Elizabeth Kolbert and Her Editor Talk About How to Find the Shape of a Nonfiction Book

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 5 2014 7:15 AM

Elizabeth Kolbert and Gillian Blake

The Slate Book Review author-editor conversation.

Gillian Blake, Elizabeth Kolbert
From left, Sixth Extinction editor Gillian Blake and author Elizabeth Kolbert.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos courtesy of Henry Holt, courtesy of Barry Goldstein.

Gillian Blake edited Elizabeth Kolbert's seminal book on climate change, Field Notes From a Catastrophe, which was released in 2006. They worked together again on Kolbert's new book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, out this month from Henry Holt. In this author-editor conversation, the New Yorker reporter and her book editor discuss finding the narrative arc of a nonfiction book and the “lost book about lost things” that started Kolbert's book-writing career.

Gillian Blake: The Sixth Extinction is not our first book together. We first started working together about 10 years ago, when you told me you wanted to expand your New Yorker pieces on global warming into a book. I remember cautioning, "Books about the environment don't sell, unless you're Al Gore." After those words of wisdom, I signed up Field Notes From a Catastrophe, we scheduled it, and of course, we ended up publishing at pretty much the same time as An Inconvenient Truth! The amazing thing was that both books—not just Gore's—sold very well.

Elizabeth Kolbert: Right around the same time, another book on climate change also came out—The Weather Makers by the Australian writer/paleontologist Tim Flannery. I don't think that's a coincidence. I think we were all responding to the same rather astonishing phenomenon, which was that out in the world you were starting to see clear evidence of climate change, very much in keeping with what the climate models had predicted. And yet in the political realm we were still having this inane debate about whether climate change was real or not. I think a lot of readers realized that something very significant and very weird was going on, and they were looking for a way to make sense of it.


Blake: The process around The Sixth Extinction was a little different.  When you sent us the proposal, the concept for the book seemed pretty clear, and you had all the chapters tentatively mapped out. But when you started writing, the structure became something of a moving target. We had a bunch of phone calls and meetings in the first year or so of the writing process; in one, you admitted to me, "More pages than you want to know" had ended up in the trash.

Kolbert: I was trying to figure out the vantage point to write it from. I'm not a scientist, so I couldn't write from the perspective of an expert. But nor could I write from the perspective of a naïf, who just sort of wandered into what's arguably the biggest story of our time. So I had a hard time coming up with a way to get the book going and to explain—implicitly, of course—why I, as a journalist, was writing it. It was as if I'd planned out a 10-city tour through Europe, but couldn't find my way to the airport.

Blake: The book has two through lines: One is an intellectual history of the concept of extinction; the other is a firsthand account of the extinction event we are now living through. How hard was it interweaving these two stories?

Kolbert: The double through line was definitely part of the challenge of writing the first chapter, because, as you and I often discussed, that chapter had to set both story lines in motion, which is a lot to ask of six or seven thousand words. But once things got going, I found the two through lines very helpful. The history of extinction as a concept is quite fascinating, so there was a lot of great material to use, and some wonderful characters—the brilliant and corpulent Georges Cuvier; the myopic Charles Lyell; the young, often seasick Charles Darwin.

Blake: Why did you choose to braid that story together with the current extinction event in the same book?

Kolbert: I wanted the story of the current extinction to sort of sneak up on people. I know this sounds odd, given the title, which, of course, we also debated.

Blake: Ah, titles—always impossible. When I acquired this book, the tentative title was The Sixth Extinction. We played around with countless others before going back to that. It is telling, though, that we considered using the word "catastrophe" in the title for this book as well. You and I were recently talking about whether the book is depressing. Obviously it is alarming. But I said I didn't think it was depressing, and then you told me about a reader who said that she felt oddly liberated after reading it.