Sonia Shah

How did you become a writer?

When I was little, I wanted to be a doctor, like my parents. When I was in high school, I aspired to be a painter or an actor. But writing was always in the background. I maintained a tortured journal as an adolescent. I wrote for the school newspapers, in high school and in college. And reporting and writing always felt natural. I'm shy--as a child I was painfully so--but also very curious and opinionated. Fading into the background, bearing witness, and then writing about it resolves that temperamental paradox. When I was finally able to devote myself to writing full-time, it was almost a relief.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

My dad gave me a copy of "Lives of a Cell" by the physician and essayist Lewis Thomas when I was around 14 years old. I'll never forget it. I spent the next five years shamelessly trying to copy his style and his ideas. I wouldn't say that my writing teachers encouraged me. It's more that they failed to discourage me. Certainly, I got the signal from my pre-med, art and theater teachers that it would be best to drop my non-writerly aspirations. 

When and where do you write?

We have a weirdly large bedroom, which we've split into two spaces with some strategically placed bookcases. On one side is the sleeping area and on the other my study, which consists of a second-hand chaise lounge, more bookshelves, and a unfinished wood door balanced on two short file cabinets, which serves as my desk. It's comfortable and functional, with plenty of room to spread out various source materials. 

My books are a mix of reporting, research, and writing, so I rotate between the three, spending a few months reporting, then doing research, then writing. Most days, there's writing of some kind or another to be done. I think posture makes a difference in how I write. If I'm synthesizing research, I'll sit upright at my desk, balanced on a yoga ball. If I'm writing narrative, I prefer to lean back, either on the chaise or in bed. 

What are you working on now?

An article for a magazine elaborating on some of the ideas in my last book and research for a new reporting project on the migrant crisis in Europe. I'm also slowly developing my next book. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I wouldn't say I've been blocked, but there are days when writing feels like pulling teeth. There's no flow. I take it as a sign that either I'm not feeling brave enough to say what I want to say, or I don't really know what I want to say yet. If I can take a break, I will. But often I keep writing anyway, with no expectation that I'll keep what I write. At that point, it's therapy. 

What’s your advice to new writers?

I agree with what Ta-Nehisi Coates said a few years ago, which is that if you can stick it out for the first ten years, it gets easier. 

Sonia Shah is a science journalist and prize-winning author. Her fourth book, Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond has been called “superbly written,” (The Economist) and was selected as a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. Her writing on science, politics, and human rights has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, Scientific American and elsewhere and has been featured on CNN, RadioLab, Fresh Air, and, where her talk, “Three Reasons We Still Haven’t Gotten Rid of Malaria” has been viewed by over 1,000,000 people around the world. Her 2010 book, The Fever, which was called a “tour-de-force history of malaria” (New York Times), “rollicking” (Time), and “brilliant” (Wall Street Journal) was long-listed for the Royal Society’s Winton Prize.