David Quammen on Turning Research Into Story, Part II

Dobbs and Quammen
David Dobbs (left) interviews David Quammen (right) about Quammen’s latest work. Evan Howell


Last week, we published the transcript of a discussion between David Dobbs and David Quammen that we sponsored at last year’s National Association of Science Writers meeting. Today, we present Part II of the conversation between the two Davids. Most of this interview took place by phone in early December.


Where do you write?

I’ve got a lovely office in the back of our house that is lined almost totally with books. It has a Pullman compartment sleeper in it, a little box bed behind a curtain, that I can sleep in in a pinch.

I got that idea because I was once in Faulkner’s house while a researcher on a CBS documentary, and he had a nook with a bed. And on those walls he outlined a book, The Fable. I was struck by how sensible it was to have a bed in your office. I don’t nap in it. I take naps on the floor. But sometimes I come in the middle of the night and sleep, then get up. There are periods of time, when I was single, when I slept in this little nook and lived in my office. It’s like a fire escape—you don’t need it much, but it’s good to know it’s there.

Office is about seven paces by five. Maybe 15 by 20 feet. Books, file cabinets, notebook and journals. Bulletin boards. On those I often have a map, to refresh my memory about where things are. Right now I have a map of the Congo Basin. That’s from Spillover.

How do you set about writing a book like Spillover? You said in our earlier conversation you have these notebooks and ledgers from your fieldwork, for instance. To sum that up—you take these field notes in reporters’ notebooks in the field; you summarize those and turn them into rough narrative form in a ledger notebook each night or the next morning; and three years later you’ve finally finished all this work. You pile all this on your desk along with other stuff and you’re ready to go. What next?

Yes: I’ve got these field notes and the journals, which are written out. Piles of books, journal articles. I do not make outlines. I have a general sense of what I want to cover. I make a cryptic little diagram of what I want to cover and how I want to get from point A to point F or B. It might look like a board game, with arrows winding around—visit Oz, go through the forest, and on to Oz. Or it might be just a list of things. But in some cases I don’t even have that.

For Spillover, I wrote a 30-page proposal where I pretended to know what I was going to cover. I could look at that occasionally. And here’s the most crucial thing: I assembled a list of chapter titles—major sections. I look for those titles. Interesting titles that will cover the larger ideas and places and particular diseases I want to cover. I start looking for those titles during the search process. Some come easily, and some I have to struggle with for a while.

Is this pretty much what you did with Dodo, or have you changed much?

Yes. I sort of invented my technique when I started Dodo. I started researching The Song of the Dodo in 1988, started it with a Harper’s piece. A lot of books begin as magazine pieces; that tells you essentially whether the subject is bigger than a magazine piece.

So I started researching in ’88 then probably started writing it in 1992 and I thought, ‘Ok, I’ve got all this material about island biogeography, it goes everywhere, there’s all this history, it has all this travel that I have done. How am I going to structure this?’

And I decided that I would do this thing with the numbered sections—arabic numeral sections. In Dodo, I think there’s something like a hundred and sixty-four sections ….

But organized within larger units in both books, yes?

I have larger units in everything I’ve written since Dodo. Eight, ten, twelve large units, and these hundred-something chapters numbered consecutively right through them.

These frequent chapter breaks give you the opportunity to change frame width, lens length, go from the bottom of the ladder of abstraction towards the top, that sort of thing.

Yes, I am very interested in changing pace and in heterogeneity. I’m constantly thinking about the reader. Is the reader bored with this explanation of the mutation rate of RNA viruses? Do I need to tell a stupid joke? Or do I need to change the scene and get into the field somewhere in Bangladesh or something?

You’re not afraid to grab the reader by the elbow and guide us. At one point in this book, you just flat out say, ”I’m not going to go into the details on this one because we’re in deep enough already.” Which to me sends a reassuring message to the reader—you’re looking after us.

Good. I am trying very hard to look after the reader.

I wanted to structure these books in a way that was sinuous and linear rather than sort of parenthetical. What I mean by that is—I didn’t want to be writing in a chapter like a long titled chapter and then have a line break, a line space, and then do a flashback, and then have another line space and then come back to the subject. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted the journey to be continuous.

