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Feb. 05, 2015

SciFri Book Club: David Grann Answers Your Questions

by Annie Minoff

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David Grann ventured into the heart of the Amazon’s “Green Hell” in search of the truth behind explorer Percy Fawcett’s 1925 disappearance—and lived to tell about it. Below, The Lost City of Z author answers questions from the SciFri Book Club. Warning: a few mini-spoilers ahead. 
 
Question: Of all the explorers who have perished on their journeys, what about Percy Fawcett compelled you to trace his footsteps? —Julie Leibach, SciFri Online Managing Editor
 
David Grann: The reason Fawcett caught my attention was, in part, because he was this enormously larger-than-life figure. He was an explorer who had gone on this great mission and had been forgotten. He suffered a second death—not just the mystery of his death in the Amazon—but he had been cut out of history. Part of what attracted me to him was trying to excavate that story. The second reason is that there are a lot of explorations that, while they involve a great deal of daring and courage, their scientific import is minimal. In the case of Fawcett, there were great scientific stakes if he could prove that there really was an ancient city in the Amazon.
 
Your storytelling is paced so deftly. How do you do it? —Diane Josefowicz on Facebook
 
I think there are a couple of things. One is that in telling history, we [writers] learn all the facts, and the mystery of what will happen next disappears. One of the things I try to do when I tell stories is to tell them as time is unfolding. You see what the characters see and know what they know. You don't know what the future is, and so each next step has within it a great mystery.
 
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The other thing is that writers—and I include myself among them—when we spend a lot of time reporting or writing a paragraph, we become very enamored of that work. We become partial to it. You know, if I hump through the Amazon and I get a certain anecdote, well I gotta include that anecdote! I mean, my gosh! You don't know what I went through to get that! But it doesn't necessarily illuminate the story. I think as a writer, you have to be ruthless with yourself on your second draft. Cut your darlings, as they say.
 
Were there any anecdotes or details that were especially hard for you to cut? Annie Minoff, SciArts Producer
 
If it were something of real value to the story, I wouldn't cut it. But there is a story that I didn't include. It doesn't make me look particularly good, I don't think.
 
On my journey, I had a satellite phone, but I could only use it very rarely. My last communication with my lovely wife Kyra was on the sat phone [in the jungle]. I describe this in the book. Suddenly I think people are coming, and I have to hang up very abruptly. I didn't have an ideal moment to call her back. Then it was nearing the end of my trip, and I had this great idea: I would surprise Kyra and make it back [to New York] for her birthday! I spent days in canoes, boats, and puddle-jumpers, trying to get out of the Amazon. And when I finally showed up I thought, well, I won't call [Kyra] yet, because I'll surprise her! I had this very romantic idea. And I had kind of forgotten the backdrop of our last conversation.
 
So I finally get to our apartment in Brooklyn. I hadn't had a chance to shave. My beard consumed most of me. But I was so happy that I had made it—that I had somehow miraculously gotten back to the apartment—that I knocked on the door, and I said ‘Happy Birthday!’ She burst into tears. She thought I had died because I had not called her back. And so that was a story that, perhaps thankfully, I left out. In my self-defense, it came from a romantic place.
 
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In the last part of your book, you’re wading through waist-deep water carrying your laptop above your head, lost without your guide. What kept you going? Annie Nero, SciFri Individual Giving Manager
 
In that particular instance, when I was truly lost, the thing that kept me going was sheer panic. I really was frightened. In the Amazon, it's almost like a whiteout in the Arctic—you really lose any sense of which direction you’re heading in. You could start to do circles and not know it.
 
In general, I feel like I understood Fawcett in many ways, and I think it's much harder to understand yourself. So many people have asked me about my motivations, and I struggle because I don't always think we fully know [what drives us]. I began my quest really as a biographical quest. It was to understand Fawcett. I'm not a scientist. I wasn't looking for exactly what Fawcett was looking for, but I think there is a kind of obsessive, irrational quality that can take hold of us—and I think that is similar no matter what our quest may be.
 
When you left the Amazon, were you satisfied with the outcome? Or were there questions you felt were unanswered? Jonathan Sedivy on Facebook
 
That's a great question. I would say I was satisfied in the largest possible way. I felt that I could write the book, and that I had learned as much as I possibly could about two central questions. One was, was there really a Z? And I feel like I was able to illuminate that, yes, there really were ancient settlements in the Amazon, that our understanding of the Amazon was mistaken, and that in many regards, Fawcett was prescient and correct.
 
The second question is what happened to Fawcett, and how did he die? That was a little bit more elusive. I do feel like I figured out what happened to him, but could I have tried to look for the actual bones? Or could I have gone to the site where I was told through this [indigenous] oral history that the actual killing took place? It would have been really dangerous. There comes a point where you have to make peace with what you found. There are always little details that haunt you. One of the things that has always haunted me about Fawcett was why he took his oldest son on that trip. I would have these long philosophical interrogations of Fawcett, because you really spend your life living in somebody else's character when you follow them for so long, and all you do is read their letters and their diaries and interview people. And I could never fully answer that question. That's the type of thing where I would have loved, if Fawcett were still alive, to have sat down and been able to get his answer directly.
 
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Would you return to the Amazon? Tammy Graham on Twitter
 
You know, when I came back I said, “No, once was enough.” But one of the things that has continued to fascinate me is this question of ancient civilizations in the Amazon. Not just Z, or where Fawcett believed Z was, but other discoveries. There have been a series of remarkable scientific discoveries since I finished my book that further confirm the theory that there really were large, complex societies taking root in the Amazon. For example, there are these enormous earthworks that, when you look at them aerially, look like geometric carvings into the earth. I would hope that at some point, I could find a way to go—maybe without quite as much difficulty—on a trek with one of these scientists to go see some of these sites.
 
So you’d return to the Amazon if you could travel in a more Alexander Hamilton Rice kind of style? —SciFri
 
Yes! I like the Hamilton Rice style! A little puddle-jumper plane that takes me right in [to the jungle]? That would be perfect.
 
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
About Annie Minoff

Annie Minoff is Science Friday’s SciArts producer. She's visited Olympic ski jumps and a nuclear reactor in the name of science.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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