Lisa Margonelli is senior editor at Issues in Science and Technology. Formerly Zócalo’s editor-in-chief, she is the author of two books, Oil on the Brain: Petroleum’s Long, Strange Trip to your Tank and Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology. Before moderating a Zócalo/ASU Interplanetary Initiative event, “Can Space Exploration Save Humanity?,” Margonelli chatted in the virtual green room about what to do with 14 pounds of mushrooms, why she always conducts interviews from a sturdy chair, and the time her train got stuck in the Gobi Desert for 22 hours.
There’s a shot of you on Twitter holding giant mushrooms and grinning. Can you tell us the story behind the photo?
For years I've looked at mushrooms with great interest, but I haven't actually been able to distinguish one from another. With the pandemic, I started really focusing on some of these mushrooms and I read some of the books that I had. We've also had weird weather, bursts of rain that set off a lot. I would walk in the woods and it would just be so many mushrooms—there's some that are the size of a saucer and up on a stalk like an umbrella and there's little yellow ones that are sticky and there's red ones and there's green ones.
Anyway, at first I figured out chanterelles. There's chanterelles and then there's false chanterelles, and real chanterelles have false gills and fake chanterelles have real gills. So I joined a Maine mushroom group on Facebook, and once I looked at all these different pictures, I was suddenly able to rearrange in my mind the difference between the false gills and the real gills.
There's a kind of mushroom called hen-of-the-woods, and they grow to be very big. They're usually at the foot of oak trees that have died. They called it hen-of-the-woods because it seems to have feathers. We ended up finding three at the base of the tree. The first one was 8 pounds, the next one is 6 pounds.
What did you do with them?
The first one shows up and it was like, wow. You have to clean them out or else the slugs keep eating them, and obviously you can't eat 8 pounds of mushroom in a day. It's a lot of mushroom. So you need a game plan.
First you need to keep it so it's not too moist, but not drying out. That was a paper bag and kind of in the fridge—there was a lot of in and out and what are we doing here? And then you can cut a piece like a steak and roast it, and cover it with anchovies and garlic. Or you can cook it any number of ways, but at a certain point you can't really eat anymore. I find you can eat it for two days in a row, but then you need to take two days off because it seems to do something to the inside of your stomach. And maybe that's because it's been eating a tree—it gets a little intense. So you need to take some time off.
Meanwhile, you've got pounds and pounds of mushrooms. You give some mushroom to the neighbors. And then I pickled it. I pickled it two different ways, a Russian recipe and some other recipe I found on the internet. And then I sautéed a whole bunch of them and froze them.
What is the most intimidating interview you've conducted?
I have interviewed people who have threatened me. But there was a wonderful California historian named Kevin Starr. I was doing a story on how San Francisco was changing with the dotcom people coming to town. Everybody thought the story was a little, you know, like how would San Francisco ever change? This was back in 1997. I was very anxious before it, because he was so smart and also really nice, which was kind of a killer combination.
I asked him some question and he said, well, people your age are going to have to figure out how this happens. And somehow I didn't have a good chair. And I fell out of my chair upside down, still doing the interview. I was jammed between the chair and the desk and the wall, and trying to continue the interview—it was on a landline. I think I had to say, “excuse me just a second.”
Since that time I do try to sit on a sturdy chair before I conduct an interview.
In Underbug, the scientists you follow are just as much part of the story as the science itself. Was learning to communicate with scientists a process?
I started being a reporter because I had a hard time making small talk. I was really interested in people, and as a reporter, you can go up to people and you can ask them all kinds of questions—but you don't have to do that much small talk.
I learned to talk to [scientists] by talking to them and then listening to the recordings and looking things up. Some of the science is super dense—the genetic work is really, really hard to follow. I went and read papers and sometimes I had to read the papers multiple times over the course of a year or two to squeeze all the juice out of the paper. The first papers I read about the termites and their microbial genome took a long time to understand.
At first I didn't really understand what they'd done to get the sort of information that they got. And I also didn't understand what the information even was. I just had to keep asking, asking, asking. I had so many notebooks. I think I had like 20 notebooks at the end.
Your first book, Oil on the Brain, was a five-year project, and Underbug took 10 years of research. Where does that longevity—or as you say, obsessive nature of some of your projects—come from?
I don't know. I mean, that's part of the thing of writing Underbug—once I'd done the first story, which was three months, it was like I couldn't stop. And then the funny thing is that now that it's done and published, I don't really need to think about termites anymore. I used to think about termites all the time, for 10 years.
I was so interested in like, why did the termites want to pick up the dirt? Did it smell good? Why do they do this? I don't know.
Did oil get under your skin in a similar way?
Oil got under my skin. Oh my God, oil got under my skin. It was all oil, all the time.
So it’s really a function of how you operate, your work style.
Right. And I don’t know what the next one is. I have kind of an idea, but I’m not ready. The way it’s going, though, it’s going to be 20 years for the next book.
What is the longest it's ever taken you to reach a particular destination?
Well, in college I had a paper that I turned in seven months late. I had a little problem with procrastination and perfectionism that I've had to deal with.
Once, I was taking the train from Western China to Ürümqi and the train got stuck on the siding for 22 hours. It was in the Gobi Desert, and all these weird things happened. The passengers started screaming at the crew. The crew started screaming at the passengers.
In the middle of the night, we'd totally run out of food and water. We were on the low-level hard seats, not a sleeper or anything like that. Everybody was just sleeping all over the place. And this guy tapped us. He tapped a few other people and everyone woke up and he pulled this melon out from underneath his seat, wrapped in newspaper. He undid it and he cut it open and he handed everyone a piece of melon.
And then just before dawn, the train started going. It was very weird. Every 10 minutes you'd think, “I mean, it's got to get going now, right?”
It was a wonderful melon.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I wanted to be a veterinarian. And my reason was that I didn't like people. I liked the animals.
In the years between graduating from Yale and your first journalism job at Pacific News Service in San Francisco, did you have a guiding philosophy?
I knew I wanted to write. Writing bothered me in a good way. I wrote while I was in Japan, but I didn't feel like it was publishable and I didn't actually know whether I wanted to do journalism or write fiction or some other hybrid.
After working there, I saved money and then traveled around Asia, which is how I ended up studying Chinese. I think it was realizing, this world is taking shape and we don't describe it very well. And I want to be part of that somehow, but I didn't really know how to do it. I didn't have friends who were journalists or parent’s friends who were journalists or anything like that. It took a pretty long time to feel around.
What advice do you have for young people going into journalism today?
You have to learn to trust yourself and try not to be a tool. And the third thing is keep your rent as absolutely low as possible.
Journalism in the future is going to be different than journalism has been. Being attached to one publication for your career is not really happening anymore. In magazines, it used to be that the editors had a lot of power. I think the editors have less power now. The writers are negotiating for more power. At the same time, the writers also have to do a lot more self-promotion. The whole thing is cooking up something that's very different from what it was.