David Quammen may be best known as the writer of the column “Natural Acts,” which appeared each month from 1981–1995 in Outside magazine, and for his numerous books of nonfiction science writing. Quammen has made his living as a journalist and science writer, but he is quick to point out that he is not formally trained to do either: “I’m an auto-didact in that I am didacted at all in the natural sciences and I have never taken a journalism course.”
By teaching himself the nonfiction science essay, he has set the standard for engaging, instructive, first-person narratives informed by honest sensibility. Quammen is also the author of some first-rate fiction, including two spy novels. And, like every fifth person in this town, he once wrote an unpublishable book while wage-slaving in the galleys of Missoula’s service industry.
At the upcoming Festival of the Book, David Quammen will be participating in an authorial conversation with David James Duncan and will be reading from his forthcoming book titled Monster of God: The Man Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and Mind. The Independent caught up with him by phone last week at his house in Bozeman.
DQ: I used to live in Missoula myself. I lived there from 1973–77. Missoula was the first place I came to in the state. I drove into the state Sept. 12, 1973 and plopped down at a boarding house in downtown Missoula and went to work as a waiter and a bartender and paid dues. I had already published my first book (To Walk the Line) so I had the slightly atypical experience of paying my dues between my first and my second book as opposed to before my first one.
MI: It seems as though you have written in a variety of genres—everything from spy novels to fiction to nature writing to the nonfiction essay for so-called “slick” magazines.
DQ: Well, I learned a very important lesson from a great teacher and mentor I had, Robert Penn Warren. When I was in college I took a seminar from him and then came under his wing and he helped me publish my first book. He was a huge friend and a crucial mentor to me in the fullest sense and one of the things I learned from him was that it is not necessary for a writer to be just one kind of writer. Penn Warren was a Pulitzer-winning novelist, he was a Pulitzer-winning poet, he was a very respected literary critic and even a literary theorist or a co-inventor of what was considered a new form of criticism called New Criticism. And he also wrote social commentary, history and biography.
When I met him I was obsessed with Faulkner and wanted to be nothing other than a novelist, period, end of sentence. And partly through the hard knocks of experience and necessity and partly from Warren’s example and beginning to read non-fiction, I began to realize that it wasn’t necessary to be just a novelist.
And for me, perhaps it just wasn’t possible to be just a novelist because although I had been fortunate to get my first novel published by a good house when I was quite young, I still couldn’t make a living at it. And so I drifted into non-fiction writing, the essay and science writing and “slick” magazine writing.
With the exception of a couple pieces of fiction, I never felt that I was managing to create much fiction that somebody else might not have been able to create. “Walking Out” (from the collection Bloodlines) was for me an exception because I felt that I was really blessed to get that story and to get it down on paper. I can’t do that every time I try or I would. And the spy novels are, I think, well-crafted but they sort of disappeared instantly upon publication and I never felt like I contacted very many readers very deeply.
MI: In your collection of essays, Wild Thoughts from Wild Places, you say that good writing in slick magazines is like finding “kosher pastrami hidden in a Wonder Bread sandwich.” Can you explain?
DQ: Writing for slick magazines is a great way to combine the necessity of making a living with the opportunity of seeing interesting parts of the world and interesting people with artistic literary purposes. For instance, last September I did an assignment on kayaking the Grand Canyon for National Geographic Adventure. And doing a Grand Canyon trip for any slick magazine that has the word “adventure” anywhere on its masthead seems to me prima facie really boring and a hackneyed idea.
So what I told them was that the trick was not whether I could get a kayak down the Grand Canyon, but whether we could make this fresh. And I had some ideas about how to do that. Part of it involved a very strong interest in the geology of the canyon and theories of geology that had arisen in the 18th century.
And I was going through the end of a marriage. I was also getting too old to kayak the Grand Canyon, but maybe not quite. So here’s an adventure piece on doing the Grand Canyon, but it is filled with explanations of the 18th century origins of geological theory and poems by W.H. Auden, and meditation on change of life and the end of a marriage.
MI: And it gets published!
DQ: And it became the cover story, which ended up being the most popular cover story in the history of the magazine so far. So that’s encouraging, and my editor friend there told me that he even found that encouraging about the sophistication of their readership. He was pleasantly surprised for their readership to react that way.