Ep 170 Who gets to write a Star Wars book? And meet archaeologist turned author Brenna Hassett.

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podcast-artworkIn Episode 170 of So you want to be a writer: Who gets to write a Star Wars book? Learn why author Paula Hawkins transitioned from writing romance books to thriller novels. Discover 6 unusual habits of creative people. Meet archaeologist turned author Brenna Hassett, learn what an author platform looks like and much more!

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Shoutout of the Week
From Carie:

This is a one of those podcasts where I have absolutly no idea how I found it. Valerie Khoo and Allison Tait are both Australian writers and every week they get together through the internet to host a podcast. They talk about what they’re working on, pick out some interesting things that have been going on in the world of writing or that apply to writers and discuss their word of the week. Their interviews are with people that to be honest I’ve not usually heard of, but actually that makes it all the more interesting because I don’t have any preconceptions about what they write about, or how successful they are, and I usually end up trying to track down a fair few on Amazon so at the very least it’s introducing me to some new to me authors. They’re at episode 164 right now which is a wealth of tips and information to dip into.

Five Podcasts to inspire your morning

Thanks, Carie!

Show Notes

For Some Lucky Fans, Writing A Star Wars Novel Is A Dream Come True

The Story of Memory: An Interview with Paula Hawkins

6 unusual habits of the world’s most creative people

Writer in Residence

Brenna Hassett

Brenna Hassett is an archaeologist who specialises in using clues from the human skeleton to understand how people lived and died in the past. Her research focuses on the evidence of health and growth locked into teeth, and she uses dental anthropological techniques to investigate how children grew (or didn’t) across the world and across time.

She has dug poor Roman-period burials near the Giza pyramids, surveyed every last inch of a remote Greek island famous for the Antikythera mechanism (with a goat-to-human ratio of 350:1), looked intently for slag at the foot of a Buddhist monastery in northern Thailand, accidentally crumbled an 8,000 year old mud brick wall at the famous central Anatolian site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey, and drunk whiskey watching twilight fall over Cappadocia at the beautiful nearby site of Asikli Höyük.

Brenna is one-quarter of the TrowelBlazers project, an outreach, advocacy, and academic effort to celebrate women’s contributions to the trowel-wielding arts. Originally from the United States, she completed her Ph.D at University College, London, and has been based at London’s Natural History Museum since 2012.

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Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

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Interview Transcript 

Valerie

Thanks so much for joining us today, Brenna.

Brenna

Thanks for having me.

Valerie

This is an unusual book, Built on Bones: 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death.

It’s pretty intriguing. It certainly has an intriguing title and it’s got a very intriguing subject matter. For those readers who haven’t read your book yet, can you tell us what it’s about?

Brenna

It’s basically about what it means for us as humans to have changed the way we lived over the last 15,000 years. We’ve made some very big changes, going from sort of hunter/gatherers, which we did for hundreds of thousands of years, to being a 50 percent urban society, and we’ll be 60 percent by 2030.

Cities are sort of not only our future, but also kind of right now. My expertise is looking at the bodies of people in the past. I’ve sort of taken that and tried to look at how cities have actually physically changed us.

Valerie

You’re an archaeologist who specialises in teeth, is that right?

Brenna

Yes, that is a real job you can have.

Valerie

When I read that I thought, “I have to talk to this woman.”

Take us back to when and why you got interested in archaeology in the first place.

Brenna

I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do for a degree. I sort of ended up taking quite a lot of classes. In America we have these community colleges. You can take everything from underwater basket weaving to anthropology.

I guess underwater basket weaving was full, so I ended up taking this anthropology class. It talked about the different Neanderthals and Homo Erectus and how you could use their skulls and bones to actually see the differences in the species. And I was just hooked. I thought that was the most interesting thing I had ever heard.

So I ended up just following that a long way down the road.

Valerie

Yeah, right.

Were you actually vaguely interested in this kind of thing? Or did you literally stumble into the class and find that you were intrigued by it?

Brenna

I think the class probably fulfilled a credit that I needed. I didn’t think of myself as sort of someone who was interested in biology and science when I started out. I always thought I would like to do something kind of artsy. Much to my surprise here I am with a PhD in dental anthropology.

