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David Grann Finds the Story of Z

The Lost City of Z is 2009's first can't-miss nonfiction. New Yorker staff writer David Grann travels through the Amazon in the footsteps of explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, who captured the world's imagination (and redefined the borders of South America) before disappearing in the jungle, in 1925, without a trace.

David Grann

What happened to Fawcett and the series of expeditions that vanished in search of him? Was there really a glittering kingdom of Z?

Before you know it, Brad Pitt will take Grann's story to the silver screen in a film directed by James Gray. Read the book first. From its opening pages on a Hoboken pier, through the halls of the Royal Geographic Society, to a revelatory conclusion in a Kuikuro village, the pace never slackens, delivering one memorable passage after another.

Nathaniel Philbrick calls The Lost City of Z "a riveting, totally absorbing real-life adventure story" — and early readers at Powell's couldn't agree more.

Dave: In The Lost City of Z, you write, "I had always considered myself a disinterested reporter, who did not get involved personally in his stories." What made this story different?

David Grann: I've done a lot of stories over the years, but few that I had ever come across seemed quite so compelling. Here you had the mystery of a legendary explorer disappearing in the Amazon, and the element of him looking for a lost city. On top of that, you had the mystery of all the people who had gone to look for him and disappeared, themselves. And then you had the mystery of what is within the Amazon — could there really have been a lost city? There are very few stories with so many mysteries.

It was incremental, as well. I didn't just start and decide to traipse through the Amazon. It began as a much more writerly pursuit, collecting papers and going into archives, things for which my body is more suited. At that point, it was about documenting Fawcett's life, and the people who went in pursuit of him.

Eventually, I went to England, trying to find more information, and tracked down Fawcett's granddaughter. Fawcett had always been very secretive about his route. He was worried about his rivals. He had once been a spy, and he had the paranoia of a spy. In any case, when I went there, she walked me to an old chest in her house and inside were old diaries and logbooks. I felt like I was finding hidden treasures.

She took these old diaries out, and they were literally crumbling, disintegrating, covered with dirt. He had obviously carried them in the jungle. As I went through them, I got more and more clues to Z and what had happened to him, especially about his route — most people who had gone in search of Fawcett had followed the wrong route. Each of these discoveries compelled me more and more.

Dave: You'd been working on an essay about the death of a Sherlock Holmes scholar ["Mysterious Circumstances"] when you learned that Fawcett had inspired a book by Arthur Conan Doyle. When did you decide to write about Fawcett?

Grann: I had always been a huge Sherlock Holmes fan. I'd read all the books, so that was partly my interest in that story, but I didn't know that much about Conan Doyle.

In the course of that project, I read a lot of biographies about Doyle. I came across a reference that this character, Percy Harrison Fawcett — Colonel Fawcett, as he was known — had helped inspire Conan Doyle's book, The Lost World; and that the character Roxton in that book was partly based on him.

Out of curiosity, I plugged Fawcett's name into some of the historical databases we have here at work [at the New Yorker]. Up came these absolutely outrageous headlines. They looked like something out of pulp fiction. "Movie Actor, Trying to Rescue Fawcett, Seized by Tribe." "Fawcett and Two Men Brave Cannibals in Search of Lost Relic." "Another Fawcett Expedition Vanishes into the Unknown." They were true, but they sounded like fiction. And these weren't small stories in newspapers; these were banner headlines across the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, British newspapers, French newspapers, Brazilian newspapers...

This story had once held the world spellbound. Right away, that was intriguing to me. I hadn't heard of this character. He had once captivated the world. Who is this guy? What was his crazy story? I found out that he had disappeared with his son. And then the other element: For decades, people would go in search of him and try to find out what had happened to him, or they'd try to find Z, and they would disappear and die. To me, that was so compelling.

I don't normally do pure historical work. I'm not a historian by trade. But one thing that intrigued me: As recent as 1996, a Brazilian man had gone to try to solve the Fawcett mystery and had been kidnapped by a tribe. The guy had taken his son with him, just like Fawcett. Now, okay, we've got an incredible historical story that is still compelling people; after all these years, people are still going. Suddenly I had a contemporary element. And then there was still the question of whether the Amazon could have had a lost, ancient city, taking into account all the scientific developments in that realm.

