An introduction to the author of Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature (Bellevue Literary Press), which releases this November. Brian Switek is also the author of the science blog Laelaps and Smithsonian magazine’s Dinosaur Tracking.
Quick Facts on Brian Switek
- Switek’s website
- Home: Plainsboro, New Jersey
- Comfort food: There are too many; I feel like a male version of Liz Lemon from 30 Rock. Pizza, sesame chicken, Philly cheesesteaks. Sometimes, at the end of a tough day, all I want is something crispy/cheesy/meaty, even if means sticking to salad the next day.
- Top authors: Stephen J. Gould, Mary Roach, Carl Sagan, David Quammen, Robert Sapolsky
- Current reads: The Calculus Diaries by Jennifer Ouellette and Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett.
What are you working on at the moment?
Blogging and freelance writing keeps me pretty busy on a day-to-day basis, but I have also been putting together two book proposals. One has to do with the disappearance of the mammoths and the other megafauna ~10,000 years ago, and the other is about how science is again changing what we thought the lives of dinosaurs were like. But I am not yet sure which one I want to tackle first!
Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?
Anyone who looks at some quirk of nature and asks, “Hey, why is that?” I guess that’s another way of saying I write for myself, but I think that many people share that sense of wonder about the universe.
Where did the idea for Written in Stone come from?
I knew I wanted to write a book about evolution, but my frustration with other popular-science books was what allowed me to refine my idea of what Written in Stone should be. I was tired of other scientists and science writers treating the fossil record as if it were simply a storehouse of old bones which could testify to the truth of evolution but do little else. The fantastic discoveries which I read about in journals and books were glossed over or left out entirely, so I decided to go back to those evolutionary transitions which most fascinated me as a child—the evolution of birds from dinosaurs, of whales from land mammals, of humans from archaic apes, etc.—and place what we know now in the context of the history of discovery. There are many intertwining threads in the book, but I tried to tie them together into a larger story about what the fossil record tells us about the pattern of life on earth (including how strange it is that our own species exists).
What do you hope people will take away from Written in Stone?
I hope the book will help readers see the world through the lens of deep time. The fossil record provides the essential context for how living animals came to be as they are, and I would be happy if Written in Stone allowed readers to appreciate how living organisms are connected to weird and wonderful creatures that no longer exist. There are plenty of stories and tidbits of information in the book, but what I most wanted to share was the rich perspective on life which the fossil record provides.
Where and when do you prefer to write?
Since I’m not fortunate enough to be a full-time freelancer (yet), I have to squeeze in my various writing projects whenever I can. Whatever I am working on is usually determined by what deadline is coming up next, and I do the bulk of my writing in my small home office during nights and weekends. I have built up my own little library to help feed my research, and my cats usually accompany me as I try to put all my compositions together.
Where would you most want to live and write?
It’s funny you should ask, because my wife and I are planning on moving to northern Utah in the next year for just that reason. After 27 years in New Jersey, I have had more than my fill of this cramped, expensive, and unpleasant state, and after visiting the beautiful, open stretches of the west I can think of no better place for a natural history writer than a state littered with dinosaur bones and some of the most beautiful scenery in the country.
What do you listen to when you work?
It depends on what I’m working on. If I am working on a book or a professional piece of writing I don’t listen to anything— music breaks up my concentration too much. When I’m working on blog posts, though, I usually just hit “Shuffle” on iTunes and let it play at a low level in the background. Weezer, Ben Folds, Green Day, and other varieties of alternative and classic rock make up most of the playlist.
Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?
Stephen J. Gould’s essays have been a significant source of inspiration for me, and I always loved his ability to pick some tiny quirk of history or nature and blow it up into an overarching lesson about life. I have often attempted to do something similar, to find some small foothold and use that to climb up to a higher point where a larger pattern becomes visible. At a more basic level, though, I generally write about things that make me think, “Wow! I never knew that.” Even as I have learned more about science, I have tried to keep my sense of wonder intact—a difficult task when the esoteric becomes the familiar—because I think it is that sense of awe at the natural world which allows science writers to meaningfully connect with their readers.
