The science of women

Author Natalie Angier tackled a huge subject -- female anatomy -- with a small reader in mind: her daughter.

November 14, 1999|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN COLUMNIST

On Wednesday night, at a black-tie gala in Manhattan with Steve Martin as host, Takoma Park author and journalist Natalie Angier will find out whether she has won the prestigious National Book Award for her book, "Woman: An Intimate Geography."

"I have already decided how to react when I don't win," says the Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer for the New York Times. "I just wish they would announce it at the beginning of the evening instead of at the end. That way, the rest of us could at least drown our disappointment," she says with a rueful laugh.

Should she win, Angier might need some coaching in how to celebrate. She was suffering from a migraine the day her nomination was announced. She was having a root canal the day she learned she'd won the Pulitzer.

But her third book is cause for jubilation among women. It is a witty, provocative, eloquent exploration of what it means to be female, and a unmerciful debunking of the idea that women are a substandard refitting of a male ideal. She also shoots big holes in tired, old theories about gender-based biological imperatives put forward by evolutionary psychologists.

In "Woman," Angier's voracious intellect draws on physiology, biology, mythology, anthropology, history, art, literature, sociology and psychology to describe the beautiful ingenuity of the female body and what makes women feel and act the way they do. Starting at the chromosomal level, she reconnects anatomy and destiny with fresh new thinking.

We reached Angier at her home in Takoma Park, where she lives with her husband, Washington Post science writer Rick Weiss, and their young daughter.

You wrote about the whole female body, a pretty ambitious undertaking. Did you ever feel overwhelmed by your subject?

I felt overwhelmed all the time. The topic seemed ludicrously large, and I was always looking for excuses not to finish. It was my husband who kept me on track by reminding me that I wasn't writing the book for myself -- I was writing it for my daughter. I couldn't bear the thought of failing her.

Yet despite the bigness of the topic, when it came down to choosing what I would and what I would not include, somehow I knew all the topics I wanted to cover. ... One reader criticized me for not having included a chapter on rape. I apologized, but said the book was long enough as it was, I couldn't possibly include everything female, and I didn't think that I had any new or illuminating insights into the psychodynamics of rape.

There are tons of health books for women. What void did you see your book filling? Who do you envision reading this book?

I wanted to write a book that would address the whys of the female body as much as the hows -- the evolution behind our body and our behavior, as well as the nuts and bolts of the working parts. I wanted to get women to think about the larger context of their bodies, the deep prehistory of their biology, and I wanted to do that from a distinctly female perspective. ... I wrote the book with female readers in mind, banking on an audience of women, say, 18 years and up. However, I've been pleasantly surprised to hear from a number of men that they really enjoyed the book, too.

You are a science writer. Why and how? Did you want to be a doctor and, like, fail organic chemistry?

I always wanted to be a writer, from age 5 or 6 onward. In college, I started taking a lot of hardcore science courses -- physics, astronomy -- because I liked the precision and rigor of scientific thinking. I didn't consider becoming a scientist. In fact, I had no idea what I'd do with these dual interests, literature and science, when I left college. I tried technical writing for a while. [Then] I heard that the science editor of Time was starting up a popular science magazine called Discover. I applied for a job and got it. This was back in 1980, when I was 22, so I've been in this business for nearly two decades.

You are also married to a science writer. What is pillow talk like in your house? Do you feel like you and he compete?

My husband and I talk a lot about science at home -- the politics of science as well as discoveries and ideas in science. We talk about this stuff because we like it! We rarely compete, though. Rick is more of a natural newshound than I am. I like to write about quirky things.

You have a young daughter. Were you thinking about her as you wrote this book? If so, in what way?

I started working on the book before I had Katherine, before I even became pregnant. But I don't know if I would have finished the book without having a daughter. I dedicated the book to her. It was the thought of her future as a woman that kept me going through some dark days. I only hope that she reads it someday, and that it doesn't embarrass her too much.

This book has been described as feminist biology. Did you bring a feminist sensibility to female anatomy ... or did you find it when you got there?

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