Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of dispatches from the Knight Science Journalism Program’s 2021-22 Project Fellows.
In March, I flew to Dallas from Boston to meet with a group of earthquake scientists I’d been following for years. The interviews would help me wrap up a book project about the surge of human-induced quakes in Texas, Oklahoma, and several other states — tremors that were triggered by the production of oil and gas. On the trip, I’d brought a copy of Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” about the pioneering global health and infectious disease doctor, Paul Farmer, who had died suddenly in February.
The book, I thought, would inform my own writing as I traveled through West Texas’s oilfields, spoke with experts at Dallas’s Southern Methodist University, and struggled to produce two new chapters.
“Mountains Beyond Mountains” takes up a subject wholly different from my own. It’s about Farmer’s quest to bring first world healthcare to those living in extreme poverty. Kidder follows Farmer as he travels to France, Cuba, Peru, Haiti, and Boston treating patients, raising funds, and pushing against the prevailing wisdom that first class medical care is too expensive to be offered in the developing world.
My book, which I’m co-writing with Boston College historian of science Conevery Bolton Valencius, follows more than a half dozen scientists in three states as they investigate a surge of earthquakes in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. They conclude that oil and gas production, specifically the disposal of wastewater from fracking and other operations, caused the rate of quakes in the central United States to balloon from roughly 25 per year in 2008 to more than 1,000 in 2015. During that time, Oklahoma surpassed both California and Alaska to become the most seismically active state in the nation.
Yet the books have some similar themes. Just as Paul Farmer succeeds in shifting conventional thinking in global public health, the seismologists succeed in nudging regulators and oil and gas companies to better monitor and regulate how and where they drill in order to lessen the threat of earthquakes.
Here are five lessons I took away from Kidder’s book:
Not every story needs death and villains … but they help. An editor once said about my earthquake reporting: “This story has no villain, and no one dies.” And yet, I found the story endlessly compelling and hoped I could hook others in the same way that I was hooked.
In “Mountains Beyond Mountains” there are no clear villains, either, though there is plenty of death. To make up for the lack of a villain, Kidder depicts Farmer pushing against the prevailing wisdom with edgy, unorthodox ideas. Some of Farmer’s critics saw him as a ”mere clinician, too interested in patients to see the big picture” of stopping transmission of a disease like tuberculosis, Kidder wrote. Conflict and controversy can go a long way in taking the place of a clear villain.
Science and sex. Farmer’s book reminded me of the importance of writing about scientists as fully rendered human beings – people with emotions, longings, and flaws. Many don’t like to be portrayed that way, wishing their work to speak for itself. I was surprised when I came across a steamy shower scene between Farmer and an ex-girlfriend in the middle of “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” It highlighted the tension between Farmer’s work and personal life.
Conflict and controversy can go a long way in taking the place of a clear villain.
Pruning the cast of characters. Kidder focused his book on Farmer, even though many people, including Farmer’s co-founders, were responsible for the success of the nonprofit Partners In Health. Kidder addresses this deliberate decision in the epilogue. “Paul Farmer never wanted me to imagine that he alone was responsible for the early work of Partners In Health,” Kidder wrote. “I think if he’d been the writer, he would have given equal time to all the people involved in the organization’s early days … a cast of at least dozens. But I couldn’t have written a book like that, and I’m glad I didn’t try.” Our book’s cast is much larger than Kidder’s, and “Mountains Beyond Mountains” is a reminder to limit the number of names we expect readers to remember.
Being there. A key to the success of “Mountains Beyond Mountains” is Kidder’s close observation of Farmer over months as he traveled to global health conferences, went on rounds at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and hiked for miles to visit sick patients in Haiti.
Unfortunately, much of the action in my book takes place behind computers as scientists analyze waveforms to locate earthquakes, in hearing rooms, and around conference tables where scientists meet with regulators and representatives of oil and gas companies. Moreover, some of the more heated exchanges took place when I wasn’t around.
To make up for these deficiencies, I have asked scientists to recreate scenes and events I’ve missed with as much color as possible.
Personal descriptions. Kidder writes some of the most graceful descriptions of people I have ever read. I wonder how much he struggled with them or if they came to him naturally. Take this one of Farmer: “I remember thinking that Captain Carroll and Dr. Farmer made a mismatched pair, and that Farmer suffered in the comparison. The captain stood about six foot two, tanned and muscular. As usual, a wad of snuff enlarged his lower lip. Now and then he turned his head aside and spat. Farmer was about the same age but much more delicate-looking. He had short black hair and a high waist and long thin arms, and his nose came almost to a point. Next to the soldier, he looked skinny and pale, and for all of that he struck me as bold, indeed downright cocky.” Following best practices, Kidder uses only active verbs (“made,” “suffered,” “enlarged,” “struck”) and eschews “to be.” And he has a way of honing in on the specific characteristics that make a person recognizable. Those characteristics are a mix of conventional ones (short black hair) and unexpected ones (a high waist, a nose that came almost to a point), and he sets them off by signaling that they contrast with his seemingly cocky personality.
I also noticed a tip for how to let readers know that a character is physically attractive without saying so directly, which can be awkward. Let someone else do the talking, as Kidder does here, about two young women doctors: “PIH-ers weren’t all alike, of course, but many had impressive academic credentials, many were religious, the majority were female, and a lot of those were, as Ophelia said, ‘rather good-looking.’ The full description fit both Serena and Carole.”
As I finished the book, I thought about how I could hope to achieve even a fraction of what Kidder did with “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” Was it possible with my own material? I thought back to a comment a colleague of mine made when I asked him to collaborate on the earthquake book with me. “Nah,” he said. “When I write a book, it will be about one person working to solve one important problem.” Ultimately, that’s what Kidder did with “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” But while the plot and focus of the book appear to materialize effortlessly as you read it, I know through my own struggles that they probably didn’t just “materialize” for Kidder when he first sat down to write. So many difficult decisions and so much labor and effort go into creating something that reads so flawlessly. My co-author and I can only keep striving to do our very best.
Anna Kuchment is The Boston Globe’s Medical and Biotechnology editor. Prior to joining the Globe, she was a reporter at Newsweek magazine, a senior editor at Scientific American and a science enterprise reporter at The Dallas Morning News.