If I have learned anything about nonfiction writing, it is that the challenge is not in finding a great story to tell. More often than not, real life is so rich, complex and unpredictable that it would seem completely implausible in the pages of a novel. The difficulty lies in understanding the people you are writing about — not their actions, or even their thoughts, but their deepest character. It is not the famous events, the dramatic moments of public triumph, that define them. It is when their lives are difficult, even desperate, that their true nature is revealed. In those private moments, even the greatest men become understandable because those painful emotions are a universal part of human life — something that all of us, sooner or later, must face.
When I began work on my first book, “The River of Doubt,” which tells the story of Theodore Roosevelt’s 1914 descent of an unmapped river in the Amazon rainforest, I thought of it as a tale of adventure, exploration and extraordinary courage. I did what I could to understand what Roosevelt and his men had endured on an expedition so extreme that it resulted in the deaths of three men and Roosevelt’s near suicide. I traveled through the Brazilian Amazon on the remote, rapids-choked river that was once the Rio da Duvida, the River of Doubt, and is now the Rio Roosevelt, and I tracked down the isolated tribe that shadowed Roosevelt and his men throughout their months-long ordeal. More difficult to understand, and more fascinating than the flesh-eating fish, the cannibalistic tribesmen or even the impenetrable rainforest, however, was Roosevelt himself.