Dava Sobel

What John Grisham is to the legal thriller, Dava Sobel has become to a hot new genre that can only be described as historical narrative about offbeat but significant figures. The books it encompasses are difficult to define but instantly recognizable, and, happily for their publishers, seem to appeal to large numbers of readers.

It was not always thus, however. Sobel's Longitude, the story of a little-known geographical pioneer and a prime exemplar of the style, turned publishing on its ear when it became a big seller worldwide, but it wasn't exactly designed to be a bestseller in the usual lavish ways; in fact Sobel received so minute an advance, $7000, that it was all she could do to complete her research. And now she has produced another book in the genre she helped to establish: Galileo's Daughter, which skillfully and touchingly illuminates a little-known corner of what might seem a thrice-familiar history, out from Walker later this month. But we're getting ahead of our story.

Dava (pronounced Day-va) Sobel is a petite, attractive woman, fashionably dressed and coiffed and with a flashingly expansive smile, who only half jokingly attributes all the good fortune that has descended upon her in recent years to Harvard magazine -- she is a long-time contributor -- with much more than a passing nod to George Gibson, her publisher at Walker.

Born in the Bronx, and a graduate of its prestigious High School of Science, Sobel describes her career to date as "something like the wanderings of a gypsy," but always with a handhold on science. She attended several academic institutions ("It took me five years to finish because I could never decide what to major in"), and though the only one she remembers with pleasure is City College in New York, she still yearns for a settled academic life. "When my kids [who are now 15 and 18] have finally left home I'll go off to Cambridge and spend the rest of my life there," she avers, with that gleaming grin.

If she d s, she'll be making up for the many years she had to spend eking out a meager living as a science writer, initially writing manuals for field engineers at IBM. "I hated the company mentality," she says simply. Next came a spell at a local TV station in Maine, where she co-hosted a medical program, then another as a science writer in the news bureau at Cornell. Then Sobel started to freelance, for Omni and Science Digest among others, but also for the all-important Harvard magazine. "Lots of notable people read it," she said, "especially New York Times editors, many of whom come from Harvard anyway." One of these, the then-editor of the Week in Review on Sunday, had read some of her pieces and called to ask if she wanted a job. Though that first offer came to nothing, when there was an opening on the newspaper's Science section, she took the post, although it was to write about psychology and psychiatry, "the one beat I knew almost nothing about."

She recalls with a wince one of her editors there telling her: "Sometimes the depth of your ignorance staggers me." But she soldiered on, turning in stories like one on a sleep lab experiment (which enabled her to do a lot of writing), and another as a reporter undercover in a state mental hospital, which she found both frightening and distressing.

A marriage, followed shortly by the birth of her first child, meant sidetracking her Times career; she moved out of the city, returned to freelancing, and also embarked on her first book. Her new husband had chronic back pains, and after surveying other sufferers who felt they had been abandoned by orthodox medical care, realized he had collected a lot of useful material. The two worked together on what became Backache Relief, and their then-agent sold it to Times Books, where it was published in 1985. Another, similarly organized, on arthritis, went to St. Martin's, then was picked up by Rodale for direct-mail sales, "which gave me my first taste of what book sales could be." The pair collaborated on a series for St. Martin's, but, said Sobel, the books were expensive to produce because they paid participants in their extensive surveys, and she became increasingly unwilling to continue with them.

Meanwhile Sobel's editor at Omni suggested another, more enticing project: a book on the possibility of extraterrestrial life, which Sobel would work on in conjunction with a Cornell professor, Frank Drake, who had conducted considerable research on the subject. He also suggested a new agent, Michael Carlisle, then at William Morris, and the result of all this was Is Anyone Out There? (Delacorte, 1992). "Not a bad book, and we may update it one day," is Sobel's succinct view.

The run-up to what was to become the life-altering Longitude began, as so often, with Harvard. After hearing about an upcoming symposium on longitude, Sobel wanted to attend, but recalls, "I thought it was a very long shot, and pitched it to several magazines before Harvard noticed how many people had signed up for it, and agreed to a story.

"It was a stellar meeting," she says with pleased reminiscence. "Here I had been a science writer for nearly 25 years, and at that meeting, wonderfully organized and crowded with clock fanatics, I first heard the story of John Harrison and his amazing lifelong search for the right instrument to enable ships to measure their time and position, and I was so excited. It all began to fall into place, and I thought, I can write this, it's easy!" Harvard made her story a cover piece, and among its devoted readers was Harvard alumnus George Gibson at Walker, new to the house from David Godine in Boston. "He called the day after it appeared and asked if I could expand it into a book. He was so compelling. He wanted to do a series of adult scientific books written for a lay reader, and thought this was the perfect way to start it off."

