Candice Millard e-interviewed by Josephine Anna Kaszuba Locke (January, 2006)
Candice Millard's first book is a magnificent account of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt's excursion into the dark and dense Amazonian jungles, along with his son Kermit Roosevelt, Brazilian Colonel Rondon, assorted scientists and camaradas. The river's source was found and it was christened by Rondon in 1909 as the Rio da Duvida (River of Doubt). This 1914 Roosevelt-Rondon Scientific Expedition changed the map of the western hemisphere forever.
Millard, a former writer and editor at National Geographic magazine, displays impressive research and vast knowledge of the South American continent, a necessity for a project of this magnitude. Just as Roosevelt questioned crewmate and ornithologist George Cherrie about the life histories of birds and animals from A to Z, so Millard depicts all aspects of this expedition - from A to Z.
Q: What led you to choose Theodore Roosevelt and the River of Doubt as the subject of your first book?
A: Like many Americans, I had long admired Theodore Roosevelt. I admired his extraordinary contributions to conservation. I admired his confidence, his courage, his determination. But as a writer, I thought that everything that could possibly be written about Roosevelt had already been written - and by some of the world's best biographers. What changed my mind was a conversation I had with the Roosevelt scholar James Chace, who was then working on 1912, a book about the presidential election that preceded, and in many ways instigated, Roosevelt's descent of the River of Doubt. I have great respect for James, so when he said that he was surprised that not much had been written about this expedition, it got my attention. I was living in Washington at the time, working at National Geographic, so I went to the Library of Congress and started doing some research. The more I learned about this expedition, the more fascinated I became. I knew very quickly that this was a story I wanted to tell.
Q: From inception of the idea to the publication date of The River Of Doubt, how many years passed?
A: Four years. I spent the first year doing foundational research. Then I organized what I had and went back for more. As a writer, I could not have asked for a richer subject. Besides Roosevelt, the other three principal characters - Roosevelt's son Kermit, the American naturalist George Cherrie, and the expedition's extraordinary Brazilian commander Colonel Candido Rondon - all deserve full biographies in their own right. Then, of course, there is the Amazon, which itself became a character in the book.
Q: Which sources did you find most helpful and relevant in writing the book?
A: I was very fortunate in that there were a large number of primary sources for this expedition. Roosevelt wrote a series of articles for Scribner's magazine that were turned into a book, Through the Brazilian Wilderness. This book is brilliantly written and extremely interesting, but, for obvious reasons, Roosevelt doesn't discuss the friction between himself and Colonel Rondon, his deep fears for his son's life and the lives of the other men, or his own decision to kill himself. For a more intimate look at the expedition, I relied on several other sources, including Colonel Rondon's autobiography and Kermit's journal, which is streaked, stained, and water warped. When you hold it in your hands, you are immediately transported to the River of Doubt. I would say the most valuable and illuminating source, however, was George Cherrie's diary, which is in the archives of the ornithology department at the American Museum of Natural History. It is filled with not only detailed descriptions of the miserable conditions in which they were living and the dangers that they faced, but their constant fear and Cherrie's frustration and anger at the lack of organization and, he believed, leadership that had placed them in this deadly situation.
Q: How did you gather background on the South American continent, the Amazonian jungle, the River, and Colonel Rondon?
A: Perhaps the most important - and certainly the most exciting - part of my research for this book was going to the River of Doubt, now the Rio Roosevelt. I wanted to know what it looked like, what it sounded like, how it smelled, how it felt. Of course, I had a very different experience than Roosevelt and his men did nearly a century ago. I had a satellite phone, a GPS locator, a modern boat. But the river itself has changed very little. It is still incredibly remote and difficult to reach, and, fortunately, the rain forest that surrounds it has remained largely untouched. I also did quite a bit of research in Rio de Janeiro - digging around in any archive I could find, from the Museu do Índio to the Museu da República.
On a side note, if you would like to see the river without making the arduous journey to it, there is a compelling documentary about Tweed Roosevelt's 1992 expedition to retrace his great-grandfather's descent of the River of Doubt. The documentary first aired on the History Channel's New Explorers series and can now be found on video. Tweed, a professional speaker, also gives a fascinating and engaging lecture about the expedition.