For instance, Chapter 3 or 4 or 5 is entitled “The Deer, the Parrot, and the Kid Next Door.” That’s about bacterial pathogens—the one chapter that’s not viruses. The exception that proves the rule. I wanted to show that in some cases even bacteria could be zoonoses. I knew I wanted to talk about Q fever and parrot fever and Lyme disease. So I knew I had enough of that. How was I going to put that into the book? What would I call it? It’s got a little bit of mysterious resonance to it, and it’s descriptive of the chapter.

Do those titles change as you go along?

Yes. I thought the last chapter of the book would be titled “You Can’t Run.” I ended up titling it “It Depends.” That phrase kept coming up—in math models, in conversations with Greg Dwyer. You can’t run from these things. I thought “You Can’t Run” would be my closing note. When I got there, I realized I wanted to hit a different idea, somewhat more cheerful and hopeful. Is it important that our behavior is more various than tent caterpillars? Greg Dwyer thought so—that it depends on the versatility of our behavior.

These titles are guideposts for you?

Yes. I want the chapter titles to be a bit mysterious but appropriate. And I would—I don’t want a chapter title every four pages. Nine or ten major named sections in the book is enough.

A lot of my structuring began with the writing of The Song of the Dodo, in 1993 or 1994. I wondered, How am I going to structure this sucker? I came up with this idea of a small number of big sections, but a single, sinuous, linear trail of numbered chapters. The linearity of the numbers suggests it’s a linear path through the material.

How did you apply this in Spillover?

I knew I didn’t want it to have an obvious by-disease structure. I wanted to braid that with some other cords into a three-strand structure.

So the threads again: In part it’s one disease after another. It’s also the development of the theoretical ideas of ecology. And geographical travel from one place to another. The explanation of the ideas is one braid; the historical development of those ideas is another braid; and the different diseases provide another, as does the movement through space by me, or just focusing on different places.

So that when the reader turns to Chapter 4, it may be clear to him that he’ll learn about a new disease—but he’ll also advance in his theoretical concepts. You want there to be suspense and surprise and unexpectedness. That’s what keeps the reader turning pages. Once it’s happened, you want the reader to say, I didn’t expect that, but it had to be there.

You mentioned to me earlier that William Faulkner was a big influence in your approach. How so?

Chip McGrath was very interested in this, too, in our interview in The Times. Faulkner was hugely important to me. I started out wanting to be a fiction writer. From the first pages of the first Faulkner novel I read—The Sound and the Fury—my life had changed.  I was obsessed with him through college, did my graduate work on him at the wrong Oxford. [That is, the one in England, where Quammen studied as a Rhodes scholar, rather than Oxford, Mississippi, Faulkner’s longtime hometown.] I did a degree in structure in Faulkner’s novel. Diagramming Absalom, Absalom!; Sound and the Fury; Light in August; Go Down, Moses; The Wild Palms. But particularly Absalom, Absalom!

I learned from looking at this closely about Faulkner’s epistemology—how to bring readers forward through a complicated mass of material, and to calibrate the discovery process for the reader, so the reader starts out ignorant and confused; then learns some things but is still confused, but Faulkner is still in control of the confusion; and then producing laminations of meaning. Faulkner goes over the same event a number of times, and each time you get another GIS layer—another layer of understanding and material put down. Eventually you see the patterns and the meaning emerge. Peter Matthiessen does the same thing in his Florida trilogy.

Studying those books very much informs how I put together something like Song of the Dodo or Spillover—taking a large body of complicated material and patiently figuring out how to bring the reader along in a discovery process that’s not too obvious or orderly but ends up with something coherent and inevitable. I’ve been told I’m unstructured. But these books are very carefully structured, and I’m always aware of what the reader should know and will next need to know—to play against expectations, but not too insistently so that the reader gets frustrated. So if I’ve gone two pages explaining molecular phylogenetics, let’s go to Borneo for a bit.

I think of the reader as singular. I write to the second-person singular pronoun. I try to write in a conversational voice. I say to the reader, If I can do this, you can do this. Sometimes I say that, but it’s implicit all the time, or so I hope.

