William Carlsen has been a journalist for thirty years, a finalist for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting and a winner of numerous journalism awards. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, with a master’s degree in Journalism, he worked as a reporter for the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.
For many years he lived with his wife in Antigua Guatemala and followed the trail through the Central American jungles of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, the two protagonists in Jungle of Stone. He currently lives in Sonoma County, California.
Meet him: http://www.williamcarlsen.com
- Jungle of Stone has turned out to be a No. 1 Bestseller and has received wonderful response from critics and readers alike. When you first began writing it, did you imagine this would happen?
When I set out to write “Jungle of Stone” my intention was to reach as wide a readership as possible. I knew the journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood was an extraordinary one and I did not want to get in the way of it. So I worked hard to describe as vividly as possible their riveting adventures, which today 170 years later are lost in obscurity. It is a book about discovery but, more important, the thrill of discovery, which I hope I conveyed. Yet I was also intent on filling in as much historical context and biographical information as possible without slowing down the force of the book’s main narrative.
Also I wanted to give a good, solid account of the magnificence of the Maya civilization. And of course, as a narrative nonfiction book, I had to footnote and reference every fact so that scholars and students of archaeology, in particular, would be able to track the information they needed. It was a tall order and the book took many years to write. I can only hope that I succeeded in reaching the general as well as the specialized readers.
- How did you first find out about John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, upon whose expedition to Central America your book is based?
My wife and I lived on and off for many years in Guatemala where I had occasionally visited the Maya ruins. But it was only when a friend gave me the books that Stephens had written and Catherwood illustrated of their journeys of discovery in the 1840s that I became hooked on telling their little known story. Then I discovered that Stephens’s personal papers and letters were archived in the library at the University of California, Berkeley, where I taught, and I was convinced it was time to tell their personal stories, and the story of their relationship as well.
- You followed the same path that these stalwart explorers took to bring to light the Maya Civilization. How did it feel to traverse the same road, knowing the history of the trail?
It was a thrill to follow their 2,500-mile trail. Even 170 years later, much of the jungle, mountains and terrain and a lot of the villages they passed through have not changed. They travelled on mules, and I travelled in my old banged-up 1985 Toyota Corolla, which had no air-conditioning or radio and was the closest I could come to a mule. I wanted to simulate as much as possible the same conditions that they had experienced so I also went at the same time of year, during the sweltering end of the tropical rainy season. The major difference, of course, was the ruins that they had found were covered in jungle and barely distinguishable, whereas I was able to witness monuments, pyramids, palaces and temples beautifully restored to their former glory from the peak period of the Maya civilization.
- Which part of the Maya culture fascinates you the most?
Their art, sculpture and architecture. Visually stunning. And now with the breaking of the Maya hieroglyphic code, the history written on their monuments of powerful kings and dynasties, and what we now understand of their myths, creation story and their view of the cosmos.
- What was the best part of writing this book?
The chance to personally relive and then convey the two men’s awestruck moments of discovery. And the discovery the book allowed me to make of what was known before their expeditions and what was understood about the history of the Americas because of their discoveries. Just as Copernicus changed the world with his discovery that the earth circles the sun and not the common belief that the sun circles the earth, human history was changed by Stephens and Catherwood’s discoveries. It was believed that the “primitive, unrefined” Native American Indians were incapable of creating such an advanced and sophisticated civilization but Stephens and Catherwood changed that understanding, concluding after finding more than forty ancient cities that in fact it was an extraordinary civilization created through the intelligence, creativity and resourcefulness of “the Maya” Native Americans.
- Who do you find easier to relate to- Stephens or Catherwood?
As an author and journalist, I felt deeply connected to Stephens, who was a fabulous writer. Catherwood, the artist, despite all my research, still remained something of an enigma, which of course also endeared me to him as well.
- Is there anything about you that your readers will be very surprised to know?
Like James Bond, a man of action, I like a good martini, well-made. But only after a good day of sedentary writing.
- How would your family describe you?
Determined, probably too focussed and driven. Worried too much about details. But perhaps because of my slow doggedness, someone who loves dogs.
9. Lastly, can we expect more books from you soon?
Absolutely. Soon, however, probably not. Too much research still to do.
Many thanks for the interview, Bill! I wish you the best of luck in all your endeavours.
JUNGLE OF STONE: THE TRUE STORY OF TWO MEN, THEIR EXTRAORDINARY STORY, AND THE DISCOVERY OF THE LOST CIVILIZATION OF THE MAYA is a #1 Amazon Bestseller, and has remained on the list for many months. My personal rating of the book is 5-stars.