Interview with Joan Schweighardt – Author of the River Series
Peter: Joan, your book ‘Gifts for the Dead’ is a brilliant novel that had me totally enthralled from beginning to end, and I’d like to congratulate you on writing it. I am delighted that we have the opportunity to conduct this interview. Many thanks for making the time available.
Peter: What was the inspiration that drove you to write your book ‘Gifts for the Dead’, and perhaps also the earlier book in the Rivers series ‘Before we Died’?
Joan: Two things happened at the same time about nine years ago. One, a local publisher hired me to whip through some of their backlist books and write descriptions about them for their website. One of these books was a slim diary written by an early 20th century rubber tapper in South America, perhaps the only such book in existence. I’d never heard of the South American rubber boom before then, and I was blown away when I learned about the difficulty of the tapping process and all the men who lost their lives because of the inherent dangers of working deep in the rainforests. The boom greatly impacted Manaus, Brazil, which was the hub of the rubber industry back then, and there were indigenous tribes who were displaced, or sometimes even enslaved, as the greed of the barons at the top of the industry hierarchy grew.
At the same time, I was reading this fascinating book and pondering the historical moment it is set in, I had the opportunity to travel to the rainforests of Ecuador with a group of environmentalists and sustainability advocates. I experienced the magic of the jungle and the rivers for myself, and I became obsessed with the idea of writing my own fictionalized account of the rubber industry and the people who played a part in it.
What started out as a plan for one book turned into three: Before We Died, Gifts for the Dead, and River Aria (the latter
should be out this time next year). Collectively, the main characters are from Hoboken, New Jersey and Manaus, Brazil, and the three books move back and forth between both locations between the years 1908 and 1928.
Peter: Nora is such a wonderfully drawn character, she’s independent, determined and intelligent. Is she purely fictional or did you form her from people you know? What was the most important aspect of her personality to convey and which trait was the most challenging to write?
Joan: Nora is orphaned at the age of four and is raised by an aunt, a single woman who is a socialist and an advocate for workers’ rights. Since Aunt Becky knows just enough about childrearing to glean that it’s not a good idea to leave a four-year-old home alone, she drags Nora with her to various political events from the get-go, and not surprisingly, Nora grows up to be a political being herself. Nora is aware of the world around her and always ready to fight on behalf of those who are suffering. In that way, you could say she knows herself quite well. But being an orphan who is raised by someone lacking maternal inclinations leaves Nora feeling cheated. When it comes to her emotions, she is frequently unsure that she has made the best decision in any given circumstance. This side of her, her vulnerability, was more challenging to portray as it works internally and Nora herself is mostly unaware of it. But no, except for the fact that we share some of the same political instincts, Nora is not based on anyone I know. She developed organically over the course of many drafts.
Peter: Jack is also a very intriguing character who is emotionally very deep. There is a love triangle of sorts and you managed it so cleverly and deftly that it felt natural and believable. How difficult was it to manage this narrative, balancing the developing relationships Baxter, Jack and Nora had between them?
Joan: The love triangle you speak of begins in the first book, Before We Died, so it was already established before I got to book two, Gifts for the Dead. Since I want all three books to work as standalone novels—as well as books in a series—I felt I had to shine a light on the characters’ romantic inclinations in the earlier book alongside their romantic inclinations as they exist in the second book—because such feelings change shape over time. Again, over the course of several drafts, I began to feel I was successful.
Peter: There are a lot of historical connections in the book and links to women’s rights, the First World War, Lipton Tea and Henry Ford. What attracted you to base your story in this era? Which historical piece of research was the most interesting to discover and why?
