Interview: Deborah Blum

I really get excited when a new book sparks my interest, because that means I have to find out all about the writer, the other books the writer has written, etc.

And that certainly has been the case with Deborah Blum. She has a very interesting take on things and her book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Here’s a description of the book on Amazon:

Deborah Blum, writing with the high style and skill for suspense that is characteristic of the very best mystery fiction, shares the untold story of how poison rocked Jazz Age New York City. In The Poisoner’s Handbook Blum draws from highly original research to track the fascinating, perilous days when a pair of forensic scientists began their trailblazing chemical detective work, fighting to end an era when untraceable poisons offered an easy path to the perfect crime.

Drama unfolds case by case as the heroes of The Poisoner’s Handbook-chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler-investigate a family mysteriously stricken bald, Barnum and Bailey’s Famous Blue Man, factory workers with crumbling bones, a diner serving poisoned pies, and many others. Each case presents a deadly new puzzle and Norris and Gettler work with a creativity that rivals that of the most imaginative murderer, creating revolutionary experiments to tease out even the wiliest compounds from human tissue. Yet in the tricky game of toxins, even science can’t always be trusted, as proven when one of Gettler’s experiments erroneously sets free a suburban housewife later nicknamed “America’s Lucretia Borgia” to continue her nefarious work.

Amazon also has a nifty interview with her, where she talks about her top ten poisons. She ends the list with “Now that I’ve written this list, I realize I could probably name ten more. But I don’t want to scare you.” LOL!

I know you’re going to enjoy this interview.

I love the story you tell on your website about you became a science writer. To me, it’s proof that writers all bring diverse backgrounds and points of view to the table. When did the element of history become added to the mix of your writing?

Well, I’ve always loved history. When I got my grad degree in science writing from the University of Wisconsin (1982) I took a lot of history of science classes and that really influenced the way I thought about journalism – the fact that you can’t understand where you are, unless you understand how you got there. But the first time I really focused on writing about science history was in my 2002 book, Love at Goon Park. That was about a very complex and controversial psychologist, Harry Harlow, who spent much of his career fighting for the idea that love and affection are essential in healthy human development. Once I did that book, I was hooked.

Your latest book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, has received some wonderful reviews and feedback. What’s next for you? Please some of your writing goals.

More history of science. I’m starting on a project about a secret World War II weapons project and the way it changed the world we live in today. And I’m doing more narrative story-telling – one of the things about writing literary journalism is that with every book you get to challenge yourself, find a new way of telling a compelling story, build on the skills that one acquires along the way. So that it’s always an opportunity to experiment, push oneself to do a better job. I use my chemistry and culture blog, Speakeasy Science, the same way. Often I’ll just try out a different structure – a blog written as a letter, as a list of things, as a story with almost no names in it, just to see if I can make that work. It’s one of the things that keeps me so interested in continuing as a writer.

I found your Slate article, “The Chemist’s War,” fascinating and shocking. I’m a history buff and yet had never heard of the federal poisoning program. Was there anything you have researched in the past that surprised you?

Oh, I agree with you. I was so glad to get that story of the government poisoning of alcohol during Prohibition into the book because I’d never heard it either. Literally, I found it when I was looking for “poison alcohol” stories in 1920s newspapers, expecting to find moonshine kind of problems, and found the U.S. government itself. The other thing that always surprises me when I’m researching history of science is how much knowledge we’ve lost or forgotten or dismissed. For instance, also while researching The Poisoner’s Handbook, I found lots of scientific studies of the evil health effects of tobacco. I’d always assumed that we only learned that in the 1950s or so. But the evidence was there 30 years earlier – we just brushed it away.

What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?

Oh, that’s a hard one. I love Richard Holmes’ recent book, The Age of Wonder, for the way it blends history and art and science and even magic into a kind of tapestry of our lives.

Book you’re currently reading?

I just finished Sebastian Junger’s book WARyesterday and really liked it. A wonderful meditation on the philosophy and science of war told through the story of a group of soldiers on Afghanistan’s front line. And I’m starting a mystery by Kate Atkinson – Started Early, Took My Dog. I’m an Atkinson addict.

In your opinion, what’s the measure of a successful writer?

Someone who gets to write about ideas that really interest them. I feel incredibly lucky about that – all these fascinating questions that I’ve gotten to explore. And of course, getting paid to do that!

Where can we learn more about you?

My web page is: http://deborahblum.com.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Just that I think success really just means having a life you like. So do it for the fun of it too.

Other Books by Deborah Blum:

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