Visiting professor, Williamstown local wins Pulitzer for General Non-Fiction

May 6, 2015 by Samuel Reinert, Staff Writer

Local resident and visiting professor Elizabeth Kolbert won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. Staff Writer Samuel Reinert talked to Kolbert about winning the award.

You recently won the Pulitzer Prize for your book The Sixth Extinction, can you talk a little bit about the book?

There have been five, what are called major mass extinctions, in the history of complex life, and there is real concern and evidence, that we, human beings, are going to bring about another such event. The book looks at the history of the whole concept of extinction – it has an intellectual history component and a natural history component – and it looks at what we know about these previous events, some of which are a very long time ago. The first was 440 million years ago. Then it looks at how people are changing the planet, and in what way we are driving extinction rates up. You get different estimates of how far they are above what are known as background extinction rates, but they are very, very high.

It sounds like a lot of research had to go into that. Were there any particular challenges or interesting things that you had to get around or pursue?

There were two sets of intersecting challenges in writing the book, which took me almost four and a half years to write, maybe five from conception to publication. The first set of challenges was related to what I was just talking about. There were three overlapping stories that were getting told, and getting them in an order that was comprehensible and flowed, that took me a long time to figure out. And then there was simply the research for the book, which took me to a lot of different parts of the world, four continents and maybe nine or 10 countries – everywhere from the Amazon to the Great Barrier Reef. So that was challenging, just getting to those places and putting together the research.

I can imagine. That sounds like a fascinating process, getting to interact with all of those locations.

I had a lot of great experiences researching the book. I went out and got to see just some really amazing places. Everywhere we went, these scientists were looking for human impacts on the environment, but because human impacts are so pervasive now on the planet, you can go anywhere and find them. And some of the places I went were very evidently disturbed landscapes, but some of them were just the most amazing places that still exist on earth, like for example the Great Barrier Reef – it was just an incredible, incredible place.

Where did your inspiration to write this book come from? Was there a single event, or a build-up?

I had written a book on climate change, which came out about 10 years ago already. After that I wrote a piece for The New Yorker on ocean acidification, and I started to see climate change, even as big of an issue as that is, as sort of part of a whole constellation of ways. This isn’t an original idea, this is what the scientists I was interviewing were saying. It is really just one of the ways humans are changing the planet. And then I wrote a piece for National Geographic on this whole concept of the Anthropocene – that we are entering a new geological epoch that will be defined by human impacts on the planet. There was also this bat fungus, and suddenly bats were dying by the hundreds of thousands, and that echoed this fungus, which had been killing frogs, and it just crashed amphibian populations. All of these, both the frog-killing and the bat-killing fungus, and all of these big things going on, came together in this idea of the sixth extinction. So I decided to try to write a book that combined all those threads.

You will be coming to the College next year to teach a class. Can you talk about the class?

It’s a science and nature writing class, it’s really about how we can translate data and science into narrative. Students are going to be able to focus on different stories that they want to tell, I’m not going to tell you what story to tell. It’s going to be about the process of translating scientific information into prose that lay people can – want – to read. And that’s a big challenge. And I think everyone in the scientific world would agree that it’s not necessarily one that scientists are very good at. So we’ll all hopefully work on these questions of how you do that together. But it is going to be a writing class, and if anyone is reading this who is thinking about taking the class, I want people to come who are interested in both science and writing.

Was there any relation between the conception of the class and the publishing of the book?

Well, it’s what I’ve been doing. I taught a class along these lines a couple years ago, back in 2011, I think, and I felt like I really learned a lot. The stuff we read in class and the issues that we talked about definitely informed the book as I was writing. I’m hoping, once again, that I will learn a lot from the class. Every time you do this – every time you read great writing, every time you talk about these issues – as a teacher you learn a lot too. So they are definitely interconnected in that way.

But perhaps the class will lead you to write another book, who knows.

I hope so!

Can you give any specifics, or spoilers about the class?

One thing that I’m also hoping to do with the class … is to bring in some people who have different ways of approaching this question of translating science into narrative. People come up with different solutions to that problem, and I am hoping to bring a couple of people – some of them are friends of mine, some of them are people whose work I admire – to campus to talk about how they address some of these issues. I want it to be, I don’t want to say a practical course, because I want to encourage people to take it who aren’t necessarily planning to go into science communication as a profession, but I’d like people to come away with some practical skills.

You said you taught a class here before, but how did you end up here at the College?

[What I really am is] a Williams spouse. I’ve lived in Williamstown for more than 20 years, and my kids grew up in Williamstown. I’m in Rome right now, but normally I am in Williamstown, and I have a very long-standing relationship to the College.

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