“Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History,” by Florence Williams, is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in years; a smart, funny read that touches on everything from evolutionary biology to toxicology and environmental health.
In November, I met Williams at the annual conference of the National Association of Science Writers and she was exactly as smart and funny as I’d hoped she’d be, based on her writing. I wanted to know how she got into journalism, why she started covering science, and whether there should be a support group for reporters on the environment beat.
Communication Breakdown: You have a bachelor’s degree in English and earned the John Hersey Prize (an undergraduate journalism award) while at Yale. When did you know that you wanted to be a reporter?
Florence Williams: Pretty ridiculously early, I guess. I was the editor of my high school paper, and in college I wrote for the campus magazine, which I preferred to writing for the newspaper.
CB: How did you break into professional journalism?
Williams: I was lucky to land an internship right after college in the San Francisco bureau of Time Magazine. We were covering stories related to the Exxon oil spill and Tiananmen Square, so it was exciting and meaningful. Plus we ate a lot of excellent Chinese food. After that I got hired as one of two staff writers at High Country News in Colorado. No more Chinatown, but the scenery was spectacular.
CB: At some point you got a master’s degree in creative writing. Why creative writing, and not a graduate program in journalism?
Williams: The kind of writing that really moved me was more in the direction of essay and memoir, and I wanted to stay out West. Plus I liked the idea of a “terminal” MFA degree, which qualifies you to teach. I asked Bill Kittredge where the best place was to study nonfiction writing, and he told me it was the University of Montana, where he was teaching. So I went.
CB: How do you think your graduate work in creative writing has influenced your writing as a reporter?
Williams: It gave me permission – and practice – incorporating voice and scene into my reporting. It helped me make the leap to longform nonfiction. But I’ll always consider myself a journalist. I actually tried writing some fiction in grad school, but I was terrible. These things are good to know.
CB: You cover a variety of subjects, but are now known in large part for your work covering science and health. What led you to focus on science writing? Was that before or after earning your master’s? (I’m not sure whether that matters, but I’m curious!)
Williams: My first real job at High Country News was writing about environmental issues, so that strain has been there all along. As a freelancer, I also wrote about sports, architecture and politics. To be honest, I think I got kind of bored writing straight environmental stories. The narrative is often the same. Then I became interested in how the environment affects human health. I’m never bored writing about science, because I’m constantly learning new things. I also feel passionate about communicating science so that people like me can discover how much they love it and how relevant it is to so much about our lives and world.
CB: Was there a specific science story you worked on that made you think: “I want to do more of this!”?
Williams: Yes, the piece I wrote for the New York Times Magazine on toxins in breast milk. It made me want to learn more about chemistry and biology, not to mention public science policy.
CB: By the time that New York Times Magazine story came out, how long had you been covering stories related to environmental toxicology and environmental health?
CB: Before becoming a science PR guy for a university, I was an environmental policy reporter. After covering issues related to the health effects associated with chemicals like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA, or C8), I was terrified – especially about the potential impact on my kids. Did you go through this when you were working on “Breasts,” particularly the sections on the health effects of PBDEs and other chemicals on girls and women? How much of this stuff did you know from previous reporting?
Williams: By the time I wrote the book, I was pretty familiar with them. I tend not to be an anxious person, but the more reporting you do, the more bad news your hear. The science generally gets more alarming, not less, at least with toxins like PBDEs. These chemicals can affect brain development, which is pretty freaky. The fetus appears pretty sensitive to these exposures, and some of us are more sensitive than others, so it’s pretty clear that as a society we are failing to protect the most sensitive populations from toxic exposures. On the other hand, I keep reminding myself that we’re so much better off today than we’ve ever been before in terms of infant survival and lifespan. We’ve just got some lost opportunities to be even healthier and smarter. Learning disabilities are a big deal for individuals and families, and I expect we’ll be hearing more about potential interactions between toxins and cognitive development.
CB: I hope this doesn’t sound melodramatic, but I think learning about the risks associated with these chemicals, and the ensuing anxiety, are very real issues for many reporters on the environment beat. Do you think that’s true? (I know I may simply be projecting my fears onto others.)
Williams: Yes, I do think those concerns are real. The same is true for reporters on the climate change beat, and for the scientists also. I think we have to believe that our work can make a difference, and that belief is very empowering and positive. That said, we need to support each other, and find ways to recharge.
CB: How do you deal with that? Did your newfound knowledge about these chemicals change your behavior in any way?
Williams: Not a lot. I am always opening windows and I try not to inhale fumes when I pump gas. If I’m driving behind an old diesel bus, I’ll switch lanes. Stuff like that. One thing I learned is that individuals can only have so much control over their exposures. Everything we buy touches plastic, for example, and that’s true for food. I believe the best solutions are global ones – that’s why we need good science and policy to keep harmful chemicals out of the air and the marketplace in the first place. If I were pregnant, I would take extra precautions. For the rest of us, big lifestyle changes might not be worth it.
CB: You’d been a reporter for a while before writing your first book. Did any part of the process come as a pleasant surprise? Any unpleasant surprises?
Williams: Book writing was easier and more rewarding than I expected. I should have done it sooner! I thought I might get bored with such a long-term project, or I thought I’d have trouble finding a publisher, or I thought no one would pay any attention. None of those things happened. We’re good at talking ourselves out of things. I’m really glad I wrote it.