Lina Zeldovich makes sure to wear her “Pile of Poo” emoji hat for all public appearances, including this interview. The choice of attire is appropriate, since her just-published book is about poop, and specifically about how human excrement is dealt with around the world. The book grew out of Lina’s award-winning 2014 Narratively article, “The Magic Poop Potion.” In her book, The Other Dark Matter, Lina draws on scientific scholarship and her extensive reporting, and writes about initiatives to upcycle poop from around the world. We spoke to Lina about her inspiration to write the book, her meandering path into journalism and the advice she has for young writers.
Narratively: How did you end up writing a book about human excrement?
Lina Zeldovich: It goes all the way back to my childhood. I am a first-generation immigrant from Russia and I grew up on a farm, but my family was very much into science. My grandfather had two degrees, one in engineering and one in agriculture. Every fall, he would empty out the septic system by hand. He would put a lot of it into compost pits and let it sit for a year. When he opened the pit in the spring, it didn’t stink any longer, it smelled of classic garden dirt and it was awesome fertile soil that would go on to produce food. I thought that that’s how it happened everywhere, so imagine my shock when I learned that that’s not the case! That whole concept stuck with me and I kept wondering what people did with poop and why they got rid of it.
A few years ago I wrote a story for Narratively about a woman who managed to cure her antibiotic resistant infection with a homemade fecal transplant. For most publications, this kind of story was equivalent to heresy but Narratively was open to experimental ideas. Doing this story brought back a lot of my memories from childhood. I thought, “Wait a second, our poop isn’t entirely this awful pathogen-laden filth.” I started digging further and found out that poop even has medicinal value. And, in my book, I merged these ideas of poop as a renewable resource and poop as medicine.
Narratively: In the story you wrote for us, you state, “If there was one terrible, yucky, pathogen-laden thing your mom yelled at you to never touch, it was poop.” Is there any truth to this or not?
Zeldovich: That’s a great question. The poop that comes out of your butt is not really dangerous, unless you are sick with something like cholera or dysentery. However, it becomes dangerous very quickly if it’s left outside to its own devices. All kinds of things come to eat it, lay eggs in it, because of the nutrients it has. That’s when it becomes hazardous. So, the answer is both—yes it is true but also not necessarily.
Narratively: To step back a little, I’m curious about how you got into science journalism.
Zeldovich: I have wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, but my family never thought of it as a serious profession. They were all doctors and engineers and scientists and that’s what they saw as a normal path in life. I used to write a lot in Russian when I was younger. When we were moving to New York, I took everything I had written and dumped it in the trash. I had to learn English and I also felt that it was time to grow up and become serious and rational.
In fact, when I moved here, I got a degree in engineering and then got a job. But I hated it. There was nothing creative in there for me. So, I kept taking classes, I took journalism classes, writing classes, speech classes and eventually attended journalism school when I felt ready to do so.
Narratively: You got rid of everything you wrote in Russian? That’s incredibly sad.
Zeldovich: It was. Nobody in my family had any experience changing languages, changing cultures or translating themselves. It just made so much sense. And, of course, the things that seem to make sense in life quite often are the things you shouldn’t do, right?
Narratively: What had you written?
Zeldovich: I had a lot of poetry. I don’t really write poetry in English and I don’t think I ever will. Russian is structured very differently, it rhymes. It rhymes beautifully, and English doesn’t even come close to that. I also had short stories and novels that I had written. My favorite book was “The Jungle Book” and I had written a whole series of my own, where the main character was a girl and she figured out a way to live in the woods with her dog and eventually, other animals came and joined them.
Narratively: I’m curious, how has being bilingual affected your writing in English, if it all?
Zeldovich: Early on when I was writing, I struggled with humor. I didn’t grow up with the same cultural references like “Tom and Jerry,” for example. I always felt like something was missing in my writing. I also remember that I had a very strong accent and whenever I tried to read any of my work at open mics, people didn’t always understand what I was saying. That’s when I took speech classes. I would have gotten rid of my accent entirely, but someone told me to keep just a hint of it because it makes for intriguing conversation. So, that’s what I did.
Narratively: Lastly, what advice do you have for budding writers and journalists?
Zeldovich: Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up. If you’re a writer, it means you were born that way. I think that writers are born that way, because writers need to write to keep their sanity. If that’s you, it doesn’t matter what other profession you pursue, you won’t be happy or fulfilled. Because writers are creative, when they can’t create, there’s no point of living. It’s like trying to run a marathon with only one lung that opens halfway.
Don’t listen to the smart and rational people who say they know better, because they don’t. If you’re a writer, and you know it in your bones, just go for it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Other Dark Matter is now available to purchase in the Narratively Bookshop.