KC author Candice Millard travels ‘River of the Gods’

Local author Candice Millard has written her fourth book, “River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile.”  Her first three of her were New York Times bestsellers.

Local author Candice Millard has written her fourth book, “River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile.” Her first three of her were New York Times bestsellers.

Penguin Random House

Twenty years ago, Candice Millard made a major life decision.

In her mid-30s and having had enough of 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 was hardly confident of the future.

“I was just starting to work on my first book at that time and expecting my first child, and I had no idea if I could do either,” Millard said. “I’m like, ‘Can I write a book? That seems kind of crazy. Can I be a mother? That seems even harder.’”

Three New York Times bestselling books and three thriving children later, Millard can consider the past two decades an unmitigated success.

Now comes the release of what will no doubt be her 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 traces one of history’s greatest exploration feats, is due out May 17. The next day, Millard will appear for an event on the Country Club Plaza and then embark on a national book tour.

Like her previous three books, which have sold more than a million copies in the United States alone, “River of the Gods” is an exhaustively researched tale of a relatively overlooked chapter of history. The first three each focused on one 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 venture down to “River of …” — differs not only in that it has three main characters (explorers Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke and guide Sidi Mubarak Bombay), but that it also spans a decade.

“This book, the heart of the story is really 10 years old,” Millard said. “And there are many different expeditions. There is one primary expedition, but there are many other expeditions that took place within that time.”

The rivalry between Burton and Speke is at the center of the story.

Millard has a bit of a rival of his own, albeit a very friendly one. In the world of historical and narrative nonfiction, Erik Larson is probably king, but Millard is also a major star. The two are social media buddies.

“When it comes to narrative nonfiction, she’s the best,” said Larson. “She’s about as good as she gets. And it’s really kind of annoying, because at one point I thought I had this territory to myself.

“I think she’s fabulous. I love her books by her. Ella she has this way of finding a really fresh way of telling an old story.”

Larson said Millard did just that when she beat him to the punch on a possible book about Roosevelt’s expedition along the Amazon in “River of Doubt.”

“It was one of the things I jotted down in my idea journal … thinking, ‘You know, this could be interesting some time down the road.’ And, sure enough, it was interesting, especially the way Candice did it.”

Another connection between the authors is that both of their 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 “Hero 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 of him.

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Candice Millard’s “River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile” will be released May 17. Penguin Random House

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As Millard has gained respect and fans internationally, she also has established herself as Kansas City’s favorite author. The feeling is mutual.

“I really love it here,” she said. “I’ve loved raising my children here. In fact, it’s so great because my kids have said, ‘Thank you for raising us here.’ And they love it.

“The most important thing to me is my children’s happiness, and my career falls far behind that. Even workwise, I love it. I feel like I have so much support, and I feel like there’s a really great community of like-minded people, people who love books.”

She even considers herself a Kansas Citizen now, despite growing up in Ohio. Millard moved here with her family and finished high school at Shawnee Mission Northwest, then earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Baker University in Baldwin City before getting her master’s at Baylor in Texas.

Her life-altering decision 20 years ago occurred about a year after she married Mark Uhlig. He is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times who operates an Overland Park communications and publishing company, where the couple had met years earlier when he hired her to work there.

They and the kids (Emery, Petra and Conrad) have lived in the same Leawood house they built 19 years ago, although Emery is away at college these days.

“I’ve lived more of my life here than anywhere else,” she said. “I love Kansas City. I’ll always say I’m originally from Ohio because I was 17 when I left, so it was obviously very, very formative. But I’m a Kansas Citizen. Very much so, and proudly so.”

Millard’s husband and children provide a sounding board as she researches and writes. In fact, they are about the only people who know what she hopes her next project will be. She hasn’t even told her editor yet.

“So I don’t feel comfortable talking about it,” she said. “But it is history, and it has one main character again. I’m very excited about it.”

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Author Candice Millard was smiling here during her crossing of Lake Tanganyika in Africa, but the trip got rough. “I was terrified,” she said. Donald Young

danger zone

Millard did confirm that the potential subject is a woman, and chances are the research will require a trip to an exotic locale.

She ventured to the Amazon rainforest for “River of Doubt” and to South Africa for “Hero of the Empire.” For her most recent book of hers, it was a trip to Kenya, Zanzibar, Tanzania and Uganda.

As with the Amazon adventure, her husband went along. And like that trip, they had a brush with death. In Brazil, her life de ella flashed before her eyes de ella when their small plane stalled before narrowly avoiding a crash into 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’d been a storm, and the water was really, really rough,” Millard said. “And we were tipping. I mean, like completely vertically, tipping back and forth. I was terrified. My husband was with me, and I’m like, ‘Poor thing, if we tip over, we’re never going to make it to the coast.’ And he said, ‘That’s OK. Don’t worry about it, because the crocodiles will eat us before we get there.’”

Luck was on their side, however, and wife and husband avoided becoming crocodile cuisine. They also barely avoided a pandemic travel nightmare as they returned home in March 2020 just days before the world came to a halt.

At that point, she got a message from Larson seeking to support his fellow author.

“He said, ‘I really hope you’ll be able to dig in and get a lot done with the pandemic.’ And I was like, ‘You obviously don’t have children at home.’”

Petra and Conrad attended Pembroke Hill, which had gone to remote learning, so they were home while their mother was trying to work. “They want to come and talk, and I do want to, but it does make it harder to get things done.”

Millard’s process on each bock involves about two years of research, planning and outlining before she sits down to write. 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’d had a similar experience researching Benjamin Franklin’s time in London before the Revolutionary War.

In both cases, she couldn’t uncover enough primary source material to make the ideas work as narrative stories. “Those details that really make it a page-turner, you hope, really make it an immersive experience.”

She could always transition to the popular new approach of fictionalizing historical events. But don’t count on it.

“Since I’ve devoted so much of my life to writing nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, it’s really important to me that people know that what they’re reading is true,” she said. “I would be very uncomfortable writing fiction, and I don’t think I would be very good at it.

“I don’t have to make anything up. I just have to go find it and then figure out how to tell it.”

So far, so good.

Meet the author

Candice Millard will talk about “River of the Gods” at 7 pm May 18 at Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th. $32.50, includes copy of book. rainydaybooks.com. 913-384-3126.

Other area appearances: KCUR’s “Up to Date” with Steve Kraske, 9 am May 17; Wichita Public Library, 6 p.m. May 17; Magic City Books, Tulsa, 7 p.m. May 19; Maceli’s, Lawrence, 7 pm June 1; Skylark Books, Columbia, Missouri, 6:30 pm June 2; Flint Hills Books, Council Grove, Kansas, 1 pm June 11.

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Dan Kelly has been covering entertainment and arts news at The Star for 10 years. He previously worked at the Columbia Daily Tribune, The Miami Herald and The Louisville Courier-Journal. He also was on the University of Missouri School of Journalism faculty for six years, and he has written a historical novel, “Soaring with Vultures.”

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