Pic by Nicole Cleary.
Christine Kenneally is a journalist.
After completing a Bachelor’s Degree in English and Linguistics at the University of Melbourne, Kenneally pursued a PhD at the University of Cambridge , and subsequently moved to the United States and turned to journalism. While living in New York, she produced pieces for the New York Times, New Scientist, Slate, and Time. Her account of the Black Saturday bushfires, written for The New Yorker, was collected in The Best Australian Essays 2010. Since moving back to Melbourne she has published in The Monthly , and now holds the title of contributing editor at BuzzFeed News.
In 2007 she published her first book , The First Word, an account of developments in the field of linguistics that have led to recent research on the origins of language.
Her second book, The Invisible History of the Human Race , was published in 2014, and offers what might be thought of as an introduction to modern studies of inheritance, in which Kenneally describes how innovations in genetic research have expanded popular and personal understandings of “what gets passed down.” It was shortlisted for the Stella Prize.
Kenneally’s prose is uncommonly lucid both in its unpacking of thorny scientific concepts, as well as in its account of the significance of these concepts to our culture at large. Thickly larded with anecdote – both personal and historical – her writing offers an exemplary union of science and storytelling.
This interview took place at Ms. Kenneally’s studio in Melbourne.
–James Robert Douglas
I. On Different Directions
The Lifted Brow: I’m interested in hearing about what you studied. I know you went to Cambridge to do your PhD, in linguistics, and I’m wondering what your path was from there to freelance writing?
Christine Kenneally: I did a Bachelor of Arts in English and Linguistics in Australia. I started linguistics in my second year, and hated it. It was taught terribly and unbelievably boring, and I had no idea why I thought I’d ever enjoy the subject. I dropped out just before the period when I would have had to sit a test, because I would have failed it. But then by the next year they had cleaned house in the department, brought in all these new people, and I tried it again and it was the most exciting subject ever.
I loved both English and Linguistics, but I loved the problem-solving nature of linguistics a little bit more. It seemed to be more about solving puzzles, whereas English sometimes felt a little vogue-ish – you know, whatever was the stylish theory at the time.
So I wanted to continue. I got a research job at the University, and I was tutoring for a little while, and I knew I wanted to go on to further study. I’d missed a lot of the applications for scholarships to the US, but the Cambridge one was still open, so I applied for that. And then I got it, which was what enabled me to go there. They had a really interesting group of people in linguistics, too. It was a great place to go.
TLB: What did you research at Cambridge?
CK: My PhD was in psycholinguistics. It was more about how people process language than languages as such. I’m not a languages person: I’m a language-in-the-brain person; a cognitive science person.
I’m not a languages person: I’m a language-in-the-brain person.
I was looking at how people parse certain sentences that start the same but then go off in structurally different directions. Something like “As usual the man confronted”, which could continue like this: “with the evidence…” Or like this: “his son…”
I played people a recording of the beginning of a sentence, and showed them a possible continuation on a screen. They had to hit a key, and the amount of time it took them to hit the key gave a sense of whether they were expecting that continuation or whether they had to do some quick mental footwork and change their interpretation.
This tells us about how language lives in the brain – how language is structured in the brain, how it works. The basic question was: do people use prosody –which is pitch, and intonational information – when they’re processing structure? I believe they do, but the traditional method – which Noam Chomsky had made very popular – said that they didn’t.
TLB: So you were focusing on the spoken intonation of the sentence as determining how people interpret them, rather than the innate syntactic shape?
CK: Well, we focussed on how people use intonation to actually process the syntax: whether intonation has got anything to do with it and whether it helps it in that nanosecond when someone is actually hearing and making a decision, or whether it comes in downstream when people are making a decision based on structure, and, if something goes wrong, then they check the prosody.
Initially a lot of linguistics, which was very syntax-focussed, didn’t pay a lot of attention to the way we actually listen to each other and speak. The model I was working with looked at language as it is embodied. The idea was “this is how it evolved, and this is how we use it”, rather than analysing it as if we were computers, and saying “structure is the most important thing, and then other stuff comes in after that”.
