Follett: Since 1925, many explorers have tried—and failed—to find Percy Harrison Fawcett and Z. Without any experience or knowledge about jungle exploration, why did you feel compelled to go to Brazil to conduct your own search? Were you searching for the man, the city or the story?
DG: The truth is I never imagined that I would ever head into the Amazon. I’m not an explorer or an adventurer. I don’t even like to camp. I simply wanted, as a reporter, to tell what struck me as one of the most incredible stories ever—the mysterious disappearance of the great British explorer Percy Fawcett and his search for the Lost City of Z. But for months, as I scoured archives around the world, I kept uncovering new clues—a missing diary or a letter—about Fawcett and Z. Gradually, my curiosity overwhelmed me and I found myself doing what I thought I never would—venturing into the jungle, like countless previous seekers who had died or disappeared, looking for a man and a vanished world.
Follett: Why do you think people are so fascinated by the concept of lost cities? Do you think that there are comparable unknown places to explore on our own planet or is it space now that will draw the exploring spirits such as Fawcett?
DG: The fascination with lost cities seems eternal. I suspect that part of it, like the earlier searches for mythical places such as Atlantis, reflects a longing to find some place that is better than the one we inhabit. There is also a deep curiosity to understand how other civilizations have managed to develop and flourish and eventually die out. Some of this interest is practical: What did these people accomplish artistically or agriculturally or metaphysically that might help us navigate our way? And some of it is simply wonder at the astonishing secrets of societies that lived in different places and times.
Although large blank spaces no longer exist on the map, as in Fawcett’s day, there is still an enormous amount to be discovered on our planet. The Amazon itself still contains dozens of tribes that are believed to have never been contacted by outsiders. New technologies, such as satellites and ground-penetrating radar, are helping archeologists uncover evidence of buried cities and settlements from the Americas to Africa to China. And, though our oceans may not contain evidence of human settlements, they remain one of the last, great unexplored regions of the world.
Follett: Was it difficult to switch from journalism to narrative nonfiction? How did you manage to relay the facts in such an exciting, gripping way? Did you write at each step of the experience or after you had completed the research and experienced the Amazon?
DG: In many of my stories for The New Yorker I have tried to employ similar techniques of narrative nonfiction, but this was the first time that had I ever attempted so write anything on such a grand scale—a story that spanned centuries and that involved meticulously reconstructing historical periods and biographies. In my own small way, my research felt like a quest to uncover some buried or hidden world, and I tried to convey as much as possible the excitement I felt whenever I stumbled upon some new clue or evidence. Sometimes I would try to scribble down scenes as they happened, or when I was in the Amazon to jot things down once we had reached camp, though I must confess that sometimes I simply collapsed in my hammock and fell asleep.
Follett: Were there times when the investigation “stalled” or became discouraging? Did your findings quiet your curiosity about Fawcett or do you still find yourself wondering about exactly what happened?
DG: There were many times, perhaps too many times, when the research stalled or became discouraging. To give one example: I spent close to three years trying to find the last letters home from Raleigh Rimell, the third companion who went on the expedition with Fawcett and disappeared. Day after day I checked family wills and libraries and archives and never turned up anything. I had all but given up hope when I found one of Raliegh’s cousins once removed, who lived in England. She was in her nineties. To my amazement, she said that she just so happened to have kept upstairs in a small box, all these years, Raleigh’s letters from the jungle to his family. The thrill of such discoveries overwhelmed any previous sense of futility.
After so many years of research, I feel I have answered most of what has been called “the greatest exploration mystery of the twentieth century.” But as with any story, there are always some gaps. But one of the things I learned from the book and my journey in the jungle is that human compulsion to know everything can be a deadly obsession.
Follett: You got up close and personal with many different people, books, and archives in your research. What resource did you find to be most essential to you in your quest? How well did your research prepare you for your actual mission?
DG: Because this story is, in many ways, a mystery, each source of information was critical in piecing together what really happened to Fawcett and the lost City of Z; strip away one clue and the others suddenly make no sense. But there were a few resources that were truly indispensable. One was coming upon a hidden trove of Fawcett’s diaries and logbooks. Fawcett, who had once been a British spy, was extremely secretive about his route and these materials were like a treasure map, indicating where to go. The other resource was the Amazonian tribes I met, who proved to hold incredible secrets about Z and the fate of Fawcett.
Follett: Who encouraged you most to pursue this investigation? Were there those who thought you were crazy to venture into the Amazon on a path where so many before you have disappeared?
DG: James Lynch, a Brazilian businessman, led one of the last major expeditions, in 1996, to try to solve the Fawcett mystery. He went with more than dozen men, including his sixteen year old son, and was taken hostage by a tribe. After being held for three days, they paid a ransom and were released. Despite Lynch’s ordeal, he remained no less obsessed about the Fawcett saga and helped me plan my own journey. Of course, my wife, who is more sensible than I, thought I was out of my mind.
Follett: Can you describe your most difficult day in the jungle? Did it feel like you had gone back in time and were fighting the same challenges and dangers as Fawcett? What advice would you give someone else who is hoping to tackle the Amazon region?
DG: My most difficult day—or certainly my most frightening one—was when I was separated from my guide and lost in the jungle. I was out of food and water. I was sick and my skin was bloodied from insects. Fawcett would go on expeditions for months on end with no immunizations; most of his men would starve and die. My experiences never compared, but for that one moment I had a sense of the terrors he experienced. My one advice to people going into the Amazon is to be smart, especially when heading into tribal areas where, due to a history of brutality from outsiders, the Indians are, with good reason, wary of intruders. Take a good guide and make sure you don’t do what I did and lose him.
Follett: Is there anything that you would particularly like librarians to know about this book that they could in turn share with their patrons?
DG: On one level the book is a great yarn, about Victorian explorers and spies and flesh-eating maggots and lost cities. My hope is that it will appeal to anyone who relishes classic adventure stories. But it also reveals some of the secrets of what the Americas looked like before Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas—secrets that are transforming our understanding of Native American civilizations and the ancient world.
Follett: Brad Pitt has already purchased the movie rights to The Lost City of Z. What is your reaction? Will you be involved in the adaptation? Have you ever been involved in screenwriting?
DG: It is a very cinematic story, one that will make a great movie, and I’m thrilled that someone like Brad Pitt has taken an interest in it. As for my involvement, I’m happy to leave the movie making in the hands of people who know what they’re doing.
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