In a tiny plane over the Amazon rainforest, Kansas City writer Candice Millard plummeted to what she was sure would be her death.
She was trying to figure out why Theodore Roosevelt and his men almost died of starvation in this very spot. Roosevelt was an accomplished hunter, his guide had spent an entire lifetime in the Amazon and this was the richest ecosystem on earth. Why couldn't they manage to eat?
So she rented a plane and hired a pilot to take her to a remote village in Brazil. Here, she'd be able to understand on a sensory level what Roosevelt and his crew were up against.
It was the rainy season, and nothing ever quite got dry. Her pilot, an inexperienced young guy, forgot to sump the tank, or siphon off the excess moisture that had gathered on the engine.
"We were about 1,500 feet up," she recalls, "and if you've been in a little plane you know it's loud and shaky and then all the sudden it's just silent and we drop like a stone."
The pilot, she says, "was literally clawing at the controls."
Her husband was with her, and their 8-month-old daughter was at home.
Millard had two thoughts: that they'd probably just orphaned their child, and that their death, if not immediate, was guaranteed to be horrible.
"We're so remote in the rainforest, nobody's going to find us."
Miraculously, the pilot got the engine started again before they hit the ground.
File the experience under "research" in Candice Millard's version of the writing life.
Her books take place in the past, and although written documents allow a kind of time travel to the worlds her characters inhabit, the closest she can come to really being there with them is to visit the places where the events in her books occurred. Even, and maybe especially, when that includes a near-death experience in the South American jungle.
"Having that near death-experience there, you have a lot of respect for the rainforest and for the creatures that live in it," she says. "While we were there, a man escaped from prison in the rainforest and within minutes was killed by a poisonous snake. It happens all the time."
Millard has written three books about precarious moments in the lives of famous statesmen. The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey was her first book. She followed it with Destiny of The Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, about how James A. Garfield was poked and prodded to death following an assassination attempt. And her most recent book, about the origins of an incredible ego, is Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill.
They've all been New York Times Best Sellers.
These are books about some of the most powerful men in history not at the top of their game, but in moments of great struggle.
"I like the idea of finding these very powerful, very successful men in situations where they are unsure, they are searching for a foothold, they are struggling," she says. "I think that's when your real character is revealed. James Garfield said that when someone is really sick, he called it 'the bed of the sea.' You find out who they really are because everything else is stripped bare."
Millard is no stranger to struggling. Her career began when she returned to Kansas City after graduate school. Penniless, she moved back in with her parents. From that glamorous launching pad, she began writing for trade magazines.
"My first job was working for this little trade journal called Veterinary Forum. It was for veterinarians. I'd never even had a pet."
Somehow, she hoped to catapult herself from writing for trade journals to writing for National Geographic. She treated the profiles she wrote of veterinarians like in-depth magazine features, much to the surprise of her editors. She worked hard, read constantly, and called the National Geographic job hotline every day. They never had any openings. So she changed her plan and decided to join the Peace Corps. She was 28 years old.
Having grown up in a blue-collar town in Ohio before moving to Kansas City in high school, she hadn't thought much early on about becoming a writer. She loved reading and her childhood practically revolved around the library, but no one she knew was a writer. And at the time, she was ready to give up the dream, figuring she'd had a good run.
But she took a trip to Washington D.C. to learn more about the Peace Corps. She was having dinner with her boyfriend's college roommate's twin brother. He asked her what she would do if she could do anything she wanted, and she told him that her dream job would be working for National Geographic. It turned out he had a friend that worked there. So they went by his office, there was an opening, she applied and got the job.
As a writer, Millard says you need more than just a wealth of material. "You need to be drowning in it," she insists.
Hopefully that's not why she keeps returning to rivers — her next book is all about the Nile.