Valerie

Yeah, right. I mean imagine if underwater basket weaving wasn’t full, right?

Brenna

It would be a very different book.

Valerie

Yeah, definitely.

Why teeth? Because archaeology, I mean we all know what Indian Jones gets up to, archaeology can span so many different types of work, but why teeth?

Brenna

I will point out that I don’t actually chase golden idols. Sometimes some of my samples are coated in gold, so they do look quite shiny. Teeth are amazing. So, I’m very much team teeth, so you’ll have to forgive my sort of enthusiasm here. But, teeth are little fossils that live in your mouth.

I think anyone who was once a kid or has had kids knows they’ve got two sets of teeth and they grow. They’ve got the first set, which you have baby teeth or milk teeth. And they’re growing while you’re quite young. And then you’ve got your second set which comes out as an adult.

So the second set, your adult teeth, the very front bit of your very front teeth, that was forming when you were about one year old. All of the things that happened when you were one year old, the water you drank, the type of geology you lived on, lots of sort of actual signs and sort of chemicals have got into your teeth, which have perfectly fossilized for someone like me to come along, take a couple of lasers and some saws and we find out all sorts of things about how people lived in the past, which is of course the big question. That’s what we all want to know.

Teeth are absolutely perfect for this because as everyone knows if you break an arm or something it’s not great, but it will knit back together. I think everyone knows what happens if you chip a tooth. It doesn’t. It doesn’t get any better.

That same quality is actually what we can use, sort of as dental anthropologists, to look at teeth from not even just our own species, but from species far back in the past to see how we lived and grew in that childhood period when our teeth were forming.

Valerie

I can see how that would be interesting, the way people developed what they ate, where they lived, that sort of thing. This book, as you have mentioned, really does focus around the development of cities and the way people settled and the way people lived or why people settled and lived that way. This nexus between cities and teeth — what made you want to write this book?

Brenna

Well, a lot of my research is actually about child health, because teeth grow when you’re a child. They record kind of a little bit like tree rings, if you’re familiar with the idea that trees… you know, you chop it down and you look at the centre, you’ve got little skinny rings where the tree had a bad year, and fat rings where the tree had a sort of great year. There’s a pretty similar function that works in teeth. A lot of my research has been looking at the teeth of children. We’re just at the edge of that transition for when we decided to stop hunting and gathering and start sort of settling down as we slowly developed things like farming.

The big question for me through a lot of my research has been what does that do to you? Do you see inside the teeth sort of signs that farming was even a good idea?

So that’s actually kind of how I sort of got into this. And it turns out that there is a lot more to getting to where we are now than just developing farming and things. I do look at other aspects of our bodies and bones from the past. I try to bring together not just the teeth, but all sorts of other things — sort of lumps on skulls, the diseases we get, all of these clues that are sort of left CSI style in our bodies, to try to bring them all to bare to see exactly what our strange adaptations have been doing to us.

Valerie

When you’re writing a book about — a lot of this stuff, as you have said, could have happened 15,000 years ago or a really long time ago, when you were approaching writing this book did you have a clear idea, “Oh, I’m going to write about it chronologically,” or a clear idea of how you were going to structure it? And did it turn out the way you anticipated?

Brenna

Well, I don’t think anything in the history of writing has ever gone quite as anticipated.

What really helped, I think, is because I come from a sort of scientific background we are forced to write very tedious, boring scientific articles, which have got sort of quite a lot of structure to them.

Valerie

Yes.

Brenna

I essentially had chapter titles, which you may or may not notice in the book are actually song titles. But, they started off as sort of proper chapter titles and morphed from there. But those chapter titles worked as a sort of scaffold for me. They sort of outlined each concept I wanted to talk about.

From there it was actually more like sort of writing an essay to each topic, if you think about it… it sounds a little bit horrible and like a school sort of project. I actually really enjoyed it. For all of 13 topics, or whatever, just write to your heart’s content everything you have to say about the topic.

