DOUGLAS PRESTON’s new book The Lost City of the Monkey God (Grand Central) is the true story of contemporary scientists searching for an ancient city with a high-tech machine and finding so much more. The book, which has made several bestseller lists, is a hair-raising adventure of the first degree.
Preston moves easily between several literary worlds. For over 20 years, he and his writing partner, Lincoln Childs, have written over 20 novels, most of which feature the albino detective Aloysius Pendergast. (Gale Anne Hurd is executive producing the adaptation of the best-selling series for Spike TV). Preston is a journalist who writes for The New Yorker, Smithsonian, and other magazines, and has penned other nonfiction books, notably Monster of Florence, which he co-wrote with Italian journalist Mario Spezi. That book spent four months on the New York Times list, and is currently under development as a film.
Then, there is the crucial work that Preston does on behalf of all working authors. He’s a board member of the Authors Guild, which represents published authors on issues of copyright, fair contracts, and tax fairness. (It famously sued Google Books for violating copyright law by copying and distributing millions of books written by US authors.) In 2004, Preston and other authors formed the International Thriller Writers (ITW) to bring more attention to that genre and to lift the fortunes of debut and midlist authors. In 2014, when Amazon blocked the shipments of Hachette’s books and financially squeezed 3,000 authors, Preston formed Authors United, which petitioned the Justice Department to investigate Amazon’s monopolistic ways.
Preston, who splits his time between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Maine, talked about his new book with Kathleen Sharp, an award-winning journalist, author, and screenwriter.
KATHLEEN SHARP: You’ve written a rich narrative nonfiction tale about trying to discover a lost city. But what did you really find?
DOUGLAS PRESTON: We found something exceedingly rare, not just a lost city but an archaeological site that was untouched. Most major sites in Central America were “discovered” when indigenous people led archaeologists to them. Unfortunately, almost all of these sites had previously been looted. But in this case, the city was found in an aerial survey of an unexplored valley in the Mosquitia mountains of Honduras using a technology called lidar. When we explored the ruins in 2015, we were very likely the first human beings to enter the city since it was abandoned 500 years ago. The actual ruins cover about a mile square in total, consisting of 19 interconnected settlements strung along a river valley, featuring earthen pyramids, plazas, a Mesoamerican ball-game field, terracing, roads, irrigation systems, and great earthworks. This mysterious civilization arose along the Maya frontier but it was not itself Maya, even though it adopted many aspects of Mayan culture. It is one of the least-studied cultures in Central America, so unknown it does not even have a formal name. This discovery shed much light on this culture.
This tale is a marriage of 19th-century-like explorers and 21st-century technology. How did you find this story and balance the two threads?
I first heard about this search for this legendary lost city from scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who were working with a man, Steve Elkins, who was obsessed with the “lost city” legend. Elkins had hired them to examine satellite imagery of the earth taken from space, and they believed they had detected unnatural features in a remote, unexplored valley called Target One, or T1 for short. But the images were blurry and ambiguous.
Finally, in 2012, Elkins raised a million dollars and conducted an aerial survey of T1 and two other valleys, called T2 and T3, in the Mosquitia mountains with the powerful technology of lidar (“light detection and ranging”).
I was in the plane as it mapped T1. As I wrote in my book: “We were flying above a primeval Eden, looking for a lost city using advanced technology to shoot billions of laser beams into a jungle that no human beings had entered for perhaps five hundred years: a twenty-first-century assault on an ancient mystery.” It was this survey that found the city in T1 — and also found another city in T3. That latter city has not yet been explored.
Great narrative nonfiction takes a lot of time and money. And you’ve been following this story since 1997, when you wrote a small item for The New Yorker. Why did it take 20 years for this book to appear?
The story, like a fine wine, had to age. Even though the search had been going on for over a decade, the city wasn’t definitively discovered until the lidar survey in 2012, and that discovery wasn’t “ground-truthed” until the 2015 expedition. The excavation of the remarkable cache of sculptures took place in 2016 — and revealed the tragic and horrific fate of the city. I had to wait for the story to develop into a satisfying climax, which didn’t happen until January 2016.
Financing the reporting, research and travel for this book must have been challenging. How did you accomplish that?
I accomplished it, as many nonfiction writers do, with magazine assignments. The 2012 aerial lidar expedition was very expensive to cover, but my research and reporting were financed by The New Yorker magazine, which published my initial story on the lidar discovery. The 2015 expedition was even more expensive, because it involved helicopter flights, but again my part in it was financed by National Geographic Magazine, as I was working for them on assignment. My 2016 trip to Honduras for the excavation of the artifacts was also covered by National Geographic. And finally, my very expensive treatment for disease was financed by the National Institutes of Health because I was enrolled in a special medical research study. Nonfiction writers are always looking for someone else to finance their research!
You’ve gotten some blowback from archeologists about the “discovery” of a site that scientists say they’ve been studying for years. Will you tell us about that please, and how you feel about it?
