Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Charlene Allen, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Hope Jahren about her book Lab Girl (Knopf), which is among the final five selections in the category of Autobiography for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
Lab Girl is the autobiography of acclaimed paleobotanist Hope Jahren. Equal parts intimate memoir and creative botany text, the book’s heart lies in the enduring friendship between Hope and Bill, two brilliant scientists drawn together by humor, loneliness, and an endless appetite for adventure.
Charlene Allen: One of the reasons I loved Lab Girl is its many literary references – Charles Dickens, Harper Lee, Jean Genet. I found it compelling that science and literature seem so connected for you, though we live in a world that often sees them as dichotomous (consider our undergraduate degrees which separate arts from sciences). How do you integrate these two important parts of yourself?
Hope Jahren: I think literature works very much the same way that science does. Particularly with great texts that have lasted for years, those books stay with us and sometimes we don’t know what they mean until later. In science we call information “data”. In literature, we call it “story”. When you read a great book, the story becomes one of the tools that your mind uses to understand the world. I wanted so desperately to connect with the reader, and to share how my thinking works – the process – the machinery. And great books, all those literary references, are a part of the machinery that I use every day.
That’s the thing about really making an effort to be honest and open and show your true imperfect self in writing. If you somehow dig deep enough to get at what’s your unique individual story, people sometimes read it and say, “Oh, I know how that feels.” It’s so interesting that you can go inside yourself to write a book, and at the end you’ve created something that brings you closer to other people.
CA: It seems like a gutsy thing to do, to write so openly about one’s life.
HJ: Well, you never really ask yourself if you’re brave enough. What you do is you write this manuscript that becomes your friend. You wake up with it and go to bed with it, and then its done and you have to decide if you’re going to shove it in a drawer or show it to the world. I knew that shoving it in the drawer just seemed intolerable, just seemed wrong. And I also knew – the book is written very carefully. You can point to any verb or adjective and I can tell you why I chose it and what was the runner up -- and that’s because I knew that people would judge me. By then the only comfort that you have is that you wrote your book so carefully that if you had the chance to go back you wouldn’t change anything. I think that’s what steadied me during the process of putting this all down on paper.
CA: Your best friend and lab partner, Bill, with whom you built three Jahren Laboratories in different parts of the country, is almost as much the book’s protagonist as you yourself. You show us many sides to Bill’s personality, as he takes exquisite care with your students, dances alone in the arctic, and responds to hard times with perfect quirky kindness. We also see him living essentially homeless through many of the years you worked together. What do you hope is the reader’s takeaway about the role that Bill played in your life?
HJ: That’s interesting because the book was never supposed to be about me, it was supposed to be about Bill. Bill is a particularly invisible kind of scientist. He’s behind the scenes. He always tells me that he would never want to do my job, that I have the worst job in the world, having to be the public face of our science. But there are a lot of Bills in research labs, the unsung heroes. They do it because they love it, but it’s getting harder to support that kind of scientist with funding. And I don’t think people realize that. People tell their kids to go into science because it’s the safe choice and you’ll always get a paycheck. But in our experience, it wasn’t a safe choice at all.
And it always seems so preposterous when people ask ‘can men and women be friends?’ The answer has to be yes – we have to claim our ability to truly live as brother and sister.
I got to the point where it was more painful not to write the book than to write it, and one reason is Bill. Bill is one of the big heroes of my life and I was never going to get to show that or say that. So, why shouldn’t he get to be the hero of a book?
CA: Humor! In case people don’t expect if from a scientist’s memoir, I want to be clear that Lab Girl is laugh-out-loud hilarious. A lot of writers say that their biggest challenge is getting humor onto the page. Was it difficult to write the funny scenes or did it come naturally?
HJ: People who really know me say I’m a funny person. It’s one of the things they love about me and one of the things I love about myself. And you never get a chance to show that side of yourself in scientific writing. Scientists write in this weird passive third person, mostly for the sake of condensation, because the point is not to dwell on our prose, the point is to move the argument forward. So there’s certain sides of yourself that you never get to show, like being funny. The other thing is, the number of absurd situations Bill and I have found ourselves in over the years – it was easy.
