The Lost City of the Monkey God, or Close Enough

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. Nonfiction writers are always looking for someone else to finance their research! I had to wait for the story to develop into a satisfying climax, which didn’t happen until January 2016. 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. I had quite enough of being arrested, thank you, while researching and writing The Monster of Florence. And my wife is an amazing adventurer herself and so no explanations or apologies were necessary. You’ve gotten some blowback from archeologists about the “discovery” of a site that scientists say they’ve been studying for years. 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. 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. What did your family think? 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. Why did it take 20 years for this book to appear? 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. It turned out our relief was premature. Has their reaction shaped your next project? & Mrs. Fiction is a wonderful respite from nonfiction and vice versa. While Honduras is a dangerous country, we were usually protected by Honduran TESON Special Forces soldiers. 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. Writing is a kind of exorcism. 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. And you’ve been following this story since 1997, when you wrote a small item for The New Yorker. The treatment, which is quite unpleasant, is only a beat-back of the disease, not a cure. The two are complementary, and many of our fictional novels sprang out of my nonfiction work. DOUGLAS PRESTON: We found something exceedingly rare, not just a lost city but an archaeological site that was untouched. (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. Will you tell us about that please, and how you feel about it? 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. Then, there is the crucial work that Preston does on behalf of all working authors. In about six weeks, many members of the expedition began falling ill. 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”). 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. The story, like a fine wine, had to age. Just kidding! But I feel great and nothing has really changed. If you’re going to get a disease, this is one of the most interesting. Unfortunately, almost all of these sites had previously been looted. And how you were eventually diagnosed? 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. The book, which has made several bestseller lists, is a hair-raising adventure of the first degree. How did you accomplish that? I’ve spent some time in a Central American jail and, while reading your narrative, feared you’d get arrested ― or worse. 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. 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. Some archaeologists also complained that the discovery was “sensationalized.” My response to that is that the discovery is, indeed, sensational. Has your life changed because of the Monkey God and how? MAY 10, 2017

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. He’s a board member of the Authors Guild, which represents published authors on issues of copyright, fair contracts, and tax fairness. Were you ever afraid? ¤
Kathleen Sharp is the author of Mr. 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. Is writing fiction a respite from reporting true stories? (Gale Anne Hurd is executive producing the adaptation of the best-selling   series for Spike TV). My brother knew all about the disease and was horrified and fascinated when I told him. 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. 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. 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. 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. That latter city has not yet been explored. Or do you plan to use this mysterious illness in other ways? It is also, as my book points out, one of the oldest diseases on the planet, dating back at least a hundred million years. After you returned home to Santa Fe, New Mexico, you fell ill from bug bites. Preston moves easily between several literary worlds. Pendergast. Leish is not infectious so there were no worries about anyone else getting it, but, yes, my family was not exactly thrilled. 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. But the images were blurry and ambiguous. 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. This tale is a marriage of 19th-century-like explorers and 21st-century technology. Will I catch the flesh-eating virus from you when we meet this summer at ThrillerFest? X. Most major sites in Central America were “discovered” when indigenous people led archaeologists to them. Great narrative nonfiction takes a lot of time and money. But what did you really find? Financing the reporting, research and travel for this book must have been challenging. Your brother, author Richard Preston (Hot Zone); your wife; and three grown children must have been terrified. That book spent four months on the New York   Times   list, and is currently under development as a film. My 2016 trip to Honduras for the excavation of the artifacts was also covered by National Geographic. The excavation of the remarkable cache of sculptures took place in   2016 — and revealed the tragic and horrific fate of the city. 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. I was in the plane as it mapped T1. 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. How did you find this story and balance the two threads? One of the great things about being a journalist is that if something bad happens to you, you can at least write about it. You and your fiction writing partner, Lincoln Child, write a fine series of techno-thrillers based mostly on Special Agent A. 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 site, and indeed the valley, was entirely unknown to scientists and even to the indigenous people of the region. Wow, that sounds like quite an experience! Even dinosaurs got leish! Leishmania is a single-celled animal, not a virus or bacterium, and as such the disease is complex and subtle. But the exploration of the ruins was conducted by highly qualified archaeologists from the United States, Honduras, and Mexico. And I got a best-selling book out of it — which was at least partial compensation. Hollywood: Edie and Lew Wasserman and Their Entertainment Empire, which AudioGo rereleased as an audio and ebook. 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. I understand that you’re not completely cured. How cool is that? (I would not advise readers to Google images of this disease.) About two thirds of the expedition fell ill — Hondurans, British, and Americans alike. It is one of the least-studied cultures in Central America, so unknown it does not even have a formal name. L. ¤
KATHLEEN SHARP: You’ve written a rich narrative nonfiction tale about trying to discover a lost city. I have no doubt that this new adventure of finding a lost city will become a novel soon. What happened? Is it easier or harder? This mysterious civilization arose along the Maya frontier but it was not itself Maya, even though it adopted many aspects of Mayan culture. 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. No worries if you keep 15 feet away from me. If not treated, the disease can result in your nose and lips sloughing off, leaving an open sore where you face used to be. 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. This discovery shed much light on this culture. Honestly, a lot of people out there are dealing with far worse, like cancer. 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. I accomplished it, as many nonfiction writers do, with magazine assignments.