Dave: As a journalist, you must be stumbling on interesting story ideas that don't pan out somewhat regularly. Did you know early on that you'd be writing a book about Fawcett as opposed to a magazine article?

Grann: I definitely didn't think book right away. You had all these elements, and that propelled me to think story, but it was one of the few stories I'd ever done where there was just too much material. Boxes full. And my curiosity wasn't satisfied. Usually, when I finish a story, I don't want to spend any more time with it. I ended up spending three years with Fawcett.

Dave: In places, your description of the Amazon jungle reads like science fiction. Cyanide-squirting millipedes. Parasitic worms that cause blindness. A tiny species of bee that is drawn to sweat and invades your pupils!

After all this research, pouring over journal entries that had been written by explorers with maggots breeding in their arms, you decided to go there yourself.

Grann: Not one of my smarter moments. You know, I never have a good answer to this. It wasn't a totally rational decision, but it wasn't an instantaneous urge to do something really stupid. I just became more and more interested in the story.

When I work on stories, I tend to be pretty obsessive. Fawcett was incredibly obsessed with finding Z. I became obsessed with his story.

I kept thinking about the object: What happened to Fawcett? Was there really a Z? My quest was to try to tell the story, to find an ending, and that's what I was chasing. I didn't think so much about the mechanics of it, which is probably a good thing.

Dave: Your trip took place almost five hundred years after the first expedition in search of El Dorado. How did the actual landscape compare to your expectations?

Grann: I had pieced together Fawcett's route, and I followed the same trail. I would read his letters and stand in those places.

The first thing you can't help but notice when you start to go in — I'd read letters where Fawcett had hacked for days through the jungle, and had even got lost from his son — all this area had now become a soybean farm. For me to get to the edge of the jungle took just a couple days, where it had taken Fawcett weeks of brutal, strenuous travel. I'm reading these letters, looking around, and it looked a little like Nebraska; there was nothing there. That was one of the most striking things.

I visited many of the tribes that Fawcett had stayed with. These tribes are part of a literature that goes way back. In Fawcett's day, they were being contacted for the first time; many had never been contacted before. He would live with them, and you can read his letters about the disease affecting them. He would describe how a lot of the Indians were sick from the first contact. He described these villages as outposts; clearly, they had changed a great deal.

The deeper we went into the jungle, when the jungle got thicker, things began to look closer to the way they had. Where the jungle had been more preserved, the way of life had been more preserved. A lot of the Amazonian tribes had retreated into these deeper jungle areas, in part to avoid the contact and the brutal history of the contact. Those tribes had preserved and maintained their culture much more so.

Some things were shocking in terms of how different they were, and other things were surprising in how well some of the tribes had preserved their cultures going back over a thousand years.

Dave: Your travels let you weave in the change. You write about the deforestation. And the Kalapalo have a TV!

Grann: By reading Fawcett's diaries and reconstructing his world, and then going and standing in the same places, I hoped to show how much had changed, and what these tribes are dealing with now, what's happening with the forest.

And how much exploration had changed! I would read how Fawcett had trained — it was almost like a finishing school at the Royal Geographic Society. Explorers would receive training on how to cope with disease. If you have gangrene, how to shoot your arm off; if you take in a poison, swallow gunpowder to make yourself throw up. This basic, almost brutal way to survive. And then I basically go the EMS store and get my GPS. So much of this book is about exploration and terrestrial exploration, and changes and transformation to the landscape.

Dave: Both Doyle and Fawcett looked to the occult for answers to their questions. From the sound of it, that didn't help Fawcett's reputation within the scientific community. But this was the new age of radio; suddenly you could hear voices from the other side of the world. Mary Roach wrote about this in Spook. At the time, the line between science and the supernatural wasn't so clear.