Joan: Ever since I began researching the rubber boom and the jungle, I have been running on passion and serendipity, manna from heaven for a novelist. All my random decisions have led me to historical revelations that turned out to be perfect for the telling of the story I envisioned. For instance, I chose Hoboken, New Jersey as the home base for my characters simply because I grew up in New Jersey and I knew Hoboken had shipyards and train stations, which would make it easier for my characters to get around. At the time I made that decision, I had no idea that Hoboken played a huge part in WWI. In fact, Hoboken was the gateway for the USA’s entrance into the war, the departure point for “doughboys” from all over the country. It turned out to be the best setting from which to explore the conflicting attitudes people had back then regarding our entrance into the war. As for Lipton Tea, Jack had to work somewhere after returning home from the jungle, and as I knew there was a building in Hoboken that had once been a Lipton Tea Factory, I decided to have Jack work there. In the course of researching, I came across books about the man himself, the great Thomas Lipton, and he was so interesting, and so influential in his time—both on your side of the pond and mine—that I wrote him into Gifts for the Dead and he worked very well as someone who could extract information from Jack that Jack was keeping to himself, but that the reader needed to know. And so it went.
Peter: You achieved a wonderful balance of beauty and danger when navigating the landscape of the Amazon rainforest. What research did you do to achieve this amazing insight?
Joan: I can’t tell you how many books I read about the flora and fauna of the rainforests in South America. The same publishing house that published the rubber tapper’s diary also published books by people like Richard Evans Schultes, who is the father of modern ethnobotany, a pioneer who showed up in the South American rainforests in the early 1900s and lived among indigenous peoples and studied their relationship with the plants (both medicinal and sacred) growing all around them. All the books I read—Schultes’ and many others—paid homage to both the beauty and the dangers of the rainforest. And I certainly experienced that myself. Some three years after my trip to Ecuador, I celebrated the completion of early drafts of the first two books in the series by returning to South America, this time to visit the city of Manaus and to travel the Amazon and the Rio Negro Rivers with a private guide, to see rubber trees. But we also saw bats and piranhas and caimans and snakes, and once our boat was invaded by an army of ants half the size of my pinkie. We witnessed storms like I’d never seen before; and once, as the sun was going down, we got lost navigating through the high water channels that cover parts of the forest during the rainy season, when the rivers can rise as much as forty feet. For a while, even our canoe guide, who didn’t speak English, seemed concerned we wouldn’t make it back to our larger boat before dark. These dangers are laughable compared to the real dangers of the rainforest—because we were travelling with a crew who knew how to respond to danger in every circumstance—but it offered me first-hand insights and plenty of fodder for my imagination.
Peter: I can’t help but be drawn to the fact that there is a significant Irish background to your characters. I have to ask, do you have a connection with Ireland and could you tell us more?
Joan: There were three immigrant communities living in Hoboken during the years I wanted to write about: Irish, German and Italian. I had to pick one. Perhaps my husband, whose last name is Dooley, had something to do with my choice. Again, it felt like a random decision when I was making it, but as I researched Irish neighbourhoods in the New York metro area in that time period, I learned that the Irish brought some wonderfully colourful slang to the region, and I made good use of it when I was developing Jack’s first-person narration for the first book. And once I began to read Irish emigration stories (Jack and Baxter’s parents came over from the Emerald Island) and even some Irish mythology, I couldn’t stand it anymore and I had to make a trip to Ireland and see it for myself, and I did fall in love with it.
Peter: Do you use storyboarding or mapping processes to develop your plots and interactions, or do you go with the flow and follow your instinct and gut feeling? Would you, therefore, describe yourself as a plotter, pantser or plantser?
Joan: The interesting thing about writing fiction in a historical setting is that the historical events insist on their own plot points. It’s almost like having a writing partner who keeps me in line for the sake of her own interests. While my characters are working out the nuances of their various relationships, they are also compelled to deal with the world—the dangers of rubber tapping, WWI and its aftermath, the Spanish Influenza, the beginnings of the Great Depression—simultaneously. I don’t use boards or maps, but I do make pages and pages of notes while I’m researching. And I keep my ears open, in case the muse wants me to drop in some new ideas along the way. I guess that makes me a plantser.
Peter: Do you use particular software applications or utilities to support your writing activity? For example, Scrivener or Grammarly.
Joan: No. I write in Word and I make good use the program’s Spellcheck. Besides my own writing projects, I have made a living writing for private and corporate clients over the years. I’m fairly confident about my ability to navigate through the process.
Peter: What are the greatest benefits and restrictions to being a published author? Do you get involved in finalising other aspects of the book, for example, the cover design, narration and the promotion of the book?
