Convos With Writers: 11 Questions With Kayt Sukel

I am gobsmacked by Kayt Sukel. It’s not often that you come across someone who is dynamic in all forms: brilliant, curious, stunningly pretty, wickedly funny, easy conversationalist, and all-around cool girl. I imagine she kills it at just about every dinner party.

Kayt is the author of Dirty Minds: This is Your Brain on Sex and The Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution, and Chance (just released as of this month). With a zest for science and worldly adventure, her writing covers everything from love, neuroscience, single parent traveling, politics, and yes, even orgasms (more on that later). You can find her contributions in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly, the New Scientist, USA Today, Pacific Standard, The Washington Post, ISLANDS, Parenting, the Bark, American Baby, National Geographic Traveler, and the AARP Bulletin.

If you’re not totally intimidated by her awesomeness by now, you should know that she easily copped to an affection for wine and Cheetos. So now that we’re all officially in love with her and her work, let’s get started.

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1. What do you write and what are you reading?
I write mostly about travel and neuroscience – but I also dip a toe from time to time into healthcare technology, current events, parenting, and the occasional Facebook rant.  As to what I’m reading…this could change literally from day to day.  I am an unapologetic book nerd.  That said, I’m currently re-reading Emma Donoghue’s Room. Because being a Mom means never seeing Oscar-nominated films in the theatre, I wanted to revisit the story before I saw the movie.  But I also recently finished Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night, Shanna Mahin’s Oh! You Pretty Things and Anna North’s The Life and Death of Sophie Stark. They were all amazing. It’s funny. I am a non-fiction writer who revels in fiction. Forget revel—I like to roll around naked in all those amazing words and stories and fall in love. I am a fiction junkie, always looking for my next fix. And all I have to do is open the cover and begin.

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2. Your new book The Art of Risk juxtaposes the fearless child you were and the practical-minded adult you became. In the aftermath of risk…what was your greatest failure and conversely greatest reward?
According to my mother, my greatest failure is never finishing my doctorate. I don’t quite see it that way—but she still hasn’t relinquished this idea of me working as a professor at some funky liberal arts college somewhere. I think she has the fantasy down to the specific artsy scarves I’d wear during office hours.
But if you ask me, my greatest failure isn’t one particular incident but rather a single quality that brings to bear on just about every situation I find myself in:  my impatience. Especially now that my kids are getting older, friends and loved ones are moving on or dying off, I realize that the world is not going to end if something doesn’t happen right this very second. I should take more time, play it where it lays, and pay attention to what’s right in front of me. It’s probably fair to say that I often have great difficulty living in the moment. But it’s something I’m working on.
That ties into my greatest reward, too. Because when I can be more patient, slow down and really take in what’s around me—man, life can be pretty fucking wonderful.

3. Tell me about getting a book deal.
By many accounts, I should have never gotten a book deal. I was living in Europe at the time and wasn’t that tuned into the literary scene. But I went to some great writing conferences. I met some fabulous writers who not only inspired me but also invited me into their worlds. A fellow writer introduced me to my agent. She then helped me hone a simple idea into a compelling book proposal. And somehow, someway, the work prevailed. I’d like to say I’m lucky. But it really came down to being part of a community—and when I say community, not just taking, but giving all I could back to those amazing people, too—and a lot of elbow grease.

4. You write about fascinating, complicated science. How do you take something complex and break it down effortlessly for the average reader to grasp?
Many people raise an eyebrow when I tell them I write about both science and travel. But, for both, you need to be able to find the story and then tell it in such a way that people can really connect to it. Think about the last travel story you read about a beach. When it comes down to it, any beach, no matter how fabulous it might be, is just water and sand. How is that beach different from the one your parents dragged you to when you were a kid? How do you turn that one beach into a place that everyone wants to visit? You find the story. The story that makes that place feel real and beautiful—and makes it comes to life in the reader’s mind. Science is no different. When you talk about the neurons and the genes, you have to find the story. The story that makes those weird acronyms and processes make sense. The story that makes it about the reader as much as the scientist or the finding. I think once you find that story it makes it easier to break down the complexity in a meaningful way.

