Interview With David Grann: ‘The Lost City of Z’
Travel Interviews: Frank Bures asks the author about exploring the Amazon, writing and the difference between real and faux quests
03.03.09 | 10:32 AM ET
David Grann was working on a story when he stumbled across a reference to a certain “Percy H. Fawcett,” the last of the great iron-booted explorers. Fawcett disappeared in the Amazon in 1925 while searching for what he called “Z,” a lost city he was convinced still existed deep in the Amazon. Grann was intrigued and soon found himself immersed in the minutiae of Fawcett’s life, to the point where he became one of the hundreds of “Fawcett Freaks” who set off looking for Fawcett in the Amazon (a 100 or so of those freaks have vanished in the process). Grann recounts Fawcett’s life and exploration, as well as Grann’s own journey to the Amazon, in his riveting new book, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. Grann, who is from Connecticut, but who has lived in Mexico and traveled throughout Latin America, is now a staff writer at The New Yorker. I asked him via email about the quest, the end of exploration and the Amazon’s lost worlds.
World Hum: You write in your book, “Every quest, we are led to believe, has a romantic origin. Yet even now, I can’t provide a good one for mine.” Yet at the same time, there was clearly a lot of romance involved in your quest. Looking back, do you see it differently now?
Yes, I do think the story had a great deal of romance—and that was a large part of the attraction. I had always considered myself a disinterested reporter and at least at the outset I intended to simply write a biography about Fawcett and all the people who disappeared and died looking for this ancient city in the Amazon. But after I uncovered a chest full of Fawcett’s diaries and logbooks, which held unprecedented clues to what happened to him and the location of the City of Z, I became much more consumed by the mystery and its romantic nature.
Do you think it was romance that led Fawcett into the Amazon, or was it something more than that?
For Fawcett, I think it was many things. Part of him, like many of the great Victorian explorers, was fleeing the constraints of British society. Part of him was driven by scientific curiosity and his own demons. But I do think, at heart, he was a romantic who saw himself as an almost mythic figure embarking on an epic quest.
Fawcett is said to be the last of his breed of rugged, individualist explorers. Do you think the age of exploration is truly over?
I think it depends how you define the age of exploration. Certainly there are still relatively unexplored places. Even today, the Brazilian government estimates that there are more than 60 Amazonian tribes that have never been contacted by outsiders. Sydney Possuelo, who was in charge of the Brazilian department set up to protect Indian tribes, has said of these groups, “No one knows for sure who they are, where they are, how many they are, and what languages they speak.” Like space, the oceans also remain hugely unexplored.
But I do think Fawcett marked the end of the age of terrestial exploration, when maps were filled with blanks spaces and explorers would wander into these unknown realms with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose.
A lot of travel, and travel writing, has taken on a kind of artificial quest quality, which sometimes rings hollow. Since you write, as you say, about obsession, do you have any thoughts on what separates a true quest from a faux quest?
That’s a great question. And I think it comes down to being honest and transparent with the reader. In travel writing there’s a tendency to want to glorify one’s own experiences, to pretend as if one stands apart. The best travel writing—or indeed any nonfiction writing—is when the narrator is a vivid but faithful recorder of the world.
You also write about some fascinating things in the Amazon, including the massive earthworks in the forest that have been discovered and the “Stonehenge of the Amazon.” Can you foresee a day when travelers could go and see these things, or is that still too far off?
Many of these ancient ruins are not only in the jungle but also in areas controlled by indigenous populations. Because of the long and bloody history of the contact between whites and Amazonian tribes—a contact that to this day often remains bloody—there is an understandable wariness on the part of the Indians to let anyone wander onto their territory. Yet I do think that travelers who go about it the right way and negotiate with the tribal leaders on their terms can see a lot of these incredible sites.
If Fawcett were alive today, what would he be doing? Where would he be traveling?
No doubt he’d still be wandering through the Amazon.