“It takes a great deal of faith to write a book-length work on the lives of earthworms and hope that someone — anyone — will take notice of it,” wrote Amy Stewart, referring to her 2004 book, “The Earth Moved: On The Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms.” But it was a justified faith. The National Endowment for the Arts not only noticed it, but the organization awarded her a grant for a new book, enabling her to next write a portrait of the global blossom and bloom industry, called “Flower Confidential.”
Ten years after her earthworm book appeared, Stewart, a California-based author, has become one of the best known writers exploring unexpected quirks of the natural world, with three non-fiction best sellers — “Wicked Plants,” “Wicked Bugs” and “The Drunken Botanist” — to her credit. She’s also begun a career as a crime fiction writer, with a series of novels based on the real adventures of an early 20th century trio of New Jersey sisters, starting with “Girl Waits with Gun” and followed by this fall’s “Lady Cop Makes Trouble.”
In addition, she’s this year’s guest editor of the “Best American Science and Nature Writing,” which was published last week. Stewart’s 2016 edition is the latest in an acclaimed anthology series from Houghton Mifflin now celebrating its 16th year of publication. In this installment of the Undark Five, we asked her about what makes a story stand out, for insights into telling stories about science, and about gender and diversity issues in science writing — and in society — a topic that she believes is one of the most important issues facing the profession. Questions and answers have been lightly edited for clarity.
UNDARK — Are there any science stories that put you off on first read?
AMY STEWART — I think what happens with a lot of scientists and academics, they go into writing an article with some kind of learning objective. Capital L Capital O, learning objective. That’s the easiest way to kill a story. I’m not at all invested in whether someone learns anything from what I write. I would rather throw a great story out there and know that some people will repeat that story, maybe remember a detail from it, maybe have a little curiosity. That’s fine with me. It’s the killing of a story that bothers me.
UD — Were there things that surprised you when you were selecting pieces for this edition of “Best American Science and Nature Writing”?
AS — I was surprised by a few things. Tim Folger [the series editor who selects a collection of stories each year for a guest editor to review] casts a really wide net. He is reading for science in a much more diverse way than many of us do. He finds really beautiful, poetic pieces of writing that might not be published in a science magazine but in a literary journal and yet still provide insight into science. It’s a reminder that you have to read outside your field. And it reminds you that you are participating in an art form called storytelling. Even though you are a science writer, you are participating in this art form that also includes Miles Davis. Be aware of that.
UD — The anthology contains 25 stories and just six of them were written by men. In other words, 75 percent of the contributors were women. When the anthology series began, the opposite was true — they featured about 75 percent male writers. Was this something you thought about in making selections?
AS — Gender balance. I was very deliberate about that. And I want to talk about it and I am afraid to talk about it — in the sense of not wanting to get beat up. But even if I’m criticized, isn’t it better for me to take a little heat in terms of moving the issue forward? I worked to put more women in the pool. It wasn’t difficult to find great stories by women, but it took a commitment of time. I started by going through the usual sources, grabbing everything worthy by a woman and hitting print. Then I looked at the less unusual sources, looked at more online publications, looked at women’s magazines. Once I did that, I had an overwhelming number of great pieces written by women. And the anthology could have been 80 or 90 percent written by women. I didn’t back off before there were too many women. It could have been more. It could have been 80 or 90 percent. I didn’t back off because there many women. The book really does contain the best stories I’ve found. But the diversity of perspectives makes it so. There’s this story by Katie Worth [“Telescope Wars,” Scientific American] and within the solid story of building a telescope is a cultural commentary about these battling male scientists: You are a bunch of ego heads. Science is hurt because you couldn’t get your egos out of the way. I don’t want to say it’s a uniquely female trait to walk into a situation with a bunch of male egos, roll your eyes, and call bullshit, but I do think it’s possible she thought “I’ve lived with this before.” And it’s just a terrific piece.
UD — What about the question of diversity in contributors? We’ve had many conversations in the community of science journalists about the fact that the field can feel overwhelmingly white, and about how — and when — we can improve that.
AS — It’s much harder to figure out how to bring diversity into an anthology. You can tell by most bylines and it’s misleading and poor methodology to look at people’s photographs and make your own determination. Really unless you get an essay on “My life as an African-American astronomer,” it is really difficult. So it’s a messy and imperfect process, but it was really important to be to do my best. I was thinking about the word “American” in the title because we are a diverse country. That word spoke to me and motivated me. I tried all kinds of strategies. I went through great publications like Wired or National Geographic, trying to identify the ethnicity of anyone who had contributed in the last 12 months. I looked in city magazines in places like Detroit or Memphis — but there what I found to my shock was that the writers in these African American places were overwhelming white. I went through rosters of people who were members of minority journalism groups and then tried searching their Twitter feeds. I sent emails to people I knew to get names — book editors at publishing houses, literary agents, publicists. I had a long list of strategies. In the end, I think I failed. I am happy to say that publicly. It would be really easy to say it’s not my fault. But we can’t kick this can down the road. I think talking about the lack of diversity needs to be the responsibility of white people. I don’t think it’s the responsibility of say, African American science writers, to make this case. Taking ownership needs to be our job.
UD — Do you think that a science writing anthology can help change that — or help people think about many of the issues in science and science writing in a different way?
AS — The responsibility of being editor was something that I felt so keenly. It makes a difference. It makes a difference to the writers who were included, I know. I would love to think there’s at least one contributor for whom this was first big feather in their career. And people love these anthologies; they matter in the moment. They matter in the world we live in now when we are inundated with so many news streams. Our attention is pulled so many ways and with a collection like this, we’ve done the work and you can just explore and enjoy. I hope that if people read it a hundred years from now — and I think they will — they’ll see fascinating science, but they’ll also see wonderful writers. And that was my other goal for this collection — for each of these stories to stand up as a great works of literature.