TLB: You moved on from Cambridge to do freelance writing in America.
CK: I met an American in Cambridge, and we decided that we’d spend some time in the States, and spend some time in Australia, and then decide where we wanted to live.
Given that we decided to spend time in the States first, he got a job as a professor at Iowa State, and we ended up in Iowa for a while. Once we were there for a couple of years – which were really great years – we decided we’d probably live in Australia permanently, which kind of freed us up.
It’s crazy to think of it now, but you used to have to write letters and mail them to editors in different cities and pitch ideas that way.
We thought, why don’t we just go to New York for a while and see how it goes? I’d just started freelance writing, and it was around the time of the Dot Com Boom. It’s crazy to think of it now, but you used to have to write letters and mail them to editors in different cities and pitch ideas that way. Or you would do it over the phone – which is really hard to do when you’ve never written before. But all of a sudden you could email all these sites and get a leg up that way. So I started doing that from Iowa, and realised that’s what I really wanted to keep doing. He wanted to go to New York and try his hand at some other work, so we both did that.
TLB: Did you jump straight into ideas journalism, using your education as background?
CK: Pretty much. But I tried a lot of other journalism, too. I tried some restaurant reviewing, movie reviewing, book reviewing, a bit of ideas and culture, too – for sites that flared up, had loads of money, and were gone a year later. I think I was writing about language, too, then.
TLB: You started The First Word on a freelance basis. Something I wanted to ask about was how you finessed the people you interviewed. With a book like that you’re essentially approaching academics with an eye to asking them to give a straight-up exegesis of their own work for you, for the purpose of you synthesising that information.
CK: Some people weren’t interested. Some are easier than others. If you’ve met someone at a conference, and you go up and ask them a question, and you actually form a relationship, then it’s pretty easy to say “actually I’m going to be in town next Tuesday, can I come and buy you a coffee and we’ll talk about it more?” They’re generally pretty happy to talk.
TLB: I suppose this is part of a general system by which they push their research out into the world.
CK: That’s right. They want their ideas to go public. Many more say yes than say no. It certainly helps if they’ve read something you’ve written before. They’re sensitive about people misreporting what they say, particularly in science. So you send them clips, and then they’ll be more willing to sit down with you.
TLB: Did you find that your background in academia was helpful?
CK: The fact that I had a PhD in linguistics made all the difference. A lot of these people are writing their own books, too, so they’re curious to talk to people who’ve written books. Or they’re trying to write op-eds, or get their ideas out there in other ways as well. I think to talk to someone who’s interested in what they do – and who’s read all their stuff – is generally a pleasant interaction.
TLB: I got a sense from the Chomsky chapter that he wasn’t a particularly useful interview. Maybe that’s an unfair observation. You introduce him and set a scene where you’re sitting down and starting to talk. But then there are not a lot of direct quotes from him.
CK: He was hard to quote, actually, which is strange. He had a lot to say. I don’t know why he was difficult to quote, but he really was. He was very generous to spend time with me, because he would probably have been the busiest and most sought-after person that I spoke to, and certainly I wasn’t a massive fan of his ideas. So, it was good of him to do that. Some people just aren’t interested in talking unless they think you’ll agree with them automatically.
TLB: I’m not deeply informed about linguistics, and I’ve never been able to fully grasp the significance of what I understood about Chomsky’s work. Reading your book I realised that I must have just come through university well after this debate about whether or not universal grammar is a powerful idea had been settled, by which time the field had sort of shifted away from his work.
CK: It very much has. There’s a lot more power in other fields. Child development research, and our access to technologies that allow us to see what’s going on in the brain as it’s happening, have made a big difference. There was only theory when Chomsky was around. And Chomsky’s theories have been modified so much by himself over the years – that, in and of itself, perhaps loosened some of the grip his ideas initially had on people’s minds.
