Denise Grady has worked as a freelancer, staff writer, and editor for many magazines including Discover, Time, and the New England Journal of Medicine. She has written more than 700 articles about medicine and biology for the New York Times. Her reporting has taken her to Angola, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania, but she also writes on close-to-home subjects: a mysterious neurological disorder among workers at a meat-packing plant, a 43-hour surgery to remove a man's tumor tangled among several organs, asthma in her family and on the rise in her children's generation, and her own sore foot. In 2009 she won the Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting. Judges cited the grace and vividness of her writing as well as "acutely revealing details" that bring "uncommon resonance and humanity." Early in her career, she taught writing in the English Department.
Q: You traveled to Angola to investigate an outbreak of a deadly virus. How dangerous was it?
A: If you really thought about what the risks might be, you decided it was something you could do in a reasonable way. People thought going to Angola seemed a little risky because of this outbreak of hemorrhagic fever. But it's spread by bodily fluids. It's not in the air. So if you keep your wits about you, don't put yourself into situations where you have a high chance of being exposed, you can do that kind of reporting in a safe way.
Q: How long were you there?
A: Two or three weeks.
Q: Was there one story that really shifted your world view?
A: About a year ago I went to Tanzania to report on maternal health, and why death rates in labor and childbirth are so high in developing countries, even in a place with a stable government. (Read "Where Life's Start Is a Deadly Risk" and "Fragile Tanzanian Orphans Get Help After Mothers Die") They're very poor, but why was their maternal death rate more than a hundred times what it was in developed countries?
Q: Speaking of olden times, like when you and I were students together in the writing program here, what lessons have stayed with you?
A: I think it made all the difference for me. I was at UNH at a time when I really wasn't sure what I would be doing. I moved here with my husband. We weren't married yet, but he was going to graduate school. I was working at a day care center, opening the center in the morning. In the afternoon I took classes as a special student—one with professor Tom Carnicelli on rhetoric and one with Hugh Potter in American Studies. Hugh Potter pulled together history, politics and literature in a way I had never encountered. We were reading poetry and looking at surrealists, talking about the art and Freud at the same time. He had this broad and deep understanding of what was going on in any given era.
Q: Don Murray was a great help to me, too.
A: One thing has always stayed with me. Don said people need to be told what they're good at. They don't always recognize their own strengths. You can spend a lot of time with your red pencil picking out mistakes and fixing flaws, but in the long run you may accomplish more as a teacher or an editor by helping people recognize their strengths.
Q: Working for a daily paper, that must be a way of life for you.
A: Often it is.
Q: You like the pressure of a daily paper?
A: I do. I'm a person who needs deadlines. I work better with deadlines. You would think that if you had a month to polish up something that it would be better, and for more thoughtful and analytical magazine pieces that may be true. But for an awful lot of things it's amazing how good things can turn out, and how not-that-much-better they are if you have more time.
Q: You've been working a science beat from the beginning. Do you ever think about changing focus?
A: Sometimes I think I should do something totally different. But it's been really fascinating. Medicine has characters and plot—life, death, drama, sometimes mystery. The science and technology renews itself all the time.
Q: Are you a crusader?
A: In terms of drawing attention to things that ought to get attention, maybe yes. Things like maternal mortality. It's not rocket science to fix some of these problems. There is no good excuse for so many dying in childbirth. Or for so many women dying from illegal abortions.
Q: You wrote a book for young readers, Deadly Invaders.
A: Kind of a bizarre subject for kids. The Times wanted to do a book for students about viruses. They came to me with this idea when, by coincidence, I had just gotten back from Angola with notebooks full of stuff that I hadn't used. That's how that one came about.
Q: Grady, detective.
A: Or the chronicler.
Q: Watson to a medical Sherlock Holmes. Was it fun to write?
A: It was. I do like stories about weird germs. How did you happen to be at this particular place and time and meet up with this germ? There's a weird sort of randomness that's appealing.
Q: Last year you won the Victor Cohn Prize from the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. That's quite an honor.
A: To be picked by other people in your field who know the territory, I was very flattered and honored.
Q: At this stage of your career, external affirmation must be nice, but you know when you're doing a good job.
A: You do know yourself when something came out well. But I don't think anybody's immune to response from the outside. It's hard to resist the allure of the most-e-mailed list. The Times home page lists the 25 most popular stories. I don't believe there's any writer at the paper who doesn't look at that list to see how high they are and how long they stay.
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