Valerie

Yes, right. Well, I think that describing them as essays, it really does it a disservice, because these are not essays. These are funny chapters that are packed with information. And you obviously have a sense of humour, because I’m just reading it, and I’m kind of reading about bones and Neolithic periods and stuff like that. And then I’m reading and I find myself laughing out loud.

I have to read something for our listeners. It’s where you’re talking about a Paleo diet bar, because Paleo is all the rage these days, isn’t it? The Paleo diet.

Brenna

Of course.

Valerie

You’ve written about this Paleo diet bar, “It promises me optimal nutrition for a hunter/gatherer lifestyle. It is gluten-free, grain-free, soy-free, dairy-free, preservative-free, and fibre and protein rich. The presence of joy is not mentioned, but I think one could sensibly infer its absence from the litany above.”

You’re certainly a scientist with a sense of humour. And not only that the book is peppered with footnotes, which a lot of people don’t read, but they need to read yours because they’re hilarious.

Were you planning to write a book with this much humour in it? Was it something that you added later or are you just naturally like this?

Brenna

I think I have to say that the vast majority of my poor friends who got drafted in, “Read my book, read my book…” that the main response I got was, “It’s just like talking to you,” which I hope is a good thing.

One friend did say, “It’s even better than talking to you because I can close the book.” Thanks, Lawrence.

Valerie

Oh my goodness.

Brenna

I’m really interested in the work I do, in the research I do, and also I’m a very big proponent of people finding out that science is made of people, that we are human beings too. Half of the sort of fun part of having a job like mine, where I go running off to Thailand or Greece or wherever it is, wherever the next project is, half of it is getting stuck in a traffic jam behind a herd of goats. There are a lot of these experiences.

I think if I were to be too serious about it I’d get bored and I would stop writing.

Valerie

Yes, yes.

Brenna

It was only ever going to have my wittiest sides or my less than wittiest sides, depending on the case.

Valerie

Can you give us a little bit of a timeline when you thought, “Oh, I’m going to write a book about teeth and cities,” and your research period and then your writing period?

Brenna

Well, I had a funny sort of take on this because, more or less, most of my professional career has sort of been the research period for this book. It’s stuff that I like to tell people, occasionally I give talks. If I do the entire book talk it’s basically a free masters, as far as I can tell.

Valerie

Right.

Brenna

It’s cramming a lot of information into sort of…

The preparation really I guess I’ve been doing as part of my professional research career. The writing was quite funny, so I was working at The National History Museum in London, which is a grand ole efface. But, because I had sort of just about agreed to write this book, I had finally had a chat with the publisher, they had said, “Right, go ahead.” A piece of paper had shown up with a contract. I said, “Well, actually I have a day job.”

I actually took a series of career breaks. So, I had about a four month career break in the summer, because we like to multitask. I was often at digs. So, quite a lot of this book got written about an hour and a half from the Syrian border in South-eastern Turkey. It was quite a dramatic period. I think the book sort of picks up a couple of those experiences that I wasn’t intending.

But, the thing is that archaeological digs start very early in the morning because it gets so hot. It got up to 50 degrees; I mean it was just ridiculous.

Valerie

Oh, yuck.

Brenna

Yes, and then to dig in that? Ugh.

Because I was so sort of jazzed up to go off and dig this site, which was very exciting and very scientifically interesting, I was actually getting up around 5:00, which is the only time that the place was quiet, because otherwise there’s 60 undergrads running around, having their undergrad dramas.

Valerie

Yeah, right.

Brenna

Visiting dignitaries coming — there’s just always something going on.

That five o’clock in the morning, staring out at the plains around the Turkish city of Siirt was just a — it was actually quite a nice writing environment.

I went back to work after that, but I actually finished off the book in a pretty intense burst at The British Library, which is a wonderful institution, which must be responsible for all sorts of writers actually getting things done.

Yeah, sort of setting off every day, refusing to speak to anyone and generally being an unpleasant person for a whole month.

It probably took about two years, but I think lots of ideas were percolating in the background.

For the research, really most of the research I had the background already. It was just a question of freshening up. So, I think I got away lightly on that one.

Valerie

Right, right.

When you did your month at The British Library what percentage of the book had you got up to? Were you like up to 80 percent or whatever? How much did you have to go?

