Dan Drollette, Jr. is an award-winning foreign correspondent and lecturer whose articles have appeared in Scientific American, International Wildlife, Natural History, Cosmos, Science, New Scientist, and on the BBC. He is a TEDx speaker, and held a Fulbright to Australia. For the past three years he edited CERN’s on-line weekly magazine, in Geneva, Switzerland. Drollette is the author of GOLD RUSH IN THE JUNGLE: THE RACE TO DISCOVER AND DEFEND THE RAREST ANIMALS OF VIETNAM’S “LOST WORLD,” published in April by Crown. He was recently interviewed by Cheryl Malandrinos.
Why did you become a writer?
Being a writer is a great way to indulge your curiosity about the world. Having a notebook or a pen or a camera or an audio recorder in hand is like having permission to ask all kinds of questions that are normally not permitted, and to go all kinds of places where you would not normally be allowed.
What is the most rewarding part of being a writer? The most frustrating?
Most rewarding: you get paid to learn. Someone once said that being a science writer is like a never-ending graduate school of the mind, in which your instructors are the most brilliant faculty in the world, willing to give you a private one-on-one tutorial about their latest findings.
Most frustrating: never having enough time.
Can you tell us about your latest release?
I just had my first book published, called Gold Rush in the Jungle, a nonfiction work that takes place in the forests of Indochina. It’s about a part of the world I previously only knew from movies, and what I found was completely the opposite of what I expected. It turns out that in Vietnam, the peace is more dangerous than war when it comes to wildlife protection.
And there is a heckuva of a lot of creatures out there that were never known to Western science, which are only being discovered now. And we’re talking about big animals – rhinos, oxen, barking deer, swimming cats, flying frogs, and a species of fish so big that it takes six men to hold just one. It’s amazing that they were never discovered previously; the rhino species was only an hour’s drive outside Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). I mean, how can you not notice an animal the size of a car?
A field biologist pulled me aside in his university office, pointed to a map, and said “this is where there is the unsung hero of Indochina wildlife rescue.” It was a very dramatic moment, and led to my doing a series of magazine articles about it. Much later, when I was showing the clippings to an instructor at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, he said “This has the makings of a book.”
You’re sitting on the panel, You’re Not Done Yet: The Pitfalls and Payoffs of Revision, at this year’s WriteAngles Conference. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re planning?
I was thinking that I would use my experience with the book as a springboard for my comments about the rewriting process. From previous Write Angles conferences that I’ve attended, I realize that the audience skews toward fiction, but I think my experiences are easily applicable to all writing.
Whatever the genre, you try to be clear and succinct, with a strong sense of place and character, while having fun with dialogue and the play of words. Above all, you want to get across the passion that drives your protagonists in the first place – for example, what makes a person give up their nice comfy home in the West to spend years in the jungle rescuing an animal no one has ever heard of?
And in science writing, you also have an added layer of complexity, in which you try to introduce cutting edge new material while at the same time not losing – or boring – your audience with the vital basics about a given field.
It can be tough to hit that sweet spot, but that’s the fun part. When you get it right, it’s like the sound of a really clear voice singing. You can feel it.
What are you working on now?
I sort of fell into a niche I call “adventure science,” in which I accompany researchers into the field in order to explain their world. It’s sort of like what George Plimpton used to do for sports writing – when he wrote about football, for example, he spent a season on the team of the Detroit Lions, and came out with the book ‘Paper Lion.’ So that’s what I tried to do for wildlife biology in the jungle.
For my next book, I’d like to take the same adventure science approach, but this time tackle a completely different field: the search for the Higgs Boson, aka the “god particle” at CERN in Switzerland. I wound up working as a magazine editor at CERN for several years, starting at the moment they turned on their $8 billion superconducting supercollider – the world’s largest machine — and leaving the same week that they announced the finding of the particle.
But instead of the standard tome, I’d like to focus on the oddball people and situations I encountered – of which CERN has plenty. If you’ve ever seen The Big Bang Theory situation comedy on TV, then think of a place with 3,000 Sheldons, with all the chaos that entails. I hope get across just what makes this crazy, mysterious, frustrating place so joyous and appealing . . . and why workers there set up a website called “CERNLove: where life and physics collide.” (Personally, I find a strong streak of masochism in CERN folks.)
Where can we find you online?
I’m in the midst of redoing my personal website at dandrollette.com, so the best place to find out more about the book is at the Facebook page I set up for it at https://www.facebook.com/Goldrush.in.the.Jungle
Is there anything you would like to add?
Little did I know how complicated it was to do research in the hills of a communist country, many time zones away from Massachusetts, where English is rarely spoken. This made fact-checking and revising months later a challenge, when I was back home, thousands of miles away from my interviewees.
Just getting to a single Vietnamese national park was a big project, in which I had to complete the final leg of the journey by hitching rides on the back of motorcycles. But it was a breathtaking introduction to the highlands of Vietnam – it is one of the last remnants of old-time Asia, where there’s not a single McDonald’s and the old traditions of a rich culture are still intact.
I hope that what people take away from the talk is that there are still amazing story ideas out there, and books can still get published. And not to despair when the editor returns your manuscript filled with hundreds of suggested revisions, big and small!