For the residents of Lakeshore, Ontario, the black fungus caking their homes was a problem, and they blamed the local distillery. For James Scott, the Sherlock Holmes of fungi, the identity of the unsightly mold was a mystery waiting to be solved. And for Adam Rogers, senior editor at Wired, Scott’s quest was a story that needed to be told. Rogers spent three days tailing the fungus detective, and the result is a beautiful, sensory, fungal whodunit, with a brief history of alcohol on the side. “The Mystery of the Canadian Whiskey Fungus” appeared in Wired in June, 2011.
Here, Rogers tells Ed Yong the story behind his story. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
How did you come about the story?
This will sound really bad, but I don’t exactly remember. I think it was something on a blog or late-night tweet. I fell down an Internet rabbit hole and after a lot of middle-of-the-night Googling, I got to an editorial from the journal Microbe that mentioned a guy called James Scott. He’s got a fungus that grows on the outside of distillery warehouses and doesn’t understand how it works. I went to his website and he had posted summaries of a lot of his work along with the actual journal articles.
I’m a whiskey fan, I’ve toured distilleries, I love the stuff, and I do science writing, so I thought this sounded neat. And then I sat on it for months. I didn’t really believe in it as a story.
First, I got desperate to pitch a story. We have these meetings at Wired called elevator pitches where you walk in with notes and ideas, and you brainstorm with all the editors around the table. I needed to pitch something and I didn’t know what else to pitch.
I had also started to conceive of it as a mystery, rather than a story about the fungus. That was the first big narrative breakthrough. In everything I had read, the mystery was already over but when I went in to pitch, I said something like: “There was a fungus growing on the outside of a whiskey distillery. No one knew what it was, so they had to call in a mycological consulting detective.” I was trying to make it sound like Sherlock Holmes because that’s exactly how Scott thought of himself: he followed clues to help solve fungal mysteries.
I said this fungus might even have something to do with how the whiskey’s made (that turned out to be wrong), and when Scott worked out what it was, it wasn’t just a new species but a whole new genus. I thought this is the part when everyone says: “Who cares about fungus?” But everyone around the table basically said: “Holy crap, really?” The response was so good that at that moment, I said, “And I’m going to write the story.”And then I sat on it again for months. I’d spoken to James a couple of times and he said I should go and see the lab. I finally realized that it would be so much more fun than anything else I had to do and I pushed it to the top of my list … which basically meant that I was in Toronto in the middle of winter. So, that was stupid.
How did the field reporting go? Scott seems like a fun character to spend time with.
He was very friendly and open. Mycologists don’t get a lot of attention, even from other scientists. It is an increasingly neglected field, especially the kind of research that Scott likes: finding stuff in the field and characterizing it by how it looks. The geneticists have basically taken over the field, just like they’ve done in a lot of biology. But Scott wanted to do it the old way. He’s a throwback. He was trained by old guys who are mostly retired, and he wanted to talk and honor that tradition. He’s a big, lovable, kind of nerdy, really sweet Canadian dude.
He was also my first real magazine feature embed. We spent 12 hours a day together for three days together. Fungi are his obsession, and he wanted to tell me everything about them. He had all these old books and he walked me through the historical mystery that he uncovered. We flew up to see his old mentor—the Gandalf of fungus. We went on a little collecting mission. With a few exceptions, I had never met someone like that, who was willing to just hang out. He talked about everything and I wrote it all down. It meant that I had a lot of choices about what to include in the story. I wasn’t scraping at my notebook; I had a couple of full notebooks and I could really figure out what was going to make the story work.
Did the fact that it’s a clear detective story help with structuring the story when you started writing?
Very much so. Even though I had spent all that time with Scott, almost none of those actual moments are in the story. It’s almost all flashback and reconstruction. He told me the story in pieces, and I put it in chronological order. That’s not usually how I would structure a magazine story. My training is essentially: anecdotal lede; billboard and nut graf; history section; narrative section; explanatory section; more explanation and drama; and a kicker that says only time will tell. That’s the structure I grew up with but I’ve been learning how to do it in different ways as an editor and writer.
The only parts that are not chronological are a history of alcohol and an explanation of how mycology works. The story cuts back and forth between three different threads. If you start to pull that stuff out and just do the chronology, it’s actually very short. Scott gets this assignment, takes a sample, does some crazy stuff to make it grow, works out what it is, realizes it’s been mislabeled, figures out he gets to name it, names it, and never figures out how it works. It’s a little anticlimactic.
Did it worry you that the story didn’t really have an ending?
Yes. Not only did it trouble me, it greatly troubled my boss. He said it doesn’t have an ending. It’s not what you pitched: you don’t really solve it; you don’t figure out what it is; and it’s not vital to the making of whiskey.
And he was right about all that. So he and my immediate editor Mark Robinson and I all argued about it for a while, and eventually we decided that the story still stood up.
