Manuscript Submitted, and Back to Work

On December 31, I handed in my manuscript for ONE INCH FROM EARTH. From start to finish, genesis of an idea to a 180,000 word manuscript, took four full years. The first eighteen months were spent researching and writing what became a book proposal. After Geoff Shandler of Custom House bought the book in a preempt, it was off to the races. I’ve never worked so hard on anything in my life. The final two months, in particular, nearly killed me. I spent years fantasizing what I would do the moment the manuscript was completed. Here is what I did. I hit “send” on the email to Geoff and Stacia Decker, my agent, and promptly—literally within the hour—fell into terrible illness. My family and I had a celebratory dinner at a local favorite restaurant, and not even the champagne could rescue the event. I was absolutely sick and exhausted, as though my body had been holding it all in, worked for me, fought diligently to keep me going, succeeded, and promptly surrendered. I survived, more or less, though it was tough going for a few days.

Once edits conclude and the book is released in 2020, I hope the world agrees that it was worth the effort. Now I begin work on the next proposal. Long book projects are very lonely endeavors, but ONE INCH FROM EARTH was worth every second of it. My next one will be pretty exciting, too.

My freelance work fell largely by the wayside over the last couple of years, though recently of note: I embedded with the OSIRIS-REx team during the final approach of Bennu for the first spectral observations, and wrote about it for Scientific American here. (This is part of my ongoing coverage of OSIRIS-REx, one of the best missions NASA has ever launched.) Lee Billings gave the piece a sublime edit. I also wrote a nice piece for Smithsonian on sample return missions. Jay Bennett there was also a dream to work with, and I will be covering the 2019 Lunar and Planetary Science conference in March for him. That’s a good update of where I am at today. I will hopefully have more to report later.


It has been very difficult keeping this news a secret. Thankfully, it has now been reported in Publisher's Marketplace, so here is the announcement:

Brown Gets Close to “Earth” at Custom House

For HarperCollins’s Custom House imprint, Geoff Shandler preempted world rights to David W. Brown’s One Inch from Earth. Brown is a contributor to the Atlantic and the book, which Dunow, Carlson & Lerner’s Stacia Decker represented, is about NASA’s Europa mission (established to launch a spacecraft into the orbit of Jupiter). Custom House said the book features “persevering scientists as its heroes, the planet Mars as the villain, and an unlikely savior in the form of a Tea Party congressman on a mission to find a second Garden of Eden on Jupiter’s moon.”

A lot of hard work went into this. The proposal took a full year to write—longer, in fact, than my last book—and involved more research, interviews, travel, and luck than I ever could have imagined. (There are no shortcuts when doing good work.) Of course, the hard part is yet to come.

My agent, Stacia Decker of Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency, is one of the most competent, sharp, and fabulous human beings I've ever had the good fortune of knowing, and she parlayed the proposal into an tremendous book deal with the most exciting imprint in publishing today. (At lot of adjectives in that previous sentence, and every one is accurate.) I am over the moon at the idea of working with Geoff Shandler, who previously edited some of my favorite books ever, including Into the Beautiful North, a masterpiece by Luis Urrea.

Finally, I am honored to write this book and to tell the story of men and women whose work will transform science, philosophy, religion—you name it. One day we will all know their names, and it's a privilege to do my part in making that happen.

(I know this reads like an Oscars speech, but it's a pretty big moment for me, and I intend to live up to expectations.)

Some Nonfiction I Liked in 2015

There's a great anecdote about Stanley Kubrick's search during the 1970's for the perfect novel to use as the basis for a film. His process involved reading the first 50 pages or so of a book, and if he didn't like it, throwing it against his office wall. This went on for some time and his assistant was accustomed to the daily, ritual thumping of book-against-wall. When the thumping stopped, the assistant became alarmed, fearing Kubrick had died. She bolted for his office, only to find him enthusiastically reading The Shining. I feel a lot like that, minus the genius and the assistant.  There were a few books I read this year that I absolutely hated, and a lot of books that disappointed me for their awesome potential ruined in execution. There's no need to call out the worst of the offenders, but of the 50-ish nonfiction books I read in 2015, there were enough letdowns to leave a good-sized hole in my office wall.

Any favorites list is going to be biased toward the second half of the year because I'm human, writing this for free, and not thinking too hard about it. So I can't say for sure that The Wright Brothers by David McCullough was my favorite work of nonfiction, as I read it the last week of December, but it's certainly one I didn't expect to enjoy and finished it in a single sitting. The book is great, but feels so effortless that I have to wonder if there was any need for a second draft. It's the work of a master, obviously, which helps, and it's a wonderful American story that everyone knows, kind of, but really doesn't. Upon reflection, I'm not sure if I was ever even conscious of the words on the page. The book was more absorbed than read, as though the information existed as a mist. McCullough wrote without ego, not once imposing himself on the work. There were no rhetorical tricks at work, or literary artifice. It was simply a story perfectly told. God, what a book. What a writer!

Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson was another unexpected pleasure. It's about treasure hunters who search for sunken pirate ships. It struck me as I was reading it: Wow, I am having a lot of fun reading this book. I love reading and enjoy reading, but I never have fun reading, exactly. "Fun" is video games or amusement parks. But this book was positively ebullient, like sitting across from the best conversationalist at a party, and being afraid to refill your wine glass lest you miss something she says.

I fully expected to love Church of Spies by Mark Riebling, and did. The pope's secret efforts to assassinate Adolf Hitler? It's hard to go wrong with a subject like that, but I was astonished how gripping the whole thing was and in awe of how much excruciating work must have gone into researching the subject. How do you even begin? How forthcoming is the Vatican for such a project, and how do you convince its leaders that you're not secretly writing a hatchet job? How do you convince them that there's any need for a book right now? I mean, the Catholic Church operates on a millennial timescale. World War II is only 70 years behind us. That the book even exists seems like an accomplishment. That's it is excellent seems like more than we deserve.

Book Talk at Mental Floss

Most of my work for Mental Floss of late falls into one of two categories: books or space. Because these are my twin passions, I must say that I've never been happier with the work that I'm doing there. Here are some of the books I've written about for the site, each of which are highly recommended.