Ronald Wright is the author of the new novel The Gold Eaters. His many other books include A Scientific Romance and A Short History of Progress. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. He lives in British Columbia.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Gold Eaters?
A: I’ve been fascinated by the Incas of Peru since accidentally discovering them in my early teens at a British boarding school. Having had the history of the Tudors drilled into me for years, it was thrilling to find a mysterious "lost" civilization we were never taught about in school.
This interest eventually took me into anthropology at Cambridge, and to several years living in Peru and Mexico. These travels led to several nonfiction books — my very first, Cut Stones &Crossroads: A Journey in Peru, published in 1984, then Time Among the Maya, and Stolen Continents.
Later, when I became a novelist, the story of the Incas’ overthrow began to haunt me again. The dramatic and momentous tragedy cried out for treatment as a literary novel. Yet as far as I could tell, nobody had written one, at least not in English or Spanish. I think I now know why: it was a difficult and complex undertaking that took me more than five years.
Q: You write in your Afterword that your characters Waman and Molina are based on real people. How did you research their lives, and what did you see as the right balance between the historical and the fictional?
A: It’s always tricky to find the right alchemy between imagination and historical record in a novel of this kind. In the case of Peru, the “skeleton” of fact is well documented, above all in John Hemming’s outstanding modern work The Conquest of the Incas, and in early accounts by both Spaniards and Peruvians who were eye-witnesses or were writing within living memory of events.
I was lucky that I already knew many original sources and could read Spanish and Quechua (Inca). With leaders such as Atawallpa, Manku, and Pizarro, there's quite a bit of material, right down to fragments of speech and gossip.
But records on humbler folk like Waman/Felipe -- the Peruvian youth taken to Spain to become Pizarro's interpreter, through whose troubled eyes we see most of the events -- and on Molina, the Spaniard left behind in Peru after a first reconnaissance, are very scanty. Not only scanty but often contradictory.
This was a blessing, for it allowed me to imagine their lives and characters freely yet without breaking the bones of history.
Q: The novel takes place in a variety of settings. How important is setting in your work, and how did you come up with all the details to depict the different locations in which the book takes place?
A: I wanted readers to be able to see, smell, hear, and feel each scene; to sense what it was like to be there, whether in the great stone cities of the Incas or the reeking wooden ships of the invaders. And that magnificent yet hostile landscape, which in my own travels I roamed by foot, horseback, and rickety bus.
Peru has a coastal desert as dry as the Sahara, a mountainous backbone as steep and icebound as the Himalayas, and the steamy Amazon jungle just beyond. These three zones were all part of the Inca Empire, linked by thousands of miles of paved roads and rope suspension bridges.
I wanted this extraordinary setting to become a character in the novel: a character that shaped the Incas, and was shaped by them, and with whom all the protagonists have to engage.
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: The Incas were baffled by the invaders' hunger for gold. In ancient Peru the metal had no monetary worth. It was used for religious and artistic purposes --for jewellery, statues, and adorning temples and other fine buildings.
A native lord and early chronicler, Felipe Guaman Poma, dramatized this cultural divide in a drawing which shows the Inca Emperor confronting a Spaniard. "Do you eat gold?" the king asks sarcastically in Quechua. The answer, in Spanish, is yes: "We eat this gold!"
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Five hundred years is not so long ago. I've held a driver's licence for a whole tenth of the time since the Inca Empire fell.
The sudden transfer of all that gold and silver from the Americas to Spain bankrolled the rise of Europe, laying the foundations of our modern world. In a way, we've all been eating gold ever since.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb