What I’m working on:
My time is split between writing freelance articles and books. In contrast to a few years ago, almost all of the articles I write (and get paid for) are now for the web, whether for traditional publications like Nature and New Scientist or newer online magazines like Aeon or Matter. Some people worry that the internet is putting journalists out of business—Jonathan Franzen talks about the “internet’s accelerating pauperisation of freelance writers” for example—but for me at least it has been hugely helpful in terms of making a living.
I’ve just come out of a burst of pieces and interviews related to my latest book, The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut’s Mummy, which was out in June. Now it’s full steam ahead with research for my next book (working title: Heal Thyself), which is about the effects of the mind on physical health, from stress and the placebo effect to meditation and hypnosis. There’s a lot of evidence that beliefs and perceptions affect disease risk so I’m interested in the mechanics of that—how exactly does the mind affect the body? I’m also looking at the evolutionary perspective—why should mental states shape our physical health? I’m fascinated by the emerging picture that we have evolved lines of communication between the nervous system and the immune system, which enable our bodies to stay one step ahead of challenges in the environment.
I’m also interested in how science is shaped—and often distorted and misused—by people with different motivations, beliefs and agendas. That’s a thread that runs through all of my books. Scientists have been slow to recognize the extent to which the mind affects the body, partly because it’s so ingrained in science and medicine that mind and body are separate things, but also because it’s hard to pin down subjective moods and beliefs in robust clinical trials. That has left the field wide open for cranks and pseudoscientists to claim the area as their own—which in turn puts off the scientists even more.
Where I work:
At my home in Herne Hill, south London, where I use the third bedroom as a study. I have a huge Victorian desk—an impulse purchase but I love it—with a leather top and cavernous drawers. We’ve just decorated so the walls are uncharacteristically bare. There are piles of books and (essential) a sofa. I sit next to a window looking out over a network of small fenced gardens. I can see my children’s slide and my neighbour’s giant fig tree, decorated in tinsel to keep away the birds.
My working day is book-ended by organized chaos. I have two children, a four-year-old and an 11-month-old, so I spend a couple of hours in the morning getting them ready for nursery and school (and cleaning up afterwards); later there’s pick-ups, play, tea, bathtime, bedtime. If I’m lucky I get six or seven—wonderful, peaceful—hours in between to work. Some days I head to the library—the British Library if I’m tracking down obscure references or my local Carnegie Library to do some reading—but usually I’m at home.
Most productive part of my day:
Just before the school run. It takes me a while to warm up, especially when I’m writing (as opposed to researching or interviewing, which come much more easily); my brain squirms in all directions to avoid stringing words into sentences. The approaching deadline of day’s end usually forces me into action. Often the lines are just starting to flow when I have to leave…I always think I’ll pick it up again once the kids are in bed but by then I’m exhausted and the moment has passed.
Most essential ritual or habit:
I can’t start work without a mug of tea.
iPhone 3GS (it does everything I want so I’ve never got round to upgrading it)
iMac and MacBook Air
Essential software/apps/productivity tools:
At heart I’m a technophobe. I’m not good with whizzy shortcuts or new gadgets and I favour working methods that are simple, familiar and reliable. I use gmail scholar alerts to keep up with research areas of interest and Endnote to manage my references. Otherwise it’s Word, a whiteboard and a filing cabinet.
Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:
Those Gmail alerts. I tend to over-research things and I’m always tempted to look for the next idea or piece of information instead of stopping and working with what I have.
My reading habits:
These days I barely get time to read unless it’s to the kids. There’s plenty to learn from children’s fiction though; at the moment my daughter and I are rediscovering some classics like The Lorax and Where the Wild Things Are. Otherwise what I read is on a screen, on the go—I have The Guardian and the New Yorker on my iPad, or I’ll skim random articles recommended on Twitter. I miss spending time with books. The last (not work-related) one I read was On Poetry by Glyn Maxwell—breathtaking, and a door to a new world for me as I have never studied poetry. A perk of night-time feeds when my son was younger was reading novels on my phone with my free hand—I got through Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, so now I’m trying to find time to finish the trilogy with MaddAddam.
Broken. Never enough.