Kathryn Schulz’s New Yorker story “The Really Big One” opens in Japan, moments before the 2011 Tohuku earthquake. American seismologist Chris Goldfinger, who is attending an international conference in the city of Kashiwa, feels the room begin to shake. At first, he and his colleagues laugh dismissively, assuming that they’re experiencing one of Japan’s frequent small quakes. But the shaking goes on, and on, and on, and soon, everyone in the room realizes that something very big is happening.
As the world now knows, the quake turned out to be the largest in the country’s recorded history, and the subsequent tsunami devastated northeastern Japan. For Goldfinger, a professor at Oregon State University, the Tohuku earthquake was a frightening preview of another disaster—one much closer to home.
Goldfinger studies the rising tension in the Cascadia subduction zone, off the coast of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington. He and his colleagues estimate that the chance of a “big one”—a quake of magnitude 8.0 or higher—happening in the zone within the next 50 years is about one in three. As Schulz vividly describes, such a quake would have massive consequences, inundating much of the coastal Pacific Northwest and causing enormous damage in Portland and Seattle.
When her story appeared in early July, it immediately went viral. As Schulz reported in a later blog post, readers described it as not just “terrifying” but also “truly terrifying,” “incredibly terrifying,” “horrifying,” and “scary as fuck.” The line that got the most attention was a quote from FEMA official Kenneth Murphy: “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”
Schulz, a staff writer at The New Yorker, first heard about the inevitable rupture of the Cascadia subduction zone from a relative in Portland, Oregon. “I honestly couldn’t tell you whether my very first reaction was horror for my beloved Pacific Northwest, or a kind of writerly thrill of ‘Oh my God, that’s an amazing story,’” she says. While on a visit to the Pacific Northwest this summer, she told Michelle Nijhuis the story behind the story, and the story after the story. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
When did you first hear about the Cascadia subduction zone?
Part of what immediately made this a compelling story to me was that even though I lived in Portland for several years some time back, I have a bunch of family out here, I have really good friends out here, and I spend my summers here, I only heard about the Cascadia subduction zone last year. It was, as you might imagine, kind of a shock to the system. I mean, I’m a major consumer of news. I read the paper, I listen to NPR, I actually know people in politics and policy. I thought, “If I haven’t heard about this story yet, something is a little amiss.”
Other than the initial shock of “Wow, this is possible,” what made you think, “The time is right for me to write about this”?
I don’t think it was so much a “time is right” feeling as just an “Oh, obviously.” As a writer, you’re only so often presented with a story that you immediately know is great, and that you immediately know you want to write. I honestly couldn’t tell you whether my very first reaction was horror for my beloved Pacific Northwest, or a kind of writerly thrill of “Oh my God, that’s an amazing story.”
How did you know you wanted to write it?
Not because I have any type of particular skill set or aptitude—a lot of people could have written it. I just had the happy accident of being in its path. And I think it helped that I really love the region, I’m really familiar with it, and I already spend a lot of time out here, so reporting-wise it was a bit of a no-brainer. But I also love science in general and geology specifically, and I’m really interested in the relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world. So in that sense it was obviously a story that I was going to want to write.
What were the first research steps that you took?
The very first person that I got in touch with, on a tip from the person who first told me about the Cascadia subduction zone, was Carmen Merlo, who is the head of the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management. And then I did what reporters do, which is that I asked her who else I should talk to. She was immensely helpful in describing what’s going on in the city of Portland, but she’s also been in emergency management in the Northwest for a long time, so she was able to hand me a vast list of names.
When and how did you talk to your editors about the story?
Very early on. I brought the story to The New Yorker as a freelancer, and in the middle of my working on it they hired me as a staff writer. So the story bridged those two different relationships with them. But I pitched the magazine as soon as I’d done enough background research to get a feel for the accuracy of what I had been told, and the scope of the problem.
Chris Goldfinger is a really compelling character. When did you know that you were going to use him as the central character in the story?
Very late in the game! I mean, Chris was always going to be in the article. He’s one of the leading scientists on this subject, and he’s the person who gave us the timeline for what we should expect from Cascadia. He was incredibly helpful to the article, and in every incarnation of it he was present. I cited his work, I talked about his numbers, and I think his lab showed up in most drafts. But the story came out in July, and until about May the draft of this piece looked very, very different. And among the starkest differences was that there was almost no Chris Goldfinger in it. It did not begin the way that it currently begins, it did not have him as sort of the central character. He was in it, his work was in it, but his appearance was not much stronger than a cameo.
How did it originally start?