Grann: That's totally true. When Fawcett was exposed to this stuff, especially during the Victorian era — it's hard to imagine how popular it was — it really was seen as an extension of science in many ways.

This was a great scientific age: Darwin, the beginning of mass communications, printing presses, steamships, telegraphs. The idea that you could peel back this other world didn't seem so fantastic. And a lot of the early people who joined these movements, you had Nobel Prize winners; I think it's Alfred Wallace — he helped discover evolution around the same time as Darwin — who was a member of the Society of Psychical Research. Toward the end of Fawcett's life, it had lost some of its respectability among scientists, but it was still extremely popular.

Dave: Fawcett had a distinctive approach with Indians. Once, you write, upon encountering a hostile tribe, he waved his handkerchief over his head and waded "directly into a fusillade of arrows." In contrast to Hamilton Rice, who brought a large, armed team with him into the jungle, Fawcett traveled in small groups, and always in peace.

Grann: Fawcett was maniacal. He could be merciless on his own men, in terms of driving them. And he carried with him many of the racist Victorian attitudes. And yet when he was in the jungle, he adopted many of the Indian ways of living and surviving. He believed strenuously in never firing upon the tribes. He was able to make peaceful contact with many tribes that had never been contacted before, and tribes that were hostile to trespassers because of the brutality of the conquest.

He would do this with remarkable bravery and maybe a touch of what I consider almost madness. He would have all his men drop their rifles. Sometimes he would have all his men sing behind him. He would take off the handkerchief that he always wore around his neck to keep the bugs off, and he would raise his hands in the air and wave it, marching into the arrows.

He believed in taking small parties because he thought it was easier to persuade the native inhabitants that he didn't have hostile intentions. And he was remarkably successful at this. He went into areas over a period of twenty years where almost nobody went, and if they did they almost never returned. It probably gave him a degree of hubris in his last trip, where he didn't return. He had come to really believe that he was indestructible.

He was a very complicated character. He had been raised with these Victorian attitudes, but he would encounter the tribes and he would live with them, and what he saw never matched what he had been taught. He would always struggle to reconcile this. In many ways, he was far more humane than other people going into those areas at that time.

Dave: His experiences led to some radical, if entirely logical, ideas: After fighting in World War I, he said, "At least [cannibalism] provides a reasonable motive for killing a man, which is more than you can say for civilized warfare."

Grann: That's right. What's so interesting about Fawcett is that he's a little bit like Zelig. He's just always cropping up at every critical moment.

But here was a man looking for a lost civilization, and he witnessed the collapse of Western civilization — he was at the Battle of the Somme. There was no more brutal or horrifying a battle. He witnessed thousands of man basically march straight to their death, into machine guns. He witnessed this collapse, and it fueled his longing to find another civilization.

By the end, he lived very much like an Indian warrior when he was in the jungle. He painted his face. In his own words, he said he "went native." Even when he was out of the jungle, he wanted to sleep in a hammock. He'd spent so many years living in the jungle, that that was his preferred mode of living.

Dave: What about the writing life attracted you? Your mother, Phyllis Grann, has had a remarkable career in publishing. You must have grown up surrounded by books.

Grann: It's funny, I don't know if she babysat, but I spent time with Judy Blume when I was little. I grew up around writers, and there was always a romance to them. They were charming. They would tell their stories of what they were working on, over the table.

I didn't pay much attention to the industry side of things. I paid much more attention to people's stories and novels. I'd always been drawn to stories. I'd meet these people and read their books. Inevitably, that had a large influence. I didn't say, "I want to become a writer," but even back then I used to try write stories in a little book.

My grandmother was also a great storyteller. Books were a huge part of my childhood growing up. We would go on vacation, and my mom was always carting manuscripts around. She was a far faster reader than I am. I'm a very slow reader. We'd go a on a trip, and she would have to have more books shipped to her. She finished them at a rapid clip. I wasn't really conscious of it, but books and stories and writers were always a part of my childhood.

Dave: Do you recall any early stories that you gave to your mother or to one of those writers?

