Whether climbing to the top of redwood trees in California or tending to patients with a genetic disease that causes them to injure themselves inadvertently, journalist Richard Preston always places himself in his subjects’ shoes.
Before an audience of about 100 in Kroon Hall on Monday, Preston spoke about his experiences as a writer and journalist. Discussing his books and articles, Preston stressed the importance of bringing one’s subjects to life.
“Writing about science is also writing about people,” Preston said. “When you write about real people, you’re writing about contemporary history and showing people the world that we’re living in and the age that we’re living in.”
Sometimes, Preston said, articles are inspired by events that initially had nothing to do with writing. In his book “The Wild Trees,” he said, it all started with coming across a tree-climbing school on the Internet. Preston learned the techniques, taught his children and realized in the process that there was “quite a story to be written about tree climbing.”
“We would camp out in the trees and then we would spend the night in the trees,” he said. “I could stroke these squirrels in between their eyes and they would fall asleep.”
Rather than interview tree climbers and watch them climb from below, Preston submerged himself into his story, putting himself into a tree climber’s shoes — literally — and documenting his adventures with tree climber Stephen Sillett, the first scientist to reach the canopies of redwood forests.
While Sillett was initially unwelcoming to Preston climbing trees with him, Preston persevered and they quickly formed a good relationship, he said.
“[Sillett] said to me, ‘You’re not like other journalists,’ ” he said. “ ‘I don’t think any other journalists would be climbing these dangerous trees.’ ”
Preston also talked about his experience as a professional attendant to people with Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes people to injure themselves. Over a period of seven years, Preston lived among Lesch-Nyhan patients, many of whom mutiliated their faces and attacked themselves with their hands. One patient, he said, even provoked fights with strangers so he could have an excuse to get hurt.
Four audience members interviewed said they were impressed with Preston’s passion and commitment to his work. Jeremy Blanchard SPH ’11 said reading Preston’s book “The Hot Zone,” a bestseller on The New York Times, inspired him to study epidemiology.
“He is intricately involved in the physical senses and the tactile experiences,” Jacob Musser GRD ’15 added. “It’s so impressive.”
The talk was sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship at Yale.