TLB: I enjoyed the last section of First Word, where you pose a hypothetical to many of the researchers you’ve interviewed throughout the book about whether or not a group of children stranded on the Galapagos Islands could ever independently develop a language. It’s very amusing to flip through their answers, like “no”, “yes”, “no”, “yes, but only with thirty children”.
CK: That was a really fun way to deal with something that had troubled me all the way through, which is that I wanted the reader who had no idea about any of this stuff to walk away with a sense of a coherent – as well as a compelling – field of ideas. Yet it’s also true that when you get real close-up to these people there’s so much disagreement. I was worried that readers would be put off by that. I wanted to spotlight the disagreements, but at the same time build a story that made sense. I was really surprised that they were all willing to participate, too.
TLB: The First Word describes a moment of transition in a scientific field, when Noam Chomsky’s grip on linguistic studies had begun to loosen in the face of new research. Surely a problem with science journalism is that consensus in a field can shift soon after you’ve published. Do you feel a special kind of responsibility to keep an eye on the progress of scientific theory once you’ve written on a particular discipline?
CK: I do keep an eye on things anyway, because that’s where my interest lies. With The First Word, I was focusing on a moment of change – and really highlighting that change – and although there have been more studies and interesting findings since then, I think they’re completely consistent with what I’ve set up in the book.
I think the same is going to be true for Invisible History. It’s really about this extraordinary moment when every thing has turned around, when a lot of people have got their personal genome read, and a lot of people are just about to do it. The ethics and the philosophy behind that are not going to change. People are going to have questions about privacy and all those issues. I don’t think the books need updating in that regard. I think you can read them as a snapshot of the times, but also as a historical moment. Maybe in ten years time there’ll be a whole new thing, but I try to write it so it’ll be solid for a good five to ten years.
II. On Information
TLB: Do you remember how your shift in interest from linguistics to genetics occurred? It seems to me that you’ve focussed on issues of genetics almost exclusively in the last few years of your writing.
I think I’ve only worked out the answer to that question in the last year or two – why I’m interested in what I’m interested in, or why I do what I do.
CK: I think I’ve only worked out the answer to that question in the last year or two – why I’m interested in what I’m interested in, or why I do what I do. What interests me is information, and how information gets passed down and transacted between two people in the same moment in time, or between three generations that have never met each other at either end.
Everything I do seems to be about information. Evolution is about macro information through deep time. Linguistics is about information. The genome is the book of ultimate information about individuals. I think that’s what underlies my work.
TLB: I saw a story on the National Geographic website recently that described how a comparative analysis done on DNA from ancient remains found in Germany showed that they possessed a great number of genetic similarities with remains found of the older Yamnaya people of the Black Sea – a discovery that bolsters the linguistic theory that the proto-Indo European language was brought to Europe by a migration out of the Russian steppes. This got me thinking about how in this turn from linguistics to genetics in your writing, you’ve focussed on a field that has the potential to answer the kinds of questions that crop up in linguistic debate.
CK: It’s absolutely the case that genetics has the potential to answer the kinds of questions that come up in linguistics, and have been coming up in linguistics for a really long time. There is tremendous potential right now – that people are beginning to see – for bringing together the genetic history with the linguistic history to try to map them on to each other, creating a much richer tapestry of world history. On the same lines, there are linguists right now who are trying to import the methods of population genetics into linguistics. They try to model language change before six to eight thousand years ago. Typically that’s where linguists stop: you can’t actually go back beyond that time frame when you’re trying to rebuild a language from the past. The methods that they’ve traditionally used just can’t push beyond that. But with computer models that come from evolutionary biology, that look at the incredibly subtle and complicated ways that structure in language might change over time, there’s a chance that we might be able to go further back.
TLB: One of the things I liked about Invisible History is that it’s not just about genetics – half of its length is given over to different mechanisms of inheritance, like family trees, or less tangible historical influences. The scope of the book is quite enormous, really.
