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Interview with David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z

March 4, 2009

Back in January, I got the chance to read an ARC of David Grann’s new book The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. The book tells the story of the legendary British explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett, who, in 1925, disappeared in the Amazon while looking for an ancient civilization. I really enjoyed it, and was thrilled when David contacted me and agreed to do a Q & A, even in the midst of the flurry of having his first book published.

The Lost City of Z was released by Doubleday on 24 February 2009. Read my review, and then go buy yourself a copy on Amazon!

Take it away, David!
If you’d been alive during the Age of Exploration, where would you have wanted to be responsible for exploring?

Definitely the Amazon. Though most early explorers in the region were decimated by disease and starvation—on the first expedition down the Amazon River in 1542 some 4000 men perished—the area still held, as Percy Fawcett put it, some of “the greatest secrets of the past yet preserved in our world of today.”

A lot of first-time authors come from a profession where they do a lot of writing anyways – was it difficult to make the transition between writing articles for The New Yorker and writing a book?

For The New Yorker, I write fairly long and intensively researched stories. Still, I had never spent so much time on one subject (more than three years), combing through archives around the world and even searching for clues in the jungle. The hardest part was simply the endurance. I read about biographers who were driven slightly batty by their subjects, and sometimes that’s how I felt about Fawcett.

Fill in the blank: “There is no amount of money in the world that could get me to…__________________.

…knowingly swim in the Amazon River near a candiru, a toothpick-like fish that strikes rather critical male orifices (for more excruciating details please see page 68 of my book).

What surprised you most about traveling through Amazonia?

That even today parts of this wilderness area, which is virtually the size of the continental United States, remain unknown. The Brazilian government estimates that there are more than sixty Indian tribes that have never been contacted by outsiders. “These forests are … almost the only place on earth where indigenous people can survive in isolation from the rest of mankind,” John Hemming, the distinguished historian of Brazilian Indians, wrote. 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.” In 2006, members of a nomadic tribe called Nukak-Makú emerged from the Amazon in Colombia, to announce that they were ready to join the modern world, though they were unaware that Colombia was a country and asked if the planes overhead were on an invisible road.

What were your best and worst moments of your research/travels?

Among the best moments were finding Fawcett’s secret diaries and logbooks; meeting up with the same Amazonian tribes that Fawcett had stayed with during his expedition and that held critical clues about the fate of his party; and discovering that the ancient city Fawcett was looking for was more than a fable.

As for the worst moment, that’s easy—getting lost in the jungle without my guide or food and water.

What are you reading at the moment? Any recent gotta-recommend-it books you’ve read?

I’ve been so busy I’ve been mostly reading stuff related to my book or to my work at The New Yorker. I’ve been re-reading Charles Mann’s brilliant book, 1491. I’ve also been reading a lot about the death penalty for my next New Yorker story, including a pretty shocking book called Actual Innocence. I’ve been trying to sneak in some fiction and am currently reading Robert Bolaño’s book The Savage Detectives.

Tell us about your book getting optioned for a movie (before publication!). How did that happen, and what was/is the process like?

People at Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B and Paramount Pictures had read it in manuscript form and, to my astonishment and delight, optioned the book. They’ve been terrific to work with and have already hired a screenwriter and director named James Gray, who just made the wonderful movie Two Lovers. There is talk that Pitt may play Fawcett; and in my book there’s a picture of Fawcett’s oldest son, Jack, who was extremely dashing, and there’s a striking resemblance.

Anything else you want readers to know about you, or your book, but you never get asked the right question?

I think most readers ask the right questions: about the mystery of Fawcett and the City of Z; about the lethal nature of obsession; and about the new scientific discoveries in the Amazon that are exploding our perceptions of what the Americas really looked like before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. What always haunts me more are the questions that I have for the readers: Did they find Fawcett’s story as compelling as I did? Did it have, as I hope, what Rider Haggard called “the grip”?

And, to add another vote to my on-going author poll: who do you think would win in a fight, pirates or ninjas?

I’ve always been partial to pirates.
David Grann is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. You can get more information about him and his book (including an excerpt, pictures, and maps) at his website,

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 4, 2009 8:26 am

    What a great interview. How exciting that his book’s already been optioned to become a movie.

  2. March 4, 2009 4:27 pm

    This is a great interview…I love reading about the amazon…its fascinating how much we don’t know about the jungles of the Amazon. I am so thrilled this will be a movie…That would be great.

  3. March 4, 2009 7:48 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this interview. This was an excellent book, and it was great to find out more about the author!

  4. March 5, 2009 9:21 am

    bermudaonion – I hope the movie actually gets made – I’d definitely go see it!

    serena – If you haven’t picked this book up already, you definitely should… TONS of information about the Amazon.

    Alyce – And he tipped the tally back in favor of pirates! :)

  5. March 6, 2009 1:38 pm

    I really enjoyed this interview. I saw a show on animal planet that talked about the candiru. Nasty little creature.

  6. March 8, 2009 9:31 am

    Anna – Nasty, for sure, but so cool as long as you don’t have to get up-close and personal with one. Things like that make me happy to be a biologist. :)


  1. Review: The Lost City of Z by David Grann « Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog

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