David Quammen

How did you become a writer?

I was always, from the age of about 11, pointed toward being either a writer or a biologist. Then in high school and college I had some great English teachers and mentors. Never got the same mentoring in biology. So grows the branch.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

Writing influences: Faulkner. After him, at a distance, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and of course Robert Penn Warren. I was from Cincinnati but my pantheon was full of Southerners. To a far lesser degree, once I turned to nonfiction: Haldane, Eiseley, Hughes Rudd, Ed Abbey, McPhee, Hoagland, Matthiessen, Gould. Did I say Abbey? He and Matthiessen and Hoagland are my adored big brothers. Hughes Rudd, wonderful man, taught me that it’s okay to be serious and funny. Among my own generation: Barry Lopez and Terry Tempest Williams have been especially influential colleagues. Bill Cronon too. And of course others, who know who they are but I don’t mention right here. My writing pals.

Teachers: Two Jesuits in Cincinnati in the early ‘Sixties: Jerry Lackamp, S.J., and Tom Savage, S. J. Then at Yale in the late ‘Sixties: Robert Penn Warren, great friend, great writer, great mentor. Great and good man. Changed my life.

When and where do you write?

When? Get up early-ish, coffee and fruit, read a little to open the brain like a splash of water in malt whiskey; then write. Write. Write. Take a break for peanuts and an errand, clear brain. Come back and write. Stop at dark and get some exercise.

Where? In my wonderful book-lined cave of an office in Bozeman, Montana. Harry the Maremma, noble dog, sometimes snores in the office while I write. Soothing.

What are you working on now?

Finishing chores on the book version of my big Yellowstone project for National Geographic (I wrote the entire May issue, devoted to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, related to 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service). But the real heavy lifting right now is on my next major book, for Simon & Schuster, on the idea of the Tree of Life, as radically challenged by shocking new discoveries from gene sequencing. Hope to finish it this year.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

No. Nor jet lag. Not much insomnia either. Knock wood. Some writers cultivate these anxieties as vanities. Just do the work. Writer’s block, in my agnostic view, is a fancy way of saying “Writer is insecure or empty.” Lots of people have demons, freeze-ups. I sympathize with that. If it’s a person who has published one book, we call it “writer’s block."

What’s your advice to new writers?

Don't quit your day job. Don’t do it because you “think” you “might” want to be a writer. Go elsewhere. It’s not a life style. It’s not an answer to your financial problems. It won’t make you famous, almost certainly. It’s a vocation and a damn tough way to make a living over a lifetime. Now that I’ve said that: Good luck, and have fun!

David Quammen is an author and journalist whose fourteen books include The Song of the Dodo (1996), The Reluctant Mr. Darwin (2007), and Spillover (2012), a work on the science, history, and human impacts of emerging diseases (especially viral diseases), which was short-listed for eight national and international awards and won three (including the Merck Prize, given in Rome). More recently he has published Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus and The Chimp and the River: How AIDS Emerged from an African Forest, both drawn largely from Spillover. Quammen is a Contributing Writer for National Geographic, in whose service he travels often, usually to wild places. He has also written for many other magazines, ranging from Harper’s, The Atlantic and The New York Times Book Review to Rolling Stone, Outside and Powder. Much of his work is focused on ecology and evolutionary biology, frequently garnished with history and travel. In 2012 he received the Stephen Jay Gould Prize from the Society for the Study of Evolution. Quammen has lived in Montana for 43 years, and in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem for most of that time. His home is in Bozeman, where he shares a house and a small lot with his wife, Betsy Gaines Quammen, a conservationist at work on a doctorate in environmental history, and their family of other mammals.