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Interview: Carl Zimmer, Stories From the Parasite Hole

In September of 2011, Carl Zimmer, widely regarded as one of the world’s best science writers, appeared on our stage at Union Hall to tell an incredibly moving story about journeying to Sudan to study parasites after the loss of his first love to cancer (see podcast below). For this month’s #IAmScience issue, Story Collider’s Ben Lillie got the chance to ask him a few more questions about this story and what led him to become a science writer. And since Zimmer knows his way around a science narrative, Ben couldn’t resist asking him a little about science and story too.

My first question, and this is really personal to me about your story, is how do you avoid completely grossing yourself out when you talk about parasites?

(Laughter.) That’s a really good question.

I didn’t think that one would be the stumper.

I have to say that I guess I sort of stay away from the truly horrific. I don’t dwell on what it’s like for someone to be in the last stages of dying of malaria or some other disease. The thing is that if you just zero in on the parasite itself and just look at the world from the parasite’s point of view, you just can’t help but be kind of impressed, just because they have their right to live and they do a damn good job of it. I guess in the same way you could ask someone, “How is it that you write about lions or leopards without being grossed out?” Because they’re horrible, and they crush their victims’ skulls and break their necks and rip out their bowels. How could we even look at a picture of a lion? But actually people don’t have very much trouble looking at a picture of a lion, because they’re not thinking quite so much about the really awful gory part. They’re just looking at this big, beautiful animal and just leaving it at that.

That’s interesting. I remember seeing a video of lions taking down an elephant. It was one of the hardest things to watch for me.

It takes a long time and it’s just horrible. Eventually it’s just ripped apart. But again, people can have no problem making them college mascots or what have you.

You’re known as a science writer and known as being particularly good at narrative and writing about science in a way that creates a story out of it. How was writing this kind of story for Story Collider, the personal narrative about yourself, different from what you normally do?

Whenever possible I try to infuse science writing with emotions. And those emotions can be horror in some cases, but in some cases they can be awe.

You pretty much don’t involve yourself at all in writing standard stories about science—even stories like a magazine feature where there’s a certain amount of first-person involved. You refer to yourself—“I did this,” “I met so and so.” But you don’t get into details about where you grew up and who your first girlfriend was and all those things. And so the story I did for Story Collider was much more of a memoir—it’s a very different kind of writing in some ways. I’ve done some other writing just for myself about things that have happened in my life, and instead of digging into the scientific literature or digging into an interview with a scientist, you’re digging into your own memories and kind of interrogating yourself. So there’s definitely a whole separate set of rules involved. That being said, whenever possible I try to infuse science writing with emotions. And those emotions can be horror in some cases, but in some cases they can be awe, say if you’re writing about some beautiful adaptation of a plant. And there are just some delightful stories in science, like how Vladimir Nabokov was not just a novelist, but also a pretty amazing butterfly expert. And so you don’t want to deliver these kinds of stories in a deadpan style. You want to have a certain emotion to them. But you don’t use the same techniques as you do when you’re doing a memoir.

Tell me a little bit about that difference. Is it different structures to the narrative? Are you organizing the arc differently? Or is it just in terms of the phrasing and the particular details you’re looking at?

Well, I think it more has to do with the nature of the stories that you’re telling. I write sometimes about medical stories, stories from a patient’s perspective. But there, you’re focusing on the experiences that someone is having, which can be very heartbreaking in some cases. A few years ago I wrote about people with brain injuries who were in a minimally conscious states. And I would talk to their parents and so on. And I could feel for them. And then, simply writing about their experiences, you can sort of tap in to the same kinds of emotions. But when you’re writing about a frog or Jupiter, there’s a different emotional experience there.

One line in your story for Story Collider struck me. You were talking about going to the Sudan and why you went there, and you said something to the effect of “I didn’t know what I wanted.” And you only later learned while you were there. How common is that in science writing?

The funny thing about writing about science is that there’s no end of things to write about.

