An Interview with Dan Fagin

May 9, 2017

If you’ve ever taken an epidemiology or environmental studies class, then you’ve most probably read “Toms River” by Dan Fagin, a book that delves into the story of Toms River, N.J., and its struggle against Ciba-Geigy, a chemical plant that greatly contributed to the town’s water pollution and poor water quality.

Fagin won a Pulitzer prize for his work, and has continued to follow his passion for health and science journalism through his teaching at NYU. Fagin was inspired by science journalism after he realized political journalism was not his forte; he was ready to zig when others zagged and ready to write more than the political issues other journalists were covering.

He was inspired by the intellectual challenge public health posed, and when he came across the story of Toms River, he put that love of science into an amazing telling of one town’s fight against pollution.

Fagin was kind enough to answer some questions about his reactions to the story and the work put into writing and reporting on the environmental issues that surrounded the town:

Were you surprised at the corruption you uncovered?
Corruption means different things to different people. There were few people who actually thought they were doing something wrong at the time. They didn’t believe it or they didn’t want to believe it. I’ve been an environmental reporter for a long time. I know these issues are complicated and the human brain has a tremendous capacity for denial and delusion. I wasn’t completely surprised at how this played out over time, though I do think I was somewhat surprised at how clear the evidence was that the company did know what was going on and chose not to do anything about it. In the ’50s and ’60s it wasn’t necessarily illegal, but they knew what they were doing was highly questionable.

Was it hard to find sources to talk about this issue?
Getting them to talk to me was difficult, and in the end some people decided not to. I tried to be very understanding and I tried not to badger people, but I also tried to be very assertive in contacting people and letting them know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. In the end I found that many people were willing to talk to me once they had established a degree of comfort that I was doing this project for the right reasons.

Did you plan for the story was going to go so much in depth about the history of public health in general?
I didn’t really intend to do that, or at least not much of it. I knew I wanted to talk about the history of Toms River, not the history of public health research. But I found it interesting and it often fit together in a really engaging way. I would tell my wife, friends, and students that I found the coolest thing about this guy who lived in the fifteenth century and they thought it was interesting too. I decided to adopt this storytelling technique –– I wouldn’t do a straight chronology, but I would do a “braiding” and people liked it.

Did you find the story going on many tangents?
You don’t want to get too bogged down that you lose the main thread of the story. You have to move back and forth in time and make sure you don’t get so obsessed with history. I tried to be very rigorous. In journalism you have to kill your babies. You’ve written something you really love and you’re pretty reluctant to cut it out, but you have to have the discipline. You have to put the story first, and the needs of the reader first.

What was the feedback like on this story?
I gave a talk at Toms River a few weeks after it was published and people loved it. They didn’t want what they had gone through to be in vain, and they wanted other people to learn from what they had gone through.

How did you feel when you found out that you won a Pulitzer?
It was a shock. If you’re a really good newspaper reporter there’s always a chance you’ll be up for a Pulitzer, but this was different because the book prize is really something extraordinary, especially the general nonfiction category –– some of the best writers in the 20th century have won this prize. It never occurred to me that my book would be seriously considered for something like that.

Did you know the book was going to be this long and explanatory?
I don’t do things halfway. When I go for things I usually commit to them, but I didn’t know it was going to take me six years, or that I was going to do all this historical research. I don’t think people would do projects this big if they new from the beginning how daunting they would be.

This story does not read like a dry textbook –– how did you keep your readers engaged?
That’s the art of journalism –– being accurate and reflecting reality, but in a way that people will actually want to read. Just thinking carefully about your reader and what they want. I don’t write books full time, I’m a professor training science journalists and that’s one of the big things we think carefully about –– who your reader is, what your reader needs, what your reader wants to know. The best way to learn it is through trial and error, but it certainly does help to be taught.

How hard was it to keep yourself out of the story while you were writing?
There were some things that happened where I could have switched to first person, yet I find that first person is often overdone. What I tell my students is, if you’re going to do that, you really should be doing something really interesting. The nice thing about not doing it is that it enforces a kind of modesty on you. It’s easy to sound arrogant when you’re writing in the first person, and I hate arrogance in storytelling. Every author brings their own biases to every story, and it’s really important to have some humility and bring that to your storytelling, too. Avoiding first person is an important way to enforce that.

How did you make it read like a narrative instead of a news piece?
It was difficult because I did not use the classic literary technique of building the story around one character. It arguably could have been Linda Gillick, but I decided early in the process that there were really important and interesting ideas that didn’t involve her, so that did make the narrative more challenging. What I decided was that the town itself was the fundamental character. There was an arc to the town –– the town changed, grew and learned. I decided that I wanted to reflect the reality and the complexity of what was going on. Dickens has compelling characters –– he’s got hundreds of them in a single novel, and his most important character is often the city of London. I decided that I wanted Toms River itself to be the most important character.

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