Gwangju Blog

Douglas Baumwoll – Bridging the Gap

The Saturday night dinner crowd at First Alleyway is multiplying rapidly as I wait at the bar for my interview with Douglas Baumwoll. He’s been fighting a nasty cold, but still meets me right on time. Sporting a powder blue button up, albeit nearly half unbuttoned, he’s in a good mood as we both accept our first pints of the night courtesy of Misub Hur. We grab a table and pour through about an hour of conversation regarding politics, poisoned eggs, recent creative projects, and travel before diving into a more focused discussion about his work as a writer.

Baumwoll first arrived in Korea during 2010, but has lived extensively in Spain, California, and his native home of Pennsylvania as well. His experiences throughout the world have fed his mind with the necessary nutrients to complement the in-depth socio-political research of literature that occupies so much of his time. The man is a thinker. You have more than likely already read some of his work in the Gwangju News magazine, where he has been featured on a fair range of topics over the last two years, including some of the year’s top cover stories. In an era when anyone can spout out their thoughts to the masses via the internet, with standard credibility ranging from complete phony to smug pseudo-intellectual, Baumwoll carries his projects much like he carries himself, with intent, credibility, and dignity.
When I ask him how he first got started on writing and research, he tells me he’s always been an avid reader, but it was an essay over the Yellow Rain incident that he wrote in tenth grade that marks his true beginning down this path. His teacher took note of his natural ability to ask strong questions and not throw out invasive statements at such a young age. He grew up in rural central Pennsylvania, he went on to study three years of engineering at a university in Virginia before opting for a degree in philosophy instead. This combination of technical, scientific, knowledge and a firm belief in Socratic questioning morphed his writing abilities into a hybrid set of skills that is not often found. However, these skills would be appreciated as he moved to San Francisco to land a job writing for a contractor to the Environmental Protection Agency. There, he mainly focused on hard science reports of oil refineries.
“My talent relies in a kind of research known as ‘technology transfer,’ meaning that I can talk to a scientist or engineer and translate that interview into language that the average person can understand.” And it’s true. The amount of people who successfully bridge this gap in their respective industries is rare, but Baumwoll believes their relevancy is only increasing with the millennial generation. “People’s attention spans are shorter, and often times, scientists or technical people are boring speakers.” The importance of hard science information and revelations are undoubtedly relevant to any number of issues, but finding new ways to spread this information to people effectively is often still an obstacle. He gives examples of scientist like Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, and political comedians such as Jon Stewart and John Oliver that have been successful in taking the tedious topics of their fields and packaging it in a way that’s not only accessible, but also enjoyable.
Currently, he works full time at the Jeollanamdo Education Training Institute, where he teaches fiction writing and process evidence based writing to students. The program works to certify Korean ESL teachers, and has kept Baumwoll active since he arrived in Gwangju three years ago. His philosophies on writing stem from a solid grounding in both non-fiction and fiction, but

he declares a marriage of the two as his primary literary goal. So how exactly would this work? Well, his goal is to base a new type of fiction that is grounded in scientific reality, but with all the same literary devices that come along with the exploration of the human condition in fiction. Think of how your favorite novels cover aspects of love, hate, death, adolescence, etc. and expand on that with a well-researched, evidence based narrative into pressing issues such as climate change, racism, or distribution of wealth. “If you’re writing non-fiction essays about these topics, you’re preaching to the choir. Fiction reaches many people who may not read about these topics in a non-fiction format.” He has a deep appreciation for work of a very similar nature that has already been in kicked into motion by other writers. “It’s not science fiction… it’s more near-speculative fiction. Rather than focusing explicitly on social relationships, there will be definite factual information. There’s already been a development of climate-fiction, which is based on what we know about climate change.” There have been a lot of success with similar approaches that are close to what Baumwoll wants to create, for example, the original Jurassic Park, Children of Men, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Although he is hopeful and believes firmly in the need for climate change awareness, he admits the chips are stacked heavily on the other side. “It’s important that non-fiction focuses on the human condition… The age of logic seems like it’s over. There has to be another way to present this information to people, and the main issue is climate change. It’s tied to population, global economics, food scarcity, rising tides… The next wars will be fought over fresh water. Not oil.”

Now, with all of this on the table, there’s obviously a tall order for rerouting our current course, but Baumwoll is in the process of creating a website where the eco-friendly rubber can meet the road. For the next couple of years he plans to focus on publishing original content with a main theme based on climate change and redistribution of wealth on the domain He aims to stress a conversational tone on these topics so that people don’t feel overwhelmed by such topics, but still inform them. There will be links to other websites and videos too for people to become more involved, and eventually a Youtube channel where Baumwoll can create videos aimed for a younger (middle school) audience on similar topics.

He’s got the know-how. He’s got the ambition. And he’s already begun to lay the groundwork for causes that are immediate and far-reaching. Recently, he gave a speech at the GIC concerning pollution and environmental awareness in Korea. Baumwoll admits he enjoys speaking to groups, and is making a habit of creating dialogue with them. Keep your eye out for him in the upcoming issues of Gwangju News, and be a part of the movement that very well may save the humanz.

  • Douglas Baumwoll

    Thanks for the interview, Josh. Very well-written, apart from the obvious likability of the subject! Cheers.