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Author Dan Egan. Credit: Mike De Sisti

How journalist Dan Egan wrote the life (and death) story of the Great Lakes

Our April pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club, “Now Read This” is Dan Egan’s “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes.” It’s an epic and wonderfully told story of history, science and reportage about the largest source of freshwater in the world, and the threat to America’s waterways. Become a member of the book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.

Dan Egan likes to say that he may be the only journalist in America whose beat is the Great Lakes. A daily reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Egan reports on everything from invasive species to oil spills to algae blooms. Much of that work — reported for the paper over the course of a decade — made itself into “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes.”

Below, Dan Egan shares more about his inspiration for the book, including his daily writing routine, favorite childhood book and the best bit of writer’s advice he’s ever received. He also shares where he thinks the most interesting and overlooked stories can be found — in your local paper. Here are five questions with Egan, in his words:


1. What is your daily writing routine?

I came up writing in noisy newsrooms, so when I took 20 months off to write this book I found it difficult to be productive writing alone in a quiet room. Some days I did write in an office I have at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but on many others I wrote anywhere I felt comfortable. Sometimes that was a public or a university library. Sometimes it was the local grocery store cafe or any number of coffee shops. Sometimes it was on the city bus; more than once I found myself so deep into the writing that I’d ride my bus all the way across Milwaukee to the route’s end at the airport, which I also found to be a fertile writing ground, particularly in winter. The terminal’s atrium is one of the brightest places in the city. So my only routine was that I left the house at the same time as a normal work day and returned at the normal time.

2. What is your favorite childhood book? Or one book you think everyone should read?

I remember, in fourth-grade or so, opening “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” in the back of our station wagon on the way home from a family ski trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I got so sucked into that book that when we got home I did not want to get out of the car until I finished it. My parents let me keep reading in the cold, under the car’s dome light as my two older brothers grudgingly unloaded all the luggage and gear. That was the first time I remember a book really gripping me.

3. What is something you’ve seen, watched or read that you think is overlooked and deserves more attention?

I’d have to say your local newspaper! If you live anywhere but New York or D.C., you’ve probably seen your local paper shrink to the point that one some days it’s almost the size of a flyer. But there is still great work being done in these newsrooms — much these days now appearing in full only online — that goes beyond a newspaper’s primary watchdog role. There are great tales being told by seasoned storytellers who deserve more attention, and more subscribers! Here is just one example from my own newspaper.

4. What is the best piece of writer’s advice you’ve received?

I’ve gotten a ton of great advice, but at this point in my career nothing has topped this — writing is hard for everyone. Reminding yourself of this every day can salve the suffering, a bit.

5. Can you describe the moment you knew you wanted to write this particular book? Or when you knew it was over?

My wife and I took our four kids (then aged 3 to 10) to New York in 2012 so I could do a fellowship/master’s degree program at Columbia University. Part of that program was taking a book-writing seminar, and part of that seminar was completing a formal book proposal. I’d been covering the Great Lakes full-time for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for nearly a decade at that point, and I looked at all the long projects I’d done for the paper and they seemed to stack up like chapters. I honestly wasn’t interested in actually writing a book at that point. I had my hands full with my newspaper job and family. So initially I was just trying to get through the Columbia program and get back to Milwaukee. But the proposal was received very well, by my fellow students as well as by book seminar professor Sam Freedman. He basically told me I’d be crazy not to harvest a decade’s worth of reporting and put it all between two covers. It was good advice.

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