CA: In the years before you met your husband, you talk about the loneliness in your life and how, “…the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known.” It seems you lived with that fear for a long time, all the while contending with, and triumphing over, the sexism you faced as a woman scientist.
HJ: The title of the book is important because it’s not Lab Woman, it’s Lab Girl and that goes back to my being a very little girl in the lab. And so my identity as a scientist, as somebody who did things in a lab, and belonged there, and knew what to do, and felt at home, and was able to love and be loved, all of that was formed very early in my father’s lab, before I ever encountered science teachers or colleagues or people who didn’t take me seriously, or any of that.
Putting up with sexist garbage was always the price I had to pay to work in the lab with my best friend. And I don’t want to minimize the fact that it’s real, but I knew I was never going to be recognizable as a professor walking across campus with tweed and a pipe and all of that. So I never looked to those people for approval or direction. I had to ask myself why I was there – and it was simply because I enjoy the work. I enjoy being in a lab, labeling samples and seeing the pile get bigger. I’m happiest when I’m at work doing something that feels useful. I’m a little unique in that I probably would have put up with any amount of crap just because I needed to have a lab so badly. But it’s also true that I resent every molecule of crap that I did have to put up with along the way. Those two things can be true at the same time.
CA: Throughout the book you speak of the emotional and mental challenges you face, culminating in the poignant scene when a doctor finally understands and provides medication that will help. Yet you refer to a diagnosis – bipolar – only once, and seem to make the point that it was neither a driving force nor major impediment in your career. Why was it important to mention the diagnosis and the role of illness in your life?
HJ: They used to call it manic depression, and I thought that was very descriptive. Now they call it bipolar. I don’t know why that’s better, but anyway, folks that are bipolar can be difficult to be around, as people, as friends and co-workers, and those struggles can take over what we talk about. I hadn’t seen a good description of how it really feels to be sick. I think everybody knows what crazy looks like from the perspective of somebody healthy. But what does it look like from the perspective of somebody who’s sick? It’s a terribly hard, painful thing. And I’m also very concerned with this perception that being bipolar gives you some special or creative gift. If you’ve watched somebody you love get very sick, very manic, you would never say, “Oh, they are benefiting in some way.” And I wanted to show that. I eventually did get well, from a very, very sick place, and that was a medical process. I wanted to tell how that works.
CA: What’s next? Are you still writing?
HJ: I’m always writing! I just feel happy when I write. But I don’t want to sell things. I went into academia partially because I never wanted to sell things to people. So all this stuff about how to position yourself and build your audience [to sell books], that’s not me. The question is: is there a gap that I can fill? I believe that Lab Girl filled a gap, it told a story that people hadn’t heard. But it will take some work to find the next gap, the one that I’m qualified to fill. Right now, Bill and I are busy building another lab in Oslo. We’re just getting the electrical done!
Hope Jahren is an award-winning scientist who has been pursuing independent research in paleobiology since 1996, when she completed her PhD at University of California Berkeley and began teaching and researching first at the Georgia Institute of Technology and then at Johns Hopkins University. She is the recipient of three Fulbright Awards and is one of four scientists, and the only woman, to have been awarded both of the Young Investigator Medals given within the Earth Sciences. She was a tenured professor at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu from 2008 to 2016, where she built the Isotope Geobiology Laboratories, with support from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health. She currently holds the J. Tuzo Wilson professorship at the University of Oslo, Norway.
Charlene Allen is an MFA candidate at the New School, concentrating in writing for children and young adults. She is an activist for criminal justice reform, who advances a healing agenda for young people of color and all victims of violence. Her work has been published by Bedazzled Ink and the Sage Press, and she was named a Top Ten Finalist in the Tennessee Williams Literary Fiction Contest judged by Michael Cunningham. Charlene holds a B.A. in writing and literature from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a J.D. from Northeastern University Law School.