Where do writers get their ideas? For Keith O’Brien, it’s a numbers game. “For every book I write,” he says, “there are about 15 ideas that ended up in the trash can.”
Not that O’Brien minds. While working as a journalist—first for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and later for the Boston Globe—he learned that good ideas are currency. “If you’re not coming up with your own story ideas, then the editor is going to walk over and give you an idea that you may or may not like,” he explains. “I learned pretty early on that, as hard as it is to come up with story ideas, it’s the only way—you have to do it yourself.”
This April, Pantheon will publish O’Brien’s third book, Paradise Falls: The True Story of an Environmental Catastrophe. It’s a deeply reported, masterly telling of the story of the Love Canal, a toxic former industrial waste site that lurked under a suburban neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y. After carcinogenic chemicals were found leaching into the neighborhood’s yards, basements, and playgrounds in the late 1970s, the outcry sparked a wave of environmental activism that culminated in the creation of Superfund legislation, which has since helped identify and remediate hundreds of hazardous waste sites across the country.
In the book, O’Brien follows the lives of a few ordinary women, mostly young mothers, who, by fighting for their families’ survival, became accidental advocates for change on a national scale.
O’Brien, 48, has made a career out of picking the right ideas. Speaking from his home office in Lee, N.H., he cuts a sharp and assured figure—even over Zoom. “In journalism as in life, we’re drawn to the shiny objects, to the famous people or the politicians or the stars,” he says. “But most of us don’t live that life. I’ve always been drawn to the ordinary, everyday folks who are facing adversity, or overcoming something, or who did something magical, maybe just once.”
For O’Brien’s first book, those ordinary people were high school basketball players. He quit his full-time job at the Boston Globe to report, for nearly a year, on a high school basketball season in Kentucky. The result was 2013’s Outside Shot.
“I rented a little two-bedroom house on the backside of someone’s farm, just a couple miles from the school,” he recounts. His young family moved with him. “I felt a lot of pressure. Like a lot of writers, I was filled with doubt at times. But by quitting my job I gave myself no opportunity to back out. I was all in.”
Even with the right idea, making the transition from daily reporter to author wasn’t easy. “When my agent called me to tell me Outside Shot had sold, it was a very exciting moment,” O’Brien says. “Then I asked a simple question: how many words? I didn’t know how many words a book should be. And he said, ‘Let’s tell them we’re going to shoot for 90,000–100,000 words,’ a basic nonfiction length. I should have been filled with excitement and euphoria. But that quickly washed away. I remember thinking, How am I ever going to write 100,000 words?”
But O’Brien’s big gamble paid off; Outside Shot published to widespread acclaim. A few years later he released his second book, Fly Girls, about five unsung female aviation pioneers. That book became a bestseller. “It probably wasn’t until Fly Girls came out, and had the success that it had, that I started to think of myself as an author who is a journalist,” he says, “rather than as a journalist who sometimes writes books.”
The success of Fly Girls made O’Brien realize that for his next book, he needed more than a good idea. “I’m working in history,” he explains. “You need documents, diaries, records, court files—and then, maybe if people are alive, you need interviews. When I did Fly Girls, I mourned one thing in particular: these women who were incredibly famous, who had been true pioneers in aviation and feminism, had been completely forgotten. No reporter, no historian had tracked them down in the 1970s and done any kind of significant interview with them.” Though he had written an acclaimed book, he wondered how much of these women’s stories had been lost to history.
“I came out of the Fly Girls project thinking, What are the stories that are around us right now, with characters who had done something significant, who we’ve now wrongly forgotten?” O’Brien says. “With that in mind, I really started to look at the 1970s. I was born in ’73, and I had this little sort of sliver of memory about this place called the Love Canal.”
Paradise Falls follows the stories of three women in particular: Lois Gibbs and Luella Kenny, both young mothers who lived near the dump site, and Beverly Paigen, an outspoken environmental scientist. They were all still alive when O’Brien started his research. Here was a story, he quickly realized, that he could bring to life for a new generation.
“For example, Luella Kenny saved the medical records from Jon Allen’s illness,” O’Brien says, referring to Kenny’s young son, whose illness forms one of the major emotional through lines of Paradise Falls. “She saved every piece of paper, and I’m talking about hundreds of pages.”
O’Brien was just in time to capture these women’s stories before they were lost. Paradise Falls includes a tender acknowledgement of Beverly Paigen. O’Brien met with her twice in her Maine home before her death in 2020. “It’s a shame to me that Beverly isn’t alive to see this book come out,” he says. “She deservedly would have gotten a little bit of a victory lap here, at the end of her life.”
Why tell the story of the Love Canal again today? O’Brien sees it as a marker we can use to measure how far we’ve come since the 1970s, in terms of environmental responsibility, and how far we still have to go. Hooker Chemical, the company responsible for the disaster, had an abysmal environmental record by any measure. And yet the story of Love Canal ends on a hopeful note, with the cleanup of the canal and the bipartisan passage of Superfund legislation, which continues to provide a framework for hazardous waste remediation to this day. Paradise Falls, O’Brien says, “is a sort of a time capsule of a time when we were at our worst, but also politically much better, much more cooperative, than we are today.”
Maria Goldverg, O’Brien’s editor at Pantheon, says she was struck by how the book sparked conversation among her colleagues. “Everyone below a certain age didn’t know what Love Canal was, while everyone above a certain age knew, of course, that it was a huge story. But even though Love Canal was covered extensively in national media, and in Lois Gibbs’s memoir, it’s never been told for the lay reader in a way that gives you a sense of what actually happened. That seemed like an opportunity.”
For Goldverg, O’Brien was the perfect writer to tell that story. “I’m in a happy position as an editor, where you read something and your job is just to say, ‘Keep going,’ ” she adds.
Pantheon will also publish O’Brien’s next book, which he hopes will be the definitive biography of baseball great Pete Rose, a prolific hitter who in 1989 was banned from the sport for betting on games.
With three books under his belt, what challenges will writing the next one present? O’Brien thinks back to his anxieties about the first book. “Now that I’ve done it a few times,” he says, “I’m actually filled with the opposite thought: how am I going to cut this book down to 100,000 words?”
It’s a problem any writer would consider themselves lucky to have. It means they’ve found the right idea.
Andy Kifer cowrote Mutualism: Building the Next Economy from the Ground Up (Random House) with Sara Horowitz and is working on a book of narrative nonfiction about America’s secret cities.