Bill Nye’s Return to the Spotlight, a Scientific Debate with Huge Stakes, and the Writer Who Told the Story

By Ryan Bradley September 29th, 2014

Many people know of Bill Nye as “the Science Guy” from his educational science show meant for young students. But in Ryan Bradley’s longform feature “Bill Nye Fights Back,” which was published in the September 2014 issue of Popular Science, readers get to meet a more complex, serious man as he prepares to debate Ken Ham, founder of Answers in Genesis, about evolution.

Now, Bradley, a former editor at Fortune, takes us the behind the scenes on his first freelance feature, which eventually became his first cover story. In this month’s Writer Redux, Bradley describes how he backed into pitching his profile, explains why a preposterous media circus can be beneficial to a writer, and shares why, above all, Nye is genuinely a good person.

It was Christmas, and I’d just given notice when I came across this video of Bill Nye. I had one month left at Fortune and wasn’t on the hunt for feature ideas. I had enjoyed being a magazine editor for nearly a decade, but I was beginning to miss going out into the world, listening to people, and shaping what they said and what I saw into a story. So I quit.

In the video, Nye tells these tales about his childhood and how he fell in love with science. I went down a rabbit hole of Nye-ness, which led me to the Big Think video I wrote about in the article. Watching it then, I thought, “Man, when did Bill Nye get so serious?”

After I came out of this hole, I dashed off a quick email to Cliff Ransom, an old friend and former colleague who had recently been named editor-in-chief of Popular Science. It read, in full: “Scroll down until the entry and video on Bill Nye. You guys should do a profile. I kinda want to write it? Let’s talk more soon…”

Oh man, did I back into this assignment.

After the holidays, Cliff responded, saying we should talk. He had also been watching Nye’s transformation and was intrigued. Only, there wasn’t a story, just a subject. Cliff was being kind. My email wasn’t a formal pitch. I needed to decide if I wanted to write about Nye and, if so, figure out what the narrative should be.

First, I read everything I could find about the guy, mostly because I wanted to be certain I could say something new. This is always important, but it’s especially important when your subject is well known.

In the back of my mind, I had a big, potentially unanswerable question, which is essential for me before I embark on any story more than 2,000 words. I need this question because it helps me focus, particularly in the most terrifying and amorphous stage of all: when I’m finished reporting and about to start writing. I kept coming back to my reaction to the video. How (and when) did Nye become so serious? If one of the articles I encountered answered that question in a satisfying way, I would have moved on. But none did. Then something kind of beautiful happened.

Ken Ham, the leader of the Kentucky-based church Answers in Genesis, which runs the Creation Museum, challenged Nye to debate evolution. And when a bunch of scientists came out to say what a mistake Nye was making by accepting Ham’s challenge, there was suddenly some tension and an easy way to interrogate Nye’s role as Communicator of Science. Did he get serious to stay relevant and famous, or was something deeper at play? I sent Cliff an email with my question and told him I planned to fly to Los Angeles, hang with Nye at home as he prepped for the debate, and go to Kentucky to watch him take on Ham and his flock.

These big, preposterous media events are hardly ever useful, even if you’re in the 24-hour news game. And yet, writing for a publication that exists outside of the news cycle is a privileged position to be in, and it is sometimes possible to use the preposterousness of certain events to your advantage. Magazine stories need dramatic scenes, and I believed this could work as one.

A few days later, I sent Cliff a detailed outline explaining how I saw the story, what the sections would be, and an approximate word count of each section. This is kind of an aggressive thing to do before locking down an assignment, but it’s so helpful I now do it before getting in deep on any feature. It’s a way of making sure your editor and you see the story similarly. And, since you both know plans can go horribly wrong (or perfectly right), it’s smart to begin the reporting with an agreed upon strategy.

The outline is also an investment in your abilities and your editor’s future sanity. It’s a document you both can point back to—similar to that one big question— when the tidal wave of facts and voices and anecdotes threatens to drown out all sense from the story.