How do you balance content with form?
I sometimes think of my writing as a kind of guided tour through a museum or zoo. I don’t stand there and tell my audience the major point at the outset, but instead give them a reason to follow as I wander from one point to the next, ultimately reaching something which provides the big-picture context for the different stopping points. To put it another way, I try to identify a hook to get the reader’s attention, but then use examples to walk them through the idea or argument so that their perspective is altered as a result of learning something new.
Is there a quote about writing that motivates or inspires you?
It really is overused, but I love the closing passage of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
The passage is a beautiful, poetic tribute to what inspired his work, and I think he rightly underscores the fact that the “view of life” evolution provides makes nature even more grand and beautiful than we could have imagined.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Look for stories that you can tell well. I don’t mean stories which are interesting by themselves or are easy to write. What I mean is that a good writer sniffs out stories which they are uniquely qualified to tell, be it as a result of experience or passion for the story. Writing a good story, regardless of length, is not an objective, technical exercise. It is a subjective experience in which the background of the writer is always there, whether we see it or not, and I think good writers use their unique perspectives to their advantage.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?
I can’t boil it down to a simple pithy saying, but when I was making my early attempts at professional writing both Carl Zimmer and Tom Levenson impressed upon me the importance of having a story to tell. This isn’t the same as having identified a unique tidbit of information or thinking that there’s something people should know. Those things are like seeds that a story either grows from or become part of the fruit of a story; if you don’t have a good narrative, who is going to listen to what you have to say?
What book do you wish you owned a first edition of?
Edward Drinker Cope’s monograph on American mammal fossils, The Vertebrata of the Tertiary Formations of the West (Vols. I, II, and III).
What question do you find surprising that people ask you about writing?
The question which most caught me by surprise was, “Why would people listen to you about science?” This was asked genuinely, not antagonistically, and I have to admit that it cut straight to the difficulties I had becoming established as a science writer. I had written about science almost every day since the fall of 2006, but it has only really been in the last year that I have started to generate academic papers, articles, and otherwise become directly involved in communicating science. I think I have established myself through my writing, and I think my status as an unknown provides a good opportunity for my work to stand for itself.
Is there a question that you wish people would ask you about your work?
I think most readers do not have a very good idea of what goes into writing a book. Even I did not quite know what to expect when I started on Written in Stone. I didn’t just sit at my desk every day and type it out from start to finish, and then send it off to the printer. I had to work a day job to make sure the power stayed on at the apartment, and I squeezed in as much research and writing as I could on nights and weekends. When I finished the first draft, I did not feel that stereotyped feeling of resolution and success, either. I knew I had only completed the first part of the process, and that several months of editing and tidying up lay ahead. Even now, with the final manuscript sent off to the printers, I have yet to really internalize my accomplishment—it doesn’t really feel real yet, even as I start preparations for my next book.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?
Right now writing is what I do in most of my free time—it’s the hobby which has turned into a career but is not yet lucrative enough for me to entirely devote myself to it. I do try to get away from the computer for at least an hour or so a night, though, and I always make it a point to end the evening by spending some quality time with my wife. On the rare days that I am caught up on everything, though, I like to take day trips to zoos, museums, hikes, and similar things, at the very least to get outside and do something different. Hopefully, once I move out of New Jersey, I will have the flexibility to find a more sustainable balance.
About Brian Switek
Brian Switek is a science writer and research associate at the New Jersey State Museum who has done fieldwork on fossils in Utah, Montana, and Wyoming. He has been a frequent guest on the BBC and has written about paleontology for the Smithsonian magazine, London Times, Wired Science, Eureka and elsewhere. Written in Stone is Switek’s first book.
[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Brian Switek.” Words With Writers (October 18, 2010), https://wordswithwriters.com/2010/10/18/brian-switek/.%5D