The early version of this piece started in the town of Seaside, Oregon. So the whole thing flip-flopped. Now Seaside has a cameo, in the final version, and Chris plays the leading role. Originally Seaside was almost the main character—instead of being built around a person, the piece was built around a place. And there were some really compelling reasons to do it that way. Seaside, with one possible exception, is the town that stands to lose the most when this thing hits. Something like 90 percent of the town is inside the tsunami inundation zone. It is really a very bad situation. So that was compelling. There were a couple of people there who were compelling, and did a good job of speaking for the city. And it gave me a visual: I could hang out in Seaside, right there by the ocean, and in a different way than I ultimately did I could pan out beyond the shoreline, out to sea, and drop into the ocean to show people where these plates were meeting.
So it was a very different opening. It was quieter in some ways—I think I was aiming for a kind of quiet menace, but it might have also been just sort of sleepy.
What were you going for by changing to a character-based opening?
You know, I set the piece aside for a long time, because after I was hired as a staff writer, I had these more time-sensitive articles I had to get done for the magazine. And when I went back to it, I could see where I was coming from. I understood why Seaside had been tempting, and why a place-based version had been tempting. I thought the writing was kind of pretty. But then I thought, “Oh my God, Kathryn, this is a mega natural disaster that we’re talking about—give the people what they want!” I realized that it was not the moment to be lyrical and sleepy and slowly build the subject. It was the moment to really put people inside this experience, and let them see it unfold, see what it’s like. And place can be powerful, but sometimes people are more powerful. I’m sometimes resistant to the obvious move, but I had a moment when I was looking at my draft and I thought, “Schulz, there’s a reason people use those obvious moves. They work!”
And since you’re writing about something that hasn’t happened yet, it gave you a way to start with a version of the real event.
That is exactly right. When you first think about this story, you might think, “Oh, what could be easier? People love natural disasters, this thing’s going to write itself.” But what I realized almost right away is that it’s very difficult to tell the story of something that hasn’t happened yet. When it isn’t fact, when it isn’t what has happened or what is happening—when that particular tool is taken out of the tool chest, you can get in a lot of trouble, or have a lot of difficulty. I didn’t want to do the, you know, “It’s 9:45 a.m. in downtown Seattle, the commuters are …” I’m not wild about those kinds of thought experiments. I’ve seen them done really well, but they can also be very hackneyed. So I made the closest move I could, which was to go to an analogous situation. And though it was a little bit of a bait and switch, it actually is the closest example we have in recent history of what’s going to happen here, and it’s a terrifying one—because that place is much better prepared than ours.
For me, a big part of the scariness of the story comes from your decision to use the future tense rather than the conditional: “The way it will arrive …” and “The destruction will begin …” It’s a small thing, but I think that grammatical choice has a huge emotional impact. How did you make that decision?
First of all, the fundamental truth about the Cascadia situation is that it is a when, not an if. So in a funny way, the science made the decision for me. Now, inevitably there are micro-conditionals: Am I going to get hit by a brick from across the street? There will be huge differences if it strikes in winter versus summer, or if it strikes in daylight versus nighttime. There are a lot of unknowns. But the fundamental fact of its happening is a known, and you know, grammar is your friend. Strangely, it creates its own kind of plot, and you can use it.
So it was a very deliberate decision to not use the conditional. And for all the limitations that come with telling a story that hasn’t happened, as we were just discussing, it’s kind of a rare, weird pleasure as a journalist to write in the future tense. There’s something about the future tense that has this momentum, this feeling of imminence and suspense.
I wanted to ask you about the hand metaphor that you use—the way you repeatedly ask readers to use their hands to mimic the action of the plates in the subduction zone. It’s so effective. Was that the way the movement was explained to you, or was that something you came up with in the process of writing this story?
It was not explained to me that way, but I don’t remember any incarnation of this story where I did not explain it that way. I think I myself must have sat there with my hands at some point, making those gestures. It felt intuitive to me, I suppose because we use our bodies to make sense of complicated science—we have forever and ever—and our bodies are the one thing everyone’s going to have on them. You don’t want to have to send the reader to a video, or to a map or an illustration. Making it literally embodied seemed like the right move.
One moment when I both felt really charmed and also thought, “Oh wow, I’m totally surprised by what this story has done,” was when a friend of mine sent me an email saying, “I’ve just got to tell you, I was just sitting on the subway watching the person across from me do something with their hands that made me realize what they were reading on their Kindle.” Which, you know, was probably baffling all the other subway riders.
That’s even better than catching someone reading your story in a magazine—catching them actually enacting what you wrote.
