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Tony Horwitz Boldly Follows

When in 1768 Captain James Cook set off on his first circumnavigation, "roughly a third of the world's map remained blank," Horwitz writes. Cook would sail more than 200,000 miles in his career, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, from Easter Island to Indonesia. Over the course of three great voyages, he not only mapped those vast, unknown lands with astounding precision (Horwitz notes that some of Cook's charts stayed in use until the 1990s), he also introduced the West to the lifestyles and customs of countless unimaginable, distant cultures. Tony Horwitz

In Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before, Horwitz traces Captain Cook's path around the globe, exploring how the lands he visited have changed, for better and—too often—for worse, since Cook's landing. The author sails aboard a replica of Cook's ship, reenacts the landing at Cooktown, Australia, with drunk-to-the-gills natives, and discovers the secret of Savage Island's red-toothed warriors. "We tend to think of these explorers as conquistadors and killers, but Cook wasn't like that," Horwitz explained. "Cook, himself, wrote some quite revealing and despairing passages reflecting his own ambivalence about the whole exercise of exploration and discovery."

The subject suits Horwitz's well-documented skills as both a humorist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Confederates in the Attic proved beyond argument that the War Between the States is still very much alive; The Richmond Times-Dispatch called it "the best book that has been written on the Civil War in modern culture." Baghdad Without a Map brought to life the Middle East in such entertaining fashion you couldn't help but wonder why more reportage can't be such pleasurable reading; The Village Voice raved, "As a document of the cultural impasse that brought on the [Gulf] war, this is unsurpassed."

Now, with his trademark blend of hilarity and insight, Horwitz brings us the life and legacy of one of history's preeminent explorers. Nathaniel Philbrick cheered, "Blue Latitudes is a rollicking read that is also a sneaky work of scholarship, providing new and unexpected insights into the man who out-discovered Columbus."

Dave: Why James Cook and not Columbus or Magellan? Did you come to exploration as a subject through an interest in Cook or did you find Cook through a curiosity about exploration?

Tony Horwitz: I really got hooked on Cook accidentally because I married an Australian. She dragged me to Sydney, and it was there that I stumbled on his journals. Here in America we just don't know much about Cook. I didn't know much about him.

Initially I think I was drawn more to the Lewis and Clark quality of setting off into the unknown, having encounters with people who had never seen Europeans before. But the more I learned, the more I became entranced by Cook's personal story.

In terms of why Cook and not Columbus or Magellan: they're all great stories, but part of what I love about Cook's story is that it's not that long ago. Two hundred thirty years. And he writes in a very modern and accessible fashion —again, much like Lewis and Clark. There's not a lot of God in there, or gold; he's writing in a scientific, straight ahead fashion that makes it feel real to us today in a way that perhaps Magellan's men, when they write, you don't feel the same way.

Dave: You note that Cook writes in his journals about discovery, not self-discovery. He remains absent through much of what he describes.

Horwitz: Exactly. When people talk about travel today, it's often framed in terms of self-discovery. For Cook, it was just discovery. One, because there was still a world out there to discover when he set out; but also because he was a Quaker-influenced man who wasn't comfortable putting himself into the story. He doesn't embroider things. He gives it to us as he sees it. To me, speaking as a journalist, he's a reliable source.

Dave: He's surprisingly sensitive, too. He attempts to see other cultures without the lens of the Empire.

Horwitz: We tend to think of these explorers as conquistadors and killers, but Cook wasn't like that. He thought of himself as a man of the Enlightenment, who was out there to explore and describe, not conquer and convert. But also, as you said, he's remarkably open to new ideas. He respects the Aborigines because they're not materialistic and they have no interest in European goods. When the Maori eat ten of his men, he says, "Well, notwithstanding their cannibalism, they're still human." He had this ability to be quite objective about even the most extreme circumstances.

Dave: And he began to understand that there were going to be consequences to his visits. He kept the ship off Hawaii for six weeks, for example, because he didn't want his men infecting the natives.

Horwitz: By Cook's third voyage he's beginning to understand the impact of his own discoveries. He returns to islands such as New Zealand and Tahiti, and begins to see the greed and the prostitution, the illness, and everything else he and his men have brought. He becomes quite despairing at times. Yes, when he reaches Hawaii, he doesn't want to go ashore and instantly have his men infecting them with venereal disease. Cook, himself, wrote some quite revealing and despairing passages reflecting his own ambivalence about the whole exercise of exploration and discovery.

Dave: We believe that these Pacific islands became populated when people canoed out to them. But I always wonder, How many people died trying to get there? What percentage actually made it thousands of miles across the ocean in a canoe? It just seems like the most Darwinian event. How in the world did anyone reach those islands safely?