Brenna

I was at about 35 [percent] then.

So it was more than a month, obviously, that I took to finish off the rest of it. But, it was the month that I had spent at The British Library that I think broke the back of it. I still had another month or so after that. So, I must have probably written something absolutely ungodly, like 60,000 words in that month, which is just… that was… I wasn’t doing anything else. I just about remembered to shower. That’s… yeah.

Valerie

Can you tell us how did you get your book deal? It’s just that I can’t imagine going to a publisher and saying, “Hey, I’m really into teeth… would you like a book about how the teeth of humans can tell us about the building of cities?” So, how did this happen?  

Brenna

Very few people it turns out come up to you and say, “Tell us more, we think popularity of teeth is a thing.” Yeah, no, that’s not happened in the history of ever.

Valerie

“I’m sure it will be the next Eat, Pray, Love… yes, let’s do it.”

Brenna

Yeah, not that quite that kind of print run. I think I had a very funny, lucky path to publishing, and I think that’s probably because my other hat, on top the sort of actual science of teeth, is an organisation called Trowel Blazers. We celebrate women in the earth sciences. So we do all sorts of fun and crazy things, but it’s sort of a science communication type role. We try and go out to the public and say, “Did you know that there were women archaeologists in the 1700s and they got so excited about archaeology they climbed the pyramids in their underwear?” There are all sorts of these fun little stories.

I do quite a lot of what you would sort of call outreach or engagement. I think because of that sort of link into people who are really keen to talk about science that’s actually how the publisher found me.

Valerie

Right.

Brenna

I’m with Bloomsbury Sigma, so the amazing editor, Jim there, he actually has his ear to the ground for people who are talking about science and writing engagingly about it. So, I had a blog and all of these sorts of things that people were able to read little vignettes of kind of what I’m interested in and what I write.

I didn’t come to it with a CV in hand, “Here are my top scientific publications…” It ended up being a much more organic sort of… he was looking for people who were writing. We eventually met. It was actually at the launch of the label. So there was probably too much champagne. We decided we should meet again with less champagne to discuss the world of teeth.

I think the book was something that I had thought about for quite a long time, possibly as like a professional academic textbook type of thing. But the opportunity to write it with gossipy footnotes, I just went, “This is much more fun.”

Valerie

Yeah, definitely.

Now that you’ve written it has it whet your appetite to write more in this vein?

Brenna

I think so. It’s all just come out, so actually, of course, I stopped writing sometime in November or something, that was the last edits I saw. So, I feel like I haven’t really done anything for six months or whatever.

So, for me, yeah, I’m starting to think about what comes next?

Valerie

Yeah.

Brenna

I’m hopeful that something good will appear, as long as everybody goes out and buys the book they’ll give me a chance to write another one.

Valerie

What’s mulling around in your brain? What do you think might be next?

Brenna

I am so interested in what I do for a living. So, I have a pretty narrow focus. But, I can’t believe everyone doesn’t want to be an archaeologist, doesn’t want to know all of this cool stuff about how we evolved and where we’re going.

I have a couple thoughts, some of them are along the lines of my take on the Paleo diet bar that you mentioned earlier. There are some sort of tropes about evolution to get trotted out. But, every time someone says, “Well, you evolve to do this…” my little scientist hackles go up and I think, “Oh, that’s not how science works…”

So I have got some thoughts about some of these little evolution myths that I might want to make the broader public aware are actually myths.

Valerie

Can you tell us one? Just out of interest.

Brenna

Well, I think one of the ones that I think about sometimes is the Paleo running, if you want to call it Paleo running, sort of barefoot running.

Valerie

Oh yes, barefoot running.

Brenna

The idea that there are particular strikes of your foot when your foot hits the ground it goes this way, it goes this way, that very elite runners sort of run in ‘x’ style or ‘y’ style and there are groups who aren’t sort of modern Western civilised… well, not civilised, but sort of Westernized groups who have lifestyles that involve a lot of running and long distance running and how do those people run? Is it more efficient? Is that how we ran in the past?