CK: That’s what it felt like when I was writing it, and it certainly felt like hard work for that reason. Some people are really irritated by the fact that it’s neither one nor the other; that it’s both. I had feedback from people who want it to be all genetics, and are frustrated by the idea that the history of genealogy has anything to do with it. And vice versa: people who are interested in the history of genealogy think the genetics is really dry and boring. But to my mind they were integral to each other.
One of the hard things about writing a book is working out what the question is.
One of the hard things about writing a book is working out what the question is. I think the basic question of Invisible History is “What gets passed down?” I realised in trying to answer that question – not just through research, but also through trial and error in writing – that the answer wasn’t complete, that the answer is always both. It’s the genetics and the cultural influence.
That’s why it ended up being both, and I think really it’s hard to do that, because people usually work in one or the other field, and they’re in their own little intellectual silo – which they have to be. To do effective academic work you have to hone in on something, and make your question small, so you can answer it in a realistic and provable way. It was hard. There wasn’t anyone out there talking to both of those things at the same time, to both sides of the coin.
TLB: It seems like a natural way to frame the question, because the public is pretty au fait with these ideas of inheritance and race and family influence, whereas genetics can be quite dry. If you position it in this broader way, then the ideas behind the science can come through.
CK: That’s right. I think people are interested in the genetics if it’s – as you say – very much framed in terms of the questions they’re already asking themselves. The answers may turn out to be genetic ones, rather than cultural ones, but they’re just interested in questions.
Another difficult thing about writing a book, when you’re going out and talking to researchers all the time, is that you start thinking about the topic in the terms that they think about it. That means if you’re talking to scientists you start thinking “How do I begin in the driest way possible?” – because scientists need it to be dry to be effective and clean and clear.
People talk about science writing making something simpler, but I don’t think that’s what it’s about at all. I think it’s about granularity.
It becomes a challenge to go out and collect that information and then to think about how it actually answers the questions of someone who isn’t a scientist. It’s a translation issue. People talk about science writing making something simpler, but I don’t think that’s what it’s about at all. I think it’s about granularity – whether something is extremely fine-grained or coarse-grained. More coarse-grained is more appropriate to the questions most people ask anyway.
TLB: One of the things I noticed you do to help ease the reader through the process is to string your information along with anecdote and narrative. Invisible History is thick with this stuff, more so than The First Word, and more so even than a lot of your freelance journalism. I’m curious about the effort that goes into this. Every chapter is full of stories, big and small, and the idea of tracking down all that information that requires is daunting to me. For instance, the orphaned man, Geoff Meyer, in the ‘Silence’ chapter – how did you find him?
CK: There was definitely a conscious choice to bring in more everyday stories. Not that those stories are really everyday stories – they’re very dramatic. But they are real people’s lives. It was kind of a discipline – as well as a way of constructing the book – to make sure that I rendered all this complicated academic information in terms of real people’s lives. It’s a way of maintaining perspective, as well as feeding it back to people who are not scientists, historians, or experts.
Geoff’s story comes from a piece I did for The Monthly a couple of years ago. Again, this was one of those pieces I was really interested in and I only realised after I’d done it that it was ultimately about information. I had become aware that there was a lobby group of people who had grown up in orphanages in the twentieth century. They had lived in these places like little citizens of a gulag. They weren’t just being abused physically; information was denied to them, the whole way through.
I wanted to write about Geoff because his story was emblematic of how damaging it is when people are denied basic information about who they are, and where they’re from. This still happens today in places like North Korea, and we tend not to think that this kind of thing can happen in your basic Western democracy. But it was happening very much in Australia in the mid-twentieth century. For people like Geoff, who went through the kinds of systems he went through, it’s still happening today.
It’s hard for people like you and me to imagine how we could not know certain basic facts about ourselves.