Joan: I’ll answer the second half of the question first. I’ve worked with a number of publishers over the years. Five Directions Press, the press I’m working with now, is very special. We are a small “by invitation only” coop. The three founding members are all fabulous writers who also have additional talents. One is a layout artist; another is a cover designer, and another is an excellent reader who can look at a manuscript and put her finger on precisely the thing that needs to change or improve in order for the book to be the best it can. Likewise, the other coop members contribute to the whole as well. I do some social media for Five Directions, and I also do interviews with writers outside our group and I organize a “dish” column for our newsletter wherein we each put in our two cents on subjects we find interesting. And I pitch in with the others to contribute short reviews for the “Books We Loved” section of our newsletter too. In other words, we have fun working together as a team. And we have one another’s backs. Our goal is not only to ensure the success of our own books but to do what we can for our fellow coop members’ books as well.
When I am asked to talk about the greatest benefit of being a published author I always quote 19th century “Ashcan” artist Robert Henri, because nothing I could say expresses the sentiment better than he does: “The object of all art is intense living, fulfilment and great happiness in creation.”
Peter: How much time do you spend on writing compared to promoting your books?
Joan: I spend way more time writing than I do promoting. There’s no comparison. Mind you, I love writing guest blogs and doing interviews whenever I am asked, but it’s not always easy to come by such invitations.
Peter: What authors have you most admired and have had an influence on you?
Joan: My earliest influence was Edgar Allan Poe. As a young child, I attended a Catholic school that featured a library the size of a closet and carried mostly Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books along with books on the lives of the saints. We had to enter this “library” one at a time, squeezing past the fierce-looking nun who guarded the door and scrutinized our selections. Since I was tall, I was always at the back of the line. By the time I got in, the Nancy Drews were often gone, and as getting out of that tight space quickly was always front of mind, I usually grabbed a saint book, even if I had read it already. I liked the saints well enough because many of them were visionary, but it wasn’t until I came across “The Tell-Tale Heart” in middle school that I understood that the right language could enhance a vision into something unforgettable. In my university days, I studied literature, so naturally, I was influenced by lots of writers, but Vladimir Nabokov was always my favourite.
Peter: What is your favourite book you’ve read over the last 12 months?
Joan: I have two, Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield, and The Overstory, by Richard Powers.
Peter: What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Joan: I belong to a few social media groups wherein new writers have the opportunity to ask more established writers questions, and one that comes up regularly is: “Can I look forward to success as an author when I myself don’t like to read?” Well, I guess, maybe, but not likely. My advice is: Read, read everything, read all the time.
Peter: If you had a dinner party and could invite 3 personalities from any period in history who would they be and why?
Joan: I actually asked myself this question some years back. I remember my answer then included Vladimir Nabakov and Jerzey Kozinski — Nabakov because his writing takes my breath away, and Kozinski because he had a reputation for being something of a clown — a man who would hide behind sofa cushions when guests were coming and then pop out and scare everyone — and also because he wrote (rumours that he didn’t do his own writing aside) Being There, which is the first book I ever read that I badly wished I’d written myself. I can’t remember who the third person was back then, but as I’ve since immersed myself in everything having to do with the rainforests of South America, I guess I would say Teddy Roosevelt, who, in addition to being one of the world’s most fascinating statesmen, fearlessly navigated the rivers of Brazil.
Peter: Can you give us any insights into any future books or projects that you’re working on?
Joan: I still have book three, River Aria, to write. I have a good first draft done but I’m sure I’ll need to do several more. I want to write about my sister, who died recently, and I want to work with other writers to put together an anthology on a particular subject that is fascinating to me, and I want to try to my hand at writing a screenplay based on the life of woman who explored the Wild West, including the great state of New Mexico, where I happen to live. I can’t do everything all at once, so hopefully, serendipity will intervene and suggest where to begin once River Aria is finished.
Peter: How can readers learn more about you and your work?
Joan: My website is https://www.joanschweighardt.com
Peter: Joan, I appreciate you taking the time for this interview. If there are other snippets of information you wish to provide, please feel free. I would like to congratulate you on this wonderful book and I wish you massive success for the future.
Joan: Thank you very much, Peter. I very much enjoyed answering your questions.