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Cowboy’s Quill: David Quammen

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The science of writing

By Doug Hare EBS Staff

I recently had a wide-ranging phone conversation with David Quammen, perhaps Bozeman’s most famous writer. Exceptionally lucid and immediately engaging, he exudes not only a technical proficiency on matters both scientific and literary, but also a boundless curiosity for the natural world.

Although he has written novels, short stories, op-eds and screenplays, these days Quammen prefers writing nonfiction, having found that the genre provides the freedom he needs—the autonomy of storytelling, the occasional literary flourish—while still allowing him to pursue intellectually demanding subjects.

For more than four years, he has been at work on his new book, “The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life,” due out in August 2018. Quammen’s latest work explores how recent advances in our understanding of the human genome have complicated our understanding of how evolution works on the molecular level. The trajectory of his argument points to the inadequacy of the Tree of Life metaphor given recent discoveries in phylogenetics.

But even in an off-the-cuff response, Quammen’s ability to distill and analyze complicated, technical information and synthesize it in a way that makes it accessible to the layman, but also eye-opening for the expert, is undeniable. He is erudite without ever being pedantic, scholarly yet never boring.

Even the late literary giant Jim Harrison would call him up late at night and ask him to explain arcane cosmological theories that Harrison could not wrap his head around.

Quammen also spoke of his days as an English major at Yale University and studying Southern literature with Robert Penn Warren. This period is where the author pinpoints the influence of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver—on both his fiction and nonfiction styles—not so much on the sentemtial level, but on a broader, structural scale.

“Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” Quammen said in a self-deprecating manner.
Now back on assignment for National Geographic magazine, Quammen’s globe-trotting ways will take him to Africa next, where he will continue to find ways to combine his lifelong loves of writing, science and nature.

Toward the end of the interview, I asked Quammen why he has called Bozeman home for more than three decades. He said that when people hear he is a “Montana writer,” they ask him if he has a ranch. He doesn’t.

Quammen moved to Montana in 1973 where he was drawn by the trout fishing. Initially bouncing around the state and living in Butte, Missoula and Ennis, he eventually settled down in Bozeman in the early ‘80s to use the Montana State University library for research, and stills holds status there as an adjunct professor.

Nowadays, he says he enjoys his friendships with neighbor and writer Tim Cahill and poet Greg Keller, among others, and living a few blocks from Main Street, so he and his wife can walk to enjoy a nice meal even on a snowy evening.

Doug Hare is the Distribution Director for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.

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