First, the assertion that this site was previously known is a false and irresponsible claim by an archaeologist who was upset at not being included in the project. The site, and indeed the valley, was entirely unknown to scientists and even to the indigenous people of the region. There is no record of it in any published or unpublished reports in archives in Honduras or elsewhere, and it is not on any list of Honduran archaeological sites maintained by the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia. We saw further proof in the fact that the animals in the valley had never seen people before, had no fear, and had never been hunted. Conservation International sent 14 biologists into the valley who were stunned by what they found, saying it was possibly the most pristine and untouched rain forest area they had ever seen, confirming it had not seen human entry in centuries. The valley is also an unprecedented hot zone of a deadly tropical disease (which we discovered to our great sorrow), perhaps one major reason why indigenous people never roamed or settled in it — they were smarter than us.
But the exploration of the ruins was conducted by highly qualified archaeologists from the United States, Honduras, and Mexico. In all, more than 20 PhDs have been involved in this project, including engineers, ethnobotanists, anthropologists, geologists, and biologists from places like Harvard, Caltech, and the National Autonomous University of Honduras. Some archaeologists also complained that the discovery was “sensationalized.” My response to that is that the discovery is, indeed, sensational. My book, The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story, was written in English for an educated and interested lay public, not for an academic readership.
I’ve spent some time in a Central American jail and, while reading your narrative, feared you’d get arrested ― or worse. Were you ever afraid?
Wow, that sounds like quite an experience! I had quite enough of being arrested, thank you, while researching and writing The Monster of Florence. Fortunately, while the rain forest held many dangers, being arrested was not one of them. Since the project was always a joint Honduran-American effort, with the personal support of two Honduran presidents and the military, we felt safe enough. While Honduras is a dangerous country, we were usually protected by Honduran TESON Special Forces soldiers.
You and your fiction writing partner, Lincoln Child, write a fine series of techno-thrillers based mostly on Special Agent A. X. L. Pendergast. Is writing fiction a respite from reporting true stories? Is it easier or harder?
Fiction is a wonderful respite from nonfiction and vice versa. The two are complementary, and many of our fictional novels sprang out of my nonfiction work. For example, the article I wrote on cannibalism for The New Yorker became the novel Thunderhead; and the story I did for Smithsonian on the fabulous Oak Island Treasure in Nova Scotia became Riptide. I have no doubt that this new adventure of finding a lost city will become a novel soon.
After you returned home to Santa Fe, New Mexico, you fell ill from bug bites. What happened? And how you were eventually diagnosed?
I’ll never forget sitting around the pool in Catacamas, Honduras, after we came out of the jungle, drinking frosty beers and congratulating ourselves that we had survived and no one had been bitten by a snake or gotten sick. It turned out our relief was premature. In about six weeks, many members of the expedition began falling ill. Medical researchers at the National Institutes of Health enrolled us in a special study — we were quite popular with the doctors — and we were diagnosed with an unusual form of mucosal leishmaniasis, a hideous, flesh-eating disease transmitted by the bites of sand flies. If not treated, the disease can result in your nose and lips sloughing off, leaving an open sore where you face used to be. (I would not advise readers to Google images of this disease.) About two thirds of the expedition fell ill — Hondurans, British, and Americans alike.
What did your family think? Your brother, author Richard Preston (Hot Zone); your wife; and three grown children must have been terrified. Has their reaction shaped your next project?
My brother knew all about the disease and was horrified and fascinated when I told him. Leish is not infectious so there were no worries about anyone else getting it, but, yes, my family was not exactly thrilled. But as a journalist, I’ve taken a lot of risks in my life, some far worse than this, so I think if leish is all that’s going to happen to me I’m probably ahead of the game. And my wife is an amazing adventurer herself and so no explanations or apologies were necessary.
I understand that you’re not completely cured. Has your life changed because of the Monkey God and how?
The treatment, which is quite unpleasant, is only a beat-back of the disease, not a cure. But I feel great and nothing has really changed. Honestly, a lot of people out there are dealing with far worse, like cancer. One of the great things about being a journalist is that if something bad happens to you, you can at least write about it. Writing is a kind of exorcism. And I got a best-selling book out of it — which was at least partial compensation.
Will I catch the flesh-eating virus from you when we meet this summer at ThrillerFest? Or do you plan to use this mysterious illness in other ways?
No worries if you keep 15 feet away from me. Just kidding! Leishmania is a single-celled animal, not a virus or bacterium, and as such the disease is complex and subtle. If you’re going to get a disease, this is one of the most interesting. It is also, as my book points out, one of the oldest diseases on the planet, dating back at least a hundred million years. Paleontologists found a piece of amber with a sand fly trapped in it that had sucked the blood of a dinosaur; mingled among the blood cells were leishmania parasites. Even dinosaurs got leish! How cool is that?