Diving Into the Bathysphere: An Alum’s Process from Dissertation to Book Deal

June 7, 2023

Brad Fox entered the English program planning a creative nonfiction dissertation and graduated with a manuscript.

Writer Brad Fox (Ph.D. ’22, English) and his book "The Bathysphere Book: Effects of the Luminous Ocean Depths"
Alumnus Brad Fox published his first nonfiction book, "The Bathysphere Book: Effects of the Luminous Ocean Depths," in May 2023

Writer Brad Fox (Ph.D. ’22, English) came to the Graduate Center with an unusual aim: to write a nonfiction book. And he has done just that. His new nonfiction book, The Bathysphere Book: Effects of the Luminous Ocean Depths, was published by Astra House on May 16 and is receiving rave reviews.

Described as “hypnotic” and “beautifully written and beautifully made” by The New York Times, the book focuses on deep-sea exploration in the early 1930s by William Beebe, Gloria Hollister, and Otis Barton. Their method: the bathysphere, a steel ball with a four-and-a-half foot diameter, designed by Barton. In The Bathysphere Book, Fox weaves accounts of specific dives with the developments that made the bathysphere possible and stories from the scientists’ and their colleagues’ lives. He also uses quotations and images from notebook pages and sketches of the animals these scientists observed throughout the book, allowing readers to immerse themselves in the colors of a particular fish or the character of a handwritten list.

Fish illustration from Brad Fox's book "The Bathysphere Book: Effects of the Luminous Ocean Depths"
“Tuna stomach, contents of,” George Swanson, 1935 © Wildlife Conservation Society. Reproduced by permission of the WCS Archives.

Recently, we spoke to Fox about his work on the book and his related Graduate Center dissertation, On the Bathysphere Logbooks. Read on to learn about the initial inspiration for his research into the bathysphere, the process of researching during the pandemic, and advice for students and alumni who hope to be published.

The Graduate Center: How has your experience as a Ph.D. student influenced the inspiration and writing of this book? 

Fox: I published a short story based on William Beebe and the bathysphere dives — the first human voyages into the deep ocean — just as I began my doctoral studies, and it occurred to me it might make a subject for a dissertation. But I was then focused on tracing the influence of 13th-century theologian Ibn ‘Arabi on American poetics, studying Arabic and traditions of visionary literature. In my first semester — in Karl Steel’s medieval animal studies class Small Things — classmate Katherine McLeod mentioned working on the group of mid-century American scientists called the Department of Tropical Research (DTR). I asked if she meant Beebe, and she was surprised to hear I knew of him. She was just then curating a show of DTR-related images at the Drawing Center in Soho, where I met the archivist at the Wildlife Conservation Society. I began to visit the archives and encountered the material remaining from the dives, richer and more wonderful than I’d imagined. When it came time to determine my dissertation topic, I saw how writing about the bathysphere dives — this first encounter with the unknown depths — allowed me to explore visionary literature obliquely but perhaps more directly, by summoning the poetic imagination that imbues Beebe’s scientific work, which is also entangled in histories and politics that are still very much present.

My adviser Joan Richardson described the work as “secular mysticism.” She and the other members of my committee, Ammiel Alcalay and Wayne Koestenbaum, were wonderful influences who allowed me full freedom to produce a creative dissertation. Meanwhile GC organizations like Art Science Connect and the provost’s Early Research Initiative provided invaluable research funding.

GC: What is it like to bridge your experiences as a journalist and now an academic scholar? How have those different experiences influenced you? 

Fox: Just like my work as a novelist, my journalism and academic work flow from an engagement with literature and storytelling. All are staging grounds for experience, where I seek surprise, insight, and transformation. In her intro seminar, Kandice Chuh exposed me to critical thought on archives, and I began to see how multiform the notion could be. As a journalist I pound pavement, make observations and conduct interviews; as an academic I pour over boxes of letters and manuscripts and the contents of libraries; as a novelist I work with imagination and memory; but in all these modes I’m shaping stories, playing with form and rhythm, momentum and expectations. It was extremely helpful to see how these working modes can enrich each other.

GC: How do you balance research and travel with finding the time to write? Did you complete most or all of your research before writing your first draft?

Fox: I began grad school in my 40s, and I had an earlier career in journalism and international relief work. That trained me to set myself up quickly wherever I am and develop work routines. Research is never-ending, so I can’t say I finished my research before writing. In fact, I began writing and research at the same time. Then the pandemic intervened. I spent 2019 scanning archival material at the Wildlife Conservation Society archives in the Bronx and in Beebe’s personal papers at Princeton. On March 9, 2020, I left for what was to be a 10-day trip to the high jungle of northeastern Peru. A few days in, while staying deep in a national park, a ranger appeared and informed us that Peru had declared a state of emergency, implemented a strict curfew, and closed international borders until further notice. It was over a year before I came home, and it was during that stay, holed up in a lodge at the edge of the park, that I wrote the first draft of my book. It was incredibly lucky that I had amassed those archival scans. Someone at the Library of Congress was kind enough to send scans of Gloria Hollister’s diaries. The world came to a standstill, and I found myself with plenty of time to write.

Fish illustration from Brad Fox's book "The Bathysphere Book: Effects of the Luminous Ocean Depths"
Argyropelecus hemigymnus,” Else Bostelmann, 1929–31, 1935 © Wildlife Conservation Society. Reproduced by permission of the WCS Archives.

GC: The Bathysphere Book features images of drawings and notebook pages throughout the text. How did you choose which images to include, and how did they influence your writing?

Fox: I always planned on including a selection of images by Department of Tropical Research staff artists, especially Else Bostelmann’s wonderful deep-ocean illustrations. Then over the course of research, as I photographed archival material to look at later, I became interested in the materiality of research. So I began including snapshots of diaries, newspaper clippings, and old photos. I played with ways to place and sequence images. I wanted some to be mysterious at first — only later do you understand what you saw. Mostly that work was intuitive.


GC: What advice do you have for students who hope to be published? 

Fox: I entered grad school hoping to write a strange nonfiction book that could only be created in such circumstances, through coursework and research, in conversation with faculty and other scholars. I never intended to write an academic dissertation and came to CUNY because the faculty included great writers working in and open to diverse forms. One of my orals lists was on nonfiction forms, from the ninth-century Iraqi al-Jahiz to Montaigne, Baldwin, Fanny Howe, and Nathalie Legèr. I was interested in how the specific agreement with the reader that nonfiction establishes — that this is all, somehow, based on evidence — produces a universe of forms and approaches. I saw myself not only engaging with research material as a scholar but engaging with a history of writerly forms. The result, much to my surprise, was a relatively accessible book suited for a nonacademic publishing house. I’d had experiences with literary agents as a novelist, but this time I had tremendous luck to connect with Akin Akinwumi, an agent with a taste for innovative nonfiction who was still taking on clients. He helped me complete a proposal and sold the book to Ben Schrank at Astra House, a relatively new press. In my experience, publishing means stomaching tons and tons of rejection until you get lucky. I wish everyone luck with that process.


The Bathysphere Book: Effects of the Luminous Ocean Depths is available for purchase from Astra House.

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