Faulkner fan who now swears by nonfiction
In his new book, “Yellowstone: A Journey Through America’s Wild Heart,” science writer David Quammen explores the country’s first national park, which 4 million people visit each year. Quammen, also a longtime writer for National Geographic, comes to town for two events in September. He’ll speak at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories Symposium on Sept. 18 from 3-6 p.m. and at UMass Boston on Sept. 19 at 7:30 p.m.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
QUAMMEN: I’m reading a fascinating book that no one has ever heard of, “Heraclitean Fire,” a memoir written in 1978 by Erwin Chargaff, who was involved in solving the structure of DNA. He’s an unbelievably cranky, sophisticated, and opinionated fellow who was a very good writer. That’s cocktail hour and right-before-bed reading. In the morning before work I’m reading a dense book, “Origin of Eukaryotic Cells” by the great Lynn Margulis. It’s her unorthodox set of theories about where these complex cells, which make up everything except bacteria, came from. She turned out to be right.
BOOKS: Do you read fiction?
QUAMMEN: I used to read only fiction. Now I don’t read much, only occasionally, such as a Cormac McCarthy or a Jim Harrison novel.
BOOKS: When did you switch from fiction to nonfiction?
QUAMMEN: Not long after college. I had been obsessed with Faulkner and did my graduate work on him. I wrote four novels, but then I realized that the world didn’t need me to be a novelist, but the world could use me as a nonfiction writer. As I started to read nonfiction in the mid ’70s, I discovered, holy cow, there was a lot of imaginative nonfiction. Not the kind where people use composite characters and invented quotes. I hate that kind of nonfiction. But imaginative in the sense that good writing and unexpected structure and vivid reporting could be combined with presenting facts.
BOOKS: What were some of those early nonfiction books you read?
QUAMMEN: Lewis Thomas’s “Lives of a Cell,” early Stephen Jay Gould, and some of the early John McPhee.
BOOKS: Who turned you on to Faulkner?
QUAMMEN: My brother-in- law said, “Here’s an interesting book, ‘The Sound and the Fury.’ ” By the time I was five pages into it my life had changed. The novel was disorienting, but I could tell it was supposed to be.
BOOKS: Which Faulkner would you suggest to someone who hadn’t read him before?
QUAMMEN: There are some that are friendlier, such as “Light in August” and “As I Lay Dying,” which is similar in technique to “The Sound and the Fury,” but it’s a little more tractable. My favorite, that obsessed me for years, is “Absalom, Absalom!,” but that’s not a good starting point.
BOOKS: What was Robert Penn Warren, who you studied with at Yale, like as a reader?
QUAMMEN: In some sense I learned to read by taking his seminar, which was essentially on how to read a novel. We read four books: Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy,” “The Sound and the Fury,” Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim,” and Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” Penn Warren helped invent the style of reading known then as the New Criticism. It involved asking what the sentences are doing and how do they do it.
BOOKS: What did you read for your book on Yellowstone?
QUAMMEN: Paul Schullery, who works for the park service and worked in Yellowstone for decades, has written several books about it.
BOOKS: What kind of books do you pack for your exotic travels for National Geographic?
QUAMMEN: I did one project where I bushwhacked across the Congo with this crazy biologist. At night, I would zip myself into my tiny tent to protect myself from army ants and termites. I would read for a half hour before falling asleep. I was reading Anthony Trollope. If you are lying in a tent in the Congo jungle, you don’t want to be reading about rainforest biology. You want to be in a distant world. So 19th-century London social mores were perfect. Trollope got me through those nights.