Author John Buckley discusses the book.
Q. So what’s The Geography Lesson about?
A. It’s story about a writer for National Geographic whose life, and career, were upended in 1968, after he and a photographer discovered a pristine Anasazi ruin in a canyon in Southern Utah, and the ruin subsequently — almost immediately after they left to return to Washington — got ransacked. In the story, this becomes a huge issue for the National Geographic Society, because it was viewed that they’d failed in their responsibilities, in this case to protect the site of a discovery, even as they rushed to get pictures and the story into print. And then many years later, at the time the action begins, our by-now retired narrator is stunned to discover one of the artifacts from the ruin sitting on a shelf photographed for an Architectural Digest feature on a rich guy’s apartment in New York. And it’s not just any rich guy’s apartment. The moment he sees it, he knows pretty much what happened to him all those years ago. And thus our story begins.
Q. Would you call it an adventure story?
A. I think of the book as a comedy, actually. The action in the present day – the narrative takes place in 2007, in that pregnant moment just before the financial crash – is meant to be dramatic. And there are aspects of the book that are tragic. But about half of the book takes place in 1968, and that entire sequence is intended to be a comic look at Washington, and at the National Geographic Society, in what was a pretty tumultuous year.
Q. Why do you focus on the National Geographic Society?
A. The National Geographic Society is one of the great Washington institutions that everyone knows about, but has never been examined, to my knowledge, by a novelist. Robert Poole wrote an amazing history of it, and the Society has a truly fantastic history, from the time it was basically a gentleman’s club of explorers to its present-day status as one of the great media companies. I wanted to shine a satirical novelist’s light on Nat Geo, which is one of the most respected institutions in American life – and deservedly so. But of course, that’s all the more reason to make mischief with it.
Q. So why would the ruin being looted become such a big issue for the National Geographic Society?
A. The story revolves around the discovery of the ruin in May of 1968. Because of their sense of responsibility, the writers and editors at National Geographic did not want to report on a new ruin hidden out West without having had the Interior Department, and ultimately President Johnson, declare it to be a National Monument. Since the days of Theodore Roosevelt, who got the Antiquities Act passed by Congress so as to protect what is now Mesa Verde National Park, presidents have had the authority to protect sites in the U.S., making it illegal to take anything from them. Invoking the Antiquities Act is often the first step in the process to creating a new national park. And the intention here was to get the Antiquities Act invoked, declare the ruin a National Monument, get the Park Service or the Bureau of Land Management to get some people there to protect it, and only then announce it to the world. This is a process that has been started by the National Geographic Society on several occasions.
So in The Geography Lesson, the action revolves around these guys coming back to D.C. and having to quietly maneouvre official Washington into getting this unknown site designated a National Monument before the publication of a story in National Geographic sets off a frenzy of people wanting to get there. But when Tim Prescott, the writer who narrates the book, returns with an archaeologist and an Interior Department official – which they need to do in order to make the case that Johnson should invoke the Antiquities Act — they find that in just the few weeks since he was there with his photographer, Wes Channing, someone has come and stolen all the best artifacts.
And of course, this being Washington, that sets off a typical political scandal, with recriminations and Congressional hearings. It’s really fun!
Q. And this really ruins the narrator’s life?
A. He’s still able to write for the magazine, and along with his friend Wes, Tim Prescott goes on to make other such discoveries, in Mexico, and Peru, which National Geographic gets to announce. But yes, it was a big deal. Having a magazine writer get hauled before Congress is a big deal. And for an institution like the National Geographic Society to get egg on its face creates a lot of turmoil for those who are blamed for it. His whole life after that has a cloud over it. And of course, he always wondered what happened. And when he finds out what did happen, it calls his entire life since that moment into question. It turns out he was rather a big fool.
Q. And finding out where that missing artifact is 40 years later lets him figures out what happened?
A. Yes, it becomes clear, immediately. And as it turns out, just at that moment, National Geographic, the modern, multi-platform media company, has a need for his services once again. Which sets off the deadly chain of events that drives the novel.
Q. So this is your first novel since Statute of Limitations came out in 1990. Why so long without a book?
A. It’s my first novel, but not my first book since 1990. In 2010, Ted Leonsis and I published The Business of Happiness, which is based on Ted’s life story and his very compelling prescription for how to lead a happy life. That book made me happy by becoming a best seller. But yes, I haven’t brought a novel to the market since 1990.
My story basically is that, after writing two novels in pretty quick succession, I began a corporate career. I spent ten years as the senior corporate communications executive at Fannie Mae, and then spent five years in that same role at America Online. Along the way, I took a break from corporate life to work on one last presidential campaign. And then in 1997, my wife and I had a son, Will, and between career and family, writing novels was put on hold.
Then in 2007, after leaving AOL, I began work on what will be a long project about Edward Abbey, and his landmark work, Desert Solitaire. And along the way, I got an idea for a novel. And this became The Geography Lesson.