A promising new website about science writing, The Open Notebook, features an interview with me about the genesis of my Atlantic article of last year on the genetics of temperament, “The Orchid Children” (aka “The Science of Success” in online version).
The site, produced by science journalists Siri Carpenter and Jeanne Erdmann,
is a craft-focused site for science journalists. Science journalism is changing, but the ability to recognize and sharpen important ideas, ask incisive questions about complex subjects, and tell accurate, compelling stories—often on shorter deadlines and with fewer reporting and editorial resources than ever before—is all the more important to serious science journalists’ success. Our goal is to promote outstanding craftsmanship.
To do so they’re running interviews with writers about how they came across, pitched, sold, and reported and wrote stories. They toss in extra material such as pitch letters, rough drafts as well. The launch issue includes interviews with Robert Krok about her article about an asteroid heading toward Earth and Dan Ferber on his story on a couple wrestling with the farm next door. There are more to come this week and afterwards. This looks like an intriguing site for anyone interested in writing or the different approaches writers take to finding, selling, developing, and writing stories.
Below is a bit from my interview with Carpenter. One thing I’d like to change: I see that I said that researchers in this field are innately “flashy.” I’m not sure if Carpenter misheard me or I just misspoke. I suspect the latter. But I don’t know why I said such a thing. These people are interesting, to be sure. But flashy? T’ain’t in it.I must have been in a geek fever or something. The things that come out of our mouths.
Below are excerpts from mine. Get the whole thing, and the others, at The Open Notebook
The Orchid Children (published online as “The Science of Success”)
By David Dobbs (Atlantic, December 2009)
In a story selected for The Best American Science & Nature Writing 2010, David Dobbs explores the “orchid hypothesis”: the tantalizing idea that certain variants of some behavioral genes can either increase children’s risk for psychiatric and behavioral problems or enable them to flourish spectacularly. Moving from ornery toddlers to a troop of rebellious monkeys to a reckoning with his own DNA, Dobbs reveals how—depending on environment—an accident of genetics can be either a “trap door” to failure or a “springboard” to success.
Where did you first learn about what you term the “orchid hypothesis”?
While I was at a scientific meeting working on a story about adolescence, I went to a talk on gene-by-environment interactions in toddlers by Ariel Knafo, a psychologist at Hebrew University. It was absolutely fascinating. His results showed that kids who had one version of this dopamine-processing gene, and who also had harsh parenting, got less and less sociable and agreeable over time. The opposite was true for kids with the same gene variant but who had warm parenting. Then at the same meeting, I saw another talk by [NIH’s] Stephen Suomi, which showed the same basic dynamic in rhesus monkeys.
What made you think this research would make a good story?
There was very excited talk in the halls about this research, and it was immediately apparent that this idea—that genes thought to make us more sensitive to bad environment actually make us more sensitive to all environments—was hugely important for how you view genetics and human behavior. I could tell it wasn’t just the people at the center of the research who were interested in this because there was such a diverse group of people, all in a gaggle, talking about Knafo’s talk. It was obviously something that’s drawing wide interest. I did quite a few interviews at that meeting, with people testing or pushing the idea and with people who were hearing of it the first time.
What were your first steps in developing the idea?
Well my first step was talking to a lot of people at the conference—to take advantage of an opportunity to talk to so many in the field. I wanted to see what people thought, and to bullshit-filter the idea. When I got home, I read a bunch of the literature—a couple dozen papers, I would guess, to start with. Then called a few people I know who aren’t in that direct line of work but who were knowledgeable about the idea. I was looking for a reasonable evidence base under this idea, which there was, and the reactions of good, smart scientists to it. The people I talked to acknowledged that this thing has legs. Some offered caveats and things to watch for as well, which was quite useful when I turned to writing the pitch. If it had a thin evidence base or seemed theoretically flimsy, I would have set it aside.
How did you think about the story’s structure?
There were certain elements that I was pretty sure I wanted and some that I got lucky with. For instance, I wasn’t sure what I would do with all this material I had on Suomi’s research, but then while I was working on the story, this amazing monkey coup happened, where one group of monkeys ousted the top group of monkeys, killing a few of them. It was one of those things that, when it happened, I realized this is great for the story. It was quite dramatic. It illustrated some vital things about the ideas in play. And it drew some new thoughts from Suomi. I met with Suomi about two weeks later, and you could see in his face, and hear in the timbre of his voice, how big a deal it was. It seemed to affect him emotionally as well. Which it would. He follows these monkeys for years, and suddenly they’re killing each other.
There’s a fairly robust literature growing to support the orchid hypothesis. Yet I noticed that in the piece, you really only described in detail the research of a few teams. How did you decide whose research to highlight and whose to gloss over?
Some of that is almost arbitrary. For example, I had three candidates to lead off with. I opened with the work focusing on early childhood because it makes the dynamics easier to understand, and because it included an observation of actual behavior, which brought the whole idea to life. It was also the only controlled experiment that imposed a specific change of environment and watched what happened. Finally, it was possible—though quite difficult—to describe in about 400 words, which is about how much space I had allocated for that part.
Your decision to undergo DNA analysis yourself, and the results of that analysis, make for a lovely and thought-provoking ending. Did you plan to do that from the beginning of your involvement in the story?
I did not plan on it; that’s not the kind of thing I usually do in my stories. Part of the reason I started to think about doing it was sort of the idea that I should put my money where my mouth was—to ask myself, does this really give me that sense of a greater range rather than a steeper slope?
I mentioned to my editor that I was thinking of doing that, and he thought that that would add a lot, but left it to my comfort level. In the first draft, I had it all up at the front of the story. It was his idea to break it in half. This was not the assigning editor, who was Don Peck, but a former staffer named Toby Lester, who sometimes edits features for them. He was an enormous pleasure to work with, and crucial to moving such a complex story from conception to submission in just a couple months.
How long did you spend on the story?
I worked on it full time for about seven to eight weeks, 50-plus hours a week. Maybe roughly four to five weeks of that was research, three to four weeks flat-out writing. Then I spent a week doing revisions after editing.
Why such a short time frame?
The magazine had a hole they wanted to fill, and that’s a very good situation to be in because there’s a sense of urgency about the story, and it gives you an opportunity to help them out of a jam. That can only raise your currency. It’s a good first impression to make. So it met some of my purposes even though it destroyed my summer.
This article spawned a book project for you. How did that process unfold?
I was thinking book from the very beginning, actually—from the first day I ran into the idea at the conference. After I finished the story in August, I went to New York, interviewed four agents, and chose one—a wonderful young agent named Eric Lupfer. We had about three weeks till the article would come out. We quickly settled on a structure for the book and the proposal, and in about ten days of back-and-forth, we drafted a 10-page proposal. This was hard but fun, and easier than it usually is because we had the article to present as the writing sample for the book. The proposal part just had to describe the book and give an outline.
Incredibly, everything went just as hoped: Eric sent the proposal out the week before the article was printed, with an advance copy attached, and the week the article appeared, generating a lot of buzz, we met with seven different publishers. Several bid, and in the end I signed with Amanda Cook at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, whom I’d already met and liked and who came highly recommended.