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  • Deborah Blum

    Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38

    Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer-prize winning science writer and Professor of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of four books, most recently Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death. Before becoming a professor, she worked for four newspapers, winning the Pulitzer in 1992 for a series on ethical issues in primate research. She is also co-editor of A Field Guide for Science Writers along with Robin Marantz Henig and Mary Knudson. She serves on the program committee of the World Federation of Science Journalists and is a past-president of the National Association of Science Writers (US). She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband, two sons, and a very large boxer.

    Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Ghost Hunters?

    Deborah Blum: I was exploring the early history of psychology for another book and I stumbled across quite a few references to the American philosopher William James having lost his mind over the supernatural. I'd always thought of James as a rather stuffy academic and it made me curious enough to dig a little deeper. One of the first things I read was a report he'd published about a missing dead girl. It was such an impossible, intriguing story that I eventually used it to start my own book. From that point I was hooked.

    MT: How much research did you have to do?

    DB: I'm a compulsive over-researcher so probably more than I needed. The most important work I did was at two archives: the Houghton Library at Harvard University, which houses the James' correspondence, and the archive of the American Society for Psychical Research, which holds a fabulous collection of letters from early psychical researchers, both in the UK and the US. I culled through 19th and early 20th century newspapers and magazines, read books published by most of the researchers in my story, read modern accounts of the era. I used libraries, of course, but I also acquired quite a decent occult library of my own, currently filling three bookshelves in my basement.

    MT: Which do you enjoy most, the research or the writing?

    DB: Oh, research! The real adventure is in that. One is always learning unexpected things, discovering interesting characters. Then you have to make sense of it, share your discoveries with other people, and that's the writing, which is a lot more work. The joke among my writer friends is that we'd all much rather talk about writing than actually do it. Having said that - when it works, when a sentences takes flight, it's an amazing rush. Addictive, really.

    MT: What was the most interesting/unexpected nugget of information that your research unearthed?

    DB: The astonishingly consistent pattern of people sensing another person who is - unexpectly- at point of death. The Victorian researchers calculated that experience, which they called a "crisis apparition", at more than 400 times above chance. But what was equally interesting to me is that while researching the book, people would spontaneously tell me their current experiences which often replicated those in the book. It was actually sometimes unnerving.

    MT: How long did it take you to write your book Deborah?

    DB: About three years, start to finish.

    MT: Do you think we are all, actually, always going to be ghost hunters, perhaps because the finality of death is such a difficult thing to face?

    DB: Yes. But I think the wish for an afterlife is only one reason. Life seems much more interesting if it offers the possibility of magic or mystery. And I don't mean to sound like a stuffy academic here. Things do happen that we can't explain. I think one should always allow at least some room for possibilities.

    MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    DB: I write directly onto a computer and I rewrite and rewrite. The first draft is usually just for me to get my ideas onto the page. From that point - or so I hope - it all gets better.

    MT: What do you do when you are not writing?

    DB: My children would tell you that I am a complete nerd, so, first. I also teaching writing, at the journalism school of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I spend a lot of hours coping with two teenage sons, one of whom is learning to drive. When I'm not being a writer, professor, mother, or wife, I goof around with friends, go antiquing, and occasionally volunteer for political campaigns, by which I mean for any candidate who will oppose our current lunatic President.

    MT: Did you have any idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    DB: In this case, I wanted to cast a fairly wide net. Paranormal skeptics tend to dismiss the whole history of psychical research out of hand; I hoped to intrigue some of them into considering the really interesting philosophical questions that run through the story: how do we define reality? who owns the power to set its limits? And I hoped to interest people already interested in the supernatural, offer some insight into the dilemmas of trying to create an occult science. And finally, I hoped to just catch people interested in a good read and interesting subject.

    MT: What are you working on now?

    DB: I've got a contract to write about poison and murder, although it's so early I probably shouldn't say much more.

    MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    DB: I don't really have a single favorite writer although the one book I've carried around since high school is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. I'm among many people who think Ian McEwan is a brilliant writer; I loved Amsterdam for its icy amorality. Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, about the destructive effect of colonialism in Africa, is just an amazing novel. John Steinbeck's East of Eden has the best suicide scene ever written. Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club is a wonderful history of 20th century intellectual development. And before I make myself sound too drawn to the deeper, darker side of reading, my favorite recreational books are early 20th century mysteries. They're just a blast - stylish, witty, elegant social comedies with a murderous twist.

    MT: Anything else you would like to say?

    DB: No, just thanks for the opportunity. It's a pleasure to try to answer interesting questions and talk about some of the ideas that I think matter.

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