Interview with Gary Mancuso, author of The Last Places on Earth

TLPoE CoverTitle: The Last Places on Earth
Author: Gary Mancuso
Publisher: Great Lands Publishing
Pages: 375
Genre: Travelogue/Essays
Format: Hardcopy/Ebook

 Gary Mancuso has seen how fast the world’s biological and cultural diversity is being obliterated by rapid globalization. In 2005, He saw the earth reaching a major turning point, when the last remnants of primal humanity and nature would soon be gone. So, in a life-changing gamble, he set off on a six-year journey to see the earth’s remaining wildernesses. This intensely personal account of Gary’s journey includes feasting with New Guinea’s former cannibals, hunting with Pygmies in the Congo Basin, and attending a Madagascan highland death ritual with an exhumed corpse as the guest of honor. Gary paid a price for his journey: lost his wife to divorce, half his net worth to financial malfeasance, and a dear friend to suicide. He fell sick several times, got electrocuted, and struggled with the inevitable disorientation borne of long rootlessness. But he overcame each hurdle and even found romance in some unlikely places. By dumb luck, some smart luck, and an instinct for improvisation, he pressed on and somehow staggered home. The Last Places on Earth: Journeys in Our Disappearing World is a timely and powerful reminder that the wonderment and mystery that we humans naively assumed would always be there is dying fast.

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Can you please tell us a little about The Last Places On Earth: Journeys in Our Disappearing World?

This is my memoir of a six-year journey I recently completed into many of the last great wildernesses and intact traditional cultures on earth. The long journey was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to really know and see the most exotic wild places in the world. It also came out of the realization that much of the wonder and mystery of the planet will soon vanish forever due to globalization. I felt a sense of urgency that if I didn’t go now, it would all be gone 

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

The hardest part of writing my story was overcoming my deep need for privacy. To be interesting, a good travel memoir typically interweaves an intimately personal story with a physical journey. My first draft of this book took three months to write. It was very factual, objective, and detailed about the cultures and wildernesses I journeyed into—a “just the facts, ma’am” sort of narrative. A prospective agent who evaluated it told me I had a great story but needed to learn how to tell it. He stressed that readers cared most about how I, the guy out there living through this wild odyssey, felt and was affected by the experience. So, over a nine-month period, I rewrote my manuscript and really put my thoughts and feeling into it. This became the basis for my book, which, with two more rewrites under the guidance of a multiple New York Times best-selling editor, became the finished product in your hands now. 

Do you have a favorite excerpt from the book? If so, could you please share it with us?

“How can I get into Mr. Bush’s jail?” Jason, a talented, university-educated 29-year-old trail guide asked me. He looked completely serious.

That’s the beginning of chapter 9, recounting my time in Myanmar (Burma) right after the devastating Cyclone Nargis hit in May 2008. Jason was my guide on a two-day trek to some Palaung villages in the lush tropical highland forest. Here was a guy who sincerely wanted to get himself and his family thrown into Gitmo—“Mr. Bush’s jail”—because he felt life for him and his family would be better there than it was under the military regime running the country!

“I and my family would be given three meals every day,” he said. “I would have a clean, warm place to live on a nice island.” 

The conversation continues with Jason speculating on how he can accomplish this absurd goal and asking my advice on how to do it.

What he was saying would be laughable if it weren’t so utterly tragic. This intelligent young man, with his whole life ahead of him, saw himself and his family as better off in a notorious maximum-security prison than living in their own home country. You can’t help seeing the dark humor in that. The anecdote also captures the essence of how so much of humanity gets shafted in the “birth lottery,” living in such a repressive, corruptly and incompetently ruled place purely by accident of birth.

What do you hope readers will take away after reading the book?

I hope readers take away a greater appreciation for the biological and cultural richness that still remains—for now, anyway—on our planet. And perhaps gain a better understanding of why everyone needs to do what they can to preserve at least some of the natural and traditional riches of our world before they are chopped down, paved over, and absorbed into the commercial, modern world order.