It’s hard for people like you and me to imagine how we could not know certain basic facts about ourselves: who our parents are, what they did for a living, where our grandparents came from. Not all of us have that information, but most of us have at least some of it, and it is integral to who we are. For people like Geoff – in the homes and the orphanages – that information was systematically concealed. Not just lost along the way, but actively concealed by people who looked after children like Geoff. They didn’t tell them what their own names were, in many cases. I was talking to a chap the other day who was called ‘29’ until he was ten years old, because that was the name of his locker.
This information was invisible for them, then – which was very distressing and very difficult – and it’s still invisible now for many people, and specifically for Geoff, because governments are sitting on archives; they’re not investing time and money in opening them up, and allowing people to find out where they came from, and who they are.
TLB: So there’s a concerted effort to flesh out each chapter with anecdote and story. How do you gather this information?
CK: I guess I’m just following my nose. I wish I could recall how I initially found Geoff and the lobbying group, but I knew I was interested in them as soon as I heard about them, although I didn’t know exactly know how they would fit into the book at all.
One of the hardest things about being a writer is learning to trust what interests you, and learning to trust that if it’s interesting to you then you can make it interesting for other people. Also, if it’s interesting to you – I find with books –then it must be part of some larger whole.
So although there’s an initial pull towards an idea, there’s no coherent sense that this will definitely fit into the book in this particular place, or this will illustrate this point – there’s just this sense that I know that it matters, but I’m not quite sure how yet. Then finding those people and talking to them and getting the story tells you more about where it will fit in the book, or why people should care about it.
TLB: It’s really a tricky question that I asked there. If I were to try to reverse engineer the book there’s such a magnitude of anecdote in it that it would be an enormous effort. But it must accrete over time. You find little bits and pieces that interest you, and they grow into the book.
CK: That’s definitely how it starts. You just try to pull it all together, and create the sense of a whole. But I’m a bit structure-obsessed, and I think about it a lot. I’ll take days where I’m not reporting, where I’m just thinking about structure and how it gets set up. I’ll write out really complicated structures for the book. What I find is that they work for a while, and then I’ll reach some moment where I can’t even think where the book is supposed to go to next, and it becomes clear to me that the structure is no longer working. So I’ll go back to the structure and rip it all apart, do another one, and it’s just constantly moving back and forth between a zoomed out view of what’s going on in the book, and the brick by brick process of building the thing.
III. On Change
TLB: Did you find the field changing a lot as you wrote the book, as we talked about with The First Word?
CK: Yes, particularly with ancient DNA. When I started researching the possibility of the book – doing reporting for the proposal, not the book itself – the basic idea with ancient DNA was that you probably couldn’t do anything with it. Some people had done some ancient DNA analysis; they tried to extract information, and then read it. But the dangers of contamination were incredibly high. When I first heard about the idea of ancient DNA it sounded incredibly exciting, but most scientists I spoke to were really discouraging, and they dismissed it out of hand.
I knew in my gut that I wanted ancient DNA to be an important part of the story, because it was interesting to me. I couldn’t believe how dismissive people were. Luckily the whole thing changed in the time I was writing the book.
He had taken an entire science and turned it on its head.
Primarily it was the Svante Pääbo project, which sequenced the Neanderthal genome. When that was announced in the news it was kind of exciting, but I don’t think how much he had done was truly conveyed. He had not just found the Neanderthal genome; he had taken an entire science and turned it on its head. All the assumptions about how it wouldn’t work turned out to be challenging, but surmountable.
Not only did he make one of the most fascinating discoveries in this century, he opened the door on this science. Since then there have already been studies that extracted ancient DNA from hundreds of bones, and compared them together to see what they can tell us about what people were up to a hundred thousand years ago – or whenever the bones were once part of a living person.
That was the most exciting thing for me. I had felt really frustrated, and concerned, and I just didn’t know how I was going to deal with it, and then study after study came out showing how it was doable.
