An Interview with Juli Berwald

16 Nov

Juli Berwald is the author of Spineless, which a New York Times review called “as mesmerizing, surprising, and beautiful as the jellyfish itself.”

Juli Berwald is the author of the memoir Spineless. She received her Ph.D. in Ocean Science from the University of Southern California. A science textbook writer and editor, she has written for a number of publications, including The New York TimesNatureNational Geographic, and Slate. She lives in Austin with her husband and their son and daughter.

To read an excerpt from Spineless and an exercise on developing a narrative voice, click here.

In this interview, Berwald discusses finding her narrative voice, fact-checking science and memory, and learning from a community of fiction writers.

Michael Noll

Spineless is about jellyfish, but it’s also about you. Did you always know that your story would be part of the book? Was there a moment you realized that it was?

Juli Berwald

I’m a huge reader both of fiction and non-fiction. And what I love about fiction is being sucked into a story so that I feel like I’m swimming in it. But I’m a science writer and so I look for models for my own writing in non-fiction. And frequently I don’t find that same sort of immersive connection to non-fiction books. Often I finish a non-fiction book, even one that I really love, and in my head I think, “I could never write a book like that.” And often the book I’ve just finished would have had a very authoritative voice and a somewhat distant energy.

One day, I realized that “I could never write a book like that” could be said with a different intonation, more of a proclamation than a sigh. And that change of tone freed me from having to write a book “like that.” It was in that moment that I realized what I could do. I could write a book with more of the stuff that makes fiction so compelling to me: a conversational voice and a “come along with me and let’s figure this out” story line. And I realized that I’d need to include my own story in the book.

Michael Noll

Since this is a book about science, I would imagine that it was pretty heavily fact-checked. How much did the fact-checking extend to the non-science stuff, such as who you were hanging out with in college and grad school? When it came to the personal parts of the book, did you ever fudge anything or condense moments or people?

Juli Berwald

Yes, the science was all fact-checked as hard as I could fact check it. I had Shin-ichi Uye, who is the jellyfish expert who traveled in Japan with me, read the whole book and I sent off chapters to some of the key scientists for comments. I also paid a fact-checker to go through all the dates and names and dollar amounts and anything else she could find. Then the copy editors found a few things too. It was grueling. And I still found a few errors when I recorded the audio book. Most were inconsequential but one bugs me a lot. So if anyone reads this, on page 204: “datasets spanning the years 1970 to 2011” should be “datasets spanning the years 1940 to 2011.”

All of the personal stuff is true as well as I can remember. I went back through journals, photos, and old slides and even dug up my dissertation and some old scientific papers to verify dates and memories. I passed some of it by a friend who went to grad school with me. Interestingly, in my mind over the course of three decades I had expanded the first marine biology course I took in Israel to something like two or three weeks, but when I looked back at my journal it was only one. Goes to show how hour our memories can inflate moments, and also how much it impacted me.

Michael Noll

Spineless

Juli Berwald’s book about jellyfish, Spineless, has received glowing reviews and been called “thoroughly delightful and entertaining.”

You have a really smooth way of quickly explaining things and giving context. For example, there’s a passage when you’re talking about the explosion of Mnemiopsis in the Black Sea and the possibility of introducing a predator to control it. In less than a paragraph, you sum up the challenge of doing so and give two examples (one of getting it right and one of getting it wrong). I can imagine that it might be tempting to make the explanation of that point much longer. Was that something you had to cut back for narrative efficiency, or did you have a sense in the back of your head for how much explanation and context to give in moments like that?

Juli Berwald

I’m so glad you bring up that paragraph in particular. I must have spent a week or more doing the research to get those two examples. I knew I wanted to explain the response to an invasive species, but I didn’t really know the science behind what happens when you plant a new species to take care of the invasion. There’s a huge amount of literature on it and I had a hard time getting my arms around it. Originally, that paragraph was pages long and full of all kinds of explanations of the experiments and results and scientists involved, and some of it was really interesting.

But this book took a very long time to write and so I had the luxury of going back to old writing when my emotional tie to the amount of work I’d put in had dissipated. For the most part, that allowed me be surgical to my writing, and cut out all the stuff that, while interesting, just didn’t matter to the point at hand. There are a few places where I still don’t think I got it as right as I could have, but the long time involved was definitely beneficial.

Michael Noll

You write beautifully about an animal that, for a lot of people, prompts an initial reaction of, “Ooh, gross.” Certainly no one would say that after reading Spineless. You write in the book about a previous job crafting science curricula and tests for an educational company—which involved, I’m sure, writing that was something less than beautiful and inspiring. Is the prose in this book a more natural style for you, or did you have to consciously think about it?

Juli Berwald

That’s a cool question. How about if I say consciously natural? I have always been a big reader, like I mentioned. And I wrote some when I was in high school and thought I’d like to continue writing. But then I got to college—it was Amherst, a small liberal arts college known for its writing program. And I was surrounded by all these amazing writers. I became incredibly intimidated very quickly. Luckily, I was decent at math and decided to be a math major, in large part to avoid competing with all that brilliance. And I stopped writing pretty much until I became a textbook writer in my 30s.

At the textbook company, my job was to try to distill complicated ideas in to spaces that could hold just a few sentences. And I found the challenge super fascinating. How can you cut out all the unnecessary words, but still be accurate? I did that for a decade, and I think that served me very well because I really wrestled with language almost like it was a math problem, trying to find the most elegant and correct solution. I also started reading magazine science writing with a very critical eye. Looking for ways that those talented science writers added humor and snark and delight to their writing. But I was also still pretty much a blank slate when it came to my own writing voice.

So I started hanging out with all kinds of fiction and memoir writers and going to their writing classes and writing retreats. I joined a writing group with fiction writers and memoirists that’s still really important to me today. I’m generally the odd science writer at all these gatherings, but I love it because I’ve been such a fiction fan my whole life. These writers really encouraged me to find a voice that could handle the science, but also allowed me to pull in the memoir. And eventually it became the voice in Spineless, one that I feel really good about.

November 2017

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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One Response to “An Interview with Juli Berwald”

  1. lalitkishor01 November 18, 2017 at 8:02 p11 #

    https://wp.me/s8O4nx-heart

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