"CBS Early Show" anchor Jeff Glor speaks with Mitchell Zuckoff about his book, "Lost in Shangri-La."
Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write the book?
Mitchell Zuckoff: Inspired is really the right word. The inspiration came in the form of an article I stumbled across in the Chicago Tribune from June 1945. It described the crash of a military plane in New Guinea, and explained that three survivors - one a beautiful corporal in the Women's Army Corps - were living with a Stone Age tribe in a valley nicknamed "Shangri-La." When the article described how they were waiting to be rescued using a half-mad plan involving gliders being snatched from the valley floor by passing planes, the inspiration turned into perspiration! I couldn't believe that this story had been lost to history, and I knew I had to write it.
JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?
MZ: Beyond these incredible circumstances, you mean? Seriously, the surprises just kept coming. First I learned that the WAC had kept a diary during her nearly two months in the valley, and I could find a transcript - she had written it in secretarial shorthand -- in a little historical society in upstate New York. Then I found the chief rescuer still living quietly in a retirement home in Oregon - Earl Walter, who turns 90 this month, and I hope to be there at his party. Earl gave me an amazing firsthand account of the events, and then he handed me a journal he had kept while there. I was shocked also by how many family members connected to this crash and rescue had saved letters, documents, photos and other key materials, and then handed them to me with only the request that I tell the story well. My next surprise came when I learned that I could obtain a brief documentary film - A FILM! - shot in the valley during the events, by a wild ex-Hollywood actor and jewel thief who parachuted in to record the survivors and the tribe. (The actual film is on my website, www.mitchellzuckoff.com) But maybe the biggest surprise of all came when I went to New Guinea, climbed a mountain, and found not only the wreckage of the Gremlin Special, but old men and women who were children back in 1945 and could tell me the story from the natives' perspective.
JG: What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?
MZ: I suspect that I'm already doing it: teaching. I'm a professor of journalism at Boston University. As much as I love being a writer, I can't tell you how much I enjoy watching my students figure out how to do this work of telling true stories.
JG: What else are you reading right now?
MZ: I just finished Patti Smith's "Just Kids," and now I'm reading a terrific book by James Swanson called "Bloody Crimes," about parallel journeys taken by Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln.
JG: What's next for you?
MZ: Did my editor put you up to asking that? Actually, I'm eager to get back to writing. I have a couple of historical nonfiction narratives I'm considering. My decision will be based on which one I think I'll enjoy even half as much as I did writing "Lost in Shangri-La."
For more on Lost in Shangri-La, visit the Harper Collins website.