Horwitz: It's unbelievable. Cook was really the first to recognize this: that the true explorers of the Pacific were these Polynesians who set off a thousand years before Cook in sailing canoes with no navigational gear and somehow settled this vast triangle between Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand. It truly is astonishing. As you say, there must have been a lot of canoes that never made it. And one theory as to why Polynesians are so large—they do tend to have a lot of body fat—is that only the largest ones survived these grueling journeys. If you were thin, you weren't going to last long.

Dave: You mention at one point "the maleness of the voyage." We view the voyages predominantly through the perspective of the sailors. Did you find many female perspectives of these landings?

Horwitz: It was difficult. And you sense the islanders' confusion about why this ship that has suddenly appeared over the horizon has only men in it. In New Zealand and other places, the natives sometimes make the sailors undress and sort of grope them to find out if they are indeed men. And when the sailors go searching for sex, as they do pretty much everywhere, in some instances they're offered young boys because the islanders rather sensibly assume that they're homosexual. We don't get much of a female perspective on this story.

Dave: One fascinating passage recalls the story of Te Horeta, the Maori boy who sighted the Endeavor as it approached shore and many years later recounted his story to Westerners.

One goblin [a British sailor] pointed his walking stick in the air. "Thunder was heard to crash and a flash of lightning was seen," Te Horeta said. Then a bird fell to the ground. "But what had killed it?" Later, a warrior offered to trade with the newcomers, then snatched a goblin's cloth and paddled away without surrendering his own dogskin cloak. A walking stick flashed and the warrior fell with a hole in his back.

Horwitz: There are a handful of accounts surviving of how the natives saw the events. In New Zealand, they thought the Endeavor was a floating island with the mast being trees; they thought the sailors were goblins with eyes in the back of their heads because they rowed ashore without looking at land. In Hawaii, they thought they sailors had loose, wrinkled skin, which was of course clothing, and burning volcanoes in their mouths, which were pipes of tobacco. So we have a few of these accounts, but sadly, ninety-eight percent of what we have is through the lens of the discoverers. We don't often hear from the discovered.

Dave: And now there's a lot of reinterpretation of these events, particularly in the last twenty or thirty years. A creative, retrospective rewriting of history. It's strange to me how subjective much of this historical record becomes, and how inevitably people wind up shaping it to suit their agenda.

Horwitz: It's true, but this to me is part of the appeal of Cook's story: I do think we have enough sources that we can reconstruct much of what happened. Obviously, the journals are subjective, but we have many of them. So you can compare and contrast Cook's words with those of his botanist, his astronomers, to those of the common sailors below deck, and I think when you put them all together you do get a better than average view of what happened.

This is why Cook to me is more appealing than some of the earlier explorers, where you're really in the realm of guesswork. They're writing about sea monsters. Clearly, a lot of what they're writing is incredible. I keep coming back to Lewis and Clark; it's got that same quality of modern, factual seeing. They're not always right, but for the most part they're trying to be.

Dave: You sailed for a week on a replica Endeavor, from Seattle to Vancouver, which sounds like one of the most uncomfortable experiences a person could voluntarily subject himself to for a week.

Horwitz: It's one of those things you're glad you've done and hope never to repeat. For Confederates in the Attic, I was a Civil War reenactor. I thought that was about the worst thing I'd ever do for the sake of a good story, but I'd rather march around in the Virginia heat eating hardtack than go up the mast of Cook's ship again. It gives you an appreciation of what wimps we are compared to the men who actually did this a couple hundred years ago.

Dave: Baghdad Without a Map is coming into its own again. A staff member here was telling me that when the book was taught at her high school, it was so well received that teachers decided to make it part of the curriculum for the whole student body. Now Iraq is in the news every day, but we still see very few personal profiles. We hear about Saddam or government declarations; we don't hear much about Iraqis. Your book felt valuable to me in that sense.

Horwitz: That's nice of you to say. I think I had the advantage of being there, for the most part, as a desperate freelancer. I wasn't looking for the sort of story that Reuters or AP would cover; I was trying to find something different to write about, so I tended to become a bit of a vagrant, just wandering around. Perhaps because I wasn't with a major organization I didn't attract as much attention, so I did spend a lot of time just talking to people in the street.

As a journalist it's drilled into you to keep the I out of your stories, to not bring in your subjective impressions. And I think particularly in a place like Baghdad, where it's difficult to get hard information, there is some value in bringing in your own perspective. I think any person who did that would have responded the way I did to Baghdad, which is just the most horrible place in the world, the most tyrannical society on earth. You just feel it in the atmosphere, the way people react to you. Writing a book has its advantages. It's hard to communicate that in a news story where you're required to just report the facts.

Dave: The night and day difference between the political allegiance in Iraq and Iran was astonishing to me. You covered Khomeini's funeral—one of the most adulated leaders, by his people, in history—while across the border Iraqis lived in perpetual fear of their own government.