Sobel, who had just divorced her husband, felt she could afford to take a chance now. "Of course I never expected commercial success, I don't think either of us did -- a ridiculous idea -- but I had a great good time writing it, though the advance didn't even begin to cover the year it took," and she had to continue to freelance. She only got to go to England and see Harrison's clocks at the Greenwich museum in London -- as moving an experience in person as it became in the book -- because her brother, a noted Anglophile, offered to pay her fare; once there she stayed with friends to save on a hotel.

"George wanted to keep it short, and after I turned it in he made it even shorter. I'd never really been edited before, and it was a tremendously valuable experience. I'm a better writer for what George put me through. He even had a 'cuteness index' for spots where he felt my writing was overblown."

The book was meticulously designed, with what Sobel calls "a gorgeous cover -- it looked like a Knopf book" -- and went out in 1995 with a first printing of 10,000. "Saint George -- I call him that -- did everything humanly possible. He would buttonhole people at parties, pester reviewers, and because people believed in him, they paid attention." Stellar reviews poured in, and suddenly Walker was reprinting again and again; the book was the surprise bestseller of the year. The Morris agency, said Sobel, was unable to raise interest in Britain ("They didn't want an American writing up their history"), so Gibson stepped in again and sold British rights to a small up-and-coming publisher called Fourth Estate. Sales in Britain were even more spectacular; the book stayed at the top of British lists for months, and all in all 23 foreign editions were sold. Penguin paid well for paperback rights and sent Sobel on extensive tours, and invitations to speak poured in.

The Fruits of Research

Ironically the groundwork for Galileo's Daughter had been laid even before Longitude was published. In her research for that book, Sobel visited a clock museum in Pennsylvania where, looking through an Italian book, Silvio Bedini's The Prince of Time, she found a letter from "this nun who was Galileo's daughter" to the astronomer, describing her efforts to fix a convent clock.

Intrigued, and inspired by further references to the appropriately named Sister Maria Celeste in James Reston Jr.'s Galileo biography, Sobel began to work on a book that would in effect be a study of the relationship of the celebrated astronomer to the precious daughter who lived such a quiet life and predeceased her famous father. "This was before the fuss over Longitude, and I was still deeply in debt from the writing of it, so I applied to the Sloan Foundation for a $30,000 travel grant to go to Italy and study Maria Celeste's letters." Ironically, by the time the grant came through a year later Sobel could travel as much as she wished, but it still helped her make several trips to Italy to examine and translate the letters -- the first time most of them have been rendered into English.

But Galileo's Daughter did not progress as smoothly as Longitude had. Sobel tried at first to construct the book around the letters, which she used extensively, with exposition in between. "George said it was too jumpy, he found himself skipping around, and called to tell me it didn't work at all. I was stunned. He wanted me to take out 100 letters, and rewrite everything." But she trusted his judgment, the book was postponed for a year while she did it over, and, " -- Yes, of course it's better." Only 20 or so of the nun's letters now appear in their entirety, but the whole collection, says Sobel, can be found in translation on the Web site of Rice University in Houston (at mariaceleste.rice.edu).

By writing about Galileo, Sobel fulfills a dream she had entertained since college days despite all the books already written about the great astronomer (many of them, she avers, full of error). "The idea of his rebelliousness always appealed to me, and when I first learned about his true significance, in Arthur K stler's The Sleepwalkers, I found it utterly fascinating that this man was at the center of a time in such flux, when the whole concept of the earth's importance in the scheme of things was being displaced." She also wanted to stress that Galileo was no anti-cleric, and to the end strove for a harmonious dovetailing of what he believed to be the astronomical truth with the received Catholic faith from which he never wavered.

Her next book? Some time back, before she was famous, Sobel wrote the text for what was to have been a lavish picture book showing the solar system as seen from NASA satellites, to be called Flybys. As it turned out, the packager and publisher had a falling out over the project, Sobel got back the rights to her text, and what is now likely to be a book of astronomical essays was won at auction by Jane von Mehren at Penguin Putnam. "But since I was a year late on Galileo, I've got to get an extension,"

As for the present book, Sobel again is overwhelmed by Gibson's determination to do everything just right -- by himself, if necessary. The informal launch of the new book -- whose official pub date is toward the end of this month -- was to be at an author breakfast at Warren Cassell's Just Books store in Greenwich, Conn., the morning after the PW interview, and Sobel had just learned, to her astonishment, that Gibson himself was driving a truck over to the printer in New Jersey to get the first copies hot off the press, ready for the breakfast signing. "Can you imagine any other publisher doing that?" she inquired. PW couldn't.

After the breakfast, Sobel planned to attend a signing at Bookhampton (a near neighbor in East Hampton, the tony Long Island getaway community where she has lived since before her solvency), and then make an appearance at the New England Booksellers Association gathering, before heading off to London for a simultaneous British launch. "It's a long way from the Bronx," as she laughingly notes.