for an entire calendar year that I was going to be writing the book. But I discovered that it couldn’t start until, let’s say I originally said January to December and then in fact, and I had like a monthly salary for myself in there, and then it turned out that they said, ‘Well, our fiscal year is June, so you can’t start till June 1st. So I basically had to lop off five months’ worth of that money I was asking for, so had I known and gotten the application in even just a few months earlier, I probably could have made it from January to December and gotten myself more money. So let this be a reminder to not let this stuff linger.
Jess: 16:43 Well can you apply for funding before you have a book contract or did they require you to have the book contract before you apply?
Lydia: 16:49 You know, I can’t remember exactly. I do believe that you can do it either way, but they did want a copy of my contract. So if you don’t have a contract, I think there are some other requirements. I’m forgetting. it’s been a little while since I did all that. And I will say, the reason I was aware of this in the first place was because I had met one of the people from the Sloan Foundation at at a party, at the World Science Festival here in New York several years earlier. And at that point my previous book I Can Hear You Whisper would have been perfect because they also are very interested in technology and the science of technology and things like that. But I didn’t know about their grant program in time. Now in that book, I happen to have gotten a healthy advance, so that was okay. So the time around, I said, ‘All right, I’m gonna write to him.’ They added some money in order for me to be able to hire a science advisor who actually was one of the people who’s featured in the book, but I paid him. It’s Robert Seyfarth, it says so in the book so I can say, he’s one of the leading primatologists in this work. And he would have read some of the book ahead of time anyway, but he read it all multiple times and was so in my corner and so helpful. And also so demanding and critical. I could see what it would be like to be their graduate students. So anyway, but it was so helpful and I wouldn’t have done that if it hadn’t been for the Sloan Foundation request. But it was really helpful.
Jess: 18:49 Maybe we’ll include the link for applying for these kinds of grants in the show notes so the people can know exactly what we’re talking about.
KJ: 18:55 I think the Kaiser Foundation does something similar, too. I know they do it for journalism.
Lydia: 19:04 I’ll have a look and see. At one point I did find a link that had kind of a list of grants and fellowships that give you some money. I’ll see if I can find it for you. But at the Sloan Foundation it is through the public interest piece cause it doesn’t sort of jump out and say books right away. So just FYI to people. It does have to be pretty sciency for Sloan. but there are, as KJ just said, there are these other things like Kaiser that maybe if it’s more health related and other things. You know, there’s more out there than I think people realize.
Jess: 19:41 Absolutely. There’s USC Annenberg School does it for health writing as well. There’s just a bunch of great places to go. So, you have the money, you have the book contract, and so you get started on the research. The question I get most often from the nonfiction writers is (and the reason I talk about it so much) is about organization of research. And I have a multipart question having to do with this. But how do you organize your research?
Lydia: 20:11 Not as well as you, Jess. I look at what you do and I when you show pictures of your shelves, I think, Oh boy. That’s something to aspire to. So one thing that I do is that I am still the kind of person who prints out everything. I just find it very, very hard. First of all, I would like to make sure I have the hard copy. And when I’m reading through complicated scientific work, I find it a lot easier to do it with a pencil in my hand and kind of marking it up. And I don’t know, it helps me. Maybe I’m showing my age, I’m just over 50. I’m 53 now as of three weeks ago. I do plenty online, so I have piles of files. For this book. I filed everything according mostly to the individuals that were at the forefront of whatever piece of science it was I was writing about, or by subject, if that made sense. Like social media. I have a couple of files about the science of social media that were by subject. I think that the trick about research, cause I can go so deep, and there’s always more to research. And so figuring out when to stop…
Jess: 21:44 That actually leads to my next question. Someone specifically asked, how do you know when it’s time to stop and when it’s time to start the writing? Because the research can go on forever, as you stated.
