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The Story Behind My First Book

The Story Behind My First Book

A Decade-Long
Overnight Success

By Peter Lourie

The other day a student asked me how I got started writing adventure books. Did I always want to be a writer? My answer: Well, sort of. But I also wanted to be an anthropologist. The story behind how those two things came together involves monkeys, treasure hunters, Incan gold, and a decade of stubborn work.

All through college I waffled between a passion for the words of W.B. Yeats, Jack London, and Joseph Conrad, and the fossils of early humans in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa. At some point, I read David Pilbeam’s The Ascent of Man: An Introduction to Human Evolution and was immediately hooked on the concept of the missing link.” I love that idea–that somewhere we’ll find the one fossil that is the very missing connection between apes and humans!

When I got the incredible opportunity to work with Margaret Leakey at the Centre for Prehistory and Palaeontology in Nairobi, Kenya, I leapt at the chance. There, I met a British anthropologist heading out to the coastal Mountains of Tanzania to study colobus monkeys. For weeks, we walked in circles and perched in the brush taking notes on troops of beautiful black-and-white primates.  

Still oscillating between my two great passions, I returned to the States and held off studying ancient humans to pursue a Master’s in Literature. The work was engaging but I longed to return to Africa. Then I heard that no one had ever studied the monkeys of Paraguay or Ecuador. That’s all it took. Paraguay was too dangerous at the time, so Ecuador it was.

I landed in Ecuador’s capital, Quito and immediately hired guides to traipse through jungles on both sides of the Andes. From my guides, I learned how the woolly monkeys on one side of the Napo River differed slightly from the woolly monkeys on the other side. It was interesting stuff and I took detailed notes, fully expecting to use them for a lengthy academic paper.

I was thrilled to be exploring something new and in such a beautiful place. Ecuador, Spanish for equator, is a magic country the size of Colorado with over 22 volcanoes higher than Mt. Rainier in Washington State.  Snow-clad peaks run down the center of the country like a jagged row of Titan’s teeth. Smoldering volcanoes occasionally erupt. To the west of the mountains lies the Pacific Ocean. To the east, the Amazonian jungle full of howler and spider monkeys. Traipsing across its landscape while studying those fascinating creatures was the sort of thing I could picture myself doing forever.

Wanting to see the country’s other big city on the coast, I flew to Guayaquil to meet the father of someone I’d known in high school. Andres Fernandez Salvador was a great character. He took me around town and told me about his 35-year search for a massive Incan treasure. Treasure, he said, that was hidden in a remote and treacherous chain of cloud-forested mountains where Pizarro and the conquistadors had looked in vain.  

Pre-Incan gold objects. The Incas too fashioned gold and silver into religious objects in honor of the gods of the Sun and the Moon.

Pre-Incan gold objects. The Incas too fashioned gold and silver into religious objects in honor of the gods of the Sun and the Moon.

He described Incan gold objects fashioned in honor of the Sun God, Inti, golden birds, golden sun disks and golden fountains with jets of silver. All of it hidden in one of the most dangerous places in the world, the Llanganati Mountain Range.

Treasure hunters, he said, had gone crazy and died up there for almost five hundred years looking for the rumored 750 tons of gold. I tried to calculate the value of such riches and couldn’t begin to put a number on it. It had to be worth billions, I decided. (Closer to 50 billion, I now know)

One evening, Andy gave me the transcription of an account of his time spent on various expeditions to the Llanganati Mountains, southeast of the capital. Flying over that haunted region in a small helicopter, he had crashed and survived there for a month. Another time, one of his porters lost his mind and died listlessly jumping over a crevasse. The place was bewitched, he said. When pilots fly over the Llanganatis, the compass goes crazy! “La brújula baila,” he said, “The compass dances.”

When I heard that story about the gold, my life took a turn. Immediately, my interests reprioritized themselves.

Even before going to Ecuador I was enamored of treasures. Joseph Conrad’s treasure novel, Nostromo, is one of my favorites (“There’s no getting away from a treasure that once fastens on your mind!”), along with Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, and John Huston’s 1948 version of B. Traven’s 1927 book, The Treasure of Sierra Madre.  What is it about the mystery of lost treasures that so captivates the mind?

Some people don’t get it. Why would anyone go looking for gold! It’s the very definition of a crackpot fool’s mission. But for me, it wasn’t about getting rich or finding the treasure. I knew the odds. No, I love treasure tales for the stories themselves and especially for their characters.

Among those characters, it’s the treasure hunters I love most. The ones who tell their tales in bars, who dare to solve (or say they dare to solve) mysteries, who see themselves attempting the impossible. Their hopes and delusions fascinate me.

This Inca stash would be the biggest stockpile of treasure the world would ever see, they’d say. Worth billions and billions in today’s dollars! If only someone could find it! It’s that kind of excitement that’s so captivating.

Suddenly, I had to be a part of the quest. To keep a work visa, I got a job teaching English at the Colegio Americano in Quito. When I wasn’t in the classroom, I was researching the history of the Conquest, traveling throughout the country, and making friends with treasure hunters. It all culminated in a plan to trek into the mountains with Andy or his son-in-law Diego Arias, who had also been “infected” by his father-in-law.  

My love of the Inca treasure story comes from the characters who look for it and the haunting beauty of the land where it is buried.

And then my plans fell through. One German treasure hunter toppled out of a bus and broke his legs. Another one was so drunk the day we were supposed to leave for the mountains that he couldn’t make it out of his apartment (nor could he for the rest of the week).

But I had read Peter Matthiessen’s classic adventure story The Snow Leopard, and I knew the Inca gold could become my holy grail, my snow leopard. I threw myself into the quest for the story. Again and again, I tried to drum up an expedition but it never came together.

Eventually, after years of obsession, I was ready to return to the U.S. and start teaching. Somewhere along the way, I came to realize that I didn’t actually need to go into the mountains. It had never been about finding the gold. The story itself was my treasure and I had all the story I needed.

Hadn’t I accumulated the history, a good solid sense of the place, the colorful characters? Maybe I could assemble my experiences into a book when I got home.  After all, Matthiessen had, in search of the snow leopard, traipsed around Nepal with the biologist George Schaller, but he never actually saw a snow leopard. It didn’t matter; he wrote a brilliant travel book anyway.

When I got back to the States, I went straight to the wilderness of Maine and locked myself in a cabin. Day after day, I would get up, write all morning (on a typewriter), run a few miles in the late afternoon, make a dinner of chicken and beer, then write some more. Seven months later, the first draft was finished. Sweat of the Sun Tears of the Moon: A Chronicle of an Incan Treasure had been born.

I got an agent but he couldn’t sell it. Three years later, I rewrote it as my thesis for an MFA in nonfiction at Columbia University. More edits, more rewrites. Six more years of rewrites, in fact. Finally, after ten full revisions over ten full years, a publisher picked it up.

From that first adventure and the next decade of work came the confidence to embark on a lifetime of writing and exploration. I paddled down rivers, climbed Mayan temples, tracked polar bears, delved into bowhead whales, and followed curiosity after curiosity. Three decades later and I’m getting ready to publish my 26th book, the true story of Fridtjof Nansen’s incredible quest to be the first person to reach the North Pole in 1893.

For each book, my mind is gripped by the new topic just as it was with lost treasure decades ago. As the days tick down to Locked In Ice’s publication, the only difference between then and now is that Incan gold has morphed into Arctic ice.  

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