Yeah, we all have that fantasy that the person on the plane next to you is going to be reading your story. Which never comes true for me, by the way, which is why I think this was particularly fun and special.
So what was the most challenging part of the reporting and writing?
The reporting really was a pleasure. I just would like to say for the record that I love scientists. They are the best sources ever, and they are so unbelievably generous. A lot of other people too were supremely patient with me, and with making sure that I really did understand this. The emergency people were a real pleasure. This was one of the rare stories—again, a gift to a journalist—where boy, the sources really want you to tell it. You’re not fighting a politician who is trying to put his own spin on a scandal. You’re not filing FOIA requests. Everybody involved is as invested or more invested than you are in getting the story out.
So that was all great. Writing is hard. It was difficult, as it often is, to decide what not to say. I have volumes and volumes and volumes of reporting on this stuff, and in that way that natural disasters are interesting, almost all of it is interesting. There is a lot to be said about every component of this story. I mean, the amount of information I couldn’t put in there is immense, and it was hard to let it go. That was another great gift of having to ignore it for many months. I came back to the story when it was a lot easier to let some of that information go.
Probably the hardest thing about writing this piece was that from the beginning, this story was two stories for me. It’s the overt, obvious story, which is the story of the Cascadia subduction zone. On its own, that’s an incredible story, one of the best I’ve ever happened to chance upon. But, from the get go, in my mind, it was also really a parable about climate change. And then one level deeper than that, it’s not a parable, but an example about a really deep problem in our human existence, this kind of problem of scale. We are bound by certain temporal and geographic coordinates, and it’s very very hard to see beyond them.
So for me, one of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to weigh those parts: How much to tell it straight as the story of this impending earthquake, and how much to tip my hand about my own feelings about what this story means and what it stands for. And ultimately, I decided to hold my fire. I realized that I could say a lot with just two lines near the end, and that’s what I did.
I want to ask you about the reaction to the story. Did you or your editors in any way foresee the scale of the reaction it provoked?
Could you actually please call my editors and ask them that? Because I have no idea if they foresaw it. I definitely didn’t. I mean, the piece had been hanging over my head for over a year, so my own feeling about it was like, “Oh thank God, it’s finally out of my life.” I was not thinking about the reaction. And then right when the story hit, I vanished to central Oregon. A day or two later, when I dragged myself to a little spot of cell service, I got the shock of my life.
So, having watched some of the response unfold, my mental picture of you is that you’re standing in the middle of it just like Chris Goldfinger during the Japanese earthquake, looking at your watch while the shaking goes on and on, and thinking, “Holy shit!” So what was it really like to get that kind of reaction to a story?
This place I go to in central Oregon, this little Forest Service cabin in the middle of nowhere, is very free of amenities and outside distractions. You have to walk half a mile to borrow the Wi-Fi signal at the general store. So when I did that for the first time after the story came out, when I first opened my laptop, I think I just stared at the screen for about a minute and a half—then closed it and walked home. I put my head in the sand for a couple days, and then I got my act together and got better cell service.
In addition to not expecting a big reaction at all, I did not remotely expect the nature of the reaction, which was so consistent—people just kept saying the story was terrifying. I wish I could tell you that I’ve got a future as a Hollywood screenwriter, and that I was making these incredibly deliberate decisions to terrify everyone, but no, not at all! I was thinking about policy and psychology, you know, the philosophical conundrum of being human. I was being nerdy. And while I’m human—I have an ego, and I was happy people were reading the story and talking about it—I felt that the terror and panic were not constructive. It was not the outcome I wanted from a story like this. Fear can be useful, but mostly it isn’t.
So initially I was quite worried that there would be this brief reaction—“Whoa, scary disaster-porn story”—and that would be that. As time went on it became clear that actually, it wasn’t being taken as disaster porn, it was being treated seriously. I was really happy that the seismological community and the emergency management community stood behind it. And it seems like people are actually doing things. Contractors are emailing me to say, “You just made my year financially.” People are bolting their houses to their foundations. I’ve gotten enough indications that, in various ways, communities in the Northwest have taken it seriously.
And so, honestly, my feeling now is that—I’m thrilled. It’s really rare, as a journalist, to ever feel your work matters in any traceable way. A lot of what you do is on faith, that somehow it matters. Or it matters to you, and that’s a cushion. And here’s one case where it’s like well, maybe it actually matters. I’m so happy to have written something like that once in my life.
Michelle Nijhuis writes for National Geographic and other publications, and is the co-editor of The Science Writers’ Handbook. Follow her on Twitter @nijhuism.