How did you become a writer?
Oh, I was always one of those kids who was writing short stories (mostly mysteries based on my early Nancy Drew addiction). And then in high school, I wrote reams of poetry, which I still won't let anyone see. But it wasn't until I was a sophomore in college that I got serious about writing as a career and decided to major in journalism. I think I finally realized that while my other interests had ebbed and flowed, this was just a constant. I got my first paid internship when I was 19 so I've been a working writer for almost 40 years.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Aside from Nancy Drew? Most of my first writer influences were novelists: I've been a Jane Austen fan for years -- she's just such an elegant -- and funny -- writer. When I was in high school I went through a Russian novelist stage, in college an existentialist stage. I loved the pure emotional power of those works. After I'd been working as a writer for a while, I started reading more for craft - how did this writer achieve such a strong voice, a seductive rhythm, a sense of place? So I was enormously influenced by the very stylish journalists of the mid-20th century: Joan Didion and Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese. And then when I became a science writer, it was really the gorgeous natural history writers -- John McPhee, Lewis Thomas -- who made me see that you could combine all of the above -- poetry and emotion, style and power into science writing if -- and this remains my big if -- IF you are good enough.
I should mention my middle school English teacher, Lois Player, who was the first person to tell me that I had writing talent -- and who actually came to a Poisoner's Handbook reading a couple years ago! My high school chemistry teacher, Joseph Clark, who could persuade anyone that this was the world's most fascinating science. And my grad school advisor, Clay Schoenfeld, who taught me to love history of science so influenced in fundamental ways the stories I like to tell. I've been lucky in all of them -- as we are with good teachers.
When and where do you write?
Mostly in my home office. When I've been there too long, when it starts to just close in, I pick up my laptop and go to a coffee shop or even a bar. I wrote some of the best parts of Poisoner's Handbook in a nearby bar called Otto's, and they gave me champagne when the book came out!
What are you working on now?
A book about the history of poisonous food -- more evidence of my current fascination with toxic substances and tales from our past.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Often. Hence my visits to Otto's Bar! Sometimes I just take a break -- walk off my frustration. At my first newspaper job, I used to just walk the perimeter of the building. My editor said he always knew I was really stuck when I saw my head go past his window more than once.
What’s your advice to new writers?
To take advantage of the opportunities available in the digital era to start building a writer's profile early. Write a blog. Write often, read often, read your work out loud so that you can hear the rhythm. And be nice -- it's an underrated quality. Don't let your ego get in the way of being better at what you do.
Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer prize-winning science journalist, author and blogger, is the Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Author of five books and a popular guide to science writing, her most recent publication, The Poisoner’s Handbook, was a 2011 New York Times paperback best seller; the hardback was named by Amazon as one of the Top 100 books of 2010. Previous books include Ghost Hunters: William James and the Scientific Search for Life after Death (2006); Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection, a 2002 finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Sex on the Brain (1997), and The Monkey Wars (1994). She is also co-editor of a Field Guide for Science Writers, published in a second edition in 2006.
Blum writes a monthly environmental chemistry column for The New York Times called Poison Pen. She also blogs about toxic compounds at Wired; her blog Elemental was named one of the top 25 blogs of 2013 by Time magazine. She has written for a wide range of other publications including Scientific American, Slate, Tin House, The Atavist, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times and Discover. Before joining the university in 1997, she was a science writer for The Sacramento Bee, where she won the Pulitzer in 1992 for her reporting on ethical issues in primate research. Her work has been anthologized in Best American Science Writing, Best American Nature Writing, and The Open Laboratory: Best Science OnLine.
She has been a speaker at events ranging from the World Science Festival in New York to Bergamoscienza in Italy, book festivals and book clubs, scientific and professional conferences and, of course, high school classes. She has appeared as a guest on The Today show, Good Morning America, and NPR’s This American Life, Morning Edition, and Talk of the Nation/Science Friday, among others.
For her work in science communication, Blum has been named a lifetime associate of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She is a past-president of the National Association of Science Writers (USA) and serves as vice president of the board of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. The former North American board member of the World Federation of Science Journalists, she was program chair for the Seventh World Conference of Science Journalists, which was held in Doha, Qatar in June 2011, and served on the program committee for WCSJ-2013 held in Helsinki, Finland in June 2013.
Blum is currently at work on a book for Penguin Press on the history of poisonous food.