Horwitz: The Middle East is a very complex place, much more so than most Americans realize. Iraq and Iran have entirely different histories, cultures, languages, and attitudes; in fact, they literally loathe each other. Each country has its own story. Part of what's difficult and exciting about reporting on the region is that it's not a monoculture. Even the religion itself is very divided between Sunni and Shiite, and that's obviously one of the big differences between some of Iraq and Iran.

Dave: There's a much-quoted scene in Baghdad Without a Map after Khomeni's funeral, when you're milling around among literally millions of mourners, many of whom are chanting "Death to America!" A man steps out of the mob and admits to you that his dream is to one day visit Disneyland. Then a moment later he's chanting again.

On the one hand, the scene doesn't surprise me so much because people are like that: conflicted. But on the other hand... How did you react? Did that moment seem exceptionally strange to you at the time or was it just part of the madness?

Horwitz: It wasn't exceptionally strange, but it seemed to me revealing of our stereotypes of the Middle East. You know, here I was looking at these men in black shirts, shaking their fists, shouting "Death to America!" and I was making all kinds of assumptions about them; but there's always more going on than you think. Things are never what they seem in the Middle East.

Also, it reflects a true aspect of life everywhere, which is that human beings the world over are essentially alike and they want the same things; one of them, for better or worse, is Disneyland. That's kind of what that said to me.

Dave: In Yemen, you wrangled an invitation into a man's living room, where you gathered with a few men to try Qat, the narcotic leaf chewed by seemingly every citizen of that country. Shortly after the drug kicked in, someone turned on the t.v., and lo and behold your wife appeared on the screen, interviewing Yemen's president. I loved that scene. It must have been so surreal.

Horwitz: When I think back on my time in the Middle East, it was filled with these bizarre moments, and half the time I didn't even know what was going on. I never figured it out. You just have to accept a level of surrealism.

I remember another moment, which I don't know if I put in the book: going to see a terrorist in Baghdad and waiting to see him with his bodyguards in the foyer. They were watching cartoons, these guys with Kalashnikovs; I'm waiting to see this killer and they're laughing at cartoons. My time there was full of moments like that.

Dave: Are you at all drawn to go back and report?

Horwitz: I haven't been there in some years. Yes, there's a piece of me, particularly with Iraq, that would love to be back there. I'd love to be back there the day Saddam goes. I think the Iraqi people have been through more than just about any people on earth, and I would love to see their escape from those decades of tyranny. But I have a six-year-old son now, and I maybe feel a little less expendable than I did once upon a time. Also, it is a young person's game; I'm not old, but I don't feel quite the enthusiasm that I did for those kind of insane, dangerous things that I once did.

Dave: Okay. But I'm going to play devil's advocate and suggest that while you seem like a mild mannered person—and maybe that's how you get away with this—everything you write involves confronting risks of one kind or another. In Confederates in the Attic, for example, you arrive in Guthrie, Kentucky, shortly after a racially motivated murder has shaken the town. You're told that there are two bars in town. "There's Billy's, which is kinda country-and-western, and Redbone's. That's a biker bar. Real bad news." Of course you go to Redbone's immediately. So it's not the Middle East, but you haven't repaired to the Home and Garden beat, either.

Horwitz: I like extremes. And I'm not afraid of social situations such as a biker bar in the South where I'm likely to encounter some hostile people. Maybe I am a bit of a thrill seeker. I'm drawn to those places. There's a kind of sick thrill of being drawn to a place where maybe you feel a little danger in the air. You don't want to push it too far, but it's fun to get close to the edge.

Dave: One For the Road, more or less the entire book, entails putting your trust in strangers. Have you always been this way?

Horwitz: Maybe I'm oddly trusting. I did spend a lot of time as a teenager and in my early twenties hitchhiking, and I think in doing that you find that most of the world is hospitable. If you can get over your fear of strangers and strange situations, you can meet some bizarre and wonderful people and get yourself into some wonderfully bizarre situations. Certainly as a writer that's what you're after. I enjoy it, but in a utilitarian way I also know that's where I'm going to get good material.

Dave: Is it true that you were once heckled at a reading of Confederates in the Attic?

Horwitz: To the point where someone in the audience called the police. I was in Nashville, and some people came and said that I had portrayed their community as racist. They started shouting and getting very aggressive; someone called the police; and when two black cops showed up they started shouting the 'n' word at them, which I felt undercut their argument a bit.

That book generated a lot of heat, particularly from a certain brand of conservative Southerner who felt I was defaming the South. That just comes with the territory. Captain Cook, so far, a little less so. Confederates was kind of special in that way. Anything about The Civil War and the South gets people's blood up.

Mind you, because I didn't portray everyone who displays a rebel flag as an absolute monster, I also got attacked by people on the left who felt I was somehow being an apologist for Southerners or the Confederacy. I kind of got it from all sides on that book.

Dave: You're not at all absent from the narrative of Confederates, but I don't think the book would have worked quite the way it did if you had openly taken sides. There's enough weirdness in the people and places you find that you really don't have to pass judgement; you can just describe it and let readers digest it as they will.

Horwitz: In that sense I think Confederates and Blue Latitudes are similar. In both cases, I'm kind of a noncombatant. I'm not truly a Yankee nor am I a Southerner; I grew up in Maryland, which is a border state. And I didn't come at Cook with any particular ideological baggage: I'm not an Englishman who views Cook as a hero; I'm not a native Hawaiian or a Maori in New Zealand who views him as a villain. Perhaps that allows me to tread through a demilitarized zone and speak to both sides.

Dave: There are so many stories in Confederates worth retelling. Shake-your-head-in-wonder kind of anecdotes.

Horwitz: It's a curious book because there's levity and gravity in somewhat equal degree. War is obviously a grim subject, as is racism, and some of the other things I touch on, yet there are also, I hope, quite a lot of laughs in it. That's what I remember the most. Hanging out with these hardcore Civil War reenactors, spooning with them in the cold night, watching Rob Hodge bloat in the road?

Dave:—just using "bloat" as a verb.

Horwitz: I had fun with the words: bloat and farb and hardcore? I enjoyed the extremism of these characters. I'm drawn to extremists, and these guys who go out and do this reenacting really are likeable nuts— engaging nuts, I guess would be the way to put it. I enjoyed entering that world in a vicarious way.

Dave: Geraldine [Brooks] appears in each of your books.

Horwitz: She only gets a brief mention in this one, but yes.

Dave: She was here not too long ago. She's turned to fiction now. What's it like having two writers in your home?

Horwitz: It's funny because we're in a small house in Virginia and our writing rooms are about six feet apart. It's difficult being that close to Geraldine because she's a very disciplined writer. All morning I can hear her tapping away without pause while I'm pacing around the room, going for my third cup of coffee. But it's great, too, because we edit each other's work constantly. We save each other from our worst excesses, so before anything gets out there to any other reader it's passed the house test.

Dave: When you're not researching, do you read much contemporary writing?

Horwitz: I mostly read fiction. I obviously read a lot of nonfiction while I'm doing my research, but left to my own devices I'd much rather read contemporary fiction. I tend to like gritty realists, but I'm pretty eclectic. Russell Banks is one of my favorite writers. Ian McEwan is another I like. Definitely more fiction than nonfiction. I actually read very little in the travel narrative vein. I don't know whether it's because it's not very recreational for me. I like to write it, but I don't particularly like to read it. Can't explain that one.

Dave: Do you have a plan for what comes next?

Horwitz: I honestly don't. I only finished this book a couple months ago. Usually there's a long lead time between finishing a book and its publication, but in this case I finished the final revisions in July and went off to England when it was published there in early September. I haven't had a chance to catch my breath. In all honesty, I'm just sort of gainfully unemployed at the moment —but open to suggestion.

Dave: I've got nothing for you.

Horwitz: I'll pay a finder's fee if you come up with anything.

I don't usually have a big plan when I set off. With Confederates— really, with all of them—I didn't really have a strong sense of where it was going but more just a subject that I felt passionate about. I think the best adventures are those types of stories, where you sort of stumble through it and finally at some point it starts to come together.

Dave: You really didn't plan on having your friend Roger along on your travels in Blue Latitudes?

Horwitz: No, Roger, like Rob Hodge, was a complete happy accident— happy for me; I hope happy for the reader. My first two books I was really kind of a lonely traveler. I've enjoyed these last two rounds, having not only a companion but perhaps as a writer someone I can hide behind a little bit. I think naturally as you get older you're less interested in yourself. As I get older, I'm less and less interested in injecting my own psychodramas into the story. Having a companion perhaps allows you to hide behind someone as you travel along.

Dave: Whatever you're doing seems to be working. Blue Latitudes has been attracting a lot of attention. People are eating it up.

Horwitz: Someone is buying it other than my mother, so I'm pleased. With the Civil War you have a certain confidence that there's a readership. This one, given that it's not really a nautical book, I was a little concerned that it might fall between the cracks.

Dave: You're not particularly a nautical person.

Horwitz: No. I think that becomes clear when you read the book.

Tony Horwitz visited Powell's City of Books on October 11, 2002.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. A Voyage Long and Strange:...
    Used Hardcover $8.95
  2. Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where...
    Used Hardcover $4.50
  3. One for the Road Used Trade Paper $4.95
  4. Baghdad Without a Map Used Trade Paper $7.50
  5. Confederates in the Attic:...
    Used Trade Paper $5.95
  6. Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  7. Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden...
    Used Trade Paper $5.95

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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