Lydia: 22:01 Yes. So for me it has been very important. There comes a point where I decide to start writing, in part to figure out whether I’m done with my research or not. Because there are holes sometimes that pop up when you start to actually write it and you think you might think you’ve got everything. So this book, people will see, mixes animal research and human research because there’s been a lot of both in this subject and the animal research is actually where the big strides and understanding biology and evolution have taken place, in terms of social behavior. But I will say that I went to a whole bunch of conferences about monkeys and apes. And finally I was at one and I said, you know, Lydia, you’ve done enough, you know enough about monkeys, you have permission to stop on this front. And so that was just one piece of it. But I knew I was going like sort of too far down. But then writing helps me to discover. I mean by that point you may not have heaps of time to really go far on some new tangent. But for instance, the social media chapter, there was new work happening right up until the last second. And so I was changing that chapter quite a bit between having turned in my book and turning back in the first past proofs. Because there was new science and I had been to new conferences and been talking to new people.
Jess: 23:37 I actually just hit pause on editing a chapter because of that textbook I mentioned. And then three or four new studies and one meta study that just came out. And in order to make sure that what I’m writing about today and fingers crossed you know, when the book comes out is as up to date as possible. But it’s really hard to say, well now I’m done. For me there tends to be this moment. I continue to do online classes, and webinars, and things like that. And there tends to be this moment where I’m listening to the webinar and I’m like, I know all this and that’s when I know, okay, if I know this it’s probably time for me to put a lid on researching this topic.
Lydia: 24:22 I think that is exactly right. And I have definitely had that experience, too. But I will also say that there are some pieces of it where, especially with science, where if you’re feeling that your grasp is maybe not as strong as you’d like it to be, but sometimes you do just have to wade in. I mean, I do anyway. And see where it goes and see how… My problem in my writing often, is that I have a tendency to get into the weeds and then I have to cut all that out, but I’ve got to write it. I’ve got to write it. This is not relevant to the organization and research, but I do feel that an important thing about writing about science and even if you don’t really write about science, if you adopt a little bit of a science writer’s approach, you’re really forced to think about whether your audience is with you. And whether you’ve given them enough handholding, and enough signposting so that they can follow along with the story, and what’s important, and why, and what’s not. And so then when I go back over what I’ve written, I’m usually trying to figure out, tracking along with someone who doesn’t know it as well as I do and see, do they really need to know this?
Jess: 25:50 I was going to say, that’s the question I constantly have. Which is when I was going through and I realized, oh my gosh, I have a chapter that’s like 20,000 words. Does my reader really need to know how many casks of beer there were on that first ship that sails?
KJ: 26:07 That’s our new standard for too much research is if you know the details of what was in the hold of the first ship that your topic involved. Yeah, that’s it. We’ve got a black line there, people. This is good.
Jess: 26:40 The problem with me is I love those details. And in some places it paints an incredible picture, like your ability to say here’s how many bananas might be useful, but for the most part it’s really important to say, does my reader, does my listener need to know this thing in order to understand the broad concept? And that’s usually my last pass edit when I’m cutting is, oh wait a second, these next four paragraphs are so irrelevant to anything.
Lydia: 27:15 Just for the record, I want to state that part of why I had that detail and part of my point in the story was that these monkeys were a source of fascination for everybody at the time and so much so that they were featured in the New York Times at the time that they were traveling and then in Life magazine. And so I was sort of making the point that the New York Times was so interested that they counted the amount of pounds of bananas. But you’re still right. They still didn’t need to know that.
Jess: 27:47 The line I often say is from On Writing where Tabitha King criticizes Stephen King for writing too much about these intervening years in this one character’s life. And he’s like, ‘Yeah, but it’s really important.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, but you don’t have to bore me with it.’.
Lydia: 28:02 Exactly. You maybe need to know it, but your reader might not need to know it.
Jess: 28:14 KJ, did you want to jump in? I’ve been hogging the mic.
KJ: 28:20 No, it’s been great. I’m riding along and taking notes.
