PW: You may be better known as a fiction writer, and you even dealt with Africa in one of your previous novels, Horn of Africa. What do you find are the distinct challenges of writing fiction and nonfiction, such as in your newest book, Ghosts of Tsavo?
PC: Writing nonfiction is much easier than writing fiction, because all of your raw material is there. All the facts of the situation are there, and it's really a matter of assembling those facts into a graceful and hopefully beautiful narrative. There's always a certain amount of art involved in nonfiction, at least in the sense of what you have to leave out and how you organize your narrative in order to bring some kind of dramatic art to it. But with fiction, it's starting from ground zero. You have to manufacture your own raw material and then shape it. That's a far more difficult process, an enterprise that requires much more concentration and attention to detail. When you create a character either out of a whole cloth or modeled on two or three real people, that character has to behave consistently, whereas, if you're writing about a real person, it's right there in front of you. And I'm finding that's true, for example, with the book I'm working on now. It's a really big, almost epic, novel that's set in contemporary Africa, and that's a far more difficult and arduous process than writing Ghosts of Tsavo was.
PW: How did you start working with National Geographic Adventure Press?
PC: About three years ago, National Geographic Adventure magazine called me, and they were interested in signing me up as a contributing editor. They're a spinoff of the National Geographic Society, and the Society asked me to do a story about two of the scientists I featured in Ghosts of Tsavo. And they're quite different in their different publications. National Geographic Adventure magazine is really more of a writer's magazine than National Geographic itself, which is more of a photographer's magazine. For example, I did a piece about Tsavo for Adventure that was 12,000 to 13,000 words, and probably about 11,000 got in, whereas the piece I did for National Geographic started off at about 8,000 words and ended up about 3,000.
PW: In the book, you mention the difference between what the scientists were learning from the lions and your reaction to them in a more spiritual way. What struck you about them?
PC: For me, there were two moments that stuck in my mind. One was when we were on foot and had smelled a fairly recent kill in this thick scrub, and there were lion tracks around. When you're in a situation like that and you're not armed, you experience something of the awe that I think we're supposed to experience in the presence of the divine. You really do sense your own weakness and your own insignificance in a way that you don't in the relatively tame woods that exist in most of North America. Something comes over you when you're in these areas that are dominated by big predators that takes you back to mankind's primitive beginnings, when animals like that were almost deified. The other occasion was watching these two big males that just simply awed me. They were so... I can only say competent at what they did; they had such mastery of their craft of being pride leaders. The way they moved through the bush and the way they operated in tandem to intimidate what they perceived to be two invading male lions was simply awe-inspiring.
PW: Did you enjoy this opportunity to get away from your desk for a while and do some reporting?
PC: What I certainly enjoyed about doing this was to have an experience in nature and in the outdoors that was not just recreation. In fact, this wasn't recreation at all. To participate even just as an observer in a scientific quest was very satisfying to me. I've been an outdoorsman practically all my life, and I've noticed over the years that adventure in America is primarily recreational and done for its own sake.