An Interview with Eric Boodman

Eric Boodman’s 2017 STAT story “Accidental therapists: For insect detectives, the trickiest cases involve the bugs that aren’t really there” covers a topic that is unfamiliar to most of us. Here, Boodman introduces readers to a world where patients suffer from delusional parasitosis — an unshakeable belief that you are being attacked by bugs when you’re not. Many might find such a world foreign. But to use Boodman’s own analogy, he has the ability to open a portal onto this world, making it familiar to readers with the help of quirky — yet lovable — characters, fun details, deep reporting and so much more.

And it’s just one example of Boodman’s highly original reporting. His stories consistently introduce readers to worlds they might not have known otherwise, making it no wonder he won this year’s Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists. Here, Showcase picks his brain.

Eric Boodman

Given that STAT is your first gig after college, I’d love to ask a little about your career path. How and when did you get the writing bug?

I can’t remember not having the writing bug. As a kid I wanted to write poems, as an adolescent I wanted to write novels, and then in college I fell in love with magazine journalism. I guess I should blame my parents for having too many books around.

The science-writing bug, though, I caught when I took Carl Zimmer’s seminar as a sophomore in college. I talked to lobstermen, paleo-ecologists, neuroscientists, and TB patients, and it was thrilling to hear so many different voices.

How were you able to do so much writing for “real” newspapers and publications while still in college?

I started reviewing ornithology books for the Montreal Gazette when I was in high school. The editor was looking for someone who wasn’t part of the ornithology scene and so wouldn’t have any conflicts of interest, and I guess a 13-year-old who was equally obsessed with birds and books fit the bill. I eventually broadened my horizons beyond ornithology, and those pieces in the Gazette led to assignments from the Montreal Review of Books, which continued while I was in college. At that point I also did a reporting internship with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and I learned a lot from the journalists and editors there. I got to write about all kinds of things: addiction and immunology, race and education, soundscape art, and botany.

How did you land the STAT job?

It was pure luck. STAT was only just getting off the ground, and the executive editor was looking for science journalists. An editor I had worked with suggested my name, and I got an email out of the blue asking if I was in the market for a job. The message came after I had applied and been turned down for more jobs and internships than I care to count.

When digging for new features, long before you pitch them to your editor, what do you look for most?

When I’m searching around for story ideas, I’m looking for images or voices that I can’t get out of my mind. Gale Ridge leaning back in her bed with jars of bedbugs balanced on her leg, Hugh Brown using himself as bait for disease-transmitting insects at the top of his homemade radio tower, Taria Camerino encountering someone whose personality evokes the taste of Mongolian mare’s milk — I hope these images allow readers to glimpse, if just for a moment, what it is like to be Ridge or Brown or Camerino. And I hope that that glimpse in turn makes them care about delusional disorders, infectious disease research, and the side effects of cancer treatment. The science is interesting and important, of course — but it’s the people who bring it to life.

What criteria does a good story have?

I don’t remember all that much about Phillip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife — I read it when I was still in primary school — but at its center is a striking image: a knife that can make slits in the air around you to open up portals into other worlds. That seems like a pretty good metaphor for what narrative journalism can do. A good piece can let you into another world that was present but somehow invisible in your everyday existence.

There are plenty of wonderful, important stories that don’t fit that model. But the ones I return to again and again tend to take me inside the heads of people whose days are very different from mine: an Afghan tamale-seller in small-town Wyoming, or the superstars of the stove-building world, or the ornithologists whose work on same-sex albatross couples has caused an unexpected storm of controversy.

You have a knack for making people in your stories come alive with such vivid details — down to how a person ties his shoes! Is this something you cater your interview questions to elicit? If so, do you have any special tricks or prompts for helping draw those details out when they don’t come naturally from researchers? 

Thanks! I usually start my interviews broad. I want to get the person talking, to hear what is important to them, because if you go in with a preconceived notion of where the story is, chances are you’ll miss something great. Only later, once I know which scenes I want to flesh out, do I zero in and start asking more detailed questions about who was sitting where and what the dog was doing and what color shirt you were wearing that day. You can do some of that over the phone — or by text or by email — but the best is just to be there in person and see it for yourself. If I could embed, military-style, with everyone I’m writing about, I would.

On the same note, I have to ask, how did you find Hugh Brown — given that he isn’t a researcher, or someone in the public sphere?

I happened across an article in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases about the use of citizen science to track the organisms that cause Chagas disease, and I thought, “Huh, it’s pretty dramatic to ask citizen scientists to collect bugs that could give them a deadly disease.” So I called up the researchers on a whim and asked if any of their lay participants might be interested in speaking with me. They put me in touch with Hugh Brown, and as soon as I heard his voice — the first thing he said was that he lived in “a biological habitat called post-oak savannah, just enough roll to the land so it’s not flat, but I wouldn’t exactly call it hilly,” — I knew he had a great story to tell.  