Jess: 28:25 Excellent. Obviously for me, this book came along at a really great time for me because I love talking about adolescents, and relationships, and friendships. But what I was most interested in with your book right now is thinking about virtual friendships and in-person friendships. And you talk a little bit about how much time you need to spend in what you call sort of togetherness makes for a friend. And there’s a quote in the book about the fact that it takes 50 hours of togetherness to make a friend and 200 hours to make a best friend. So what if we spend 50 hours, you know, chatting about stuff, maybe tweeting at each other, are we allowed to still be friends or do we have to have 50 hours of in-person time?
Lydia: 29:14 We can still be friends. But I will say that what’s interesting about social media is that most people, their online life and their offline life sort of mirror each other. People talk all the time about how the word friend is devalued currency by Facebook and things like that. But the truth is, most people know who their real friends are, who their closest friends are. And we sort of all have concentric circles of people really close, and then a little further out, and a little further out. And I would argue that if you only have a relationship online, it’s more likely to be in the outer reaches of your social circles, which is fine. That’s an important place to be. Those relationships have all kinds of benefits. But most of us, our closest friends, we use social media as kind of an extra channel to deepen the relationship but not exclusively.
Jess: 30:21 I like thinking about it that way. And you also mention that quality is important over quantity, anyway. So the quality of those relationships and you also give me a license to sort of let go of some of those fraught relationships that may not be in my best interest because you talk about the fact that ambivalent or the sort of frenemy relationships are not necessarily good for our health in the same way that all positive relationships are.
Lydia: 30:50 They turn out to be actually bad for your health, which surprised the researchers. They thought maybe the good outweighs the bad. But no, biologically speaking, if when they look at your blood pressure and the aging in your cells and your immune system, they see that relationship… So, just to define our terms since we are talking about science writing. So an ambivalent relationship is one that makes you feel both good and bad. Like a frenemy, like you said. And also it’s important to say that the people who’ve done this research had a pretty broad way of measuring that. If you weren’t a hundred percent terrific all the time about this relationship or it wasn’t 100% positive, then it was ambivalent. And the truth is that’s like half our relationships though, have some negative to them.
KJ: 31:43 I was going to say, that’s pretty broad.
Lydia: 31:46 It is pretty broad and they’re still sort of perfecting. You know, this research is relatively new, but it’s kind of pointing to an interesting and important idea though. Which is that yes, we don’t actually have to maintain every relationship. Like some of your older friends where you have shared history but who now are actually quite draining. Maybe you don’t have to stay friends with those people. I’m giving you permission there, too. But for the relationships where you can’t or don’t want to end the relationship or sort of really minimize the relationship, then you should be working on the quality of it. Because that is really the critical thing. The research is so clear that the quality of relationships matters most and matters more than whether it’s a relative or not. So that’s another thing I think I would just like to point out about friendship is that the science kind of blurs the lines that we’ve always clung to about the importance of family over friends and things like that. Friends tended to be dropped down to the bottom, but we actually use the word friend. Like if you say your spouse is your best friend, you’re trying to convey something about the quality of your relationship. Right? And not everybody would say that about their spouse. Some do, some don’t. And in fact there’s a hilarious study that found that in Jacksonville, Florida, something like 60% of the people said that their spouse was their best friend. And in Mexico city it was like 0%, which I don’t think tells us about…
KJ: 33:29 It has more to do with how we define it, more than anything else.
Lydia: 33:32 Exactly. Exactly. But you know, the point is let’s at least think about this.
KJ: 33:40 I like that they both start with F. It’s one category for me. You know, important time with friends or family, that’s one thing. That’s the F section. So I wanted to come back to this question of here you were as a writer with this idea that encompassed a really deep scientific piece, but also what I think we could call a service piece. You know, the idea of friendship and how it helps us. Exactly what we’re getting into talking about right now. How did you structure the pitch for this book to include both of those things?
