Talking with Pulitzer Prize-winner Dan Fagin

Dan Fagin, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Tom's River:

Dan Fagin, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Tom's River: A Story of Science and Salvation" (Bantam Books, 2013). (Credit: Ken Spencer)

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When Dan Fagin dies, he knows the first paragraph of his obituary will mention what happened April 14: He won a Pulitzer Prize for his clear, authoritative and suspenseful nonfiction book, "Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation" (Bantam Books, $28).

A Newsday reporter for 18 years, Fagin became a journalism professor at New York University in 2005. He was working at home in Sea Cliff, unaware of the impending announcements, when his wife, Alison Frankel, a reporter for Reuters, shouted the news from another room.

Amazon cleared out its modest stock of "Toms River" within the hour. The Pulitzer citation calls it "a book that deftly combines investigative reporting and historical research to probe a New Jersey seashore town's cluster of childhood cancers linked to water and air pollution."

"No one was more surprised than me," Fagin said. "Any writer under any circumstances is going to be surprised to win the Pulitzer Prize. There are so many amazing books published each year."

Fagin, 51, is a middle child and a numbers man, with a better-than-average grasp of probability, something he burnished during his years as an environmental reporter for Newsday. He sees his win as the culmination of the listening and learning he did on Long Island, particularly on the topic of breast cancer clusters in suburban New York.

He spoke about the book by telephone.

What do you hope, now that your book has this new seal of approval?

I am heartened that more people will be introduced to this story. "Toms River" is on one level a cautionary tale; on another level, it is the story of the great things that happen when people in a community take on the full responsibility of citizenship, when they immerse themselves in matters of community importance. When a child has cancer, it would have been the easier thing to turn inward. Instead, they turned private grief into a community crusade.

You end this book by traveling to China. Why?

Readers should not come away from this book thinking, "Poor Toms River -- that's them, that's not us." This is a universal problem created by the human impulses that gave rise to it, and our Faustian relationship with industrial chemicals. Those of us here in the United States are reaping the benefits of the chemical age without fully bearing the costs. Just like we outsourced once to Toms River, we now outsource to China.

This book took seven years, researched and written amid your teaching duties. What is your process?

Laborious, a process of writing and rewriting. I'm of the school that says you cannot rewrite too many times, that you rewrite until you can't bear it and then rewrite it one more time. Putting in a lot of time is the optimal way to see that the book is clear, interesting, engaging -- but also to be right.

Which was the hardest chapter to get right?

They all possessed their own challenges. I struggled with the last chapter, and the China work, and the need to tie up the string in Toms River. I struggled with how prescriptive I wanted to be. We could all use a little more humility in nonfiction writing -- more reporting and less hectoring.

Has this work meant any changes in your personal habits?

I've always been reasonably vigilant about my own habits, but not compulsively so. You don't have to be an environmental reporter for long to realize there are a lot of potential risks out there. But these are collective risks, best handled collectively, not individually. That's why we need a robust regulatory system to weigh costs and benefits. These are complex questions and it bothers me a bit when people say we can make our own decisions about what risks to take on ...It's an illusion to think that can be done on an individual basis.

Do you drink tap water?

That's a good example. I drink tap water; I'm comfortable with what I know about the content of water on Long Island. The public oversight is much more rigorous on public water than bottled.

Where has your world view been most formed?

Long Island might be the most important influence on me -- not just in longevity, but as the place where I've spent the most time listening to people. I would have never done the Toms River book if the women on Long Island weren't so interested in the epidemiology of breast cancer. And one of the things I wrote a lot about was the difficulty of doing good science, the frustration of the science.

There is no doubt that environment plays a role in breast cancer, but there was no credible evidence to suggest that any specific environmental problems unique to Long Island explain the higher local rates; instead, it seems very likely that the same factors that elevate breast cancer rates in many other affluent suburban areas around the country also elevate them here on Long Island. That certainly doesn't mean that environmental factors aren't important -- they probably are. They're just not unique to Long Island. That turned out to be a difficult message for many people to hear because it was a nuanced message ... The other issue is that epidemiology can't tell us definitive cause and effect relationships; it's about likelihood, not proof. Part of the problem is math: small numbers mean high uncertainty; it's just about impossible to get around that. But we make decisions all the time with imperfect information, and we can't let that paralyze us into doing nothing.

An earlier version of this story misstated Dan Fagin's tenure at Newsday.

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