BUDDY LEVY IS A freelance journalist and Clinical Associate Professor of English at Washington State University. The author of four books, including Conquistador: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs, he's featured on Brad Meltzer's Decoded on the History Channel in the United States. His new book, River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana’s Historic Descent of the Amazon will be published in February 2011 by Bantam Dell. I interviewed Levy via email over the course of the summer and fall.
Current Intelligence: Much of your magazine writing has been about adventure sports and outdoor pursuits, which might seem far removed from books about historical figures (even though yours happen to be about the likes of Davey Crockett and Hernan Cortés). On the other hand, the research trip you took on the trail of Cortés in 2006 creates a connection between the two kinds of writing. Can you perhaps talk a bit about what attracted you to these types of historical characters?
Buddy Levy: Certainly. I saw in both Crockett and Cortés many of the same kinds of personality traits and characteristics which attracted me to the people who participate in extreme outdoor sports and expeditions. There is danger, excitement, supreme discomfort, a reliance on others and working together, and also the notion of pushing boundaries, of forging new frontiers. Both Crockett and Hernán Cortés lived full, exciting, and fascinating lives, and in their lives and travels and exploits were GREAT stories—and that’s the main draw, always, for me. I’m looking for the great story.
CI: What attracts you to history and historical characters in your writing?
BL: I’m deeply drawn to historical figures who had the courage of their convictions, who took risks—often against tremendous odds—and continued forward when lesser folk would have stayed home. Having done a fair number of difficult adventure expeditions myself—albeit with the conveniences of modern gear, tents, and hi-tech equipment—I marvel at what people like Cortés, Ernest Shackleton, Captain James Cook, Ferdinand Magellan, and other great explorers and discoverers and conquerors were able to achieve and to endure. I am attracted to the challenge of bringing these historical figures and the events in which they were involved back to life, so to speak, to convey them and their stories in as historically accurate a way as I can while also telling their lives and stories in as exciting a way as I can. I am charged with allowing the reader to experience the history as if they were there. At least that’s what I try to do—I will leave it for the audience to decide whether I have succeeded.
CI: Cortés was, for the lack of a better phrase, a nasty piece of work. Yet one of the strengths of Conquistador is that you manage to make sense of his motivations, to place the reader in his shoes so that we can better understand him. You do the same with Montezuma. In the end, I’m left with the impression that both men were very similar, and they recognised this. What are your thoughts on the connection between Cortés and Montezuma?
BL: Ah. That’s a tough question, and it’s a complex relationship. I think, after giving this a tremendous amount of thought (much of it, alas, AFTER finishing the book!), that one of their great connections was that they both understood their greatness. They were both remarkable leaders of men. Each was incredibly charismatic. Perhaps their greatest connection resided in their profound belief in their own spiritual world. I came away understanding that they were both deeply religious, and I believe that despite their vast cultural differences, they respected one another tremendously. That’s partly what makes the story so damned tragic in the end. One of them was destined to be destroyed.
CI: When people think of the contact and conflict between European explorers/conquerors and aboriginal populations in North America, they tend to think it was all a one-way street: the Europeans were superior, the Indians were victims, etc. Clearly, you see this relationship differently. Conquistador complicates things by focusing, quite rightly, on the Aztecs’ sense of superiority not just over their neighbours, but over the Spanish themselves. Can you talk a bit about this?
BL: Yes, I do indeed see this relationship differently. When I first began reading the first-hand Spanish accounts of encountering Tenochtitlán initially, I was astounded by the grandeur and complexity and sheer wonder of the place. Here were aqueducts and waterways and floating islands of crops, and complex architecture and a vast military complex. The Aztecs, quite rightly, had reason to feel superior! I wanted to show, to the best of my writing ability and within the framework of the narrative, who these people were and what they had achieved in a very short time. Their sense of superiority was of course also in part their undoing, because they found it inconceivable that these upstart Spaniards, despite their innovative weapons, would pose any real threat to them. The Aztecs had a vast tributary system with some 10-15 million subjects—how much trouble could a few hundred Spaniards really be? Of course, what the Aztecs and Montezuma did not foresee was Cortés’s political brilliance, including his ability to sway a large number of Aztec tributary groups over to his side.
CI: I picked this book up in a store; the clerk was a young Mexican woman. She had just finished the book herself and she spoke of the ambivalence of Mexicans towards Cortés, as both the conquistador and the founder, in a sense, of modern Mexico. In your time in Mexico, how did people react to news you were working on a book on Cortés?
BL: Well, the Mexican people have every right to be ambivalent (at the very least) about Cortés. But I must say that during my travels people were helpful, supportive, and very interested in my book, especially when I told them that one of my goals was to provide, to the extent that I could, some of the Aztec perspective. I paid particular attention to works like The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico, as well as the numerous “codices” that offer first-hand accounts of the conquest of Mexico from the indigenous point-of-view (with the caveat that these accounts were taken and transcribed and translated by Spanish friars). Ironically, on one of my great research journeys I was taken to the pass of Cortés by a lovely and generous gentleman named Rodrigo Moctezuma.
CI: The response to Conquistador has been positive. Reviewers have praised the narrative for its vividness. It’s also garnered praise in the blogosphere and amongst reviewers on Amazon.com. Which is more gratifying: praise from fellow writers and reviewers, or from the wider reading audience - people who ultimately are going to buy and read your work?