What was your writing process while writing this book?

I was very systemic and organized in my approach to this book project. The first thing I did was spend several days laying out a detailed itinerary of my entire six-year journey onto a spreadsheet. Then I color-coded the parts of the itinerary where the most important or interesting “stories” occurred, and laid out an outline of the book, by chapter and subject matter. As I said, I went through three rewrites of the manuscript after the first draft. With each iteration, I used the knowledge I gained from the critique of the previous one to create a smoother, better-written narrative. It was an exhausting process that took more than eighteen months to finish. But the end product, which told exactly the same story as the first version I wrote, looked as if it had been written by a completely different person. 

Who or what was the inspiration for the book?

Many people I met along the way, especially after I was three years or more into the journey, encouraged me to write a book about the experience. Near the end of my long journey, so many people I knew—passing acquaintances, friends, and family members—became more and more insistent. I had to do it, they said. I had to write a memoir of my journey. So, on my last serious trip of the entire epic, which was to the Antarctic, I decided to write my story.

Have you had a mentor? If so, can you talk about them a little?

After I wrote the second iteration of the book, a year into the writing process, I showed it to a veteran editor I had the good fortune to meet. His name is Michael Carr, and he had worked on many hundreds of book manuscripts during his career, including quite a few best-sellers. He also had knocked around in some of the wilder and less settled parts of the world and so had a keen interest in off-piste travel writing like mine. He agreed to critique my manuscript and did so in great detail. He didn’t exactly pull any punches in his criticisms, but he was also very approachable and encouraging. In essence, he told me I had a great story but needed to learn how to tell it so it would really grab the reader. More than a hired editor, Michael became a mentor and a friend, guiding me through a self-directed crash course on how to “write it right.” This meant setting the book in distinct scenes, with a dramatic arc that would keep you reading. He was exacting—insisting that there was always one best word to use in each situation, and that the key was to learn how to choose and place these words in the narrative. 

I rewrote the book again and then did a fourth re-write under his close supervision. In the end, with his help, I created a story written in such a way that I’m proud to have my name on it. 

I have heard it said in order to be a good writer, you have to be a reader as well. Do you find this to be true? And if you are a reader, do you have a favorite genre and/or author?

I’ve always been a voracious reader of all genres and subject matter: travel, politics, history, economics, science, self-help, and great novels. But only during the learning process I underwent while writing my book did I start to really analyze other authors’ writing techniques. During the crash course on writing, I read and studied the writing techniques in almost a dozen books from other travel writers, including some great ones such as Paul Theroux and Eric Newby. Once I had some idea of the concepts involved, I started to see how good writers skillfully crafted their narratives to create compelling and smooth-reading prose. 

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Writing the book and being a published author, with all the promotional activities—these blogsite interviews, public speaking, book signings, and so on—has been another journey in itself. For one thing, the writing process forced me to dig deeper inside, seeking a whole new level of self-understanding, in order to convey what happened in a personal, compelling way. It also required me to understand others in much greater depth, so that I could succinctly present them as the unique, complex characters that all people truly are. I’ve always been reasonably good at this. Being a salesman by nature and profession (my last position before my global expedition was as head of business development for a trading room at a major regional bank) means that I “get” people; I’m good at understanding what makes them tick. I think that a writer, at heart, has to like people. That’s really what makes this such a gratifying, life-enhancing growth experience. 

  Gary Mancuso yearned to travel ever since he was a boy. Then, the summer before his senior year in high school, he left his family home in Ohio and drove to California. Arriving in Los Angeles with four dollars in his pocket, he slept on the beach for a spell until he got his footing. When he wasn’t off wandering somewhere, he studied economics, communications, and political science and got a master’s degree in International Relations from the University of Southern California. Before setting off on the journey that became the subject of this book, Gary headed business development in the trading room of a large regional bank. Along with his passion for travel, he is an avid trekker, swimmer, scuba diver, environmentalist, and private pilot. For More Information

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