Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The David Grann Interview

My interview with David Grann, New Yorker writer and author of The Lost City of Z. Enjoy, and please buy his book. It's great, and he put up with my bumbling interview technique.

This interview--surprise!--previously appeared in ICON, and is reprinted with permission.

David Grann's obsession with renegade British explorer Col. Percy Harrison Fawcett and his 1925 quest to find the ancient Amazonian civilization of Z became so great that the New Yorker staff writer actually wound up in Brazil retracing Fawcett's fatal last mission. He survived, though his laptop computer didn't.
Thankfully, Grann was able to keep good enough notes (his tip: jot them during breaks in the trekking) to come up with a terrific debut book about his and Fawcett's search, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (Doubleday, 352 pages, $27.50), which has deservedly earned rave reviews and been optioned by Paramount. Entertaining and informative, it's a perfect beach read.
Over the course of two phone conversations in October and February, Grann graciously talked about the lure of Fawcett's lost mission, his mindset as a journalist, and who would play him in the movie.

Pete Croatto: What was the reaction of your wife--who appears throughout the book--to your growing obsession with Fawcett and the quest to find Z?
David Grann: She has a good sense of humor, which is always helpful, and she's gotten a little bit used to me where I get on stories and I tend to get a little bit obsessive, although I think in this case I went far beyond the bounds of when I've worked on other stories. I think on some level she understands me and kind of understands where it comes from and shares in my curious interests and understands them. I also don't think either of us fully contemplates exactly where I may be going or what I may be doing… She's a journalist too, so I think she understands where it comes from. In many ways, she's the sensible one, though, and she also keeps me a little bit grounded because I don't always think things through.

PC: It's good to have someone like that in your corner.
DG: Yes, it's very good [laughs].

PC: How did you, an admitted non-adventurer, survive the Amazon? (In the book, Grann admits that he tends to "forget where I am on the subway and miss my stop in Brooklyn" and that he prefers the comforts of home to the outdoors.)
DG: One, I had a great guide, and I couldn't have done it without a great guide. The honest answer is that I don't often fully think about what I'm doing, I think about much more what I'm trying to get and what I want to know. And it's a powerful motivation, and in many ways that's what I'm thinking about, and it's kind of what propels me. I would never, ever in my life say, "Oh, I just want to go trekking through the Amazon." It wouldn't even occur to me. I would never say to my wife, "Oh, let's go for a vacation camping in the jungle," or "Let's go hunting." But this story in particular is so interesting and the mystery to me so compelling that my desire to try to solve it, understand it, understand what motivated other people, and what motivated Fawcett, is what kind of propels me and kind of gets me going. Perhaps had I done these things in another life, I might have thought twice about them, but there's almost a blissful ignorance.

PC: It's almost like you're in this journalist mode or whole other identity that gets you so wrapped up in finding a story that you don't even notice the inherent danger.
DG: I think that's exactly right. One of the things that compelled me was to understand what drove other people, and what motivates people to do things to risk their lives. In this case, you had a man take his son into the jungle with him when the chances of them surviving were extremely small…In many ways, the book tries to explore this idea of obsession, whatever it may be and whatever form it may take and how it drives people and consumes people. In the case of Fawcett and the many people who followed him, it almost drove them to the point of madness.

PC: Was it always your plan to include yourself in the narrative?
DG: I don't ordinarily put myself in stories that much, and I tend to be more of a cipher who's simply a dispassionate observer in my stories. So for me to put myself in the book was a bit of a leap for me, an uncomfortable leap. But I decided to do it for various reasons. I thought it was a way to bring the reader along and show them the way these things may look to an average person. I thought it was also a way to show how the world changed. One of the interesting things about Fawcett's story is you can really trace this great age of Victorian exploration and these blank spots on the map. And the way people in that era looked at the world and the blank spots of the world and looked at Indians and Native Americans and the perceptions of them and their attitudes toward them. By putting me in the story, the contemporary element, without ever even saying so, you could illuminate how much the world has changed. You can visit the same spots literally by piecing together Fawcett's trail and show what happened to these tribes that he visited. It was a way to complete the circle a century later.

Probably the most important reason, is that in many ways, unintentionally, I became much more part of the story in a way I never expected, which is that as I did more research, and became more and more curious, I found myself in many ways being consumed by the story, the way hundreds and hundreds of people had over the years. And that surprised me, and I thought it's almost the more honest way to tell the story--to try to explore that obsession a little bit and show it, because at that point I wasn't really a dispassionate observer. To just kind of remain on the sidelines, that would not have been telling the story as it was happening.

PC: Is the age of the dashing, intrepid explorer, like Fawcett, dead?
DG: I think the things and the forces that in part propelled Fawcett will still exist, but I do believe he represented the end of an age. He represented the end of an age in part because the physical world was changing so much. He [Fawcett] really was the last of the great explorers of unknown territory and blank spots on the map. He would march into areas of the world where a white person had not been or a foreigner had not been, and literally be making contact with new civilizations and tribes. That exists less and less. Some of the things about the curiosity and the need to take risks and the need to discover, I think, will still exist in people and will manifest itself, but I don't think it will ever manifest itself in the way it did with Fawcett.

PC: The world is only so big.
DG: Exactly…There are a lot of [scientific] discoveries to be made in the Amazon, but the idea of discovering huge swaths of territory and going into them for the first time as an outsider, those days are over.

PC: Every place seems to be affected by modern conveniences of some kind. But it seems to me that the Amazon and the Arctic are the two places where there's not a Starbucks on every corner.
DG: What was so amazing during my trip was to visit places where Fawcett had visited, and clearly it had changed in dramatic ways, but there was a cultural preservation and a continuity with the past that was amazing and remarkable. I encountered various tribes [and] what was so amazing is one, they still had these wonderful oral histories erected, these beautiful epic poems. One of the tribes had one about Fawcett and his son and companion coming in on the final expedition when they disappeared. And they still had that story and could tell it to me. That was kind of amazing. The other thing that was amazing, is that you can still go to parts of the Amazon where you can see tribes and settlements of others cultures that have preserved their cultures and ways of life against enormous odds, facing disease, loggers. Remarkably, they've been able to preserve these incredibly rich and beautiful cultures.

One of the reasons many of these cultures have preserved and settlements have preserved is that the jungle has acted as a barrier to outsiders over the years. And these Native Americans or Amazonian tribes have used the jungle, they've adapted to the jungle, they're able to, in many cases, flourish in the jungle, and they're able to use it as their best defense...[Despite deforestation and other obstacles] some tribes at least were able to retreat deeper into the jungle, and use the jungle as a barrier and to help preserve their way of life…We look at the jungle one way, and they look at the jungle often another way. For us, we just see ominous danger--we can't survive, we see diseases. The tribes that have inhabited this area for so long are able to adapt and use many of the very things that are most threatening to us to actually help enhance and preserve their way of life.

PC: I saw that the book had been optioned.
DG: It was optioned by Brad Pitt's Plan B productions at Paramount. And they've assigned James Grey, who's a great director, and he just did Two Lovers. It's still in its early development stages. If all goes well, Brad Pitt is slated to play Fawcett, which would be terrific.

PC: That's amazing. You have to be excited about that, no?
DG: I'm delighted. It's a pretty cinematic story, so I was really happy that they see possibilities.

PC: Who would you like to see play you onscreen?
DG: It'd probably be a younger version of Woody Allen, unfortunately.

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