University News

In conversation: Kathryn Schulz ’96

New Yorker feature writer talks earthquakes, women in journalism, her experiences at Brown

senior staff writer
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
This article is part of the series 2016 Pulitzer Prize Winners

Kathryn Schulz ’96, a staff writer for the New Yorker, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for “The Really Big One,” a piece that uncovers the geological history — and ultimately the future — of the Pacific Northwest. In the award-winning story, she pieces together the 2011 Japan earthquake and the shaky history of the Cascadia subduction zone to show the effects a potential powerful earthquake would have in the states of Washington and Oregon.

Schulz also authored “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error,” which argues that humans’ tendency to err is not always a negative, but rather an opportunity to revise perspectives.

Upon winning her Pulitzer Prize, Schulz talked to The Herald about a number of ground-breaking topics, including earthquakes, mistakes, women in journalism and her advice for future writers.

The Herald: What do you think the public should know about how to prepare for an earthquake?

Schulz: The best information is local information because earthquake risk — like any kind of risk — is, in fact, extremely local. The crucial thing to know is how safe the buildings that you spend most of your time in are. So that would be your home, your place of work, your children’s schools, where your loved ones might be if they are not with you when an earthquake strikes and how you guys will reunite. Probably the most important thing of all for those who live on the coast or are planning to visit it, is it’s really crucial to have an evacuation plan, to know what the tsunami route is and how to get out of anywhere you are. Because everybody who is actually in the inundation zone of the tsunami is not going to survive. So that’s the bad news. The good news is if you know how to get out, you can protect yourself.

In your time at the New Yorker, you’ve written on everything from “Making a Murderer” to Henery David Thoreau’s undeserved reverence. How was the story you won the prize for particularly special?

It had a place in my heart from the beginning for a couple reasons. First of all, I love science writing in general, and geology in specific. Second of all, I spent some time in the Pacific Northwest. I actually moved to Portland after I graduated from Brown and lived there for a couple of years and still have very good friends and family out there. For me this was kind of a passion project in two different ways: First because of its subject matter, which I just love learning about and writing about, and second because it’s a place so special to me.

You wrote a book called “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error” and are a self-titled “wrongologist.” What advice would you give to students about being wrong and making mistakes during their time at college?

I always tell students to forgive themselves. That is literally the point of college. There is no better time or place to take risks and make guesses, explore things and try things you’re not good at. It can feel in the moment like the stakes are really high, like, “What if I don’t get an A in that class?” or any number of bad things. But in fact, I went to Brown. I feel privileged to have been there. I would just encourage people to remember that it is a laboratory for error. That’s what all education is and should be. There is truly no other way to learn. Ultimately, the mistakes are probably richer, more important and more interesting than getting it right.

Press has been quick to point out that this year, many of the major journalism Pulitzer Prizes were given to women. Do you think women’s voices are becoming more prominent in American writing?

I hope so. What I certainly think is we live in an era of incredibly rich, diverse and interesting voices in journalism with women and people of color. They’re out there on platforms, and they’re getting heard. It’s hard to separate one’s own experience from the world, but it’s important to do so, and I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had editors that are so encouraging and have helped me ensure that my particular voice got heard.

On the other hand, I know the numbers. I know that women still lag behind. I know that people of color are underrepresented to a far more dramatic degree. But do I think it’s getting better? Absolutely. Do we have a very long way to go? Yes, for sure. But I’m confidently optimistic.

I think that people are starting to figure out what for me has been an important truth all along. The point isn’t to tally numbers or look good in some kind of diversity count. The point is that when you bring in different voices, they tell different stories, know different things. And those stories tend to be — just by virtue of that — more interesting, more unexpected, and make the entire journalistic landscape richer.

How did your time at Brown prepare you for your journalism career?

In the best possible way, which is to say indirectly. I did not study journalism at Brown. I was not on The Brown Daily Herald or any other magazines or newspaper entities. But what I did get from Brown was an incredible education in critical thinking. I learned to be curious. I had a sense that it was fine to be ignorant and go tromp into some new field, ask a lot of questions to try to teach yourself about it and ask other people to share their knowledge with you — all of that is really core to journalism. Anyone can learn to write a lede, or use a digital recorder, or file a photo request, but the kind of instinct to wonder about the world takes longer to nurture.

This is a coveted prize that many Brown students dream of. What is your advice for prospective writers or members of the Brown community?

I’m honored and thrilled and awed by the company I’m in. But I’m not in it for that. And I’m not saying that just because it’s the thing to say. It’s deeply true. It’s for the love of it. I really do believe that you can write well about things you aren’t passionate about, but it’s a hell of a lot harder. And I’m sure you can write well if you’re not passionate about writing, but I’m guessing that’s pretty hard, too. My basic advice to writers is you need to love two things: One is the world — to truly be interested in it and curious about it. And the other is you need to love words. You need to love them so much you will stay up an extra hour at 3:00 in the morning to fix one in a particular sentence because it’s bothering you, and you don’t like it. That is truly the ultimate secret.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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