Linda Marsa, author of Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health — and how we can save ourselves, is an investigative journalist and contributing editor at Discover. A former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of Prescription for Profits: How the Pharmaceutical Industry Bankrolled the Unholy Marriage Between Science and Industry,she has covered medicine, health and science for more than two decades.
Linda is having a Book Signing and Launch Party for Fevered on Saturday, August 10, at 2 p.m. @ Barnes and Noble in Santa Monica (1201 3rd Street, at the north end of the Promenade).
What inspired you to write Fevered?
Climate change is the most important science story of our time. I was thrashing around for a way to write about climate change that hasn’t already been done to death when I came across a report in The Lancet, the esteemed British medical journal, that suggested there was a big chunk of the story that hasn’t been well reported yet may have the most immediate and profound impact on our lives: how rising temperatures will affect our health, resulting in increasing rates of ills like asthma, allergies, infectious diseases, heart and lung disease and cancer. As a medical and science writer, this fell squarely in my wheelhouse. Inspired, I did a cover story for Discover that focused mainly on the spread of tropical diseases to newly warm habitats. But this gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in the subject and do some background research, which became the spring board for the book.
What was your process for writing it? Getting it published?
After writing the Discover story, I wrote a book proposal, which—after a couple of revisions—my agent sold to Rodale. Once I had a contract, I dove into doing the research.
How did you organize your research?
The book itself divided up neatly into obvious chapters—heat waves, the spread of infectious diseases, the effects of bad air, or the lingering aftermath of climate induced disasters. But beyond the basic science—which can be abstract to the average person—I wanted to uncover compelling narratives the drove home the fact that climate change is already affecting our health, and that illuminated the harsh reality of what life will be like as the planet heats up. It took some digging, but I uncovered numerous examples that provide a glimpse into our hotter future, including the collapse of the New Orleans’ public health system after Katrina, or the heat waves that swept across Russia and Europe, claiming tens of thousands of lives. I also spent nearly a month driving thousands of miles around Australia to witness firsthand what severe climate change looks like in an advanced, industrialized democracy, and how demoralized the hardy Aussies were by their increasingly fierce and erratic weather.
What things do people need to about science writing, as it differs from other non-fiction?
Science writing is very tough for a number of reasons. You have to decipher unbelievably complex information and write it in a way that’s comprehensible to the average reader, and you also need to be accurate and balanced (scientists can be pickier and more temperamental than music divas—and won’t hesitate to let your editor know if you made a mistake—which is so easy to do). You have to also be rigorous in your analysis and be able to look at scientific studies and determine whether the information is truly a game changer or if the analysis is thin and more research needs to be done. It took years before I developed this kind of rigor.
Second, it will have profound consequences for all of us. If we don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions and start implementing sensible adaptation strategies, we’ll live sicker and die quicker on a hotter planet.
Third, we can fix this—and many cities in the U.S. are becoming greener, healthier, and wealthier places by implementing adaptation programs and embracing smart conservation strategies that will smooth the transition to a sustainable future. But we must start now: the future of humanity hinges upon what we do in the next couple decades. This is a fight that none of us can sit out.
What was your favorite part of writing Fevered? The greatest challenge?
The fun part was also the greatest challenge: finding compelling stories about real people to illuminate key points and to drive home the fact that climate change is affecting our health right now here in the U.S. I went to places where we’re already feeling the effects of hotter temperatures, like California’s Central Valley, and New Orleans. Hitting the road and interviewing real people reminded me of why I became a journalist—the give voice to the voiceless and bear witness to human suffering.
Sorting out the complex science was also difficult. And since climate change is considered “political,” I also wanted to be certain that what I wrote was bullet proof and anything I said was backed up by solid science.
Advice for non-fiction writers?
If you’re going to invest three years writing a book—which is about how long they normally take—find something that will keep your interest and that will be timely when the book makes its debut. It’s always a crapshoot and I’m lucky that people are finally talking about climate change.
Advice for article writers?
I already have an idea for my next book. I’m now trying to get an editor to assign me a slice of the story, and finance an exploratory foray to pay for my background research. Advice: see how you can use an article—or a series of articles—as a springboard into a longer project.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
I relied on experts too much early on in my reporting. I would have been better off—and it would have saved time—if I had jumped in from the start looking for real people to breathe life into the book.