Inspiring Women February 2023

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water as well as the nutrients, energy, and<br />

information contained in the stuff we flush<br />

away. While we see radical technological change<br />

in almost every other aspect of our lives, we<br />

remain stuck in a sanitation status quo—in part<br />

because the topic of toilets is taboo.<br />

Fortunately, there’s hope—and Pipe Dreams<br />

daringly profiles the growing army of sewagesavvy<br />

scientists, engineers, philanthropists,<br />

entrepreneurs and activists worldwide who are<br />

overcoming their aversions and focusing their<br />

formidable skills on making toilets accessible<br />

and healthier for all. Author Chelsea Wald takes<br />

us on a wild world tour from a compost toilet<br />

project to a plant that salvages used toilet paper<br />

from sewage, and shows us a toilet seat that can<br />

watch poop for signs of illness. Among other<br />

accolades, Pipe Dreams was a finalist for the<br />

2022 NASW Science in Society Journalism Award<br />

and longlisted for the 2022 AAAS/Subaru SB&F<br />

Prize for Excellence in Science Books.<br />

What was your inspiration for the book?<br />

In 2013, I got two assignments. In my work as<br />

a freelancer, two things happen: either I pitch<br />

stories or editors pitch to me. But this was<br />

very much a coincidence. These stories just<br />

came my way.<br />

The first was a story about new toilet<br />

technologies for very low resource contexts,<br />

where people might have very poor toilets or<br />

no toilets at all. The second was about heat in<br />

our cities and where we could access more of<br />

it. It turned out that there's a lot of heat in our<br />

sewers, thanks to showers, washing machines,<br />

and dishwashers. And we could pull that up<br />

again with heat pumps and use it to heat and<br />

even cool our cities.<br />

This combination of stories in a short period of<br />

time opened the lid of my mind, as I say in my<br />

book. I wanted to know more, and I saw a fairly<br />

untapped niche for myself as a writer. Looking<br />

further, I found a flurry of innovation in toilets<br />

and the infrastructure that connects to them.<br />

There are a lot of innovators in different fields,<br />

from engineering to design to sociology, thinking<br />

in new ways about the toilet. Ultimately, I turned<br />

that into a book about the future of the toilet.<br />

How long did it take you to write the book?<br />

Here’s the timeline: I got the first toilet-related<br />

writing assignment in 2013 and kept following<br />

up with more stories. Five years later, in 2018,<br />

I got the book contract, just three months<br />

after my first child was born – and on my 40th<br />

birthday. I turned in my complete draft in April<br />

2020, just after the pandemic started. So I could<br />

answer this question in a lot of different ways<br />

– but, any way you look at it, these years have<br />

been very eventful!<br />

What kind of research do you do, and how<br />

long do you spend researching before<br />

beginning a book?<br />

As a journalist, I use several types of sources<br />

to gather information. I speak to experts, as<br />

well as read loads of papers and books on the<br />

science and history of the topic. I also prefer to<br />

go look around at projects in person. My trip<br />

to Haiti illustrates why this is important. I was<br />

going to look at a social enterprise called SOIL<br />

that provides a toilet service to people in very<br />

poor urban areas. The business picks up full<br />

containers and drops off empty ones – kind of<br />

like a curbside recycling program. It sounds<br />

pretty simple until you see what happens<br />

when it rains: many flooded roads become<br />

unnavigable, and workers have to wade in<br />

thigh-deep water as they make their rounds.<br />

Experiencing this with my own senses helped<br />

me appreciate and describe the magnitude<br />

of what this organization is<br />

attempting to achieve.<br />

What is the most important thing<br />

you want readers to take away<br />

from your book?<br />

We can ask so much more of our<br />

toilets in terms of health,<br />

environment, and equity. The toilet<br />

can be a powerful tool for making<br />

the world a better place because<br />

everybody poops.<br />

When did you start writing?<br />

I started journalism school in 2002<br />

but I’ve been writing as long as I<br />

can remember. I wrote poems in<br />

elementary school and plays in high<br />

school. Science journalism was my<br />

attempt at marrying my interests in<br />

writing and science.<br />

As a writer, what would you choose as your<br />

mascot/avatar/spirit animal?<br />

For the sake of this book, I would choose a<br />

wombat. They poop cubes.<br />

What’s your favorite under-appreciated<br />

novel?<br />

While Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables probably isn’t<br />

under-appreciated (hello, Broadway!), what most<br />

people probably don’t know is that it contains<br />

lengthy passages about the history and meaning<br />

of the sewer system. I found them particularly<br />

fascinating while writing Pipe Dreams. My<br />

favorite line: “The sewer is the conscience of<br />

the city.”<br />

What is your favorite childhood book?<br />

Keeping to the theme, I would recommend<br />

Frank Herbert’s Dune to older children. I read<br />

it in my early 20s but it’s a thrilling read for<br />

teenagers. The characters on the desert planet<br />

wear “stillsuits” that recapture all the body’s<br />

moisture, creating a kind of closed loop.<br />

Ideally, that’s what our sanitation systems<br />

could do someday.<br />

What are you reading now?<br />

This and that. On my bedside table is a pile<br />

of parenting books that I find somehow<br />

comforting, though I can’t read them all. I’m<br />

partway through the final book in Hilary Mantel’s<br />

Wolf Hall trilogy – but I think I’m procrastinating<br />

because I’ll be sad to finish it. What a giant<br />

she was!<br />

If you could tell your younger writing-self<br />

anything, what would it be?<br />

You are funny.<br />

What’s next for you? Are you working on<br />

anything new you’d like to share with our<br />

readers?<br />

I had a second child in July so I am taking some<br />

time away from work to spend with her and to let<br />

some new project ideas percolate.<br />

Writing a book can be a lonely<br />

business, so I’m hoping to<br />

find something more<br />

collaborative.<br />

Books presented in the<br />

<strong>Inspiring</strong> Reads feature are<br />

available for purchase via<br />

the FAWCO website in the<br />

Books by Members or Books<br />

by Clubs sections.<br />

Enjoy!<br />


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