Sunday, November 15, 2020

An Interview with Joan Schweighardt, Author of ‘River Aria’

Joan Schweighardt
 is the author of River Aria, which is both a standalone novel and the third book in a trilogy, as well as other novels, nonfiction titles, and children’s books. She is also a freelance writer and ghostwriter. Currently touring the blogosphere, she’s here today to discuss her novel, her series, the themes in her work, and her research conducted in South America. Visit her at 

Thanks for chatting with us today, Joan! What drew you to write a historical series partly set in the rainforests of Brazil? What attracted you about this setting and time period?

A decade ago, a publisher hired me to speedread some of their backlist books and write short descriptions for their website. One of the books was a slim and heavily annotated true story based on the edited diaries of a rubber tapper working in the Brazilian rainforest in the early 20th century. At the time I knew nothing about rubber tapping. I found the information fascinating, not only the tapping process but also the impact the industry had on Manaus, Brazil, the sleepy fishing village which became its headquarters. And having been a devotee of jungle stories since childhood, I loved reading about the beauty and dangers of the rainforest. I began to imagine writing my own rubber-tapping-in-the-rainforest story.

I visited the rainforest for the first time soon after, specifically to travel to the territories of the Achuar people on the Pastaza River in Ecuador with a small group that included environmentalists, sustainability enthusiasts, and guides and translators. It was a transformative experience, and by the time I came home, I was ready to start doing the research my story would require. When I finished my first good draft of what would eventually become the first book in a “rivers” trilogy, I returned to South America, this time to visit the city of Manaus and to travel on the Amazon and Rio Negro with a guide to see, among other things, rubber trees.

In a nutshell, can you tell us a bit about your series as a whole and the overarching arc across the different books?

Collectively the three books cover the years 1908 to 1929 and concern two different groups of people: an Irish American contingent living in New York and New Jersey and an Amerindian/European contingent from Manaus, Brazil. Book one, entitled Before We Died, begins with the two Irish American brothers leaving New Jersey because they have heard that rubber tappers in South America are making a lot of money, and they want to try their hand at it. The results of their effort are tragic, and when one of the brothers returns home without his sibling, relationships among the Irish American contingent must bend and shift accordingly, which happens over the course of the second book, Gifts for the Dead. In book three, River Aria, a young woman—the product of an affair one of the brothers had back in book one—travels to New York with a companion in the hope of finding success in the world of opera.

Let’s talk about the 3rd and latest book in the series, River Aria. Why the title?

As noted above, the South American rubber boom is the jumping off point for all three books in the trilogy. And central to the rubber boom—a symbol of both its short-lived success and its ultimate failure—is the Teatro Amazonas, the grand opera house built by wealthy rubber barons who hoped to attract world-class performers to Manaus. But the boom came to an abrupt end in 1912, and the Teatro Amazonas was basically locked up and went unused for many years.

That’s the actual history. In my novel, I took the liberty of making some changes: namely, a European voice instructor arrives in Manaus post boom, and seeing that everything is falling into a state of decrepitude, decides that he will use his remaining years to teach opera to a handful of “river brats” who would otherwise have virtually no education at all. Local dignitaries allow him to use the grand lobby of the Teatro Amazonas for his lessons. Estela, who narrates River Aria, is one his students. Her dramatic story connects the two great rivers in the novel, the Amazon and the Hudson. Since she is a singer of arias, and since arias are by definition extended songs sung by one voice, and usually very theatrical, River Aria seemed like the perfect title.

There’s quite an array of interesting characters in your novel. Which character was most challenging to write? Which one surprised you the most?

JoJo, Estela’s “cousin,” was both challenging and a complete surprise, literally, because he wasn’t supposed to have much of a role in River Aria. He is a baby in Before We Died, the first book in the series, and he is mentioned in passing in the second book, Gifts for the Dead. I didn’t plan to do more than mention him again in River Aria either. But then a friend of mine sent me a gift for my birthday…

Often things happening in my life during the time I’m writing a book come to influence the book in some way, even if there doesn’t seem to be a direct connection initially. The gift my friend sent me was a copy of The Art Spirit, by Robert Henri. Henri was a leading figure in the Ashcan school of American realism and also a popular teacher at the Arts Students League in New York City. He and his followers were great proponents of immigrants in a time period when (not unlike now) immigrants, especially those with darker skin, were not especially welcomed. As I read this wonderful book, I began to look for ways to connect Estela to Henri’s art crowd. But I had already committed Estela to the music world; it seemed like too much of a stretch to connect her to the art world too. But then I thought of JoJo, the baby from book one, who would be about Estela’s age. Once I decided to have him travel to New York with Estela, the whole plot got messier—and much more interesting. I had to invent both a good reason for JoJo to want to travel to New York and a good reason why it would have been as easy for him as it was for Estela.

Family roots and blood relations seem to hold a vital part in the story. Is this a recurrent theme in your work?

