Booknews: Volcano Volumes Spark Controversy
Bridget Kinsella -- 2/12/01
Two books tell different stories about the same volcanic tragedy in Colombia

Also in this Article:
Publishers Court Singles in Time for Valentine's Day

There are few things more dramatic than an erupting volcano. With each eruption, the earth reminds us that it is a living, seething massive planet made of gases and rocks, fire and ice. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there are 1,500 active volcan s in the world, of which 500 have erupted in "historical time." An estimated 500 million people today live in areas threatened by active volcan s. Although they erupt all the time without major consequence--it's just what volcan s do--news of a possible explosion caused thousands to flee in the Philippines last month and reminds us of the precarious, tender balance of beauty and danger inherent in those peaks.

If volcan s make good stories, then the people who risk life and limb to study them only add to the interest. Take a group of volcanologists trapped inside an erupting volcano in Colombia in 1993, stir in a little controversy, such as two authors telling conflicting stories about the same event, and you have good book business.

This season, two books deal with the dramatic eruption of Galeras, where 17 members of a scientific expedition were either in or on top of the volcano when it exploded. Nine people died. In Surviving Galeras, due out from Houghton Mifflin on April 17, Stanley Williams (with co-
Tales of tragedy: Accounts by
an eyewitness and a journalist.
writer Fen Montaigne) gives his firsthand account of the tragedy on Galeras as leader of the '93 expedition. Planned on the heels of this book, but coming out from HarperCollins on April 2, is No Apparent Danger: The True Story of Volcanic Disaster at Galeras and Nevado Del Ruiz by geologist and journalist Victoria Bruce. Both books contain harrowing accounts of the eruption of Galeras and the heroic rescue of Williams and seven other survivors, but they tell very different stories.
Comparisons are inevitable. Both books have huge first printings, 150,000 for Houghton and 100,000 for Harper. Both houses expect the books to attract much media attention. Surviving Galeras is being excerpted in the April issue of Outside magazine and in Reader's Digest. When No Apparent Danger is excerpted in National Geographic Adventure, also in April, a sidebar will contrast the books. Radio and television bookings are currently in the works for both authors.

There are basic questions at the center of the controversy. Could the eruption at Galeras have been predicted? Could the tragedy have been avoided? The answers turn out to be complicated.

From Stanley Williams's point of view, the answer is no. "Volcan s are complicated and don't follow the rules," he told PW. "They change direction as often as they feel like it, so you have to tolerate huge uncertainty. You can't predict an eruption at all." What can be studied are the data about seismic activity and changes in gaseous emissions. Each eruption furthers scientists' understanding of a particular volcano and its patterns of activity, and how those patterns might apply to other volcan s. Williams, a geology professor at the University of Arizona, said that although Galeras had exploded six months before, it was not showing the same pattern of activity in '93.

Williams's assessment directly contradicts what Bruce found in her investigation of Galeras and Nevado Del Ruiz, another Colombian volcano that erupted in 1985, killing 23,000 people. (Both books cover in depth the history of volcanology and, particularly the history of these two volcan s, which have been studied extensively.) Bruce charges that Williams was irresponsible and that he ignored warnings that predicted Galeras was going to erupt. "Scientists like Bernard Chouet said this volcano erupted with the same pattern six months before," Bruce told PW. "If it was showing the same pattern, then why did people go into the volcano?" According to Bruce, Williams ignored or did not seek out enough data before going into Galeras and it cost nine people their lives.

Chouet, a USGS seismologist, explained to PW that while studying Galeras in 1991, he had developed a theory that connected the volcano's seismic activity with the likelihood of an explosion, which then happened six months before the one that caught Williams and his group. Although Chouet was not at Galeras in '93, he said the evidence that it was not a good time to go into the crater was available. "Whether people bothered to look at it or not, that's another story," he said.

Williams said he and the other scientists talked about the previous explosion on Galeras before making the expedition. Did anyone suggest it was unsafe? "Not even vaguely," Williams answered.

Both authors wrote books that were very different than they originally intended. The changes occurred when each learned, at different times, of the same mistake in the story surrounding the Galeras tragedy. For seven years, Williams was portrayed in the media as the only survivor.

It was something Williams's co-author, Montaigne--a journalist and author of Reeling in Russia (St. Martin's)--had to deal with right away. "For whatever psychological reason, [Williams's] identity became very wrapped up into being the sole survivor," said Montaigne. "He began to believe he was the sole survivor, and he pushed others out of the way. I think we address that in the book, and that he finally came to terms with that."

Williams told PW that after the accident at Galeras, the media often called on him as "volcano guy" and neglected to mention the other survivors. "I was guilty of becoming that guy, and I should have reminded myself and others that there were others on the scene," he said.

The question for those involved in the Houghton book is what prompted Bruce to write her book now? Both books were signed in quick, six-figure deals. Houghton bought Williams's in May of 1999 and then sold foreign rights in four countries at BookExpo America a week later. Curiously, Bruce was one of the writers Williams's agent Michael Carlisle approached about being co-author on Surviving Galeras. While she wasn't interested in that project, she thought it would make a good story for a book.