I can only imagine that you interview dozens of characters before choosing a few to highlight in a single story. How do you decide who ends up in the cutting-room floor? And how do you cope with the pain?

That’s really hard. There’s an amazing fellow in Arizona with whom I spent nearly eight hours in the desert this past spring, and I wish I could have written a whole separate story about him. But his work was less medical than other people’s, and the story already felt too long. He did help me understand the broader context of health issues that migrants face as they try to walk across the border, though, and I hope that came through in the piece.

Sometimes it is clear to me who best embodies the story — the person who I could have kept talking to forever — and other times it takes the sharp outside eye of my editor to tell me that one person’s appearance in the story was disruptive rather than helpful.

I loved the last four words in your story on delusional parasitosis. And it seems to be a trend: Quite a few of your stories include these (oh, how should I put this?) philosophical undertones, if you will, that really get to the heart of the human experience. Is this something you intentionally do or does it fall from the type of stories you write?

Thank you; I really appreciate you saying that. That is definitely something I am trying to do. If you’re going to ask someone to read thousands of words, you want there to be some heft, some heart to the piece that makes it more than a nifty explanation or a fun string of anecdotes. I want to tell stories about why people get up in the morning and do what they do. That emotional current should be bubbling under the surface throughout, but it does need to emerge at certain moments, and those are often the hardest bits to write. 

It’s clear from your stories that an impressive amount of work is put into each one. How long does a typical feature take? How many people do you interview? And when do you know when to quit reporting and start writing?

It’s hard to say, because some take weeks and some take months, and I’m usually working on a few different ideas at once, with others on Post-its by my desk waiting their turn. When I was doing a lot of reporting on kratom, pieces I thought would take weeks ended up coming out in days because they were tied to the news. On the other hand, I had been wanting to write about delusional parasitosis for years, but I hadn’t quite figured out how. Then, after I first spoke to Gale Ridge, I spent months waiting to hear whether any of the people she’d helped might be interested in speaking with me. I was doing other interviews for the piece in the interim, but I also wrote some unrelated stories.

For in-depth features, the reporting never truly feels done. But there does come a moment when I start formulating sentences in my head as I’m heading home from an interview or riding my bike or chopping onions, and that’s usually a sign that I’m ready to start writing.

How do you go about structuring those long features? 

I often think about where I want the piece to end up, or what the most climactic scene is, and then figure out how to set up the drama so that readers get pulled toward that moment. That means spending a lot of time writing the beginning so that the reader is intrigued, but doesn’t yet know every single card I have in my hand.  

Sometimes a particular interaction is at the heart of an article, and I think about the arc as a kind of slow collision. Sometimes, under the influence of one of my writing teachers, I think about the piece in almost mythical terms, as a quest, a mystery to be solved. At other times, under the influence of yet another teacher, I think of it as conversation between two plots, each one informing the other.

What’s your advice to aspiring and young writers?

I don’t think I’m really qualified to be giving advice to anyone. But here are some pieces of advice I’m constantly trying to give myself to make my stories better. Maybe the most important of them comes from the great novelist Richard Ford, and that is: Pay attention, pay attention, pay attention. It applies all the time. When casting around for story ideas, pay attention to the ideas that stick in your mind after you’ve left your desk and are hanging out with friends or doing groceries or taking a shower. Those are the scenes you’ll be able to write most compellingly. Likewise, pay attention to what sources get most fired up about, because that’s where the best stories often are. (This doesn’t always work — sometimes you find yourself on the phone with someone trying to get you to write about something or other — but you can often hear the difference between someone who is selling something, and someone who is so enthusiastic or angry or curious that they can’t wait to tell you what’s on their mind.) And when you’re out reporting, pay as close attention to details as you can. Write down the time. Write down everything you smell and hear and see. Write down your impressions and the terrible similes that pop into your head. All that — including all the stuff you leave out — will help create a more memorable story later on.

Another bit of advice I often give myself is just to read carefully. When I’m stuck on a story, I return again and again to pieces by Burkhard Bilger, Brooke Jarvis, Atul Gawande, Pamela Colloff, and Jon Mooallem, among many others. Some might call that procrastination, but I think it helps me write.

I’m also always reminding myself how lucky I am to work as a science writer. I cold-call all sorts of people, and many of them willingly show me their labs and their prairie dog burrows, their clinics and their offices, their operating rooms, and the radio towers they’ve built behind their homes. They tell me about the birds in their backyards, and about their children, and about the times they’ve been in the hospital, and their brushes with death. A lot of it is very private stuff. Some of them spend hours walking me through tough scientific or legal concepts. Those folks give me access to worlds I wouldn’t otherwise have known about, and I hope that my articles do their stories some sort of justice.