Dan Fagin is the latest native Oklahoman to achieve literary greatness.
On Monday, he was named the winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction for his book, “Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation.”
The Pulitzer judges called 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.” It bested finalists “The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide” by Gary J. Bass and “The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War” by Fred Kaplan.
Fagin, who now lives in Long Island, NY, was born in 1963 in Oklahoma City to parents Arnold and Lois Fagin. Arnold is a prominent family law attorney living in Edmond. Lois split from Arnold decades ago, remarried and died in 2008.
Dan Fagin was reared mostly in a Quail Creek home his parents had built when that part of northwest Oklahoma City was all but empty. He has an older brother and a younger sister.
He spent the eighth grade at Casady but finished his high school education at Bishop McGuinness, where he became close friends with a boy his own age. The two have stayed close all these years, following similar paths. The Oklahoman recently published an interview with Fagin’s friend — Blake Bailey — about his recent memoir, “The Splendid Things We Planned,” although Bailey is best known as a literary biographer.
Fagin attended Dartmouth, then took a job as a newspaper reporter in Florida before landing at Newsday in New York City, where he wrote mostly about the environment. In 2006, he took a job as a full-time professor and director of the science journalism program at New York University.
He is married to Alison Frankel, an online legal columnist for Reuters. They have two children: Anna Fagin, 22, who is a management consultant in New York City, and Lily Fagin, 20, a sophomore at Dartmouth.
Fagin, 51, spoke with The Oklahoman by phone on Tuesday, a day after he learned he’d won the Pulitzer. His comments have been edited for space.
Q: So you just found out you won the Pulitzer yesterday, is that right? How’d that play out for you?
A: I had no idea. I used to work in newsrooms. I was at Newsday for many years, and, you know, we were sometimes up for Pulitzer prizes. I was part of teams that were finalists twice before, and you would always hear when you were kind of in the running. But, of course, now that I’m a professor, and I either work in my office at NYU or work at home, I’m not really plugged in. I’m not in a position to hear about leaks from the Pulitzer committee that you are privy to in a giant newsroom.
So it was just a total bolt from the blue. I had actually forgotten that it was Pulitzer announcement day, but I was working in my (home) office and my wife was working across the way in her (home) office ... out in Long Island. She just shouted, “Dan, you won a Pulitzer!” I think we both thought that that couldn’t actually have been the case, and there was some kind of mistake or something, but I looked at the screen, and then I went to the official Pulitzer site, and I saw that there was “Toms River,” and it was an incredibly exciting moment.
Q: If I were ever so fortunate, the party would still be going on a month from now. How are your family and friends responding to the news?
A: Alison and I had our own party, and then we met some friends last night, some good friends here in our town. Of course, the thing about social media is that you sort of share these things with thousands of people, so there’s been a lot of that, too, over the last 24 hours. It’s been a lot of fun, honestly.
Q: Books like this aren’t written overnight. I imagine this took a lot of thought and effort and research, plus drafts and rewrites.
A: Start to finish, (it took) a little bit more than six years. It was quite an extensive undertaking. I am very grateful to have had the kind of position I have at NYU where, obviously I have obligations — I run the science journalism program, I teach — but NYU also gives me the freedom to pursue my own work. That’s a wonderful thing. You know, one of the things I was really concerned about with modern journalism was that there was very little opportunity to do real deep work. Since I am in the fortunate position of being able to do it, to have a job that takes care of my needs and also gives me time to do this kind of work, I feel some obligation to actually go out and do it and do it well, so that’s what I tried to do.
Q: What’s the nutshell version of “Toms River?”
A: Toms River is a town that was really very much like any other small town until the chemical industry showed up in the early 1950s. It spurred a number of things. Very rapid growth. Spread of wealth — it made the town much wealthier than it was before. But it also led to some pretty drastic and appalling pollution. The very gradual awakening of the town to what was happening around them took a long time. There were lots of fits and starts. It’s really quite an amazing narrative with a lot of twists and turns. But eventually the people of Toms River awoke to what was happening in their town, and they did something about it. One of the key reasons that they did something about it is that it appeared that a very high number of children were getting cancer. At first those claims were dismissed by the experts, but eventually a sophisticated epidemiological study was done, and it did indeed find that there appeared to be validity to the parents’ claims. Most importantly, the situation ... was cleaned up properly. The good news is that Toms River is a much safer place than it was before.
But the reason I wrote the book is not because Toms River is so unusual. As a matter of fact, I don’t think that it is. Really the most unusual thing about it is that we actually found out about it. We found out about it because of the persistence of a number of people in the community who wouldn’t shut up. They wouldn’t take no for an answer. They wanted to tell what in the hell was going on. It’s my contention that there are lots of Toms Rivers out there. We shouldn’t despair. We shouldn’t think this is an impossible situation, because it isn’t. ...
I hope that by writing this book it will serve as a cautionary tale about lots of other places, including Oklahoma, where there are lots of changes, including rapid growth and changes associated with hydraulic fracturing. It’s very important that we keep our eyes open and are fully aware of what is happening around us. ... There are a number of pretty severely contaminated sites in Oklahoma, but that’s true all over the country. I think the wrong way for people to react is to say, “Oh, poor Toms River” or “Oh, poor Picher,” because to an extent there is risk everywhere. That doesn’t mean we should be paranoid about it. We should be smart about it. The corner dry cleaner can be an important source of contamination if you happen to be drinking contaminated water from a well that is nearby.
Q: The New York Times, as you well know, declared your book “a new classic of science reporting.” NPR, Kirkus Reviews, even at least one other Pulitzer winner have all hailed your book as a masterpiece. Where do you go from there?
A: I’m figuring that out right now. We’ll see. I’ve always written about environmental issues. I would be surprised if I wandered very far from that. There are many things going on in the world that touch on environmental health, and I expect that I will be exploring some of those things.