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Member Spotlight: Richard Conniff

author Richard Conniff and an image of his book Ending Epidemics

Why is writing important to you and why do you think it’s an important medium for the world? I wrote my new book Ending Epidemics to remind readers how well humanity has done at protecting ourselves from deadly diseases. The message is that we can still do what we think cannot be done, especially when we work together against disease. Saving the world, bringing a scene to life, and giving readers a laugh, have always been motivating (if somewhat contradictory) factors pushing me to write. Writing feels like breathing to me now. I love writing about places and people and the natural world well enough to let readers feel as if they have witnessed the same scenes themselves. I write because each time, even after 50 years, I am trying to do it a little better than last time, a little better than I imagined I could.

What are your tried and tested remedies to cure writer’s block? Sit yourself down in the same spot at the same time every day, and stay there till you’ve got words on the page. I’ve also had a habit of writing for a bit, getting down a few words, then wandering off to hammer a nail, fix a window, or go for a walk. Others words emerge when I’m not working at being verbal. So I always wander back.

What is your favorite time to write? Early morning, and also later in the afternoon, with a beer in hand. But almost any time is good when an editor I respect (and vice versa) is paying me to do it.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received and would like to impart to other writers? Late in life, my father sent me two notes, in a scraggly hand. One, attached to some clipping, said: “Started to read this but drank instead.” The other, sent on some similar occasion, said, “Nobody has to read this stuff.” Good reminders.

What excites you most about being a writer in today’s age? “In today’s age?” It’s like being a dinosaur after the Asteroid, and trying to find a new life as a bird. For much of my career, I made my living from magazines, and I fit book writing in between. Good magazines paid decently, and the shared understanding, up till about 2000, was that their money only got them first rights to the story. For all other purposes, what I wrote belonged to me. That changed, to the point that magazines now think they should own all rights to my work, as if I were an employee. They think this even though they do not pay me a salary, sick days, vacation time, or other benefits. “But we take all the risk,” a publisher once explained. “Really?” I said. “And how many times have you been charged by a rhinoceros?” It’s the writer who goes off to difficult and sometimes dangerous places, leaves family behind, and accepts some risk of being killed (and not just in the form of a kill fee) as a normal part of the job. Gillian Welch got it right when she sang, “Everything is free now, that’s what they say/Everything I ever done, gonna give it away/ Someone hit the big score, they figured it out/ That we’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay.” I love the Authors Guild for saying “no,” that it shouldn’t be like that, and that we deserve to share in the rewards of the work we create.

Richard Conniff’s Ending Epidemics: A History of Escape from Contagion is out now with MIT Press.