Jacob Berkowitz: A Q&A With a Science Writer
Jacob Berkowitz is an author, science writer and performer who lives in Almonte, Ontario. His writing combines a life-long passion for science and storytelling. Through Quantum Writing, the science writing boutique he created in 2000, Jacob popularizes the work of leading scientists at major research-based organizations in Canada and the United States. Jacob's freelance journalism credits during the past 15 years include stories in newspapers and magazines across Canada. His writing ranges from a first-person feature on social trends in vasectomy, to how our view of the universe is shaped by the way NASA colors images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Find out more at his website.
You say you've had a "lifelong passion for science and storytelling." What's your earliest memory of combining these two passions?
I had a fantastic grade six teacher, Mr. Gerry Elmes, who to me was the epitome of urbane cool. I was growing-up in Peterborough, ON. Mr. Elmes was from the U.S., kept his saxophone in his big wooden teacher's desk, and would take it out and play for those of us who hung around after school to talk with him. What was remarkable about him as a person and teacher is that he deeply listened to you. He was, I think, the first adult who gave me the sense that what I thought really mattered. So, when it came time to write my grade six social studies essay, there was a sense of epic-ness to it. I wrote about the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann's excavation of Troy. The topic was suggested by my dad, an English professor at Trent University. He edited my essay, asked questions, offered his professorial insights. The result was that this grade six essay instilled in me the sense that a great story could be told about a great discovery; maybe in fact that scientific discovery requires great story telling to become whole.
How did your writing career evolve?
I've been a writing gradualist and have followed a winding path, always on the look-out for a new and greater challenge. I wrote for my high school paper (lots of stuff about the Cold War nuclear threat), my university papers (along with working for their community radio stations), I started freelancing news and feature newspaper and magazine stories in 1992 (and have continue still) at the same time as getting my first teaching job. I quickly and painfully learned that I liked writing more than teaching high school—that I'm a writer. After several years I landed a job as the communications guy at the Canada Museum of Nature, and then a dozen years ago, started my own science writing business, Quantum Writing, popularizing research for large, science-based organizations. I'd seen my first coprolite (fossil turd) at the Museum which led to my first book Jurassic Poop: What Dinosaurs and Others Left Behind (Kids Can Press). Lots of daily typing and talking with scientists for more than a decade prepared me for writing my latest book, The Stardust Revolution: The New Story of Our Origin in the Stars, which took five years of writerly gestation. Now, while keeping Quantum Writing humming along (and my kids fed), I'm at work on a novel and another non-fiction book project.
You came to Queen's to study for a B.Ed. (Outdoors Education). How does your knowledge of integrating education and the outdoors play out in your writing?
In my science writing I use many of the same techniques that I used, and maybe learned, as a teacher and outdoor educator. For one, I always keep my audience (i.e. readers) front-and-center. One of the easy mistakes in science writing is what I dub the "scientific Stockholm syndrome." When you're talking with scientists, you begin to talk like them. But when you're a science popularizer the challenge, and joy, is to turn facts into stories, and this usually involves changing the language and angle from that emphasized by the scientist.
What's an average day-in-the-life of Jacob Berkowitz like?
Forget images of the writer-as-artist, with a sniffer of cognac beside my computer mouse, and the cigar bit between my teeth. I'm very disciplined and sober about my writing, i.e. it's my job.
Once I've got the kids off to school, I kiss my wife—the artist Rosemary Leach, whose studio is in our home—and head-up to my home office. First I warm-up. I begin by writing a single page of personal journal reflection, a kind of writerly connecting with self before trying to say anything else. Then I do a finger warm-up typing exercise while listening to folk station WUMB.com. Next I often do a five-ten minute timed writing exercise at the keyboard. For example, recently I riffed on a first-person account of being dead. Now comes the core writing time; the work. Whatever work I have, whether writing a press release, news story, part of a novel, or part of a non-fiction book, I prefer to write in the creatively juiced hours before lunch. If I'm working to deadline, I'll keep writing post-lunch, but I often also use that time for editing, re-writing, research and admin.
P.S. If I'm feeling sleepy in the afternoon, I might take a half-hour power nap, which works wonders in revitalizing my creative energy.
What's your favourite thing about being a writer?
I love the process of writing—the independent thought, the research, interviews, and mostly feeling the disparate facts of a story come together at my keyboard to create something more beautiful than the individual pieces.
What's the most challenging thing about writing as a career path?
The isolation—it's a long journey in a small room—and the disconnect between effort and income with creative projects; I can make the same in two weeks of contract work that I'd make in two years working on a non-fiction book project.
What piece of writing—be it a book or an article—are you most proud of?
My latest book The Stardust Revolution: The New Story of Our Origin in the Stars. It's my hope that it goes beyond telling a powerful story to tying together disparate research across many disciplines in a way that hasn't been done before and that it provides a new take on who and what we are.
What's the best piece of advice you could offer aspiring science writers?
Write and talk to, and learn from, other writers. This is a business and skill that's learned through doing. The more you write, there's the potential to get better, and with every piece the process of writing becomes wired into our brains. It's also a business in which much of the business intelligence is unwritten. There's enormous benefit in being professionally and socially connected with other writers and to discuss business decisions—the choice of an agent or publisher, for example—before you leap.