To learn more about any of the photos just click it.
How did you decide to write about Hell?
When I was in high school, being taught by Christian Brothers, we dipped into Dante’s Inferno. It was not exactly riveting at the time, and I remember the Brother throwing his chalk eraser at people to keep them awake. My trick to keep from nodding off was to stare at the cracks in the floor. As Dante unfolded in my ear, my eye was following the cracks. And then something connected, a journey – with rappels and rafts and the whole nine yards – through the circles of hell.
You started writing The Descent in high school?
No. I was writing short stories at the time, and bad poetry. But The Descent seemed like a big story, even then, and the notion of becoming a writer was still just a fantasy. So I stored the idea away in my mental bottom drawer, and forgot about it. Flash forward about twenty-five years. I was in between books, trying to decide what to write next. I looked up at the book shelf, and a copy of The Ascent was upside-down. Up/down, ascend/descend, the high places/the low places.
In The Ascent, I set an American expedition loose on the north face of Mt. Everest. For this one, I essentially turned the mountains inside out and completely reversed course. Instead of a struggle for the highest point on earth, why not a struggle for the lowest point? Switching gears like that set my imagination loose.
Describe how the idea became a book.
An agent named Bill Gross, a really sharp, buoyant mind in Los Angeles, served as my taskmaster. For months I worked and reworked the proposal and first chapters. Bill patiently read my stuff and sent it back with notes. For almost a year, there was nothing but revision and more revision. No money coming in. Only high hopes.
Finally he showed it to Bruce Berman at Warner Brothers. That led to a film option, which let me pay debts I’d racked up over the past year. Then we went to New York, where a climbing buddy introduced me to his literary agent. The proposal went out to twenty publishing houses, all the same morning. By ten that morning offers were coming in. There was an auction. Two days later we settled on a house and a great editor.
It was the week of July Fourth. I took time to watch the fireworks, then dove back into the work. For two years I got up at 3 or 4 in the morning and would work until 6 or 7 at night. I’d sleep on my office floor some nights, unless the garage bands were playing in the rental under mine. It was a grueling pace. A lot like going on a two-year expedition.
Writers are supposed to write what they know. How did you get to “know” hell?
I know it sounds high and mighty, but there were the obvious precedents. Like I said, there was Dante. Also Milton's Paradise Lost and Virgil's Aeneid. More in the here and now was a brilliant "guidebook" called The History of Hell, by Alice Turner. Her book served as my guide in more ways than just scholarship about old concepts of the underworld. It also showed me what a provocative adventure hell could offer.
Jules Verne was a great inspiration, and H.G. Wells. It wasn't just their incredibly original borrowing from the science of their day, but also their use of fiction to comment on social issues. Journey to the Center of the Earth was an adventure into what was then a brand-new idea called Darwinism and evolution. H.G. Wells used his Time Machine to look at the consequences of social engineering. Good science fiction isn’t about the future so much as what’s going outside our window today. So when I put on my imaginary backpack to descend into the earth, their work was in with the ropes, the thermos of tea and Power Bars.
Is The Descent a form of social commentary?
I use it to look at modern-day colonialism. Several of my earlier books, including The Ascent and a history of the Texas Revolution, Duel of Eagles, explored the ways nations conquer territory and peoples. With The Descent I saw a chance to ask the question: If we discovered a new planet, or say a new world outside our own planet, would we treat it differently from the way our ancestors invaded the Americas? My reading of history is that certain basic patterns don't change. I don't care whether it's Romans, Byzantines, Chinese, or Americans -- empires act alike. Faced with a land of new riches, the armies, governments, and corporate powers would rush in, claim territory, plant their flags, subjugate the natives, and exploit the resources.
Did you draw on personal experiences?
I've sprinkled in a friend or two for fun. More to the point, I drew on some of my travels, especially for the chapters about Bosnia and Tibet. I was an election supervisor for Bosnia's first election under OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It was an amazing experience, and the people protecting us in our sector were American troops with NATO. The military camps were set on top of hills to the east of Tuzla, and at one camp there was this very bright, very decent, very motivated, very well educated major named Branch. He was our host when we’d come up from town to get MREs (meals ready to eat) to supplement the Bosnian attempts at pizza. Also we’d get security instructions and radios and coordinate plans for the approaching election day. During my time there, I interviewed everyone I could, including American soldiers at various camps. Later I stuck Major Branch into The Descent.
As for the Himalayas, I first visited there thirty years ago, and I've returned a dozen times or so. I've led and climbed on expeditions to Everest and Makalu, and that gave me a sense of how real expeditions work. The social contract can get pretty tattered when you're in a pressure cooker at high altitude and in a dangerous environment. Personalities clash. Mutinies simmer. Little details take on enormous magnitude, things like a last candy bar or someone's snoring. So my experience in the Himalayas helped me paint a realistic picture of how my expedition force might really unravel.
What genre does The Descent fall in?
First and foremost, it's an epic adventure. It's also a mystery and a love story. In a sense, The Descent is a Western, too, tackling the subterranean wilderness on its own terms and seeking order in a lawless, savage environment. Like I said, it is about conquest and exploration. In the spirit of Jules Verne -- and of Lewis and Clark, and of Zebulon Pike, and other military-science expeditions on the American frontier -- I launch a scientific expedition into the unknown, with a few twists. Like meeting the devil.
So the devil’s real, too?
He provides the novel's great mystery. If there was a historic Jesus, why not a historic Satan? What would he be like? Forget the sadist with a pitch fork -- that's a cartoon. I tried to envision him as a real being, one who might still be alive. Would he be a philosopher-king, or a guerrilla leader like Mao or Geronimo, or a wanderer like Odysseus, or a dark prince like Hamlet? What about his capacity for evil? And what about ours?
In The Descent, I follow a think tank of elderly scholars as they try to profile the Great Deceiver. As the expedition picks its way through the subterranean labyrinth, the scholars revisit archaeological sites, libraries, and artifacts like the Shroud of Turin in an effort to compile a "unified theory of Satan."