Lydia: 34:24 So I think of myself more as a literary science writer, for lack of a better phrase. And that is a thing compared to really self-helpy science. So I wouldn’t exactly say that this book, (and I didn’t pitch it as self-help), and yet, if you read this book, you will absolutely come away knowing that you should invest in your friendships and here’s a bunch of ways to do it.
KJ: 34:59 I wondered if there was pressure to push it in that other direction.
Lydia: 35:02 So some, and this is a constant tight rope that I feel I walk as a science writer is because yes, most of what’s out there and that has a really big audience is the stuff that is so super accessible that it doesn’t include a lot of the details that I find really interesting and important. I will say this. To specifically answer your question, what I did was pitch this book as the kind of friendship book that has not yet been written because it would have serious science in it. And that is what is new, and interesting, and important to know. And it sort of informs everything that’s in those self-help articles. And so I was positioning myself in my pitch and it helped that my previous two books were similar. You know, so I have a certain style of writing. And if you are (like I am) a contributing editor at Scientific American, people do expect you to be on the serious side of science, but still completely accessible. I mean that is the thing – no matter who you are, you have to write it as if anybody will understand it. I try hard, you know.
KJ: 36:25 Your scientific audience is not necessarily experts in everything.
Lydia: 36:29 No. And in fact, one of the things that’s really interesting is this book covers so much ground and so much territory that some of the experts in it, when they read it then said, ‘Oh, but I, I love how you wrote about my piece, but I didn’t know anything about this other thing.’ And I found that I was bringing them together, somewhat. Because I was talking to everyone across the board, you know, not in the little silos that people tend to work in. But, I just want to say though, that there’s a real tension. So, you know, my agent would say, ‘You really need to come up with a way to pitch this that will appeal to everybody.’ But then for instance, the Sloan Foundation, their question was how sciency will this be? Because we are only really interested in it if it is in fact a science book. But you can write a science book that has all kinds of story in it. I mean, science is story. You know, it’s figuring out how we know things, and there’s a lot of plot twists, and intriguing problems, and it’s the evolution of thought in some ways. So I ended up deciding that I have to be me. You know, you do you, right? Don’t you guys say that? And that I was pitching it as not self-help, but yet in the overview of the proposal, it really did say that this book will put friendship at the center of our lives. It will show us these important things we need to know. And one of the things I say a lot is that is that we think we know all about friendship because it’s familiar. But in fact there’s a huge amount we don’t know. And also we do not in fact prioritize it always quite to the extent that we think we do. And so those kind of larger statements that are in the proposal and that I talk about when I do publicity are very much about sort of trying to pull people in and tell them why this is relevant to their lives.
Jess: 38:36 I think one of the reasons that I loved – I mean I love this book – but I really loved I Can Hear You Whisper because there was this really personal element and that I love reading science books that are also part memoir and that’s also a really difficult line to walk. In fact, the book I’m editing now turned out to be so much more memoir than I ever expected it to be. In fact, I was really scared of it becoming a memoir and yet all of a sudden now I’m at the other end after a couple of years and it is very much a memoir. So much so that we’ve amped up that side of it. But I think that’s what makes the science personal. And I think that’s what helps people say, ‘Oh, Oh, so that’s why it matters. That’s why these numbers matter. That’s why these statistics matter because they’re about personal stories.’ And I think you do a beautiful job of walking that line, which can be really hard to see sometimes.