Grann: I don't. But I used to keep a little book, like a diary, and I would try to come up with stories.

For a while, when I got out of college, I tried to write fiction. I'd grown up more around novelists, and my initial attraction was to write fiction. But I was much less suited for it. I always struggled to figure out what people were saying or doing in a particular moment.

The great thing with nonfiction is that if I find the right stories and find great characters, and I just keep pulling the string, I can find the material. The material is there; I just have to find it. And at a certain point, I realized that you can take those same techniques of storytelling, of the novelist, and use them in nonfiction. Less like a straight newspaper story, which I was less suited for.

Dave: Last night I read the start of your essay about the Aryan Brotherhood ["The Brand"], and I'll admit that I stopped in the middle because I didn't want to read any further before bed. I decided to put it aside until morning.

Grann: It's very disconcerting.

Dave: It must have been hard to occupy that emotional space while you worked on the article.

Grann: Often when I begin a story, I don't know much about the subject at all. Same with the Fawcett story. I had never heard of Fawcett. Here, I had never written about prisons; I didn't know much about them. It was an extraordinary, eye-opening education. I didn't know anything about prison gangs. There was a lot of moral outrage when I was doing that story, reading about the conditions and what happened behind bars in this hidden world.

Some of that stuff compelled me. But to your prior question, when you asked, Did I think of a Fawcett as a book? Fawcett was a story that I wanted to spend more time with. I did a lot of research for "The Brand." I did feel like it was an important story, in terms of showing people a world that they don't get to see, but it would have been hard for me to spend three years reading about that culture and the bloodshed.

Dave: I'm guessing the essay about Rickey Henderson was a bit more enjoyable. When he was elected to the Hall of Fame recently, it seemed like every living baseball player had a favorite Rickey Henderson story. Do you have your own?

Grann: Rickey! There were so many. That story was terrific fun. Here he was in this out of the way league, still wanting to play. A hundred people in the crowd, cheerleaders in the stadium. I asked him if he wanted to retire, and he said, "I just don't know if Rickey can stop." It was almost always the third-person. He kind of saw himself as a character.

My favorite story, the one that comes to mind, is apocryphal. When Rickey was playing in Seattle, the story goes, he told John Olerud, "Hey, I used to have a teammate who wore a batting helmet in the field." Olerud is supposed to have said, "Rickey, that was me." They'd played together the season before in New York, and even before that on the Blue Jays. That's not true, but it sounds like Rickey.

Dave: You're working on shorter material now?

Grann: Yes.

Dave: Is another book coming, or will you know it when you stumble upon it?

Grann: I think I'll know it when I stumble upon it. The Fawcett story was so rich, with so many layers. I felt fortunate to have found it, and to have found the letters. There were so many wonderful pieces, whether it was his story or his wife's story or the whole Victorian world and the Royal Geographic Society, and all these crazy characters that go in search of him. Even his rival — you'd asked about Hamilton Rice. You basically had two expeditions side-by-side, a vision of a 19th century expedition and a modern expedition, happening at the same time.

I hope I can find a story that's this rich, but I suspect it'll be the same thing — I'll known when I get there. And I probably won't know right away. It'll be something I look into. That's usually the way with these things. You start to peel them back and find there are a lot of places to go.

Dave: It's an amazing story. We're excited to tell readers about the book.

Grann: I hope I've been lucid. I was up all night. My daughter was sick last night.

Dave: How old is she?

Grann: She's two.

Dave: Not yet old enough to ask incessantly about Brad Pitt. But other people must.

Grann: Some people ask if Brad Pitt is going to play me in the movie, and I always say, "That's a stretch, even for him." But she's too young to ask, so far.

David Grann spoke from his office at the New Yorker on February 17, 2009.

÷ ÷ ÷

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. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly...
    Used Hardcover $9.50
  2. The Best American Crime Writing 2005... New Trade Paper $14.95
  3. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  4. The Best American Sports Writing... Used Trade Paper $12.00
  5. The Best American Sports Writing... Used Trade Paper $3.50

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

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