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5. What does life look like when you’re in the process of penning a book?
Really embarrassing, actually. Think of a woman in her PJs, on the couch, with Castle re-runs on in the background. There are probably a couple empty bottles of Diet Coke nearby and three individual packs of Cheetos. Because if you buy the individual servings, you lie to yourself and say you’ll only eat one. And all those wrappers are invariably on top of the stack of papers I need right that very minute to finish my chapter.
That said, I try to keep life fairly routine whether I’m working on a book or not. I’m a Mom—so there’s still homework to oversee, kids to chauffeur, and dinners to make. But during the day? Oh god. All Diet Coke, all the time. 

6. You famously ‘showed’ your orgasm on the Internet. Talk to me about throwing the door open on sex.
Sometimes I think “Had Orgasm in fMRI Scanner” will be engraved on my tombstone. But it really just was one of those things. While writing my first book, THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON SEX, I interviewed Barry Komisaruk, a researcher who studies the female orgasm. As we spoke, it was hard for me to imagine how it all worked. While studying neuroscience, I piloted quite a few fMRI studies. I knew how loud, how cramped, and just plain uncomfortable it was in those machines. So how were these women achieving orgasm—and were the orgasms they were having even remotely like ones they might have outside the laboratory? These were questions I couldn’t answer unless I participated myself. So I did.

7. Who do you love and how does that sneak into your writing?
I love my husband, my kids, my dog, my Mom, my friends, Nathan Fillion, my dog, and my family. Did I mention my dog, Maggie?  
They sneak into my writing because they inspire me to be silly, to be curious, to be kind, and to be open. They ask good questions—or they give good snuggles. They make me laugh. They support me even when I’m neck deep in Cheetos and edits. And they make me want to go forth and explore. Sometimes even in a Firefly class space ship.

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8. When were you most proud?
This is a hard question!  I can be a little hard on myself so it’s hard to pick one crowning moment of pride. I remember feeling all verklempt when I graduated from college and my entire extended family came to root for me. And then again when I held my book in my hands for the first time. And when my son won the second grade science fair. I can’t pick one “most” here. Because I have to admit that I also want to high five myself when I make a chocolate soufflé and get it out of the oven without it collapsing.

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9. Who are your mentors?
I am inspired by so many people. My undergraduate thesis advisor at Carnegie Mellon University, Marlene Behrmann, taught me to not only love neuroscience—but to be a curious skeptic. Her voice is the voice I hear in my head every time I read a new study, asking questions and pushing boundaries. I love writers like Margaret Atwood and Pam Houston for their fearlessness. And Steph Davis, a free solo climber and BASE jumper I featured in THE ART OF RISK is amazing. She reminds me that we are, each and every one of us, capable of much more than we realize.

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10. What does regret look like?
I do my best not to pay mind to regret, certainly not enough to tell you what it looks like. But that’s because I know it does us no favors to mull on what could have been. Like every college student, I read Still Life With Woodpecker. It’s practically an undergraduate rite of passage, you know? Robbins has this one line in there, “Success can eliminate as many options as failure.” That’s something that has always stuck with me. Because I learned early that achieving the things you wanted (or thought you wanted) can be just as limiting as falling flat on your face. And when you understand that life can take you in so many weird and wild paths—all of which offer opportunities for laughter, learning, and wonder if you allow yourself to be open to them—there’s no point in getting stuck on the woulda, shoulda, couldas.

11. Tell me a story about a story:

I am in love with Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.  I re-read this book at least once a year. But I have to buy a new copy of it pretty much each time I do. Because it’s a book I love to give away to other people. I try to explain it and just conclude with, “You have to read it…here, take this copy.” At last count, I have purchased The Blind Assassin 16 times. And I’m fairly certain that I’m due to buy another copy. Just need to meet the next person I’m going to give it to. It won’t be long now.

Bonus points: Tell me about the cover art for The Art of Risk.
I love the cover! Do you know what I love most about it? People can’t decide whether the rope is orange or red. I feel like it’s kind of a risk test. Those who see it as orange, the color for caution, are more open to unbridled possibility. Those who see it as red? Not so much.

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(Editor’s note: Orange all the way. How about you?)

Huge thanks to Kayt for being incredible and for making me crave a chocolate soufflé at 10:30am.

Follow Kayt and her oversharing on Twitter.
Get lost in her beautiful website.
Watch her presentations at TEDMED and Chicago Ideas Week here.
And of course, pick up The Art of Risk (the opening pages will yank you right in)

***As part of this series, writers are asked to submit photos capturing who they are as well as a glimpse of his/her writer life.