So there’s lots of research and people sell all of these wonderful things like special shoes that you can wear barefoot to run in and things. There’s quite a lot of… there’s very interesting research and there’s actually great science around that.

But, the story of how we run and how you’re meant to run has been rudely interrupted by our invention of sneakers. So, there’s actually all sorts of things where people say, “Well, we evolved to do this… we evolved to do that…” and you can actually come back and say, “Well, yes, but we evolved to evolve out of that.” The same way that sort of you can say we don’t necessarily need to have a Paleo diet, because a Paleo diet is just eating whatever you can.

Valerie

Yes.

Brenna

That’s pretty much the whole point is don’t starve to death, that’s the point.

So if you applied it in the future I don’t see why a Snickers bar isn’t Paleo diet.

Valerie

Sure.

Brenna

It’s evolutionary with the theme.

Valerie

Yes.

Brenna

So there are just those little scraps and things that are floating around in my head right now. They’re not very well developed.

Valerie

Great.

You are obviously very passionate about your career and what you do. In your career what have been some of the most interesting either discoveries or experiences that just kind of make you go, “Wow.”?

Brenna

Well, I think the experiences and the experience of doing archaeology is almost always an adventure, mostly because it’s an underfunded science. So, you end up sort of going off to some glorious exotic place and staying in a tent. You’re not in a hotel.

I mean I’ve had any number of what seem like either sort of provisions or terrible living conditions, but actually they turn out to be such wonderful experiences. So I was in Thailand, years ago, for a survey project. And in an archaeological survey you essentially just walk very long straight lines and look at the ground, looking for bits of pot and things. It just sounds beyond tedious.

So we weren’t down by the beach, we weren’t in lovely island Thailand. We were out in the agricultural fields walking in straight lines, hot, humid… and there were those little red biting ants — oh my god! They fall out of the trees down on your clothes.

So you think, “Oh my god…” you’re out in the middle of your field thinking, “Gees, this is the wrong field to get into.” But, then it was Songkran, the water festival. And the water festival in Thailand is amazing. It’s sort of a spring purification ritual. They put a little bit of pure clay on you and then they pour a little bit of water over the top. But, as many backpackers and other travellers will know essentially once the teenagers get a hold of the super soakers it turns into a much bigger festival.

There we all are in our truck going back from site, going back to — this time it was hotel, so that was quite good. And everyone, everyone on the street is out, they’re in their cars, they’ve got hoses, they’re laughing, they’re sort of giggling. They’re having water fights on the backs of their cars. We’re soaked, so we actually got the project to buy us some little squirt guns, just so we could…

And so it turned out to be an absolutely terrific experience. There aren’t many jobs where you get to go and, say, spend a month or spend a couple months in a different country sort of experiencing life there. So, I love that part of it actually, particularly. I always think that I have got very lucky there.

Valerie

So where is your next dig or your next project?

Brenna

I’m still very much excited about the big project that’s in South-eastern Turkey. We do kind of have to make sure that the situation with the ground is sort of secure enough to go back. But, I think there’s huge scientific interest.

I work on the actual skeletons, I do some digging. I’m sure the students would argue that they do most of the digging. But, the material that we’ve excavated so far we’ll continue to analyse that. So even if we don’t go back and put our shovels in the dirt we’ll have quite a lot of sort of lab-based analysis and hopefully quite a lot of trips to Turkey in the future to enjoy seaside fish and rocky restaurants, which I’m quite keen on.

Valerie

Fantastic.

Let’s just come back to the writing for a second, now you said you kind of had your chapter headings and then traded them when you came to write them, almost like a series of separate essays, although as we’ve mentioned they’re way more than just essays. When you did that though, within each chapter did you have any kind of structure in it? Did you think, “Every chapter should open with this…” or, “Every chapter should include a story about ‘x’…” or whatever? How did you actually approach each chapter on a more granular level?

Brenna

I suspect that I am just not very professional about writing.

I do have several friends who write fiction or other science writers, and they really do seem to have these wonderful detailed sort of like bullet point outlines for sort of what they’re going to get through.

