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Brusatte writes the ‘big one’

Ottawa native publishes new ‘adult pop science’ book about dinosaurs

In the 1990s, self-described “weird teenager” Steve Brusatte dreamed of writing a science book.

“Of course, back then I had no idea how to write a book, and I didn't know very much about dinosaurs, but I knew that one day I wanted to write a book like the type of pop science books I was obsessively reading while in high school,” the Ottawa native wrote in an email sent from his home in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Brusatte did something about it — quickly.

“When I was 18, I wrote my first book, which was published by a company that put out an amateur paleontology magazine called Fossil News. It was about the official state fossils of the United States. It was a lot of fun to write, and a huge thrill to see it in print, and after that writing became a little addictive.

“Since then I've written a handful of children's books over the years, and a textbook. But the new book is the one I've wanted to write,” said Brusatte, whose title is Reader in Vertebrate Paleontology in the School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh (equal to an associate professor at a United States college).

Yet the book Brusatte — a former Times reporter and teen columnist — always wanted to write will be published Tuesday, April 24, his 34th birthday. “The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs” is geared to adults, and explains how the ancient creatures developed and ultimately ceased to exist.

“The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs” will be out in digital formats and in bookstores next week, including Prairie Fox Books in downtown Ottawa.

Q. How did this project come about? What is the target audience and goal of the book?

It's an adult pop science book, and it's in narrative style. It tells the story of dinosaur evolution: their origins, how they rose to dominance, how some of them became huge and others grew feathers and evolved into birds, and how the rest of them went extinct. There are so many books about dinosaurs for children out there, including some of the ones I've written. But there aren't so many for adults.

I hope this book will help bring the joy and wonder of dinosaurs to a more mature audience, and I hope it shows how dinosaurs aren't just a childhood obsession — they are the clues that tell us how the Earth has changed over time, and they have a tantalizing story to tell. Like many projects, it was part planned and part random.

I always wanted to write a book like this, and then by total happenstance, a literary agent in New York (Jane von Mehren) heard about some of my work, asked if I had any ideas for a book, and she turned out to be a tremendous help in getting me in gear to write a proposal to publishers, and it all followed from there.
Q. You describe this book  as “the big one.” How so? Is it being promoted and marketed as a big/important book?

Yeah, the marketing campaign is getting a little intense. My publishers have told me to keep promoting it on social media, so every day I'm tweeting about it. I'm probably annoying a lot of people. But we do think that this has the potential to be a major book on dinosaurs for an older readership. I hope so. I hope it inspires people the way great science writers like Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan inspired me as a teenager, and I hope it has a long shelf life as a book that brings the story of dinosaur evolution to a big audience. We will see.
Q. Has a general roundup of the rise and fall ever been tackled before?

No, and that's the main thing that makes this book unique. The book tells the whole story of dinosaur evolution, from origins to extinction. It's an incredible story that seems almost like fiction, but it really happened.

And it's a story that can really only be written now, because we've learned so much about dinosaurs over the past decade, because there have been so many new fossil discoveries and so many new technologies like CAT scanning used to study dinosaurs. If I tried to write this book 10 years ago, I wouldn't have been able to do it.
Q. What did you try to bring to this that is different than other books?

It's ultimately a story book, a narrative that tells the tale of the dinosaur empire. Dinosaurs were an empire — they dominated the Earth for over 150 million years. So I did my best to tell their story without overcomplicating it. The dinosaurs provided the story and that made my job a lot easier — I didn't have to create characters or a story arc like you need to do if you're writing a novel.

But in telling their story, I weave in a lot of my own stories of traveling the world digging up dinosaurs, and working with amazing colleagues to name new dinosaur species and study dinosaur evolution. I also tell a lot of stories about my colleagues and their discoveries. I hope the book will be seen as a testament to the diverse group of paleontologists, particularly young people, working all over the world during this most exciting time in the history of dinosaur research.
Q. Does the book offer any new revelations? Do you expect people to say you borrowed ideas, etc., from other sources?

I don't think there is anything in the book that will surprise paleontologists. But, I always have to remind myself that my job is a really weird one, and I am part of this niche field that only a few hundred others are part of.

The vast majority of the public probably has little reason to know the story of dinosaur evolution, so I think there are going to be a lot of revelations in there that most readers have never heard about before. Like the theory that dinosaurs rose to dominance very gradually, and that it took them over 50 million years to best their crocodile rivals before becoming the biggest animals and top predators.

Or that many dinosaurs had feathers and wings, and that today's birds evolved from dinosaurs. Or that not all dinosaurs were huge, but some were dwarves and others were even smaller than crows. Or that paleontologists now have ways to tell what color dinosaurs were — and we know that some of them had iridescent feathers, ringed tails, and flamboyantly colored bodies. I could go on and on, but I don't want to give away the entire book.
Q. You write about the “Bone Wars” and some of your eccentric friends and colleagues. Has this been covered much in other books?

The Bone Wars have been written about in a few books, but by and large they have been more specialist books, not books meant for a big audience. And it is a crazy story, how these late 19th century elitist paleontologists from the East Coast employed teams of hooligans and bandits to find dinosaur bones out west, and how they were in such competition that they looted each others' sites and sabotaged each others' work, all while trying to avoid Native American war parties. Dinosaurs were amazing creatures, but often times the people who study dinosaurs are equally outlandish — or even moreso.
Q. How tough was it to condense millions of years of history into nine chapters?

As you know, I'm not always the most reserved person, and once I get going on the subject of dinosaurs I easily get long-winded. But for this book I had a tight word count and I tried not to overcomplicate things. The book is about 400 pages long and covers almost 200 million years of history, so on average that's 500,000 years or so per page.

Luckily I had a great editor (Peter Hubbard at HarperCollins) who kept me on track, made sure I kept my focus on the main narrative of dinosaur evolution, and told me when I was trying to be too cute or too silly.
Q. What’s next? A book tour? Fieldwork?

 I think only the big authors like your Stephen Kings and John Grishams have book tours these days! So, there is no book tour, although I am doing a series of various lectures and book signings in the United Kingdom, and I have a trip to Toronto lined up to do an event at the Royal Ontario Museum, which is really exciting.

I don't know what to expect in the U.S. A lot of journalists have been sent copies of the book, so I hope that it will be reviewed in some of the major newspapers and magazines, and maybe covered a bit on radio or television, and that can start to build some buzz. It's so hard to predict though. The U.S. market is so huge, and there are so many people writing books, that anything can happen.

I just hope it gets good reviews. A few advanced reviews have come out, and they have been pretty positive, but I'm nervous to see how readers like it. I'm sure I'll be obsessively checking Amazon and Goodreads to see what readers are saying.

But otherwise, yes, I have a few fieldwork trips lined up to some of the Scottish islands in May and June, where my students, colleagues and I are looking for dinosaurs and other fossils from the Jurassic period, about 170 million years ago.

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