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Science journalist Michael Specter on writing for audio

By Nathan Maharaj • November 07, 2021Big Ideas

Science journalist Michael Specter is the author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives.

He spoke with us about his latest audiobook, Fauci, the first biography to be published about Dr. Anthony Fauci.

What are you reading?

I read a lot of weird stuff, but I’m going to put aside the molecular biology papers I’m reading.

I’ve just read this book from the 60s, Medieval Technology and Social Change by Lynn White Jr. It was revelatory to me because when you look at things like the anti-vaccine movement, people think these things are new but in fact in the Middle Ages people were revolting against the new. It’s a common human reaction to worry about what’s new.

And I’ve just read a book called The Precipice by Oxford philosopher Toby Ord about existential threat and the many different ways the world could be wiped out.

Now for fun… Actually those are fun books to read.

But I also just read Pat Barker’s two books about the women of Troy. She’s a great novelist.

Sometimes I read thrillers, which I feel is like a confession. [laughs] I just read Macbeth by Jo Nesbo. I admit I was skeptical about it, but it was really, really great. It was my first Nesbo, but I don’t think it’ll be my last. If the guy can take Macbeth and make it modern and exciting I should give him another shot.

So this book about Dr Fauci—how did you approach the writing knowing that the outcome would be audio?

I approached it as a draft that I knew ahead of time would be scaled back when we get the actual tape of the people speaking. I’ve had tremendous technical help with that, and knowing that we’ll get good tape to insert makes me look at the draft as more of a blueprint, a guide for where the audio pieces will go.

Originally I wrote it as a long piece for The New Yorker, and when I was approached by Pushkin to turn it into an audiobook—I thought, sure I’ll read it. But that isn’t of course what they had in mind. We’ve got a great score, and great archival tape, and it’s all really well put together. I think it makes for a more interesting experience.

What’s it like writing a book when your sources are going to be right there for the reader, or listener, to take in first-hand?

It’s exciting. And it’s daunting in a way. I’ve been doing something a certain way for many years, and I know how to write a good long magazine piece. But the first chapter of Fauci that I gave to my editor Julia Barton, she said to me, “These are New Yorker words—you can’t read all of these in a row. Think of the audio.”

"Originally I wrote it as a long piece for The New Yorker, and when I was approached by Pushkin to turn it into an audiobook—I thought, sure I’ll read it.

But that isn’t what they had in mind."

She wasn’t saying to dumb it down. She was telling me to be mindful of making a good audio product, which includes making space for breathing.

Did you feel like your book Denialism set you up particularly well to write this book about Dr Fauci in this moment? Or was it more about your long-standing interest in his work and relationship with him?

Probably a bit of both. I wrote a lot about him when he was running the AIDS research program thirty years ago, so he’s very much a part of my trajectory as a writer.

But also, I hesitate to call anything miraculous, but these mRNA vaccines we have are as good as anyone could have hoped they would be. And yet in the United States, a few thousand people are still dying from COVID, and those people unvaccinated, and they’re unvaccinated by choice.

That’s frustrating, and it’s why I wrote Denialism. There was so much talk about vaccinations and GMOs but there was never any data to back up the views people were expressing. It was just an emotional reaction, and I’ve learned you can’t just say to someone, “you’re being emotional,” and expect to solve anything. You have to figure out what they’re objecting to, and that’s very complicated.

There are two big beats in Dr. Fauci’s career: his work on AIDS and now his role in the COVID pandemic, but they’re separated by quite a bit of time. Having followed his career all along, is there anything that surprised you about how people started talking about him as a topic in this major second act in his role in public health?

It’s very strange to me to see him becoming a political polarizing figure.

Now look, I’ve watched Fauci through six presidential administrations. You do not last through Ronald Reagan all the way up to Donald Trump and everyone in between if you’re not a political guy. Not that I know which way he votes, but he’s played ball with Republicans and Democrats and he’s gotten along fine. So the idea that he’s this radical leftist ideologue is just stupid. And for him I think it’s somewhat painful.

"In the old days that just wasn’t how scientists were treated. They were treated like people trying to do good for humanity."

Fauci’s been out there for years saying, with others, that we need better protection against pandemics. I’ve written about that since 2004 with SARS, as have other good science journalists. Fauci and others point to the same pattern: we get worked up over a pandemic flu and a few hundred thousand people might die, but then we forget about it and money’s never appropriated to do anything about preventing the next one.

And yet there are bills in congress trying to get Fauci fired or indicted based on conspiracy theories about him planning the pandemic of all things. He works 18 hours per day, and whatever he makes it’s 10% of what he could have been paid if a his salary was what he cared about. It’s disheartening to see him attacked in this way. He has a Secret Service detail because of the threats made against him.

In the old days that just wasn’t how scientists were treated. They were treated like people trying to do good for humanity.

Is there anything in Dr. Fauci’s handling of the pandemic that surprised you?

There’s a new afterword in this audiobook, and it comes from an interview I did with him during the summer. And I thought I would just incorporate what he said into the piece I wanted for the book—but he was so angry. I’ve never heard him talk that way, and I think he’s really at his wit’s end.

Can you tell me about the next book you’re working on with your publisher Pushkin? I understand it’s a more like a continuation of Denialism.

We’re moving really rapidly in science and it scares some people. I think the mRNA vaccines for example are the first step towards a world of synthetic biology, where we’ll be able to do a lot of great things in medicine, food, in environmental remediation—there’s a lot we’re going to be able to do when we turn biology into information.

The way we were able to get these COVID vaccines so quickly was that the virus’ genome was made available on the internet in a matter of weeks after Chinese scientists had sequenced it. There were researchers at Stanford and other places beginning to run experiments with actual cells, which is unheard of. It was just that easy to decode the virus and play around with it. So to speak to the flip side of that, if we can do these things for the good of people, we can start to envision how bad things could be done. It’s not like nuclear energy turning into weapons: that’s expensive and difficult and requires a lot of money and expertise. But with biology, if someone wanted to design a deadly virus on their computer and send it to somewhere willing to manufacture it… It’s not free, but it’s getting awfully cheap.

So this new book is about this place where we are now with molecular biology, and how did we get here.

We’ve done three chapters of the next book, and it’s a very collaborative process. We have table reads, and we decide together that we need a little more of this or that. For a guy who’s spent more than thirty years going into a room to type alone, I find it enjoyable. It’s a team effort. It’s a fun process. ◼

Fauci by Michael Specter

In Fauci, Specter weaves exclusive new interviews and archival audio of Dr. Fauci, his wife Christine Grady, R.N., Ph.D., and key colleagues and peers into a compelling portrait. Listeners will hear Dr. Fauci speak firsthand about the harassment and death threats he has received as a result of his leadership and about the stress of simultaneously combating the COVID-19 pandemic and an information war waged by his former boss, President Donald J. Trump and some members of Congress. With its chorus of voices, archival recordings, and original score, Fauci brings the immediacy and energy of the best documentary podcasts to the audiobook format.

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