Lydia: 39:27 It can. And thank you, I appreciate that. I will just point out (as a sort of craft example) that the introduction to this book starts on this island in Puerto Rico where people are studying monkeys and that’s a pretty surprising place to start a book on friendship you might think. And yet, I think it’s interesting because it’s surprising, and it makes for a really great scene, and it also sort of signals that this is a new way of thinking about friendship. So I wrote all that with some other stuff about the big picture stuff in that intro. But I ended that chapter with me coming back from Puerto Rico and finding my then 17 year old son on the couch with his best friend where they were playing video games and it felt like they had never left from when I went to Puerto Rico to when I came back. It was as if they had never left. So there’s a scene there in which I am doing the typical parent thing of don’t you guys have anything better to do? And don’t you ever get up off this couch and all that stuff. And then I suddenly realized, and this did really happen, I said, ‘Oh wait, hang on a minute, Lydia. They look a lot like those monkeys you were just watching in that they are hanging out together, and they are laughing, and they’re joking, and they’re literally sitting in proximity on the couch, and maybe you are only seeing the video game as a parent and you are not seeing the visceral connection that is going on between these kids. And so I put that scene at the end of that first chapter or the introduction specifically to get at exactly what you’re asking about. To show why and how this stuff is useful in thinking about our own lives and our own relationships and friendships.
Jess: 41:20 And that’s great storytelling. I just, I love that. I am smiling from ear to ear. I mean, to me that’s when you have those moments when you’re writing. I talk about this all the time about that buzz, when you really feel like, oh my gosh, it’s happening. The writing is coming together. And in those moments where you say, ‘That’s the story.’ That’s when my heart just flutters. I just get so excited.
Lydia: 41:46 Exactly. I tried to do that all through this book. I didn’t really want to just sort of throw in a whole lot of random people that you only meet briefly. So I decided that the memoir part, I do have sort of myself, and my family, and my good friends kind of sprinkled through the book because that seemed like the most organic way to get at what’s true about relationships. And I fully recognize that we are a little subsection, that doesn’t make it a diverse thing. But that’s not the point. The point is just to sort of provide those kinds of moments of recognition and resonance for readers.
Jess: 42:31 That’s what it’s all about. Speaking of which, cause we are getting to the end of our time. I hate making these jarring transitions cause I could talk about this book for ages because I love it so much and I love science writing so much, but we are running out of time and so I would love to talk about what you have been reading and what KJ and I have been reading. Do you have anything you’d like to shout out book wise?
Lydia: 42:53 I would love to. On the sciency front, I have been reading Susannah Cahalan’s new book, The Great Pretender. Have you read it?
Jess: 43:04 I’m really excited because I loved Brain on Fire.
Lydia: 43:06 Yes. And this is such an interesting book because it really is about the history of psychiatry and mental health. But it’s this totally great story about a study that was done years ago that kind of where they sent sane people into insane asylums essentially, and tried to reveal. You know, it was like the investigative journalism of science about what does it take to get out of an insane asylum?
Jess: 43:38 But that’s why I haven’t started reading it yet. Because frankly, I know about this experiment. In fact, we were looking at the book and my husband pointed to it and he said, ‘Oh, I know that experiment.’ And he was explaining it to me and I said, ‘That is terrifying to me.’ Like being a sane person in an insane asylum and then having to like prove that you’re not insane, yet that makes you look insane. That whole concept freaks me out.
Lydia: 44:05 And then there’s a real plot twist though in this whole book. But it turns out that that study is not everything that we thought it was. And so there’s an extra. So anyway, there’s that book and I also just want to say in addition to science and all the other things, I’m a rabid fan of mysteries and thrillers. And so I read like one a week and this week it was called The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan. Have you heard of her? She’s Irish, living in Australia. And that’s why I was so thrilled because it’s really great. Those Irish, man, they know how to do crime and thrillers. And The Ruin came out in 2018, it was her first one. There’s already another one and it’s really good stuff.
