Novel Expansions: An Interview With Joan Schweighardt by Damian McNicholl

Joan Schweighardt is the author of nine novels, two memoirs, two children’s books, and various magazine articles, including work in Parabola Magazine. She is a regular contributor to Occhi Magazine, for which she interviews writers, artists and filmmakers. In addition to her own projects, she has worked as an editor and ghostwriter for private and corporate clients for more than 25 years. She also had her own independent publishing company from 1999 to 2005. Several of her titles won awards, including a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers,” a ForeWord Magazine “Best Fiction of the Year,” and a Borders “Top Ten Read to Me.” And she has agented books for other writers, with sales to St. Martin’s, Red Hen, Wesleyan University Press, and more.

Her most recent work is the Rivers Trilogy—Before We DiedGifts for the Dead and River Aria—which move back and forth between the New York metro area and the South American rainforests between 1908 and 1929.

Damian McNicholl: I found the River series absolutely fascinating. You really put the reader right in the hot, dangerous jungle. What was your inspiration behind the series?

Joan Schweighardt: A publishing company here in New Mexico hired me to read some of their backlist books and write descriptions for their website. One of the books was a brief annotated diary written by a rubber tapper working in South America in the early 1900s. His story was fascinating to me. I had known nothing about the South American rubber boom previously, but after reading the diary, I wanted to know everything. I read all I could find on the subject, and on all the subjects (history of South America, flora and fauna of the rainforests, rubber barons who made a fortune, indigenous people who suffered at their hands) peripheral to it. Then I traveled to the rainforest with a group of sustainability advocates to see for myself, and that sealed the deal. When I finished a good draft of the first book, I traveled to South America a second time, to explore the city of Manaus, which was the headquarters for the rubber boom, and the rivers and jungle surrounding it. What started out as one novel about two brothers who travel to Brazil turned into three novels, with three different narrators. What began as an investigation of two young men cast into a particular historical setting expanded to cover two character groups—an Irish American contingent from Hoboken, New Jersey, and an Amerindian/European contingent from Manaus, Brazil—moving back and forth between two continents over a period of 21 years.

DMN: Which were the most difficult parts of the story to write?

JS: The first book, Before We Died, is narrated by Jack Hopper, one of the Irish American brothers. Jack (and his brother Baxter) are the children of Irish immigrants, so naturally you would expect to find some Irish-isms in their parlance. But more than that, until they leave for South America, they are dockworkers, from a rough immigrant neighborhood (Hoboken, NJ, in 1908, to be exact). Their language is colored not only with Irish-isms but also with slang and cuss words. I took great pains to make them authentic—not only through their speech but also in their actions. In these times I don’t think there is as great a divide between the way women and men think, but back then, over 100 years ago, there was.

The second book, Gifts for the Dead, is narrated by the woman who is both Jack and Baxter’s love interest in the first book, and the third book, River Aria, is narrated by the daughter of one of the brothers. I love writing in first person, and while I enjoyed writing Before We Died immensely, I felt myself on safer ground with books two and three.

DMN: Given the outcry around Jeannine Cummins’ American Dirt, were you nervous to create a protagonist of color or did you not think about it?

JS: The protagonist you are referring to is Estela Euquério Hopper, the young narrator of River Aria. She is the daughter of one of the Hopper brothers and the European Amerindian woman with whom he spends one night, in Manaus, Brazil in Book One. Manaus is located in the middle of the Amazon basin. Because of its location it became the headquarters for the rubber boom. Entrepreneurs poured into Manaus from all over Europe. The barons at the top of this influx hierarchy were soon making a fortune, and they began using local labor to transform the jungle village of Manaus into a European-style city. But then the rubber boom came to an abrupt end, in 1913, when rubber plantations in English territories in Southeast Asia began to produce. The Europeans fled at once, leaving the city to fall into a state of decay and the original inhabitants—many of them mixed race like Estela’s mother—to fall into poverty.

Estela is the shining star that rises out of this chaos. No one living in Manaus and having indigenous blood from that time can trace their heritage back to a particular tribe, because all tribal ways were hidden away in a “basket of darkness” (indigenous term) when the tribes were first captured by European missionaries years before the rubber boom. But rather than be stymied by her lack of a definitive cultural identity, Estela embraces all indigenous myths as her own—because any one of them could be. And when she comes under the tutelage of a masterly music instructor and learns about the myths and tales and stories (and operas) from all over the great wide world, she adopts them as her own as well. She is passionate, dramatic, gregarious, electrifying, especially when she sings. The circumstances surrounding the downfall of Manaus are all true, but the circumstances of Estela’s upbringing and her twist of fate education are purely fictional and somewhat exceptional; she is not meant to represent the norm.

I was well into my writing of River Aria when American Dirt came out. I read it and I liked it very much. I have mixed feelings about the whole appropriation thing. I’m currently reading The Vanishing Half, which is so much about racism. If I had learned the author was not Black herself, I would have been shocked and the book would have lost legitimacy for me. Estela, on the other hand, is not a good example of appropriation. She developed organically, over the course of the trilogy. Her circumstances are meant to be unique to her, not to represent her culture.

DMN: Are there any common themes in the body of your work?

JS: The theme of immigration runs through the trilogy. Jack and Baxter’s mum emigrated from Ireland. One of the young men Jack and Bax share a camp with in the rainforest is the grandson of German immigrants, and a book his grandmother gives him, about the German settlements in Pennsylvania, actually plays a big part in the story. In the last book, River Aria, Estela (along with her cousin JoJo) emigrates to America during a time when brown people are being shunned. Oppression is also a theme, both immigration related and otherwise. Sibling rivalry is another theme, something, someone pointed out to me, that occurs in much of the stuff I write.

DMN: You live in New Mexico now? How has it influenced your writing, if at all?

JS: Yes, I grew up in New Jersey and lived in Florida and then New York before moving here. New Mexico is home now. A few years ago I wrote a novel called The Accidental Art Thief, which takes place here. And I have written non-fiction pieces about living in New Mexico. There is a very active writing community here. It’s inspiring to be a part of it.

DMN: What are you working on currently?

JS: I have just finished a good draft of a manuscript about my sister, who died almost three years ago. I’ve put it aside for a bit to get some distance before I go back and attempt to make it better. And I’ve been working on projects with other writers.


Damian McNicholl is the author of A Son Called Gabriel, about which the New York Times says, “Gabriel’s first-person narrative has an endearing frankness and intimate charm…,” as well as The Moment of Truth, described as “fast-paced, suspenseful, authentic and inspiring, beautifully told…” by Huffington Post. He is a freelance fiction and non-fiction editor. More about his work can be found at

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