Yes, now that I look back I would have to agree with you. I write a lot about families, and sibling relationships particularly.

You made two life-changing trips to South America over the course of writing the books. What did you discover and/or corroborated that you later used in the novels?

After my first rainforest trip I began reading one book after another, trying to learn everything about the rubber boom—and the rainforests where it took place—to support the fiction I wanted to write. But it wasn’t until I came across a book based on the journals of Roger Casement, an Irish Nationalist who had been sent by the British Foreign Office to investigate stories of the mistreatment of indigenous tribes by rubber industry bosses, that I realized that the indigenous people played a huge part in the rubber boom. The recruits the rubber barons had been sponsoring were dying left and right, because most of them had no previous experience in the rainforest and were unable to cope with its dangers. So the rubber barons began to set their sights on indigenous people, taking them from their lands, enslaving them, and subjecting them to atrocities that defy imagination. Casement’s study focuses on the exploitation of one particular tribe, but it hinted that the problem was widespread, and I found evidence of this in my research thereafter, once I knew where to look.

Having seen the way the indigenous people live for myself—the beauty of their beliefs, their regard for their lands and love for their ancestors, their spirituality—corroborated for me what was lost when the rubber barons violated them.

How do you address immigration and concerns about the destruction of rainforests in these books?

I let the history of the time period guide me. The Irish American brothers who start off the trilogy in 1908 are from Hoboken, New Jersey. They are products of their parents’ immigration story. But Hoboken was populated at that time by immigrants from Italy and Germany as well as Ireland. Since the second book in the trilogy covers American involvement in WWI, and since the doughboys left for Europe from the docks in Hoboken, it was impossible not to include the story of the division among immigrant groups caused by the war, especially regarding the German Americans, who were sorely mistreated. And that is only one of many immigrant stories that came up organically in writing about this particular time and place.

Likewise stories about the destruction of the rainforest are inherent to the time and place I’ve chosen to write about. The rubber boom might have come to destroy much of the rainforest, but it didn’t, actually, because it ended soon after it began, when rubber trees planted on plantations in English territories in Southeast Asia began to produce. Henry Ford tried to create a plantation of his own in the rainforest some years later, which would have been the size of Connecticut, but he was not successful either. The fact is, there is a blight in South America that infects rubber trees when planted close together; you can’t have a plantation there. But even these failed attempts to tap the resources of the rainforest had an impact, mostly on the people who dwell in the rainforest and along its rivers. And these attempts were only precursors to the ongoing attempts unfolding in modern times, particular regarding oil drilling and mining and burning land to provide for cattle grazing. It’s an extremely important issue.

What other themes do you explore in the 3rd book, River Aria?

I’ve tried to explore what it means to be a young artist, again in a particular time and place. JoJo can barely read and write, but he paints beautifully. Estela can sing, but she has no patience. She is a slave to her fluctuating emotions. I’ve set obstacles before each of them, to see who will come closest to their respective ideas of success.

What effect did the writing of these books have on you? Were you transformed in some way?

It’s been exactly ten years since I first began to think about writing these books. That’s a long time, but you have to remember that I was freelancing for clients throughout, and weeks went by when I could not write a single word on behalf of any of my own projects. But even when I was not able to be working on the trilogy, I was thinking about it; I was reading books that touched on the subjects I wanted to explore and making notes. I was completely immersed. In The Art Spirit, Henri says, “The object of all art is intense living, fulfilment and great happiness in creation.” I have experienced all that and more.

I understand the books stand alone on their own. This is quite an achievement when writing a series. What was the most important thing to keep in mind in order to accomplish this?

Book two was the most difficult to write in such a way that it would function as both a book in a series and as a standalone novel. Of the two main characters, one, Jack, knows exactly what happened in the rainforest in book one, because he lived it, but he has reasons not to want to share that information. On the other hand, Nora, the woman he loves, feels that their relationship will remain in jeopardy if she doesn’t learn what Jack knows and is keeping from her. My job was to migrate the right amount of information from book one to book two while keeping the plot of Jack and Nora’s story moving along. I had to make sure it wouldn’t feel redundant to anyone who had read book one—or confusing to anyone who hadn’t. It was challenging. I wrote a lot of drafts before I was happy with it. I also asked fellow writers to read drafts and advise me. The third book, River Aria, relies much less on the information from either book one or book two. It was easy, relatively speaking, to bring the essentials in organically.

What’s on the horizon for you?  

River Aria is the last of three books in a historical novel trilogy. I have been utterly immersed in this series for a number of years. Because some parts of the trilogy take place in the South American rainforest, I have made two trips there. I’ve read lots of books as part of my research. This project has been intense and very enjoyable, and I think it will be hard for me to turn around and start on another novel right away. I’m thinking of taking a nonfiction break in the meantime. I hope to write something about my sister, who died a few years ago.

Thank you, Joan! And best of luck with River Aria!

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