Author Interview: Peter Stark

Peter jpegLooking for a title that weaves together history, adventure, the origins of America and the perils of globalism? Peter Stark’s Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire makes for a great Common Reads selection. It addresses issues such as adventure, exploration and taking risks; leadership and vision; globalization and colonization; Pacific Northwest history and landscape; and especially, how to dream big and make your dreams a reality, even if it takes a lifetime.

What are some of the teachable moments in your book that make it work well for a speaking engagement?
My book contains many moments of crisis, when a leader has to make a crucial decision:

When young New Jersey businessman Wilson Price Hunt — a neophyte to the wilderness — leading a large party, has to decide whether to follow the “known” route up the Missouri River and into a sure and bloody confrontation with the Blackfeet Indians, or strike out into 1,000 miles of unknown terrain, which should he choose: sure trouble or total unknown? Later in the expedition across the Rocky Mountains, Hunt blunders into the deepest canyon in North America in the middle of winter and his 50-person party runs out of food. Does he stay with his loyal and dying men who are dropping beside the trail? Or does he abandon his collapsing friends to try to lead the rest of the expedition to safety?

Yet a third “teachable moment” of character and leadership comes with Captain Jonathan Thorn, through arrogance, cultural insensitivity, and ignorance, he believes his ship armed with 10 cannons and 8,000 pounds of gunpowder is immune from any retaliation from the Coastal Indians after he has just rubbed a sea otter fur in a chief’s face. He turns out to be very wrong.

Would you share some notable experiences you’ve had at your speaking events?
I’ve had some tremendously rewarding moments seeing the enthusiasm of the listeners. This story is a part of American history and culture that is so unknown, that it almost inevitably surprises people. People really want to know more. I was especially pleased during my reading at Powell’s, taped by C-Span for Book TV, that there were so many people trying to crowd in that heads were poking from behind bookshelves. People had great questions, and they seem to love the wild differences in the characters of the leaders.

What inspired you to write this story?
I love adventure stories. I wanted to make the adventure story of Astoria a vehicle to carry readers andastoria-198x300 listeners into the larger context of this era of American history.

Astoria explores an era in American history that is markedly different than modern times. What benefits do you think your audience can take away from your book and presentations?

What’s so striking about Astoria is the incredible physical and mental hardships the Astorians went through. They were so utterly isolated, in a very exposed situation. We cannot find circumstances in our modern world where people face such isolation, and that kind of exposure, except at war. Yet the Astorians undertook such risk, such isolation, such exposure, because they had the vision of a great empire – or at least the vision of riches. They were willing to risk a lot to gain a lot – including risking their lives.

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