What I tend to do is start off — and I didn’t intend to do it at the beginning, but I realised I had done it for about two chapters, so I ended up continuing the pattern, which was to introduce sort of an anecdote from my own experience. So that description of the Paleo diet bar comes as part of me being in Siirt, in Turkey, and not anywhere near a sort of health food emporium to buy one of these bars. But starting off with a little bit of a sort of anecdote.

And because the book was written — also in Turkey I wrote a chapter, the chapter on domesticated animals, where I talk about goats. I actually did write in Greece on an island totally inhabited by goats, and 40 people, but mostly goats.

So I actually started with an anecdote that sort of tied into the subject, hopefully the subject. And I think I probably did try and structure a little bit so you have a little bit of science, a little bit of ‘here’s how we know…’ and then more of a sort of fun discussion about what that means and how that’s changed over time.

But, I have to admit I mostly just started with my anecdote, I got through the science somehow and then tried very hard to bring it back to the anecdote so at least there was a point.

Valerie

Yeah.

Brenna

I’m not even sure that I managed that most of the time.

Valerie

What was the most challenging part of the book writing process?

Brenna

I think what people sort of refer to as ‘voice’ is actually quite challenging. I think we sort of… we were talking earlier about my friends saying, “This sounds exactly like you…”

Valerie

Yeah.

Brenna

I wonder if I was just writing fiction or something whether I would ever be able to be the kind of writer who would change their voice, who could sort of, you know, do a separate one, because as a scientist I’ve got two modes. I’ve got a very dry, boring serious science writing academic writing, which nobody wanted to read that book.

It was actually a little bit of a — originally my editor told me that footnotes weren’t allowed.

Valerie

Yeah.

Brenna

Without footnotes, it’s a bit dry. I mean it’s not totally dry, but there’s a lot of science. I feel like people should get a break once in a while, have some funny anecdotes about the Morris dancers in Central Turkey or something. There are fun stories to be told that aren’t necessarily right in the middle of the scientific discussion.

It was quite a thing. I guess that’s something that writers sort of eventually have to figure out, otherwise, you don’t get very far. But, sort of what I wanted to sort of sound like on the page, whether I was willing to sort of make my very silly jokes and just hope someone laughs at them and it doesn’t go down like a lead balloon.

Valerie

It doesn’t. It works very well.

Did you enjoy the process?

Brenna

I really did. I was let off the lead a little bit. I was allowed to tell stories in my way. If I was writing this a serious academic sort of way I probably wouldn’t have been able to make so many snarky side comments about the Paleo diet. That’s probably just not allowed.

Valerie

Among other things, not just the Paleo diet.

Brenna

Yeah. I think there are some people who — we had disagreements about tent real estate on several projects. I think that comes out. The traffic jams with tortoises — yeah, all sorts of terrible happenings.

Yeah, no…

Valerie

So you had a good time?

Brenna

Yeah. I mean obviously it’s quite high pressure. Actually, I refused to take an advance of any sort or anything like that, just to keep myself from some of the pressure.

Valerie

Oh! Really?

Brenna

That’s something… yeah.

Valerie

Wow.

Brenna

That’s everyone’s reaction.

Valerie

Why?

Brenna

For one thing, it was actually financially — you can either take an advance or negotiate a slightly better percentage for yourself. I don’t have an agent or anything, so I’ve actually done this in a very strange, strange way, because I didn’t know any better I just made my own choices.

Valerie

Yeah, sure.

Brenna

Because I didn’t take an advance they were willing to offer me a little bit more on the sort of backend.

Valerie

Yeah, sure.

Brenna

Which means I better sell books.

Valerie

Yeah, yeah.

Brenna

Otherwise, I’ve made a terrible mistake. But, hopefully it…

It took the pressure off of me to sort of deliver something for someone. I didn’t feel like this publisher owned it. I mean they did, I guess. But, I did feel like I was doing it for me. I’m doing it for my royalties, not to make up…

Valerie

Sure, I understand.

Brenna

So, I think that was actually… for me that worked out really well.

Valerie

Yeah, well, congratulations on the book. I have no doubt that it will do well. Who knew? Teeth and cities, but fascinating read.

Thank you so much for talking to us today, Brenna.

Brenna

Thanks so much for having me.

 

 

 

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