Bethany Brookshire can recall planting tomato seeds in her garden one spring, with the full intention of harvesting them for a beautiful pasta sauce or a salad. And she can recall her arch nemesis, a scheming and slick squirrel she refers to as F***ing Kevin, taking a bite out of each one before they ever made it to her plate.
Some might look at F***ing Kevin and see a mere garden pest. For Brookshire, a former Knight Science Journalism fellow, the rodent was the inspiration for her debut book, “Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains.”
Rats, pigeons, mice, snakes, deer, coyotes and sparrows are just a few of the pesky creatures that make up the book’s cast of characters. Split into five major sections, “Pests” takes readers on a journey from the Karni Mata Temple in India, where rats are worshipped, to python hunts in the everglades of Florida, where snakes are killed as soon as caught. It is as much about what our relationships with pests can tell us about ourselves as it is about the maligned animals themselves. “They are a reflection of who we are [and] what we want,” Brookshire told an audience of Knight Science Journalism Fellows and guests in a seminar at the KSJ offices in February.
At the event, Brookshire gave the audience an insider’s look at the structural and stylistic choices she made in writing the book, from the book’s five-part structure, which she calls “The Daisy,” to the technical tricks she deployed to ensure the book would be briskly paced. Inspired by Michael Pollan and his book, “The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World,” Brookshire said carefully mapped the rising and falling of the narrative before ever striking the keyboard, alternating between heavier and lighter material to make sure the narrative didn’t sag like soggy clothes on a flimsy clothesline.
Late in the talk, Brookshire turned to the topic of the anxieties that can weigh on writers when they compare themselves to their peers. She has come to think of science writers like blacksmiths, she said: Some blacksmiths create intricate iron fences, others create breathtaking sculptures, and others forge swords.
“I make horseshoes,” she said, drawing a round of laughter. “But it’s a damn good horseshoe.”
The message in the metaphor, Brookshire explained, was that writers should take pride in writing in their own unique way, and avoid measuring their successes by others’ accomplishments.
Said Brookshire, “Know yourself, not who you wish you were.”
Elizabeth Gamillo is a student in the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing. She was previously a daily correspondent for Smithsonian and wrote for Science magazine as their 2018 AAAS Diverse Voices in Science Journalism Intern.