Jess: 44:49 Oh, I’m going to be listening to that one I can already tell. Speaking of which, actually, I had never let myself get sunk into. And I mentioned it one time before on the podcast, but I abandoned it. I’m finally going back to the very first Joe Gunther novel by Archer Mayer. And it started his whole path about writing mysteries in Vermont. This one is called Open Season and there’s a little introduction in the audio book explaining that he was trying to write this whole book with intrigue and all these spies and people all over the place and it was set in some far flung locale. And then he realized that it really needed a sense of place and Vermont became that place and the story became much simpler and it became a much more intimate story. And it became about Vermont and the people of Vermont and the things that happened there. And so I’m now in. The book Open Season. I’m like halfway through and I’m really, really enjoying it and loving, sort of getting that sense of place in Vermont. It’s really cool. KJ, what do you have?
KJ: 45:57 I just finished Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. And it took me two tries at this one. I have many thoughts. I have so many thoughts, it’s practically a podcast episode. So if you read the back of it, she’s a little dry and she doesn’t know how to interact with other people. And this was catnip to me. I really like that sort of thing. And you know, she’s going to learn how to like it’s, it’s so, it feels like that. And then you read the comments at the bottom and it’s like, you know, move over. So I felt sort of betrayed by the marketing and the first time I was just like, yeah, I’m sorry, I’m not ready for, you know, dealing with this person’s emotional journey away from their history of child abuse, which is actually really good. And then I picked it back up again a couple of months later when I did feel more mentally prepared for that, I guess. And I mean, I don’t know if it’s triggering or not because this is not my history. But it’s a fun read in a very weird sort of way, but the marketing is more than a little bizarre.
Jess: 48:22 So Lydia, your your release is coming up and this podcast is going to go up right around your book release. What kind of festivities do you have planned for your book release?
Lydia: 48:31 My local bookstore, Community Bookstore in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Oh, they’re so wonderful. And they have been with me from day one with my first book and I will be there with the writer Steven Johnson doing a Brooklyn launch. And then I will be doing a Manhattan launch with the writer Randy Hutter Epstein, who is also a friend. They’re all friends. I called on all my friends to do my events. And Community is great. I just have to say, when my last book came out, they actually put a chalkboard out on the sidewalk that said, Lydia Denworth’s new book is here. And I was never felt so special. I’m famous in a 10 block square radius. I mean literally 10 blocks square, that’s it. But in that 10 blocks, I was worthy of a chalkboard. I was a rock star. And that made me feel special and like a real writer. And so I will love them forever.
Jess: 49:23 There’s nothing better than having been a bookstore that has your back and is really pulling for you. And I say that as a person who’s where my local bookstore put my book up on a stand by itself with many, many copies for almost a year after its release. And that bookstore does not exist anymore. And I am so sad. KJ, did you have something?
KJ: 49:47 Oh, I was going to say before we close out, I’m going to confess to where I was while you were while you were describing your latest read, which was, I was looking for a book that I think Lydia will love because the minute she said those Irish, they really know how to do the dark. I went, Oh, Sarah Stewart Taylor’s new book, The Mountains Wild, for which she learned to speak Irish and went to Ireland and did all kinds of things. So I’ve already emailed you the link, sounds like it will be right up your alley. I’ll pop it in the show notes, too.
Jess: 50:19 Her mysteries are wonderful. She has a whole series that’s already been out and she talks about doing a lot of research in order to write her mystery. She goes deep, she goes seriously deep.
Lydia: 50:29 Well, and there’s a lot of science in mysteries and thrillers, too. So, you know, it’s everywhere. It’s everywhere.
Jess: 50:35 Alright, well this has been just delightful. Can you tell our listeners where they can find you, Lydia?
Lydia: 50:42 The easiest place is my website, which is lydiadenworth.com. I’m pretty much the same everywhere. So I do (and I know you’ve talked about this) I have an author page and a personal page, and I don’t really follow people on my personal page. So the author page is Science Writer Lydia.
Jess: 51:04 Alright, everyone, until next week, keep your butts in the chair and your head in the game. This episode of #AmWriting with Jess and KJ was produced by Andrew Parilla. Our music, aptly titled unemployed Monday was written and performed by Max Cohen. Andrew and Max were paid for their services because everyone, even creatives should be paid.