A Day in the Life of David Quammen

David Quammen is an award-winning science, nature and travel writer. He is a contributing editor at National Geographic and the author of numerous books, the most recent of which is Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. He lives in Bozeman, Montana. Follow David on Twitter @DavidQuammen.


David Quammen

What I’m working on:

I’m catching up on my duties to National Geographic, after having spent most of last year on my book Spillover. As a Contributing Writer, I do three features for Nat Geo per year. Latest assignment is a story derived from an expedition to Franz Josef Land, a remote archipelago in the Russian Arctic. I was up there on a boat for six weeks with a team of very interesting scientists. This autumn I’m also working on a proposal for my next book, and have one assignment pending for Harper’s, to be researched as soon as I can get to New Zealand.

Where I work:

Field research: I work in remote places all over the world—quite often tropical forests, swamps, mountains, savannas, deserts. From the Congo to the Serengeti to, as I just mentioned, the Russian Arctic. Home: My workspace for writing is a very nice office at the back of my home in Bozeman, Montana.

Daily routine:

If I’m home and in the writing phase of a project: Up around 7:00 a.m., coffee, handful of fruit, a bit of work-related reading to let my brain get going; then I spend a couple hours revising the first-draft pages from yesterday. Then a break, late morning, to eat breakfast (at my desk), after which I walk the dogs. Back to work, I push forward with new first-draft pages. Another break in mid-afternoon, a handful of peanuts or a banana as a walking lunch, an errand to the post office, then back to work, a little more writing. On a good day, I finish all this by 4:00 p.m. (in summer) and go for a hard road-bike workout. In winter, maybe finished by 5:30 p.m., and I take a run, in the snow, or else walk to the local city rink for a little ice-skating. Shower, cocktail hour, dinner. If I’m in the home stretch on a book project, I might write again in the evening.

Most productive part of my day:

The most productive period for new work is that stretch of hours after the late breakfast, when I forge forward into first-draft pages. But probably 70 percent of my writing time, at least, is spent re-writing, and that’s of course absolutely necessary too.

Most essential ritual or habit:

Coffee, dogs, exercise: These are the enzymes and interstitial activities conducive to problem-solving, new ideas, and logjam breaking. As I’ve gotten older, and under the influence of my wife Betsy, I’ve been spending more and more time walking dogs. Harry, Stella, Nick.

Mobile device:

I’m now an Apple nerd: iPhone, iPad, iPod. Oh, and a Kindle. The iPad
and Kindle are for when I travel. Rollerblades too count as mobile devices, yes?


MacBook. Doesn’t have to be a Pro, I’m just a writer.

Some essential tools: field notebooks and a daily ledger

Essential software/apps/productivity tools: 

Reporter’s notebooks; ballpoint pens; small ledger journal as travel diary; MS Word; Olympus LS11 digital recorder; aluminum file cabinets.

Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:

Um. Occasionally late at night, if I’m too tired to read, I watch episodes of “Justified” or “Mad Men” on my laptop or iPad. I suppose Twitter falls into this category too. But I don’t seek means of procrastination; I enjoy the terrible strenuousness of writing too much to hide from it.

My reading habits:

Like most of us, I’m usually reading several books at a time. Work-related book for the coffee half-hour in early morning; literary nonfiction (history, biography, history of science) or (rarely) fiction in the evening. Also I read a LOT of scientific journal papers. Also I try to keep up with a few magazines—Nat Geo, Harper’s, the New Yorker, others—and wish I were able to keep up with more. If I’m walking across a jungle or doing something else remote from civilization, I might take a Trollope novel for total escape in the tent at night.

(Snails don’t really read. But if they did, they’d almost certainly do it slowly. And that would be a virtue.)

By the way, I read like a snail. Very slowly. I re-read virtually every sentence, taking that second glance at structure and style. I mean even, god help me, when reading the newspaper. Sometimes I wish I could plow through books quickly, but mostly I feel that slow reading has been inherent and crucial to my appreciation of (and skill at, if any) literary construction and rhythms. It drives me crazy when someone says to me: “Oh, just read this book, it’s short, it’s a quick read.” For me it is NOT a quick read, and I am jealous of my reading time, which is among the most precious resources I have. When someone makes that “It’s a quick read” comment to me, I know immediately they have no idea who I am or how I work. So their recommended book goes to the bottom of the pile.

Sleep schedule:

7–8 hours per night if I can get it. When I travel, I sleep on planes, busses, lying on a glacier, sitting against a tree—whenever and however necessary.

David Quammen photo courtesy of Lynn Donaldson. Snail photo by Shutterstock. All other photos courtesy of David Quammen.


  1. I do not TWITTER, so hope this reaches you.
    I caught a piece of your very good 8/17/18 Science Fri interview…
    in mulling a different concept for the “tree” of biology… why not the ancient concept “WEB OF LIFE”?

    … then I saw this in your Amazon blurb & was horrified…PLEASE REMOVE IT!
    “New technologies such as CRISPR: we now have the ability to alter even our genetic composition—through sideways insertions, as nature has long been doing.”
    It is scientific arrogance to assume anything, including that we “humans” are superior to microbes when we are more “microbiome” than “human”. Monsanto just lost a suit because of that assumption and not without first releasing devastating technology into our global environment & food system that is still increasing and will last at least 20 yrs if we stop now.
    Biotech has already bumbled into RNA damage that is being unleashed without knowing the consequences. PLEASE STOP!
    The Hopi prophecy is that this culture will die of SPEED….Please – Do not accelerate the process.

    Human cells resist gene editing by turning on defenses against cancer, ceasing reproduction and sometimes dying, two teams of scientists have found. Embryonic stem cells surrounded by feeder cells. When a team of scientists tried using Crispr to turn stem cells into neurons, they found that many of them died unless a cancer-fighting gene also was deactivated.
    Crispr Therapeutics fell by 13 percent shortly after the scientists’ announcement. Intellia Therapeutics dipped, too, as did Editas Medicine. All three are developing medical treatments based on Crispr.
    But the scientists who published the research say that Crispr remains a promising technology, if a bit more difficult than had been known.
    Really??? Duh…

    You want ancient? Look at the spore probiotic research of Kiran Krishnan: HUMAN MICROBIME PROJECT:

    This elegy has been haunting me since reading you article, heralding the advance of science down a lethal path… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2uVUkBckVEM


  2. I am reading “Song of the Dodo” for the second time. Went to the Galapagos after the first reading. Am going to Madagascar in July. Thank you for inspiring me

  3. My husband and I met you at a coffee House last December. I am a nurse. We had a wonderful chat. I thank you for the gift of your extra time! Looks like Ebola is rearing its uglly head again…

  4. Pingback: Walk the Dogs on Break… – The Publishing Culture

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