It’s got a lovely character doing interesting research. The fact that he doesn’t biologically characterize this fungus that’s his obsession is actually a tantalizing end. It means he’s got to do more. He’ll never be finished. He’s never going to stop working on this, and that’s what’s interesting about science anyway. We’ve been trying to make that case in Wired for a while that the most interesting parts of science are the ones that people don’t know rather than the ones they do. When you solve something, that part is dead and done. The action’s on the edges in science, and he was right on the edge. There was also a poetic tragedy to it in that he might never figure it out because that’s just not how his field works any more.
It’s great that it ends by setting up another mystery though …
That had two goals. It brings Scott and the reader into the present, and completes the chronology that goes right from the very beginning, when Scott first smells a distillery and sees the fungus, up to now. It also got across the scientific romance of a quest that’s never finished. It’s never going to have a Sherlock Holmes ending, where he says, “I have found the Bruce Partington plans.”
It’s also the only place in the story where I intentionally dissembled slightly. The branch that I say Scott clipped a sample off? I actually did that. We’re out in the snow in his SUV and we’re trying to get this thing before any of the security guards at the distillery came by. He handed me the snippers and said, “Just jump out and grab that branch.” There had been no first person in the story at all and I wanted to keep it that way. I thought that was okay.
Was it hard to write about mycology, which is hardly the sexiest field?
The people I talked to in it were really articulate, funny, insecure about their field, and mad about being insecure. That was the spoonful of sugar in the mix. It helped to get across the hard science. I actually wish I had put more of the actual mycology in.
It also helped that the science ended up being very visual, especially how Scott likes to practice it. In the way mycology used to work, you would collect the sample, keep it folded up in paper envelope, store it away and then look at it under a microscope later. All of those techniques became my way in. It wasn’t as abstract as some sciences can be. There was actually something physical to describe: how the fungus looked under the microscope, or what its color was.
What about other senses? You’ve got a truly wonderful lede where you quickly establish a sense of place by describing the smell of a distillery.
I tend to think about the descriptive parts of stories as what the movie looks like, but that approach can lead you astray. Movies are two senses only: sound and vision. You can do amazing things with that, but text has more channels because you can do other senses. I’m a huge believer in describing taste and smell and touch if you can to describe a scene. You can shorthand the visuals—you can say it was a long, black building—but when you describe how it smells, that puts a reader there in the way a movie of the same thing could never do. The sensory aspects make the reader more present. It also makes the character more present because it tells you what he is smelling—that’s a novelist’s trick, not a moviemaker’s one.
I agree with [novelist] Elmore Leonard: no weather ledes. Every wants to say it was a warm, sunny day. That’s just: “It was a dark and stormy night.” I didn’t want to do that.
There was also a lot of pressure on that lede. It had to introduce the main character, it had to introduce the fungus and it had to set the mystery up right away. It’s like the scene where Holmes and Watson are sitting in their home in 221B Baker Street, and somebody calls him up, he takes a look and says there’s a problem. I knew if I could do that, then we’d be off to the races.
With two notebooks of material, you must have had to kill a lot of darlings. Do you want to resurrect any of them here?
I had one thing that I tried desperately to keep. It was in all of my early drafts and I kept fighting with my editor about it. He was very delicate but he finally said it had to go.
When we were first talking, Scott told me about how he studied the fungus with a double-zero insect pin—a tiny steel needle used to stick bugs onto displays. Under a microscope, he used this super-small needle to pick out individual spores or pieces of fungus. I’d believed him because in his office, he had displays of rhinoceros beetles and other bugs on the wall. But a couple of days later, we’re sitting in a pub having lunch, and he says, “You know I told you about the double-zero insect pin? That was kind of a lie.” A double-zero insect pin is 0.3 millimeters wide, and that was too big. He said, “I made my own needle, out of tungsten, with a one micron tip.”
He’d put sodium nitride powder in a test tube with a tongue depressor stuck into it, and melt it in a microwave to make a solid popsicle. Then he’d take a millimeter-thick piece of tungsten wire, heat it over a Bunsen burner so it’s red hot, and drag it through the popsicle. The metal pops and flares and there’s molten metal flying everywhere but at the end of it, you’ve etched the needle into a one-micron point, and it’s made of tungsten so it’s super tough.
To me, this got to the heart of Scott. I was trying to have him be this 1800s fungus detective in the modern world, using these old techniques and making stuff himself rather than buying stuff off the shelf. It exactly fit with the character I was trying to build. But it was a long paragraph of sodium nitride and tungsten and it really slowed things down. But I get to tell it to everybody now, which is great.
A glimpse behind the scenes:
Ed Yong is the creator of the science blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, which won a National Academies Keck Science Communication Award in 2010. His work has also appeared in New Scientist, Nature, the Times, Wired, the Guardian and more. Follow Ed on Twitter @edyong209.