Another technique that’s very, very new, and definitely changed and became more solid in the time I was writing the book, was genome-wide association studies (people call it GWAS for short) where researchers take genome samples from hundreds of thousands of people and compare them together. In doing so they’re able to track the variance of genes that are associated with particular conditions, diseases, or even just traits, like black hair or red hair. That had started to take off, at the beginning of the book, but now it’s probably going to become one of the primary ways we’ll do medicine in the next fifty years. So that was really exciting. I felt like I was surfing that wave.
TLB: I was interested in the sections on personal genetic family history tests. I remember my uncle did one some years ago, and it came back with something like “you come from Viking ancestry”, and it had a little narrative about how “your Viking ancestor” may have sailed to the coast of England, and done this and that etc., etc. It seemed like there was a poverty of information in the result.
CK: When did he do that?
TLB: It must have been at least five years ago.
Companies send you what is essentially the palette of ancestry that is your genome – and that is really interesting information.
CK: Even in those five years it’s changed incredibly. With reputable companies, there’s no, “you’re a Viking”, or “you’re a Mongolian”. Now, companies send you what is essentially the palette of ancestry that is in your genome – and that is really interesting information. For a lot of people it’s shocking – they find out they have African ancestry, when they thought they were entirely European. Or they find out they have a lot of Northern European ancestry, when they thought their genome was entirely African. That’s incredibly important historical information for us. It tells us what people were doing fifty, a hundred, two hundred years ago. It tells us whether there was really apartheid between populations, or whether there wasn’t.
Individually, a lot of people find it quite shocking, because people often build their identity around what they look like. But when you look at the genetic contribution they have received – which may have been hidden from them, for various reasons – it can expand their sense of who they are, or who they can be.
There’s a woman in Canada who’s doing research asking people how they react when they get that information. I wrote about her in the book. Generally, not always, the response is to learn more – which, you couldn’t ask for better, really.
You do have to think about it as a palette. There are few populations in the world where you’re going to be one hundred percent something. That message in and of itself is an important one, and one that people understand best when they experience it personally.
In addition to that basic genomic ancestry information, people can send their information off to ancestry companies, which are creating huge databases that connect you with genetic cousins, who will often have their own family trees and family histories worked out. That’s another way to use your genetics to access documentary history about where your family comes from, and who has contributed to your cultural or genetic heritage.
IV. On Competition
TLB: In April 2011 you wrote a story for Time about the problems that mobile phone and VOIP technology were causing for the 911 emergency network – how when calls are no longer tethered to landlines, emergencies become that much harder to locate. In September that year you did the same story for 000 in The Monthly. As you were writing the Time piece, did you figure that it might have an application to Australia, as well?
CK: It was really clear that there were a lot of big ideas happening in the field in the States that hadn’t yet been implemented here. We had moved to Australia that year, and I was personally interested to know what was happening with 000. No one seemed to be talking about it, and there was nothing in the news. I’d at least seen conversations happening about 911 in the States, but none here about 000. It seemed to me it was a really important story to do.
TLB: Did you find any differences or difficulties in reporting a longform piece in Australia compared to the US? From the conclusion of the 000 article, I take it that there’s been a lot less movement on the issue here. Were American agencies more or less open to your asking question about this issue compared to Australian organisations?
CK: Certainly there was less movement at the time I wrote it. It was a much more dynamic and active conversation in the States. I went to a conference there, and I listened to all the experts in the field talk about all the issues, and then I went and found them – the ones who were interesting to me. There were great stories, at least at the time, that hadn’t made it out to the media yet, that everyone who was in 911 knew about, and a conference is the kind of place where people talk about that stuff. There were all these thinkers and practitioners in the field getting together and talking about what was working and what didn’t work. I took a trip to a Sherriff’s newly updated 911 centre, and they were really proud of this extraordinary thing that they’d put together. This was in Indiana; it wasn’t even a really urban area. Clearly they’d spent huge amounts of money on this really important public service. In contrast there seemed to be very little conversation happening here.
When there’s no competition, there’s really no motivation to talk to the press, because you control everything about the message.