Q: Which aspect of your excellent narrative was the most difficult to approach?
A: One of the first things I learned about Kermit Roosevelt was that, nearly 30 years after this expedition, he committed suicide in Alaska. As my research deepened and I learned more about him - learned that he spoke half a dozen languages, that he read widely and voraciously, that he was brave and open-minded and adventurous - it became increasingly difficult to reconcile this brilliant, handsome young man who had so much promise with the broken man he became later in life. In many ways, Kermit is the real hero of this expedition, and the unraveling of his life is, I believe, the most tragic story of this book.
Q: Which part did you find the most satisfying?
A: As important as it was to me to see this river, it was even more important to meet the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the indigenous people who lived on its banks and who shadowed Roosevelt and his men throughout the expedition. To the extent that I was able, I wanted to tell their story as well. It was tremendously exciting - and a great honor - to listen to the Cinta Larga's tribal memories of this expedition.
Q: During the exploration, you mention that a 70-foot wide tributary was named the Rio Kermit after Roosevelt's second son, and that the Rio da Duvida was renamed the Roosevelt River. Do those names still stand today?
A: They do. If you look at any map of South America, you will find the Rio Roosevelt, which is nearly a thousand miles long, a significant river in the Amazonian river system. The Rio Kermit is harder to find because it is quite a bit smaller - a tributary of a tributary of a tributary. But, yes, it is still named in honor of TR's second son.
Q: How many travel miles were logged, over how many years, to garner the knowledge and tremendous descriptions of the Amazon territory needed for the book?
A: My research, of course, began here, in the United States, reading every book on tropical rain forests that I could get my hands on, but also interviewing scientists who specialize in the Amazon. I made several trips to New York, Boston, and Washington as well as a handful of other cities, and then I flew to Brazil, where I did research in half a dozen towns as well as on the river itself.
Q: Brazil nuts show up in the book: 'The almond-like, high-fat, high-protein nuts ... grow in a hard, round, wood-walled shell that holds as many as 24 nuts ... reach seven inches in diameter and six pounds in weight ... these shells crash to the ground like small cannon balls from the branches of the 130-foot-tall Brazil nut tree ... known to knock men out cold'. Are these the same small Brazil nuts we eat today?
A: Yes. The Brazil nuts that we eat are the seeds that are found in the large shell, or pod, which I describe in the book. These shells are incredibly hard. (I know hardened field naturalists who could not break them with a hammer.) In the rain forest, only the agoutis, small rodents that weigh about 13 pounds, have teeth hard enough and jaws strong enough to crack open the Brazil nut shell.
Q: How much did your National Geographic background influence your writing about this harrowing journey?
A: The years that I spent at National Geographic will always influence my writing. I'm very proud of my association with the society in general and the magazine in particular. It's a wonderful place to work, full of extraordinary people. It's also impossible to work there without developing a deep interest in and passion for the natural world. That fascination led me to take a closer look at the rain forest through which Roosevelt and his men were traveling. I wanted to understand how it worked, how the plants and animals adapted to survive there, and why Roosevelt and his men, among the world's most experienced outdoorsmen, were starving in this lush, green jungle.
Q: In addition to his own biography, Theodore Roosevelt and family have received a great deal of attention from different media. Aside from the reality of the Amazon expedition itself, is there anything new that you learned about Roosevelt in writing this book?
A: For me, what was most interesting about this expedition was the opportunity to get a very intimate picture of Roosevelt, to see him simply as a man - a leader not on the scale of nations and armies but among this small group of men who are fighting for their lives. What was striking on this expedition was Roosevelt's unshakable devotion to his men and to his principles. Even when he was so sick he could barely lift his head from his rusting cot, Roosevelt was concerned about the other men in the expedition and did what he could to help them. He tried to give them what little food he had, and he was willing to take his own life so that his physical weakness would not endanger their lives. Roosevelt showed remarkable strength of character on this expedition, and every man who survived it admired him deeply.
Q: Are you working on another book, and if so, can you tell us anything about it?