Dan Egan may not be writing about a subject that “jumps off the shelves,” but he still gets recognized. The two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of The Death and Life of The Great Lakes was dropping off his daughter for a canoe trip when one of her trip leaders stopped him. The young man was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Egan’s book had been chosen for a program that invites all members of the campus community to read the same book and participate in discussions and events.
“My daughter looked at me and said, ‘Maybe I should take a look at this,’ ” Egan said.
Egan will be interviewed by Vice President of Marketing and Communications and Chief Brand Officer Emily Morris at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday, June 26 in the Amphitheater as part of Week One, “Moments That Changed the World.” The conversation also serves as the season’s first Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Author Presentation. A readable convergence of scientific history and reporting, The Death and Life tells the rich history of the Great Lakes and reckons with their contemporary threats. Today, Egan will be discussing his work within a broader ecological and economic context.
“We’ve asked Dan to share his journalistic work in The Death and Life of the Great Lakes that examines the unintended consequences of the attempted transformation of the Great Lakes into an international seaport, from the devastation of the Great Lakes ecosystem to the action now being taken to restore and preserve the lakes,” said Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education.
In discussing the health and ecology of the Great Lakes, connections — on a smaller scale — can be made to the health and ecology of Chautauqua Lake. In one of four objectives in 150 Forward, the strategic plan created to guide decision-making for the Chautauqua over the next 10 years, the Institution plans to “drive the implementation of a comprehensive, science-based approach to improving the health and sustainability of Chautauqua Lake and elevate its conservation as the centerpiece of the region’s economic prosperity.”
The Death and Life is Egan’s own call for revitalization. He adapted more than a decade’s worth of clips from his career reporting on the Great Lakes for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The beat allowed Egan to write long-form pieces that translated fluidly into chapter-like sections. Repurposing old stories for the book, Egan sometimes found himself feeling “shackled” by his original reporting and wishing that he could build his book more organically.
Now writing a biography of phosphorus from scratch, Egan said he felt “lucky” that he had a robust trove of clips from which to cull. Still, making the leap from Journal Sentinel reporter to book author required some recalibration.
“It’s a different beast, writing a book,” he said.
With his extensive background in local reporting — he is also a graduate of Columbia University’s School of Journalism — Egan described his writing style as like “a busker on a street corner … earning every paragraph.” An editor advised Egan to instead think of himself as a performer on a stage in front of an audience.
“They have paid the price of admission,” Egan said. “It’s OK if you’re not delivering something punchy every paragraph. They’ll trust that there’s a payoff.”
Confronted with writer’s block, Egan would turn to works by creative nonfiction giant John McPhee and Marc Reisner’s 1993 book Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water.
“It would just depress me because I was like, ‘There’s no way I can do this,’ ” Egan said. “I aspired to do something like that. (Reisner) spent a decade on his, but I guess I spent a decade on mine.”
The Death and Life has enjoyed a slow build, with an audience beyond that of University of Wisconsin-Madison undergraduates. According to Egan, the book has done better in its second year.
“Writing is a lonely process, one that’s thick with self doubt,” he said. “I was too close to the material for too long that, by the time (the book) came out, I was just happy it was done.”
On May 23, 2017, Robert Moor picked The Death and Life as The New York Times Book Review’s Book Club pick for April, writing that the book is “bursting with life.” In October 2017, “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” had Egan on to talk about the threatened lakes, a pre-recorded segment complete with “Daily Show” correspondent Michael Kosta, sporting a captain’s hat, cruising around in a boat. A year after The New York Times’ April selection, the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club chose Egan’s book as one of its own picks.
Such publicity gives Egan hope that the lakes — a staple of his life both professionally and personally — can be preserved for posterity.
“I think we need to appreciate what we have and not dwell on what we’ve plundered or squandered,” Egan said. “Because (the lakes are) still spectacular; they’re still worthy of every bit of protection we can give them. It can always be worse. It’s an ongoing story and we’re in the middle of it.”
Egan is a bonafide author now, but he said he remains inspired by other newspaper journalists “doing good work.”
“I still got that busker in me,” he said.