By BILL DAWSON
Lisa Margonelli is an Oakland, Calif.-based freelance journalist, a fellow of the NewAmerica Foundation, and the author of Oil on the Brain, a book that describes "petroleum's long, strange trip to your tank."
Margonelli has written for publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, Wired, Business 2.0, Discover and Jane. She was a recipient of a Sundance Institute Fellowship and an excellence in journalism award from the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists.
Recently issued in paperback, Oil on the Brain earned wide praise when it was first published in
2007. Reviewers' comments included this one by The Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin:
"Before reading Lisa Margonelli's Oil on the Brain, I never would have called the process of energy production 'fascinating.' But this thoroughly engrossing and entertaining book travels to the heart of Texas and across continents to show exactly how the gas in our tanks gets there – as well as its financial, social and environmental costs."
Q: Tell me a little about yourself – especially how you decided to become a journalist and writer.
A: I grew up in rural Maine and I've always been interested in oral histories—from family stories to Studs Terkel's books. In college, I used oral histories as often as I could when doing work in history and American Studies. After college, I moved to Japan and spent the next four years in Asia. While there I felt that news and magazine accounts oversimplified what I saw and heard.
When I returned to the U.S., I got an internship at Pacific News Service writing about the Pacific Rim and immigration. I immediately loved reporting and I continued to use oral histories in my work. I worked on a collection of oral histories of immigrant kids, then used the same approach to write about health, technology, economics, and Eastern European filmmakers, among other things. "Oil on the Brain" also used people's life stories to give a portrait of the oil supply chain.
Q: You've said your interest in oil, as a subject for your writing, dates to a magazine assignment in 2001 to cover Saddam Hussein's birthday party in Iraq.And you've said the idea for the book arose as a result of a subsequent reporting trip to Alaska for another story, when you looked down from your airplane on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Please elaborate on how those seeds grew into a book examining, as the subtitle says, "petroleum's long, strange trip to your tank."
A: The months of April to June of 2001 were very surreal. First I went to the bizarre birthday party in Iraq— where oil determined everyone's destiny—and then toAlaska, where a group of native Americans in a remote town called Arctic Village was trying to keep oil development out ofANWR (theArctic National Wildlife Refuge)—and prevent oil from becoming part of their destiny.
I had seen the Alaska pipeline before, but this time I saw it as a giant straw connecting me and my pickup truck in San Francisco literally to the ends of the earth. I wondered how I could use so much oil and know so little about the stuff – its chemistry, geology, economy, politics, culture. I had the beginnings of an obsession, and at first I decided to write articles about oil that were unexpected – for example, what does an oil spill look like to a scientist? Then I thought maybe I'd write a travel book about oil-producing countries, but the more I researched it became obvious that a book about oil needed to be a full story connecting the gas pump to the cultures at the other end.
I wrote a long proposal that involved both history and a fair amount of travel.When the publisher bought it, they said, "You know you can't start in 1850 – it needs to start now." So my proposed first chapter was out the window. I realized that an obvious beginning was the gas station, which was quite close by, and offered, I hoped, a portrait of the gasoline consumer. From the gas station, the book evolved into an exploration of the supply chain.
Q: Book editors often want authors of non-fiction to present what's called "an argument." This is a concept that may be unfamiliar to some newspaper reporters and magazine writers who want to try their hand at book writing. Does your book make an argument? What is it? Was it a premise you started the project with, or something that grew from your reporting?
A: I didn't start with an argument. I started with a lot of questions, and a feeling that there was a bigger story in oil than an argument that it was either good for the economy or bad for the environment. I really set out to find stories and ideas that I hadn't heard before – in particular, things that made me uncomfortable. Once I'd found those stories, I realized that I'd found an argument within them: Oil costs far more than we pay at the pump.
In the U.S. we pay subsidies to the oil industry, of course, but we also have to pay for kids with asthma, environmental damages, military costs in the Middle East, global warming, and in lost future opportunities. Our confused sense of oil's domestic cost has kept the political logjam over CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards and energy policy static for decades. Overseas, the costs of oil are higher – human rights, poverty, corruption, war and a feeling of hopelessness.
I came to believe that because the oil market is global, environmental damage and human rights abuses now are transmitted directly to the cost of gasoline at the pump.You can see this happening when Nigerian youths attack an oil installation and the gas price jumps here. Because of this and because of global warming, among other reasons, we need to completely re-understand oil's cost in a more holistic way. We need to make big changes. I wanted to tell this as a visceral story, rather than an argument, and the book format allowed me to do that.
Q: A few practical questions that may be helpful to aspiring book writers among SEJournal's readers:Was it hard to sell the book idea to a publisher? Your reporting lasted a staggering period of almost four years and took you on journeys totaling 100,000 miles. How did you pay for this daunting enterprise? Doing other writing during that period? Book advance? Fellowship? All of the above?
A: Many editors were interested in the proposal, but only one bid on it, which meant I didn't really have the money to do the traveling I'd initially proposed. I decided to keep doing a column I did for the San Francisco Chronicle online, try to get magazine assignments when I could, and to go as cheaply as possible.
In China, Venezuela and Nigeria I stayed for more than a month, figuring that time would allow me to understand what was happening at a deeper level. My favorite hotels were $15 a night, and the cheapest was $6. Fortunately, I was really obsessed with the process of getting entry to petroleum installations, and with ferreting out the complexities of the story, and that made the financial strain less of a slog than it really was.
At one point I wrote 5,000 words about asphalt for Bicycling Magazine, which funded me for a few more months. In the fall of 2005, the New America Foundation gave me a fellowship, which allowed me to focus on writing for the next year or so. The fellowship also asked that I comment on policy, rather than just criticizing it. That task, which was unfamiliar to me as a reporter, but required some of the same skills, added to the final book.
