Writers and How You Find Them

We were in the editing process on the Intuition Documentary Series. We needed a special image that a production company had of one of our interviewees. The office was in downtown Manhattan. I went with the producer/cameraman to approve of the insert instead of them bringing me back a bunch of images to look over. I thought it would be a quick and easy downtown ride and back and of course, I wanted to get out of the office.

While the producer and cameramen were looking at images and talking about shoots they been on I wandered around the office. There were rows and rows of small black film boxes all titled, Yanomami. I asked the cameraman, a young man, a very nice looking young man, what is a “Yanomami” and what had he been filming?

Geoffrey O’Connor told me that he’d been cameraman for CBS’s Dan Rather Reports on stories about the Amazon. His face lit up and he seemed grateful that I’d asked. He was animated, driven, and committed to telling this story. He talked fast and for a long time, barely taking a breath. It was amazing what he’d been able to document on his first trips with Dan Rather, then later following up on his own. His camera-work involved stories of individuals in Amazonian Indigenous tribes – and the greed and corruption that were endangering native peoples in this beautiful jungle setting.

When I asked why he was so taken with this subject, he said that he had a degree from Columbia University and a master’s from The London School of Economics. His degree was in Social Anthropology, the study of human societies and cultures and their development.  He loved telling stories and he loved fighting bad guys.

“Did you ever think of writing a book?”

“No, never have. I’m not much of a writer. “

“It seems to me, as a literary agent, you have such passion and knowledge and as well a scholarly background that you could write a book about your experiences while also telling the stories of the indigenous tribes you’ve been filming.  Give it a try,” I said.

“Nope, he laughed, that’ll never happen. I tell my stories through the lens of a camera.”

We got our image and taxied back to Mid-town.

A few weeks later, I received a package in the mail and it was from Geoffrey. He said, he couldn’t stop thinking of about a book about his experiences with these tribes and finally decided to send me a chapter to two.

I read the pages, and then wrote across the front of his letter, “Sorry, you were right. You’re not a writer.”  I did add that maybe he should take a class on writing because the story was definitely worth the effort. Writing classes were taught everywhere in NYC. Seemed to me, some days that everybody in NYC wanted to write a book. I inserted the pages into an envelope and returned it.

I read later that his film, “At the Age of Conquest” was nominated for an Academy-Award and was credited with helping to preserve the lands of one of the world’s most isolated indigenous tribes.

He stayed in my mind.

A year or more passed and I received another package from him. After another year of re- writing, editing, suggestions, he had a great manuscript. Amazon Journal: Dispatches from a Vanishing Frontier was a well-written emotionally charged message, change-the-world manuscript, filled with humor that I was more than happy to shop around to editors in the publishing industry. It was published in 1997 by Plume Books, a division of Penguin Putnam Books.

The back cover tells the story: A blend of history, adventure, incisive journalism and personal memoir. Amazon Journal is Geoffrey O’Connor’s fascinating chronicle of his journeys to one of the most isolated regions in the world. At the scene of the media storm surrounding the “save the rain forest” campaign, the indigenous rights movement, and the assassination of Chico Mendes, the documentary filmmaker turned his camera on a place and a people to tell an astonishing true story of greed, corruption, cultural misunderstanding, exploitation and environmental disaster.

Peopled by vivid and eccentric real-life characters, O’Connor’s startling narrative becomes a journey into a contemporary heart of darkness. It is a compelling and compassionate look at a vanishing society and a blistering account of the forces of destruction, both human and environment, at work within the greatest forest on earth.

Geoffrey’s friends threw a big book party for him. He called and he wanted to make sure I was going to be there. He said he was going to “talk.” I was there.  An art gallery, if I recall correctly with lots of food and wine and very animated arts and media downtown types. Geoffrey finally got up and welcomed everyone , then paused and said, “I want to ask a question. Who in this room thought I’d ever write a book?” Not one hand went up.   But much laugher.

He yelled out, “Sandra Martin, stand up.” So I did. He said, “That woman was the only one who believed in me and instilled in me the belief that I could write a book.” I took all her suggestions, which were many and I am holding a book in my hands that would’ve never been written if she hadn’t come to my office, three years ago.  Thank you so much.”