Saturday, October 1, 2011
David Grann's Amazon Jungle Tale in "The Lost City of Z"
(This interview originally ran in the Newark Star-Ledger in February 2009)
In his book “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon”(Doubleday), New Yorker writer David Grann follows the life of the legendary British explorer Percy Fawcett and his disappearance in Brazil in 1925 as he traveled into the Amazon jungle to find a lost civilization. For decades, the missing Fawcett was an international news item and at least 100 people have died trying to find him.
While researching the murder of a Sherlock Holmes scholar in London, Grann came across the forgotten story of Fawcett and his obsession with a civilization he called the Lost City of Z. Fawcett then became Grann’s own obession for the next four years, as he traveled around the world looking for documents and finally digging through Fawcett’s own journal, finding important clues to what happened to the explorer and his 21-year-old son, who disappeared with him. Fawcett’s tragic obsession with the Amazon reveals the life of a Victorian soldier, spy and explorer, revered by some and despised by others. Grann undertakes his own perilous journey by truck through the Amazon to see what happened to Fawcett and if the Lost City of Z really exists.
Grann, 42, was raised in Connecticut and has been a staff writer for the New Yorker since 2003. Grann met with freelance writer Dylan Foley for lunch at the New Yorker cafeteria in Manhattan.
Q. After spending four years following the life of Percy Fawcett, how do you view the man?
A. Fawcett was a very complicated character. He was unbelievably daring and I don’t think you could find a braver individual. He had a great curiosity about the world. In a classic Victorian sense, he was a great amateur. In addition to being an explorer, he designed ships and painted beautiful watercolors. He was also maniacal and driven, and would let nothing stand in his way. He was a frightening leader in some ways, but it probably helped his men survive.
Fawcett was obsessed with the Lost City of Z, and I became obsessed with Fawcett. One moment I admired him, and the next moment I was repulsed by him. The hardest thing to comprehend was Fawcett’s decision to bring his inexperienced 21-year-old son on the expedition.Though he was an older man, Fawcett still thought he was invincible.
Q. At the beginning of the 20th century, why was the world intrigued with the work of explorers like Fawcett?
A. With the expansion of the British Empire, there was contact with new cultures of people. There was also major technological advance like the development of new printing presses that made these stories more widely read. The public interest in these explorers became almost cultish. Victorian society was very repressive, as well. The stories were a release, in a way. This was an era when scientific curiosity was developing and imperialism was booming. You had a mix of science and racism.
Q. What are the particular perils of the Amazon?
A. The Amazon’s size is hard to comprehend. It is a wilderness almost as big as the United States. It is one of the largest battlefields in the world, where every predator competes with each other. The Amazon is sensory overload, with constant threats and endless bugs. There are kissing bugs that transmit a disease that kills you 20 years later. The mosquitos were just lethal. It was pretty terrifying.
Q. Why were there numerous fatal expeditions to find Fawcett?
A. It was such a big story and many people were drawn to it. When he first disappeared, people saw finding him as an heroic quest. Twenty thousand people volunteered to go on expeditions to find him.
Q. You are an investigative reporter, not an outdoorsman. Why did you go to the Amazon yourself?
A. I am not an explorer. I am not an adventurer. i hate camping. I am out of shape. I am a reporter and it was one of those stories that the more I dug into, the more curious I became. I went to England and found his logbooks, which were almost a treasure map. For me, the story was an obsession with telling Fawcett’s biography and understanding him and what he was looking for. The story made me do things that I ordinarily wouldn’t do, and I won’t do again.
Q. Do you believe that the Lost City of Z exists?
A. I believe it is not just a fable. I think I found that out during the trip.