The funny thing about writing about science is that there’s no end of things to write about. So if you want, you can choose to write about any manner of different things. Earlier in my career I thought I could constrain those options by saying, “I’m just going to write about biology,” but of course that really didn’t help because that’s like saying half of infinity is something better. There still was no end of things to choose from, and so you choose things for all sorts of different reasons. Maybe there’s something that’s happened that just advances biology in general in an amazing way. But there aren’t really that many stories like that. There  are lots of stories where people are just delving deeper into some fascinating part of the natural world. So the reason that you choose it maybe can be kind of arbitrary sometimes. I once wrote an article about new research on pterosaurs. It wasn’t like there was something that had happened about pterosaurs. It’s just that I was always interested in them and I said, “I wonder what’s going on with pterosaurs. I would really like to write about pterosaurs, because I think they’re very interesting, cool animals.” And so I went up to the American Museum of Natural History and it just so happened there was a paleontologist from Brazil who had all these unbelievable new fossils he was working on there. And so I was able to find the news there.

Carl Zimmer on stage at Union Hall.

The thing was that this whole trip to Sudan got started because I had finished my first book called At the Water’s Edge and I was trying to think of a second one, just trying to think of what would interest me. And I had a few different ideas, and the idea about parasites just really came to the fore. And there were all sorts of reasons that I could give myself about why it was interesting and important and something good to write a book about. But it was definitely kind of a strange thing, and it didn’t go over very well on dates and things like that. But the fact was that there was a certain morbid side to it. And I think I had to really think seriously about how I’d gotten myself into [that situation] when I was in Sudan. So that’s when I started to think, Well, maybe there are also other things going on here.

How did the parasite talk go over on dates?

Like I say, not too well, no. There are one or two times where I remember the woman I’d be having dinner with just sort of nodding and smiling and that would be it. That would be the last date. Fortunately my wife, Grace—I guess we started dating while I was still working on the book—she, for one, was not put off by that. And she still isn’t.

You mentioned in your Story Collider story that your girlfriend’s doctor encouraged you to believe that she could beat her cancer, which is a form of storytelling where we say, “What do we tell ourselves to get through the current moment?” Do you think that was the right choice on his part?

I understand why a doctor who’s faced with a young woman and her young boyfriend will want to give them something to live for, as it were, to keep their spirits up—not to say, “This is not going to end well.” I can see how a doctor wants to do that. But the problem is that only works so far. That’s okay to help for a few months where you’re trying to keep your spirits up and you’re trying to get as much as you can out of life and just hoping that things are going to be working. But there does come a point where the doctor has to change the story. We had a terrible time with our doctor with that. Because essentially the doctor said, “Well, we’ve done everything we can. Sorry.” And that was about it. That was the last we really interacted with him. So he just had no idea how to tell any other story other than, “Oh, it’ll be okay. We’re going to do everything we can. And you just keep eating and keep your weight up and so on and so forth.”

I don’t feel like that doctor was lying to us. Looking back and having talked to other experts on cancer, it was a form of cancer that, when it strikes someone at that age, the odds of survival are incredibly low. I think our doctor should have revised the story that he told us, and he didn’t want to deal with that.

There’s a movement now of narrative medicine, of getting doctors to talk about these things in other ways. And it sounds like you’re saying, at that point we still did—well, we still do—have the hero model of the doctor. It’s either you succeed or you fail and that’s all there is to it.

In a sense, prognosis is kind of a story that goes into the future.

Yeah, absolutely. In a sense, prognosis is kind of a story that goes into the future. “This is a story I’m telling you about what’s going to happen.” And so a lot of doctors like to tell a story where they’re going to bring all of their tools to bear and everything is going to be great. Because that does happen sometimes. It’s harder for a doctor to figure out a story that’s more realistic, that embraces that ambiguity. The one we had was really, I think, more of a research doctor, someone who’s probably more comfortable going over data and such than being at the bedside. He just was not comfortable in that setting in the first place. And so his skills with narrative medicine were even worse. As a writer, I find it interesting how medicine and writing have a lot of parallels to them. That may explain why there are such an amazing number of really great writers who are themselves doctors. I think the doctors who do get that, and who do appreciate the importance of narrative in medicine, can also write some amazing things.

Do you think there’s any problem with framing science and medicine as narratives? Some might say the full picture is very complicated, and narrativizing it always leads to leaving out essential details. Is there a special care that you can take to deal with that?

