Writers of historical nonfiction aren’t often stopped in airports and markets by curious fans. They don’t usually describe themselves as “gregarious extroverts.” And they certainly don’t typically drive Porsches, followed around by TV crews.
But Buddy Levy isn’t a typical writer. An associate professor of English at Washington State University, who recently completed his fifth book and will read from it on Saturday at Auntie’s, Levy is also a reality TV star. Though his articles have appeared in Backpacker, SKI Magazine, and Poets & Writers, he’s better known as co-star of Brad Meltzer’s Decoded, a History Channel series that sends Levy and a crew speeding around in a Porsche Cayenne, investigating historical mysteries and conspiracy theories.
Levy is comfortable on camera —cracking jokes, marching fearlessly up historic staircases, befriending everybody. He gets to explore the Library of Congress and CIA headquarters and to pal around with the direct descendants of John Wilkes Booth and Meriwether Lewis. Levy digs that kind of thing.
“It’s a good dovetailing of my skills,” he says. For years, Levy followed elite athletes from Morocco to Greenland, covering multisport endurance racing. His books have also explored other kinds of adventurers, like Davy Crockett, Hernán Cortés and Montezuma.
When I call him, he’s at work on his next book proposal, surrounded by forty books he’s using for research. That’s not as big as the 200-book fortress he constructed for his latest book, River of Darkness — but it’s only the beginning.
“It’s very important to me to get it right,” Levy says, “so I don’t have scholars saying, ‘This is great fiction.’” It’s equally important for him to tell a good story. “The goal,” he says, “is to combine an informative, true page-turner about some form of cool history people don’t really know about. That’s what I strive for.”
For River, Levy traveled to Peru on the trails of conquistadors, using their journals as guides. He floated the Amazon in a 30-foot carved dugout canoe and slept in hammocks in the rainforest, “getting a sense of what it was like on the ground” for the Spaniard Francisco de Orellana, who made the first known voyage down the length of the legendary river.
As a result, what could have been a dry recounting of facts becomes a vivid journey. You see powerful men reduced to eating belts and shoe leather. You see, as the men fall asleep, the “nocturnal lantern bugs, whose outspread wings look like the wide-open eyes of an owl.” You see, most of all, the epic river always before them, “a dark and headless black snake slithering into the unknown.”
It’s that same unknown that keeps Levy exploring and writing, despite life’s unexpected turns. Last summer, his wife, Camie, was diagnosed with uterine cancer. In November, as River garnered early praise and Decoded was slated to air, doctors discovered a brain tumor as well.
“Cosmic irony,” Levy calls it, his voice softening. “I thought this moment would be the apex of my glee.”
“I realize it’s not all supposed to be easy,” he says. “It’s probably helped me in some ways to not worry about little things, like this [book proposal].”
Camie has responded to treatments, and Levy remains positive. When our conversation turns to the future, he says, “I’ve been fortunate to have a good wife and family. I probably once had greater ambition to summit mountains and things, but now I’m driven by where the stories are.”
Buddy Levy reads from River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana’s Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon • Sat, March 26, at 2 pm • Auntie’s Bookstore • 402 W Main • buddylevy.com • 838-0206