My talk about lamination may be a red herring. Faulkner’s situation was different. He was writing stories about events of which there are many different understandings that create confusion. He laid down all these laminations. So let me retract that in a way. Over the course of a lot of pages, I’m trying to create—I’m trying first to entertain the reader, to keep the reader going, turning pages. But I’m also trying to create a fairly ambitious understanding of the subject in the reader. I’m not just putting it on the page. I want to create a big new understanding and grasp in the reader, one that lasts. So I’m consciously aware of how far I’ve gone and how far I’ll go. A structure of new comprehension and insight—an armament of understanding.

How do you vary narrative and explanation?

I think about it a lot. I think about pace, about what I’m asking of the reader. I think about the mix between learning and fun. The mix between storytelling and expository material.

Which of those is easier or more fun for you to write?

Storytelling is easier and more fun. The stories are often almost there in my journal entries—what I saw in Kelly Warfield’s kitchen [in a key interview scene in Spillover’s Ebola chapter, when he visits Warfield, who survived an Ebola needle-stick episode]; what she told me. In narration, maybe you write three pages a day. Explaining something, maybe one page a day. Neither is necessarily more satisfying or important. What’s important is the mix and the balance.

How do you substructure your numbered chapters?

I don’t premeditate too much. When I’m writing section 52, I may have a sense—say I’m telling the story of the woman who had an Ebola needle-stick injury—I have a sense that the thing to come next will be other cases of Ebola laboratory infection. Actually I described, in 33 and 34, a couple different cases of lab accidents—a guy in England who lived, a couple women in Russia who died. I know I’m moving toward Kelly Warfield. This Warfield material I have from her own lips. I had a lot of great material, and I know that’s coming next—it’ll be 38. I’m finishing 37, about the women in Russia, but I don’t know what the first sentence will be in 38 until I write the last sentence of 37. I want it to flow. I want those to lead from one to another very directly.

Do you like to know where you’re going to end a section?

Yes. Once you’re into it, you start thinking, Where’s the end? How will I ring the bell? I start thinking about that pretty soon. But it’s not just the fullness of that section, but the oxymoron that you want it to feel complete, but you want it to lead to the next thing.

Do you do much back and forth between writing and digging back through your notes and reading?

I might have 30 pages of notes—30 pages of notes from the interview, and a transcript. I’ll go through those notes and highlight everything, in green magic marker, that’s of extra interest. I don’t have a preconception of everything that will go in—it’s not as if I have seven points I want to make. I work with the strongest material. I want the stuff that’s most interesting. I need to find a way to use those. Sometimes I ignore most of what I’ve taken down but find one or two things that are interesting.

Let me add one thing to your question about having all these sources, How do I write? I de-familiarize myself with the information. I’m pretty disciplined. I have a sense that it needs to be ripe. Sometimes I don’t start writing a new chapter until I have a good opening sentence in my mind. It might come to me on a bike ride or a run. Then I can start to work. I need that sentence. Sometimes I don’t sit down to Word until I have a sentence. Usually it’s just the opening sentence. It usually stays. Sometimes not.

Beginnings are hard, because they’re so important. Endings, too.

One of the trickiest things, I think, about structure and flow and all of this is the point where you need to signal the reader that we’ve finished the end of the middle, and now we’re moving into the beginning of the end. A turn. A realization, at least implicit, that we’ve rounded the clubhouse turn and we’re galloping toward the finish line. You need to do something to signal to the reader that turn.

In [Spillover], the AIDS chapter is the crescendo of the book, and it performs that function. And I take the reader on that strange journey through the history of that science. Then I do the Cut Hunter thing [a fictive imagining of the most prominent current hypothesis about how AIDS spilled over from chimpanzees to humans], this sort of risky move into the fictional mode—a sort of fable—and then finish back with the science. That’s what I hope performs the function in this book.

This AIDS chapter is a long chapter—about 100 pages. It’s riveting throughout. But how’d you come to decide to spend a sixth of the book there?

It is a long chapter. It’s three-quarters of the way through the book. You have 30 million deaths at hand in the chapter. The reader has a sense, I hope, that he’s topped over the pass and going down into the valley.

Thanks for taking us along.

My pleasure.

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