"1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created" by Charles Mann
Jeff Glor talks to Charles Mann about "1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created."
Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write the book?
Charles Mann: One beginning point was the home of our friends Laura and Bob, who own a tree farm near our home. I can't remember how this came up, but suddenly Laura was talking about how tree farms all over New England were being invaded by earthworms. Until the English came, Laura said, there were no earthworms in the northern U.S. or Canada. The worms were all carpetbaggers, and they were doing terrible things to northern forest ecosystems.
Laura and Bob are good friends, but I thought they must be nuts. When I had some time, I went to the library and discovered a) they were 100% right about the worms; and b) the worm invasion was only a small part of a giant ecological explosion that was set off by Columbus.
I knew a bit about this explosion, because I'd read Alfred W. Crosby's wonderful books, "The Columbian Exchange and Ecological Imperialism." Al had been the first one to notice that Columbus had set off an exchange of species between Eurasia and the Americas, and that this Columbian Exchange had played a big role in human history. Now I learned that, inspired by him, historians and ecologists and geographers had learned a vast amount of new material about the processes he had identified.
Over the years, I had got to know Al Crosby a little. I began to bug him about updating his stuff. He didn't want to--he was on to new things. Finally he said, "Well, if you think it's such a good idea, why don't you do it?" I took his offhand quip as license. "1493" is the result.
I like to think that I added something, but at bottom the book was inspired by dinner conversations with interesting friends and reading interesting books.
JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?
CM: I'm not sure, but I was certainly surprised, riding in a small boat between islands in the Philippines, to see that the engine was literally held together with vice-grips. Another big surprise occurred when I was in a two-seater plane over eastern Bolivia, and the pilot asked me to take over while he crawled out of his seat and rummaged around in the back luggage compartment.
JG: What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?
CM: As a kid I wanted to be an astronaut or a cartoonist or a particle physicist. I don't know which I would be worst at.
JG: What else are you reading right now?
CM: Right now? I just finished writing a long non-fiction book, so I've been reading fiction. I'm mostway through J.G. Farrell's "Siege of Krishnapur" (really good) and partly through some other books. An hour ago I came back from my local book store, where I somehow acquired more books: Octavia Butler's "Kindred," Bruce Duffy's "The World as I Found It," and John Crowley's "Four Freedoms." I don't know whether I'll start those or wait till I finish the others.
JG: What's next for you?
CM: My daughter wants me to write a children's book that she can illustrate. The book would be based on a series of bedtime stories that I told the kids about two Japanese beetles, Bill and Fred. They eat roses and live in the world's biggest greenhouse and have misadventures. I haven't got around to proposing this to my publisher, though.
For more on "1493: : Uncovering the New World Columbus Created" visit the Random House website.