Yeah. It’s true that if you come up with a nice, pat story that you’re telling a patient you might be leaving out some complexity. But I don’t think it’s realistic to think that doctors could ever give totally detailed explanations to their patients. For one thing, doctors are under a huge time crunch with their patients. And the other thing is, as anybody who’s been to a doctor for something  serious knows, when you’re in that doctor’s office you’re not really thinking very clearly. So if a doctor says, “Let’s sit down and let’s look at this scientific report on this chemotherapy drug. And let’s look at the statistical power here and the distribution of values,” and on and on, you’re not going to be focused anyway. You really can only handle a story at that point. You can’t handle a big data dump. And so I do think it’s really important for doctors to know how to find the right way to talk to their patients. That’s incredibly important.

One more thing that stuck out about your story was this moment when you were writing about water, and how inspired you were about some simple facts about water. This is something that I wonder about a lot—how do we hit those moments with science writing, and how do we get across the power, the majesty? But, if I understood you right, part of the reason the water bit hit you so hard was that you were in the right place to hear that. So, is part of conveying the majesty getting to people when they’re ready to hear it?

My life was just full of chaos and change and decay and decline and and suffering. And yet, there was this aspect of the universe here that was there to be discovered.

Yeah, to some extent that’s the case. The reason that learning about water had such a big effect on me had a lot to do with my life at that moment. So my life at that moment was just full of chaos and change and decay and decline and and suffering. And yet, there was this aspect of the universe here that was there to be discovered, and it would still be there in ten years or twenty years. So it was something that I was surprised I would get some comfort in.

When you’re writing, you’re trying to get yourself inside the head of your reader, to figure out what they know, what they don’t know, how they will respond to things, how you can develop emotions in them through the way you write, how to guide people to come to an understanding about things. But again, every reader’s going to be in a different mood when they come to what you are writing. Someone might be sitting in a doctor’s office and kind of bored. Someone might have just discovered biology and is incredibly excited to learn anything there is to learn. And somebody may have just had a loved one die and they’re just at home taking some time off from work and they just need to read something just to get away from their own thoughts. Who knows? And they’re going to have different experiences. Some people have read my stuff and really hated it. Other people, it’s really spoken to them. And you would like to think they would all have the same response and that it would all be a good response, but that’s just not how the exchange works.

Recently people like Swiss writer Alain de Botton have been talking about learning from how religions create big emotional experiences. If you create a setting where that’s expected, it’s somehow more likely to happen. And I wonder if there are ways to create those spaces for the majesty of the universe.

I don’t know. I think that feeling, that experience of majesty, really just comes mostly from within, and you either feel it or you don’t. In the case with water, I had this reaction of feeling comforted by reading about and talking to people about how the molecules work. But I could easily see how thinking about the water molecules that have been doing what they do for thirteen billion years, and they’re going to keep on doing it until the universe collapses in on itself, could feel incredibly depressing to someone else. You could feel like, Oh, there’s this whole universe out there and it’s all just twisting and flipping around and doing its own thing according to these rules. It doesn’t care about us, it’s just operating automatically and it’ll just keep on being that way whether we’re here or not. That can be very depressing. A lot of it just depends on the moment that a particular person is thinking about these things.

Last question, and I just realized I’ve never actually asked you this: Why science writing as opposed to other kinds of journalism?

It wasn’t any carefully thought-out plan. I was always writing, even when I was a kid. It might be comic strips or little science fiction stories or something. I went to college thinking I was going to be a writer of some kind. I was an English major, and I was interested in science, but not interested enough to get up at seven and make my way to the science buildings and take a science class. I took some, like I took physics and I took calculus and took a couple other science classes, but it was an incredibly wasted opportunity overall.

So then a couple years out of college, I had moved to New York and I had been working for an environmental group. It was a pretty dreary existence. So I got it in my head that I should apply to magazines for entry-level jobs. I applied to a whole bunch, and I had interned at my local newspaper and things like that, so I had some journalistic background. It just so happened that this particular magazine had an opening for a copy editor. And so I took the copyediting test and settled in. And at first it seemed kind of odd. It seemed strange that people were writing about hagfish or black holes or whatever. And so I’d say initially I viewed it as a job, as a good job, and  after a while I just got totally absorbed into it and just kind of fell down the rabbit hole.

The parasite hole.

Yeah.

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