I don’t think I can generalise about longform reportage in Australia compared to the States. What I can say – about the 911/000 industry – is there’s really just one service provider here in Australia. My understanding, at the time, was that Telstra is the interface for most of the 000 service. There were so many for 911 in the US. When you have that kind of competition – which is the case for so many industries in the US – people can be a lot more open to the media. When there’s no competition, there’s really no motivation to talk to the press, because you control everything about the message. That’s potentially a concern for Australian journalists, when you have that lack of competition.
But I had expenses and I had time to write that story in the States, because of how the assignment was set up. I did not have that here. I could only do so much research. It was mostly phoning around. But it seemed pretty clear to me – I can’t say for sure – that I wouldn’t have been given as much access if I’d had the time to do a bigger story here.
TLB: Do you think it’s generally harder to do this kind of longform reporting in Australia, given the economic nature of the industry here?
CK: Absolutely. I haven’t seen a lot of longform in the newspapers, here. People talk about longform as, say, two thousand words, but that’s not really longform at all. Two thousand words is a ten-years-ago big newspaper article.
When I first started writing, when I did a piece for the New York Times, two thousand words was the word limit. Longform was usually five thousand plus. And it’s story: and you go out there, and you visit the scene. You don’t just talk to people on the phone. The Monthly does longform here, which is fantastic. But that’s just the one venue. I can’t think of many other places, other than some of the magazines attached to newspapers like The Australian.
In the States there’s the New York Times magazine, TheNew Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and now BuzzFeed is doing longform. They pay writers. The Monthly pays well, but all of those magazines pay writers enough to actually spend the amount of time it takes to do longform – and they’re just the obvious magazines. There are many places that do really good longform in the States, and I think money underwrites most of those differences. There are so many stories to be told in Australia – that I think can only really be told at length – that don’t get told because there isn’t enough money to make it happen.
TLB: Publications here don’t have the big institutional resources to put behind a story, in the way that, like, the Times can, I suppose.
CK: When I’ve written for The Monthly they’ve got fact checking, and copy-editing and so on. They do that. But there’re only so many pieces The Monthly can publish. The New Yorker is a weekly magazine. You can imagine that engine: the fact checking, and copyediting, the multiple layers of content editing that go on in a place like that. It’s a huge staff. I think The Monthly really broke the mould here, and I hope there’s going to be more places like it. You can’t write a longform story getting paid fifty cents a word, or twenty cents a word. You just can’t do it.
V. On Cataclysmic Phenomena
TLB: In your New Yorker piece on the Black Saturday bushfires, ‘The Inferno’, you mention that you started reporting a matter of days after the fires occurred. I was wondering what the process was of getting that piece up and running. Did you just decide to go out on whim?
CK: I think it took me a day or two to really absorb the horror of what had happened. Often with ideas as soon as something happens I know I want to pitch it as a story, I want to write about it. But that was so intense it took me a few days to even move beyond the personal response to the writer’s response. I think two days in I woke up and thought “Oh my god, what am I doing, I need to write about this.” I wrote to my New Yorker editor and pitched it, and they jumped on it straight away. Then I got in the car and drove out there. I had to negotiate – a lot of the areas had been closed off, and I had to talk to the people who were policing the areas, and try to get in. It’s a bit more challenging when you’re freelance: you don’t necessarily have an ID card that says I work for so-and-so. But people were generally really helpful, and luckily in this digital age you can just point to the web if someone wants to check your bona fides.
I’d never done a big event piece, where I started with the event, rather than the character, or the idea of it. So it required a bit more hanging out and talking to different people to really find what the story should be, as it was written. There were obviously going to be some human stories, and some important science, but it took a while to really find out what it was going to be about.
TLB: I’m curious about how you came to find Bruce Ackerman, the plumber whom you ended up structuring the story around.