In fact, Bruce said she thought about that the first time she heard of Galeras as a graduate student studying geology at the University of California-Riverside. In 1996, Williams came to her school and talked about Galeras. When she heard about Williams's book deal and his collaboration with Montaigne, Bruce said she briefly put aside thoughts of writing her own book on the subject. "Then I thought there was a bigger story there from a journalistic point of view," she said. She started looking into Galeras in earnest in November 1999. That's when she discovered that Williams was not the sole survivor. "That was something I had no idea I'd find initially," Bruce told PW. Further examination led to further inconsistencies and that propelled Bruce forward.

Harper picked up Bruce's book last February in a six-figure deal that preempted an auction. She worked fast to make a deadline that was contingent on the timetable for the Williams's book.

Houghton editor Eamon Dolan told PW that while he thought Bruce's book was reactive to Williams's, he was not surprised by it and viewed it as additional validation for the expected success of Surviving Galeras. "It is not unusual for some author to stake out a territory--especially in this science/adventure genre--and then for another author to take a look and say, 'That looks succulent, I'll take a crack at it myself,'" Dolan explained. "Certainly, the Krakauer book on Everest was followed fairly quickly by the Boukreev book on Everest. That's the example that sticks most in my mind."

Dolan remembered being impressed with Williams at their very first meeting. "To see him, this man who had gone through this traumatic experience and who clearly bore the brunt of that experience, but handled it with such grace, it's part of what made me think that this is a story that deserved and needed a wide broadcast."

Harper acquiring editor Dan Conaway worked closely with Bruce to make the tight deadline on No Apparent Danger. "It was certainly done on a crash schedule," he said. "I was most impressed by Vicky's compassion for the people of Colombia and the scientists. I feel this book is almost the celebration of the heroism that came out of that tragedy."

Neither author wants any controversy that might surround their books to overshadow the broader stories within them. Through interviews with survivors, rescuers and scientists, Bruce tells a narrative that spans 10 years. Williams uses his own account and those of other survivors of Galeras to explain the intricacies of volcanology, a little understood and dangerous science.

Clearly, Williams is unhappy about Bruce's book. "It is annoying to me that in her book she makes me sound like I am the ultimate used-car salesman selling lemons to people," Williams said. "It really d s seem that she has a lot of straight hostility toward the situation. She tells of big battles going on--which there weren't--about what was going on and what we should do. I don't think that's realistic or fair to the people involved, and that's an unfortunate perspective. Of course, it is her prerogative to write the book."

Williams, a working volcanologist for 25 years, directly questions Bruce's credentials as a scientist. Bruce, a former NASA science writer and geologist, said that even if she weren't a scientist, No Apparent Danger is a work of investigative journalism with the science backed up by other scientists.

No Apparent Danger and Surviving Galeras will no doubt be placed side by side in the bookstores. Houghton's Dolan ech d just about everyone involved with the two books when he said, "I eagerly await the verdict in the court of public opinion." As always, that verdict comes in the form of sales at the cash register. If both books come close to selling out their initial six-figure print runs, this could be the year of the volcano.

Publishers Court Singles in Time for Valentine's Day

Just in time for a day of flowers, chocolates or drowning their sorrows with single girlfriends (known to the rest of the world as Valentine's Day), a handful of books has sprung up, all aimed at single young women. It seems Bridget Jones is merely one of many 20- and 30-something
Gal got trouble? There's
a book for every ailment.
upwardly mobile females who are grappling with life's major and minor crises, involving dating, careers and sh s. With the arrival of three new books, it seems some publishers are clamoring to satiate this savvy group's hunger for fun, honest reads directed specifically at them. Here's three books for the girls:
Sophie Kinsella's perky novel Confessions of a Shopaholic (Delta) introduces 25-year-old Rebecca Bloomwood, another cute Brit with a weakness for men with large bank accounts and designer sample sales. Unfortunately, her own bank account has trouble supporting her spending habits, and she promptly finds herself having to deal with nasty credit letters until she finds a way out. The book was published in the U.K. as The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic last fall and hovers in the top 100 ranking on Susan Kamil, vice-president and editorial director at the Dial Press (Delta is Dial's paperback imprint), insists Shopaholic is not a Bridget Jones spinoff. "It's easy to say that [Rebecca Bloomwood] is Bridget Jones's younger sister," she said, but maintained that this book has a much wider readership. "Relationship books on humor always reach far audiences." The book's first printing is set for 55,000, and its publication date is a timely February 13. A snappy double cover and clever artwork should garner attention.

More cerebral but just as girl-centric is Dell's Bibliotherapy: The Girl's Guide to Books for Every Phase of Our Lives by Nancy Peske and Beverly West. A follow-up to the popular Cinematherapy (1999), this reference-like handbook suggests books for "When You're Wallowing in a Sullen, Perennial Adolescence: Coming-of-Age Books" (they suggest The Bell Jar) and "When You're Ready to Take to the Streets: The-Personal-Is-Political Books" (try The Ugly American). Incidentally, their take on Miss Jones? "Oh, lighten up, people! Bridget is hilarious, and all of us have a little of her in us."

Perhaps the most unapologetic book of this quick roundup is Diane Farr's The Girl Code: The Secret Language of Single Women (On Dating, Sex, Shopping, and Honor Among Girlfriends), published by Little, Brown early this month. The author, a previous cohost of MTV's Loveline and dating advice columnist in Cosmopolitan, presents something of a single gal's dictionary of dating. A Valentine-themed cover makes this a sh in for woman-to-woman gift giving.
--Lynn Andriani