austin author

Who is Juli Berwald? [Or: The Allure of Something That's Barely There]


Recently, I had the opportunity to interview the wonderful Dr. Juli Berwald, the author of Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. She’ll be the guest speaker at Module 1 of Cider Spoon’s Intro to Memoir Writing Course, and I got to talk to her about the inherent weirdness of jellyfish, the art of finding an inciting incident, and why you should always be 100% sure you want to see your end goals before you actually reach them.


Ben Richard, Cider Spoon Stories’s Fall 2018 Intern

Ben Richard, Cider Spoon Stories’s Fall 2018 Intern

BR: Thanks for meeting with me! At least virtually. So yeah, the first question I wanted to ask was, ‘Why jellyfish?’

JB: Well, I mean, I think that answer is kind of scientific. It started off as a question about what’s happening to our planet. And it seemed like there were these changes that some people were noticing in jellyfish abundances that were saying a lot about bigger questions about what we’re doing to the oceans.

And that moves into this story that was more interesting than other ways to tell that story because jellyfish numbers seem to be growing more in certain places. But no one can agree if the population of jellyfish is actually growing or shrinking. Jellyfish are interesting and we don’t know much about them, which made me kind of curious, and so they were a way into this bigger kind of story that I found kind of fascinating—so fascinating.

BR: Yeah no, they really are. I went through your book a couple days ago and there’s so much cool stuff!

JB: Yeah, they’re so cool! And then once I started looking around scientifically, I was finding out about how they sting, and how they swim, and I just found those stories super interesting, on top of the overall question.

BR: Yeah, that was my favorite part, learning how they swim, how they pull themselves through the water instead of push. And how you tied that into how humans have been developing boats, I was like, man, they’re so simple but they got it figured out.

JB: Yeah, they got it figured out, huh? (laughs)



BR: So in memoirs, there’s often an inciting incident that spurs the person writing the memoir to pursue what lesson they’re gonna learn. So my question is, what advice would you have for someone who was looking for their own inciting incident?

JB: I think the answer is simply being open to good things that come to you in the universe, and instead of walking by a moment and saying “Oh no, that’s not actually something I should step into or deal with,” or “I’m not good enough,” or any of those internal “hater” kind of thoughts, you should just embrace those moments. I could have easily walked by the question “What do we know about jellyfish and acidification?” if I hadn’t been open to it.


BR: So you wrote in your book about the emptiness you felt after finding that rare jellyfish in Japan that you had worked incredibly hard to see in person. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.

JB: Yeah, I mean, I think that a big part of that was just that it was dying, and you know, although I have feelings about jellyfish, so this is kinda hard to say, but, because jellyfish have this complicated life cycle and they start as a polyp, they’re kind of like fruit. The jellyfish scientists don’t like it when I say that (laughs). But, you know, the medusa (Note: Medusa is the term for the stage in a jellyfish’s life where they look like the picture at the top of this interview) dying was already gonna happen. It was already at the end of its life cycle.

It wasn’t a triumph because I’m not sure I learned anything by seeing that jellyfish. And I kind of hoped I had, that I would learn something, but I didn’t. Because I didn’t know what to look for in the animal. I didn’t know what answers I would get by pulling it up on the back of the boat. I should’ve paid attention to that before I went looking. So I think it was maybe because of my ... there was a sense of my own unpreparedness for the moment. I was so excited by the hunt, that I didn’t really know what to look for at the end of it.

BR: That’s so relatable though. Definitely worth writing about.

JB: (laughs) I’d have to agree.

BR: Well, that’s all the questions I have. Thanks so much for sitting down and talking with me.

JB: No problem. I’m lucky because my job’s done, now you have to sit down and transcribe all of this (laughs).