CK: I was in Melbourne and I heard on the radio that there was a meeting of Marysville residents. They had to announce it on the radio because there was no way for people to get in touch with each other, because people had scattered. It was going to be the next day, at such and such a place, at such and such a time. So I got in the car and drove there, and hung out. There were already a bunch of news organisations there, because they all knew what was going on. The newspapers had many people in the area, and they were in constant communication with the various emergency services. I had no idea about any of that communication. So it turned out there were already other reporters there, and as people came out of the building after the meeting, someone came out and said “Press, you wait over there, people will come out this door or this door, people will come over if they want to talk to you, if they don’t they’ll walk that way. Please don’t go up to people who don’t want to talk to you.” Bruce came out and that’s how I met him. It was a really wonderful coincidence, because he’s an incredible person.
TLB: I suppose you would have been talking to him shortly after the fires happened. There are aspects of what I assume he must have related in conversation with you – like the story of what he was doing that day, the process of stopping the spot fires around his house – that must have been incredibly emotional content to go through. I’m wondering how quickly that stuff came out in the interview process, and how you feel about asking a subject to engage in that sort of content so soon?
I think as a journalist it’s essential to get that information as soon as you can.
CK: I think as a journalist it’s essential to get that information as soon as you can. It’s going to change two weeks down, three weeks down. Bruce and I met a couple of times, again and again, and I got a sense of that progression in his feelings, and how things changed for him. Are you asking about the ethics of interviewing people after something like that?
TLB: The ethics question isn’t so interesting to me as much as how you manage it in conversation with them.
CK: Well he presented himself, and he was a great source for a bunch of reasons. His story was incredible, his character was incredible, he’s a really unique human being, and he had something that he wanted to say. He was happy to talk to me. It was a mutual engaging. He wanted to say what he wanted to say. There were certainly moments between us that felt intense, and very sad, but really significant, and important to talk about and share with people.
TLB: The fires happened at the start of the year, and then the article came out in October. Was that a compressed schedule, from your perspective?
CK: No, in fact most of the reporting was done in the first two months. What happens in The New Yorker, and many magazines, is they generate lots and lots of articles and then each week they decide what’s going in the magazine. They have a lot of articles that are almost ready, that are perhaps all but fact-checked, and the set of possible articles is larger than the set of possible slots each week. So my piece was more or less wrapped up and then it sat on the shelf for a while. There wasn’t much happening here, and there wasn’t fire-related stuff happening there. They may have been holding on to it for reasons of their own, but I wasn’t privy to that process. But then in October the interim report came out from the Inquiry. I knew that was happening so I nudged them about it, and said now would be a really good time, and they agreed.
TLB: There’s a paragraph in there that starts with “Strange cataclysmic phenomena occur in a huge wildfire” and goes on and outlines a bunch of fascinating facts about fires of that size. It’s a nice example of how good you are at making complicated ideas accessible in your prose. Science writing can easily get bogged down in a maze of information that the reader has no way of getting a grip on. But yours is particularly clear and elegant.
If there’s clarity in my writing it’s because I work at it.
CK: I will spend days and days on a single paragraph sometimes, because it is so hard to do. I’m sure there are science writers out there who without effort produce exactly more or less their final copy. But if there’s clarity in my writing it’s because I work at it, and that means drafting over and over, and ripping a lot of stuff up and throwing it away, and carving away at the pile to find that final nugget that hopefully says everything I need to say.
So many interviews go into a single paragraph, sometimes. So much reading. You’re reading scientific papers; three or four different interviews; resolving the disagreement that two of the four scientists have with each other; and trying to find a way to balance that piece of information between two other people who disagree with each other – or to fully read through all their work and decide who’s right. There’s a lot of thought behind it. I’m sure some people find it quite easy. I’m not one of them.
TLB: The thing about that paragraph is that it’s got a good grip on the dramatic affect that the presentation of science can have, as well.
CK: That’s just what appeals to me, and what I can feel my heart beat faster in response to. Like when someone tells me about a fire tornado. And it’s definitely what readers love. People will put up with a lot of information and density if they’re getting a bit of drama along the way.