Q: NewAmerica gives financial backing to journalists and scholars in pursuit of its mission "to bring exceptionally promising new voices and new ideas to the fore of our nation's public discourse."What kinds of writing do you do as a fellow, and what other responsibilities, if any, go along with that status? The list of your publications on the foundation's website includes a lot of op-ed pieces, and I know you were a guest blogger on oil last year around the time your book was published in hardback.
A: My official title is Irvine Fellow in the New America Foundation's California Program. Since 2005, my task has been writing about how alternative energy and efficiency may be beneficial and may bring surprises to California in particular and the world in general. I see this state as a laboratory that is hashing out the policies around greenhouse gases while the state's scientists and financiers try to start some of the more outr. solutions. I've also done some work on policies that might promote energy efficiency. I see my job as writing about these issues with complexity. I'd like my writing to start conversations. I write long reported features as well as shorter op-eds. I've found that moving from what I've always done – criticizing the effects of policies – to actively looking for policies that work (or might work) has been rewarding to me, both as a writer and as a citizen.
Q: Oil on the Brain received a lot of favorable reviews and became, as the new paperback edition's cover proclaims, a national bestseller. Were you mainly a magazine writer previously? What were the topics you wrote about before getting interested in oil? Any of them related to environment or energy?
A: I've always written longer, magazine-type articles. Since 1998, I've supported myself as a freelancer by writing about health, tech business and culture, human rights and people's attitudes towards money (for a column I did for SFGate [the San Francisco Chronicle's website] in 2003-2004). And also: girl bank robbers, society matrons, Eastern European filmmakers and water pumps used by Kenyan farmers. I had done a book-length collection of stories of young immigrants for a non-profit press, as well as a long collection of unpublished essays for a fellowship from the Sundance Institute. I was at a point where I wanted to write something long and complicated and satisfying.
I hadn't written about energy or the environment so I tried to use what I did well – reporting on the details of people's lives and their choices. That worked for oil geology, the world oil market, and also for the grisly relationship between oil politics and environmental destruction. There is a story in the book about a village in Venezuela next to a petrochemical plant that dominated villagers' lives. The flares were so loud they spoke only by shouting, and they had children with birth defects hidden in their houses – all reflecting a larger political story around oil and land and people in Venezuela. I'm not sure how I would have approached the issue if I'd been trained in energy or the environment. Probably it would have been a very different book.
Q:Were there lessons you learned fromparticularly acute (and/or unexpected) challenges in doing your book – as compared to writing shorter journalism – which you think might be instructive or helpful for SEJournal readers?
A: With a book, you have a lot of time to bang your head against the wall, which can bruise your head, but it can also cause the walls to crumble. With shorter journalism, you usually don't get the assignment until you've got permission to interview the source, which means it's easy to get refused, particularly if you work for a publication that makes the gatekeeper skittish.
With a book, you can literally take years wearing down the people who give permission to enter places like the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, refineries, and, say, Iranian oil platforms in the Persian Gulf. I found that time was really on my side. I could pester gatekeepers, wheedle them, and barrage them with faxes until they gave in.
I was writing the book during four years of tremendous change in the oil market and it was hard to figure out what was just a passing concept and what was really a trend. It forced me to do very close reporting in country, and to do hundreds of interviews afterwards. Then I had to work to show how small trends might become larger. I learned a lot on the job.
Q: Your book has been praised for the artful telling of dozens of stories about individuals you encountered on your oil-related travels, and for the way you combined those narrative accounts with compelling renditions of lots of statistics. Was this hybrid approach a hard one to pull off? Any advice for other writers about weaving together very different kinds of material?
A: Combining stories with statistics allowed me to move from the personal and specific to the universal and then back to the specific. Done right, it builds dramatic intensity. The hybrid required a lot of writing and rewriting and also re-researching. In some cases I fantasized about statistics and then tracked them down – like the note in the first chapter about how much gasoline vapor escapes from gas stations in California daily. I didn't know whether that figure existed, but I called around and finally the (state)Air Resources Board explained how to find the numbers in their database. I chased other numbers for weeks and never found them.
It's hard to organize those facts and stories. When I was reporting a chapter I used a single notebook and took all interview notes chronologically in the book. Often I'd find 20 minutes or so during the day to free-associate in the notebook as well, which added some of the weirder details. I collected other facts and papers either in folders on my computer or in plastic bins with lids. Before I wrote I read the whole mess, particularly the notebook, and then typed parts of the notes and the facts into a long file. When I wrote I used the comments function to note sources. I tended to write and cut and write and cut until I'd found the scenes I was trying to write. I'm 100 percent certain you can find a more efficient way to do this.
Q: Do you have other advice or tips for journalists who want to try to move from shorter-form writing into the book world?
A: If you have an obsession with a topic that you think is important, you should definitely try to write a book. Managing the obsession and the finances can be difficult, but books reach a thoughtful audience and affect them more deeply than magazine articles do. Books can raise people's consciousness around an issue, laying the groundwork for political change.We need that.
Before I started the book I met an old lubricating oil salesman in Oil City, Pa. During the 1950s, he had printed a series of motivational sayings on pale blue card stock. He gave me one that said "By the yard it's hard but by the inch it's a cinch." I hung it on my wall and it was actually true.
Writing requires many hours in front of the computer, which gave me shoulder cramps. I found that I could massage the muscles by leaning against a tennis ball that was against a wall. That increased my productivity, such as it was. If you're going to write a book – and you should – find yourself a tennis ball.
Bill Dawson is assistant editor of SEJournal.
** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2008 issue