BL: I’ll take both, thanks! I guess one sort of feeds the other. It’s great when reviewers praise a work because that in turn results in more readers—and of course in the end writers want their work out there being read by as large an audience as possible. I’m most pleased when both academics AND popular audiences respond well to a book—that means I’m getting it right, striking the right balance.
CI: I am an historian by training, and one thing I note amongst my colleagues is a disdain for how history is portrayed in pop culture. They're fond of complaining about movies like 300 or Pirates of the Caribbean and how they make teaching history harder. What are your thoughts on the tension between pop culture and history? What role do you play in this argument between academics and the masses?
BL: I can see the academic’s point, especially when pop culture takes egregious liberties with historical facts, gets things blatantly wrong, or manipulates history for entertainment. But on the other hand, who said history shouldn’t be fun and entertaining? What I attempt to do in every book project I embark on is to write academically accurate history in an exciting, readable, and fast-paced way that popular audiences can enjoy. I’m a huge fan of pop culture, and I believe that the two (academics and pop culture) can coexist. If a film like National Treasure gets larger audiences to go back and dig into aspects of our nation’s history, as an example, and approach history with renewed excitement and inquiry and fresh eyes, then that’s positive in my opinion.
CI: How did your academic career, with both an MA in creative writing and over 20 years of experience teaching writing, prepare you to write a book like Conquistador?
BL: Oh, in just about every way imaginable—and the freelance journalism as well—let’s not forget that vital training ground in which I learned how to interview people. My academic instruction gave me the discipline and patience to do the hard research required for big book projects, and my focus in creative writing taught me how to ferret out the elusive narrative arc—crucial to all good books and good stories. A background in literature has helped, too, as far as understanding the connections between character and story and setting and point-of-view, all of which exist in historical narratives just as they exist in fiction.
CI: Writing a book like Conquistador is a substantial investment of time, as well as an emotional commitment to the characters, to the story. How do you follow this up? What’s next?
BL: Yes, each book is an amazing journey, and takes a few years to research and write-- and that emotional, intellectual, and storytelling investment is HUGE and does take a lot out of a writer--but it gives a lot back in return. Often even in the form of a new story, a new idea, a new book. During my research on Conquistador I came across a lesser- known but hugely important story about Francisco Orellana, another Spanish conquistador who was part of the conquest of Peru with the Pizarro brothers. The more I looked at the story, the more intrigued I became—and there was not very much written about Orellana's first European descent of the Amazon from its headwaters to the Atlantic in 1541-42. Immediately I wanted to tell this story, and immediately I began packing my bags and my hammock for a trip to the Amazon!
CI: What are the connections between Conquistador and River of Darkness, as you seem them, beyond the obvious story of Spanish conquest and pillage?
BL: There are numerous connections--attempts at empire expansion, religious/cultural/world view schisms, the unveiling of newly-found places on the European consciousness--but I guess I was drawn to this story of Francisco Orellana in River of Darkness because of the differences. River of Darkness is much more about DISCOVERY than about conquest, and in fact, it is more a story of survival. In this tale it is often the Spaniards and not the native population who are suffering, who are on the run and trying to escape with their lives. I am deeply connected to the natural world, and in River of Darkness I was drawn, too, to the Amazon itself --so much so that the river becomes a central character along with Orellana and the Pizarros. River of Darkness deals in good part with what Francisco Orellana and his men see and experience and encounter for the first time, a world to them that is alien, impenetrable, but so alluring that Orellana becomes absolutely hypnotized by it. My hope is that readers will, too.
CI: Given your writing on outdoor adventurism and your own retracing of Cortés’ journey through Mexico or along the Amazon, what do you think of eco-tourism and outdoor adventuring in Mexico and South America?
BL: I'm all for Eco-Tourism and outdoor adventuring in Mexico--provided it's done with the right spirit (spirit of adventure and inquiry and cultural exchange) and done safely. I like the notion of "travelling" versus being a "tourist," and that means learning as much as one can about the place they visit-reading the best books and articles on the subject, but also integrating with the local population and spending time away from the touristy places--it's challenging, a bit daunting, sometimes a little scary--but worth it in the end.
On Eco-Tourism, I think it's important to do research on the outfits running the operation and to make sure they are staffing and hiring locals to do the work and hiring local experts to speak on the topics and to guide- these are important to me.
CI: You tend to do what I would call "Action Research", on the trail of Cortés in Mexico or Orellana on the Amazon. One imagines this could lead to some dicey situations. What kind of challenges do you face in terms of safety - against the elements and the threat of violence?
BL: The imbedded, "action-research" as you call it is often the most meaningful to me--following the trail of conquistadors by following their literal footsteps. One must be quite adventurous and have his or her wits about them, certainly. I've been fortunate to have done a great deal of adventurous travel and expeditions so I'm accustomed to sleeping in hammocks between trees in a rainforest or beneath a shack with pigs and chickens, but obviously it's the people one must be wary of in certain circumstances. I try to avoid war-torn regions or regions with active political skirmishes going on, and have been lucky so far. I also surround myself with knowledgeable and dependable guides when possible (did so on the Amazon) and so far--knock on the wood of the dugout canoe--so good. But yeah, part of the fun is the danger I must say. Torrential rains on the Amazon raised the river big time while I was floating from Ecuador to Iquitos, Peru, and we ran into 200 foot trees that had been uprooted and were floating and we had to avoid getting overturned in the middle of the river. Yikes!
And I tend to smile politely when confronted by young men wielding machetes and machine guns!