Cliff gave the go-ahead and sent a contract for $5,500—we both agreed it should land between 3,000 and 4,000 words. I reached out to an email address I found on Nye’s website and heard nothing. I emailed his booking manager. Then I emailed his agent’s agency—no response. After a few more days of nothing, I began calling and leaving messages with various people loosely associated with Nye’s professional career.

Finally, Glenn Schwartz, Nye’s publicist, wrote back. I told him what I wanted to do for the story, and after four days of silence, more phone calls, and a bit of panic, Schwartz said I should come over to Nye’s home the morning of the Super Bowl, just a few days before the debate.

Two weeks later, I flew out to L.A. The morning I met Nye, I drove up early, parked, and walked around his neighborhood. Just before 10 a.m. I knocked on his door. He asked me to take of my shoes. “We do the sock thing here,” he said. I took off my shoes. Nye baked us scones.

He told me about his friend and neighbor Frema, an old widow who came over every Sunday for a long chat. He made her the same scones he was baking for us now, from a mix that comes from Seattle. For the Fourth of July, the neighborhood had a parade, and every year Nye would march, pushing a wheelchair-bound Frema along the way. Nye didn’t tell me that last part about pushing Frema. The neighbor across the street, Jim Praytor, did. Frema died not too long ago. None of this made the final story because the process of writing a magazine feature is really the process of cutting away, so everything you’re left with only answers that original question.

As for the debate, it was… Well, it was more or less the media clusterfuck I thought it would be. Ham did a Q&A with a bunch of reporters beforehand, and I used a little bit of that in the piece, but I didn’t ask any questions because, I do not handle media scrums very well. I also knew plenty of readers would have watched live or after the fact, or would in one way or another be familiar with the general “outcome,” which is why the debate itself is minimized in the final story, with just enough time spent on scene-setting and the aftermath.

By far the best moment of the Kentucky trip came the morning after the debate when Nye visited the Schilling School for Gifted Children. From my perspective, this was totally unplanned. Nye’s manager mentioned the school visit in passing, and it was one of the moments where a lightbulb just goes off, like when someone gives you a piece of information they shouldn’t have or says something that is just instantly a great quotation. As soon as he started talking in that little school auditorium, I knew I had my ending. Sure enough, through every draft, the ending landed in that scene.

On the editing: I’m not exactly sure how Cliff is able to function. He has to run a magazine, and yet he was able to write a really long, thoughtful note about my first draft. He asked questions, mostly. “What are you trying to say?” for example, is one of the best questions an editor can ask a writer. Better still is the editor who knows what you are trying to say and is able to somehow sublimate your thoughts onto the page or, best of all, nudge you closer to the version of the writer you’d like to be. Find editors like this and hold on to them for as long as you can.

The story closed almost exactly five months after I turned in the first draft. There’s a lot of hurry-up and wait with magazine writing, and Cliff and I knew from the outset this would most likely run well after the debate, which made the event itself feel less like the centerpiece of the story and more like a useful plot device that provided some momentum. Knowing what I know about how magazines get made, at no point did I think of the story as a lock for a cover. When it comes to magazines, nothing is certain.

I kept telling myself not to care if the story got a cover or not, but once it seemed like a strong possibility, and once the photo shoot was over and I’d heard it looked amazing (and it did), I started to care, which is a dangerous thing. When Cliff told me it was the cover, I passed it off like it was no big deal. Then, weeks later, I saw it at my local newsstand and had a shit-eating grin the rest of the week.

This was my first magazine feature as a freelancer, my first cover story, my first celebrity profile—a lot of firsts. And the response was, on the whole, wonderful. Still, I was initially disappointed.

It’s embarrassing to think about this now, but I’ll tell you why: I wanted badly for this feature to be validated by sites that have a reputation for celebrating nonfiction of a certain length and gravitas. Longform, basically. I was explaining to a friend who is not a journalist why this approval mattered when I was hit by another thought. Does this really make a difference? Honestly, yes. It does. Still, I felt, in that moment, extremely silly. What really matters is the work itself, the process of going out into the world, listening, seeing, writing, and revising until you have a story that says something new and true. And then you go out and do it again. And again. And maybe you get better. And maybe you get a career.

Image by ShirleyFilms
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