Twenty years ago, Candice Millard made a major decision in her life.
In her mid-thirties and fed up with her long-distance marriage, she left her dream job in Washington, DC, as an editor and writer for National Geographic to return to Kansas City and become a full-time author.
She had little confidence in the future.
“I was just starting to work on my first book at the time and expecting my first child, and I didn’t know if I could do either,” Millard said. “I’m like, ‘Can I write a book? It seems a bit crazy. Can I be a mother? It seems even more difficult.
Three New York Times bestselling books and three blossoming children later, Millard can consider the last two decades an absolute success.
Now comes the release of what will undoubtedly be his fourth New York Times bestseller: “River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile.” The book, which chronicles one of the greatest feats of exploration in history, is due out on May 17. The following day, Millard will appear for an event at the Country Club Plaza, then embark on a nationwide book tour.
Like his three previous books, which have sold over a million copies in the United States alone, “River of the Gods” is a comprehensive retelling of a relatively overlooked chapter in history. The first three each focused on a famous man: Theodore Roosevelt in “River of Doubt” (2005), James Garfield in “Destiny of the Republic” (2011) and Winston Churchill in “Hero of the Empire” (2016). The main action in all three takes place within one or two months.
“River of the Gods” – yes, this is Millard’s second adventure on a “River of…” – differs not only in that it has three main characters (the explorers Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke and the guide Sidi Mubarak Bombay), but also spans a decade.
“This book, the heart of the story, is really 10 years old,” Millard said. “And there are a lot of different expeditions. There is one main expedition, but many other expeditions took place during this time. »
The rivalry between Burton and Speke is central to the story.
Millard has a bit of her own, albeit very friendly, rival. In the world of historical and narrative non-fiction, Erik Larson is probably the king, but Millard is also a major star. The two are friends on social media.
“When it comes to narrative nonfiction, she’s the best,” Larson said. “She’s about as good as it gets. And it’s really kind of annoying, because at some point I thought I had this territory all to myself.
“I think she’s fabulous. I love her books. She has this way of finding a really new way to tell an old story.
Larson said Millard did just that when she beat him to the punch over a possible book about Roosevelt’s expedition along the Amazon in “River of Doubt.”
“That was one of the things I jotted down in my idea journal…thinking, ‘You know, this might be interesting at some point. And, of course, it was interesting, especially the way Candice did it.
Another connection between the authors is that their two most recent books were about Churchill. Larson, known for ‘The Devil in the White City’ and ‘Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania’ and more, wrote about Churchill’s first months as British Prime Minister in ‘The Splendid and the Vile’ (2020). In “Heroes of the Empire”, Millard examined an earlier chapter in Churchill’s life, his trip to South Africa to cover the Boer War and his ensuing capture.
While Millard has earned respect and fans internationally, she has also established herself as Kansas City’s favorite author. The feeling is mutual.
“I really like it here,” she said. “I loved raising my children here. In fact, it’s so great because my kids said, “Thank you for raising us here. And they love it.
“The most important thing for me is the happiness of my children, and my career is far behind that. Even at work, I love it. I feel like I have so much support and I have the feel like there’s a really good community of like-minded people, people who love books.
She even considers herself a Kansas Citian now, despite growing up in Ohio. Millard moved here with his family and completed high school in Shawnee Mission Northwest, then earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Baker University in Baldwin City before earning his master’s degree at Baylor in Texas.
Her life-changing decision 20 years ago came about a year after she married Mark Uhlig. He is a former New York Times foreign correspondent who operates a communications and publishing company in Overland Park, where the couple had met years earlier when he hired her to work there.
They and the children (Emery, Petra and Conrad) lived in the same Leawood house they built 19 years ago, although Emery is in college these days.
“I’ve lived more of my life here than anywhere else,” she says. “I love Kansas City. I’ll always say I’m from Ohio because I was 17 when I left, so obviously it was very, very formative. But I’m a Kansas citizen. Everything to done, and proudly.”
Millard’s husband and children provide a sounding board as she researches and writes. In fact, they’re pretty much the only people who know what she hopes her next project will be. She hasn’t even spoken to her editor about it yet.
“So I don’t feel comfortable talking about it,” she said. “But it’s history, and there’s still a main character. I’m very excited about it.
Millard has confirmed that the potential subject is female, and it’s likely the search will require a trip to an exotic location.
She ventured into the Amazon rainforest for “River of Doubt” and South Africa for “Hero of the Empire.” For his latest book, it was a trip to Kenya, Zanzibar, Tanzania and Uganda.
As for the Amazonian adventure, her husband followed. And like this trip, they were close to death. In Brazil, her life shattered before her eyes when their small plane stalled before narrowly avoiding a crash in the rainforest. In Tanzania, they found danger on the water.
Taking a small wooden boat across Lake Tanganyika – one of the largest and deepest freshwater lakes in the world – was more than just an unpleasant experience.
“There had been a storm, and the water was really, really choppy,” Millard said. “And we tipped. I mean, like completely vertically, rocking back and forth. I was terrified. My husband was with me, and I’m like, ‘Poor thing, if we tip over, we’ll never reach the coast.’ And he said, ‘It’s okay. Don’t worry, because the crocodiles will eat us before we get there.’ »
Luck was on their side, however, and wife and husband avoided becoming a crocodile kitchen. They also barely avoided a pandemic travel nightmare by returning home in March 2020 just days before the world came to a standstill.
At that time, she received a message from Larson seeking to support her fellow author.
“He said, ‘I really hope you can dig in and do a lot with the pandemic. And I was like, ‘You obviously don’t have kids at home.’
Petra and Conrad attended Pembroke Hill, which had gone to distance learning, so they were home while their mother tried to work. “They want to come and talk, and I do, but that makes it harder to get things done.”
Millard’s process on each block involves about two years of research, planning and description before she gets down to writing. Even then, things don’t always work out.
Before writing “River of Gods,” she had spent a year researching what she hoped would be a book about Nobel Prize-winning chemist and physicist Marie Curie. She had had a similar experience researching Benjamin Franklin’s stay in London before the Revolutionary War.
In either case, she was unable to uncover enough primary sources for the ideas to work as narrative stories. “Those details that really make it a page-turner, you hope, really make it an immersive experience.”
She could always switch to the popular new approach to fictional historical events. But don’t count on it.
“Because I’ve spent so much of my life writing non-fiction, narrative non-fiction, it’s really important to me that people know what they’re reading is true,” he said. she declared. “I would be very uncomfortable writing fiction, and I don’t think I would be very good at it.
“I have nothing to invent. I just have to go find it and then figure out how to say it.
So far, so good.
Meet the author
Candice Millard will speak on “River of the Gods” at 7 p.m. May 18 at Unity Temple in the Plaza, 707 W. 47th. $32.50, includes a copy of the book. rainydaybooks.com. 913-384-3126.
Other appearances in the region: KCUR’s “Up to Date” with Steve Kraske, 9 a.m. May 17; Wichita Public Library, 6 p.m. May 17; Magic City Books, Tulsa, 7 p.m. May 19; Maceli’s, Lawrence, 7 p.m. June 1; Skylark Books, Columbia, Missouri, 6:30 p.m. June 2; Flint Hills Books, Council Grove, Kansas, 1 p.m. June 11.