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‘Changing the dream’ – An interview with author Joan Schweighardt #ecology

Joan Schweighardt InterviewI am thrilled to welcome Joan Schweighardt, author of The River Series to my blog today, to talk about her fascinating journey into the rainforests of South America and how it inspired her books.

Hi Joan, first off, tell me about your travels to South America and what made it an ideal setting for your historical novels.

My journey actually began with a freelance job I did for a local publisher wherein I was asked to read backlist books and write a short piece on each for their website. One of the books was a slim annotated presentation of the edited diaries of a rubber tapper (from Brooklyn, NY) working in the Brazilian rainforest in the early 1900s. I read it twice and afterwards I began to research the South American rubber boom to learn more. Then one evening I found myself watching a PBS special in which a journalist traveling through the South American rainforest asked an indigenous shaman what “northerners” could do to help save the rainforest from the constant threat of destruction, particularly from oil drilling. The shaman said we northerners could “change the dream.” What did that mean? I googled the phrase and found those same words used as a tagline by a not-for-profit called Pachamama Alliance. In exchange for supplying legal support to indigenous tribes hoping to push back on oil companies, the tribes were allowing small groups of people traveling with Pachamama principles to visit their villages and learn about their way of life. I signed up. My experience was life-changing. As soon as I got home I began researching for what would become the first of three novels connected to South American rubber boom.

When I finished the first draft of book one, I went to South America again, this time to Manaus Brazil, which was the headquarters for the rubber boom. I visited the city and then spent several days on a small boat with a private guide to see, among other things, rubber trees.  

The natural world of the rainforest and the challenge of how to use its resources seems to be a theme in your books. What fact or feature about the rainforest did you find the most surprising?

Virtually everything. I went in curious and came out shocked. I didn’t know, for instance, that during the boom, rubber barons began enslaving indigenous people to tap for rubber, because the men they recruited were dying left and right…from snake bites, malaria, starvation, all things the indigenous people know how to avoid. 

Did you think you would be writing a trilogy when you first set out, or did the other two books grow from the first? What gave you the impetus to keep the story alive?

I was so impacted, not only by my two trips to South America but by all that I was learning about the rubber boom, the history of Manaus, the flora and fauna of the rainforest, its indigenous inhabitants, etc., that my pleasure in the project would not confine itself to one book. As I wanted to stay immersed, I kept writing. 

Tell me about the different protagonists in your books. In the first book the main character is a man, and in the third the story has more focus on the daughter; how has this made this third book different from the first ?

Actually all three books have different protagonist narrators and two are women. The first book, Before We Died, is narrated by Jack Hopper, an Irish American dock worker from the New York area who travels with his brother Baxter to the rainforests of Brazil where they become rubber tappers. The second book, Gifts for the Dead, is narrated by Nora Sweeney, the young woman who is the love interest of both brothers in book one and who marries Jack Hopper in book two. The third book is narrated by Estela Euquério Hopper, Jack Hopper’s daughter. Collectively, the story spans 1908 to 1929.

How much does the world of the rainforest impact on the psychology of your main characters, and how much does New York have in common with the rainforest?

Each of my three narrators is affected differently by the rainforest. Jack Hopper cannot help but see it in terms of its inherent dangers and the tremendous losses he suffers there. Nora is affected by the beauty of the rainforest and the sense of balance she discovers in herself during her time there. Estela is born and raised in Manaus, Brazil. Her ancestors on her mother’s side are a mix of European and Indian blood. For her, the rainforest is home. The tie to New York is that Jack and Nora Hopper live there—actually they live in Hoboken, New Jersey, just across the river from Manhattan. They make trips to Brazil in both books one and two. In book three, Estela travels to New York. 

How does Opera feature in your new book?

As the worldwide demand for rubber increased in the late 1800s, would-be rubber barons realized that the sleepy fishing village of Manaus, located at the center of the world’s largest rubber-yielding rainforest, was perfectly positioned to become the headquarters for the industry. Europeans came in droves to take advantage of the financial opportunities the industry promised. There was nothing there, so they built mansions, hotels, restaurants, shops, all with tile and marble and even bricks from Europe. The centerpiece of their construction was the Teatro Amazonas, the opera house, completed in 1896. For some years the Teatro Amazonas was operational, though many opera stars became ill traveling to it. Then, in 1912, the rubber boom in the region came to an abrupt end—because rubber plantations had begun to produce in English territories in Southeast Asia—and the Europeans fled Manaus en masse. The Teatro Amazonas became a symbol of failure. 

In River Aria, a Portuguese voice/music instructor comes to Manaus post boom, with the intention of teaching opera to some of the “river brats” from the city’s poor fishing community, and local officials allow him to use the grand lobby of the Teatro Amazonas for his instruction. Estela, Jack Hopper’s daughter, is one of his students.     

In the process of writing, what matters to you personally as a novelist the most?

I want to have an intense writing experience and of course I want readers to have an intense reading experience.

Brief Biography:

Joan Schweighardt is the author of eight novels, a memoir, two children’s books and several magazine articles. 

“The author transports us to a fascinating, hardscrabble, well-researched world, and compels us to want to live there for every word … I just love this story.”

—Lynn Vannucci, Publisher, Water Street Press

Buy the Book 

Joan’s website  

Follow Joan on Twitter 

Blog Writing Craft

Historical Fiction – the joy of writing extraordinary commoners

I’ve just started a new book and after quite a bit of research, this is the first week of actually typing anything for my new project, book two of a series set in Italy. I’m a pantser, so I just launch straight in and then try to write my first draft as quickly as possible, and allow a lot of time afterwards for editing, refining and re-structuring the story. I have an overarching view of the story in the form of two sheets of A4 paper which are my only outline, plus of course the memory of what happened in Book 1. So far this week I’ve managed just over 7000 words, which is average for me. It gets slower as the story develops in complexity and as I figure out where the characters are taking me and what new research I need to do.

The piles of books on my desk (above)represent the things I am working on. On the left – things I’d like to write about – the writing wish-list. In the middle, books about my last series (in case anyone asks me awkward research questions!) and the next two piles are books about the stories I’m working on right now. There’s a lot about poisons as my main protagonist is a poisoner.

Again, the second book in my ‘Italian’ series is about a commoner. Publishers are often keen that novelists should write about ‘marquee names’ – which means to say people they’ve heard of. They know they can sell any number of books about Anne Boleyn. If the book is about someone people have heard of, its much easier to sell.

This is not actually true. The Girl with the Pearl Earring sold well, despite having an unknown woman at its heart. As did The Miniaturist. Besides,  Royal courts have never much interested me. Instead I’m interested in individuals who have made their mark in history despite being supposedly ‘nobody special.’ My job as a novelist is to make them special and unforgettable. This is a joy, as unlike Anne Boleyn, where there are thousands of interpretations of her life, each of my characters can shine out from her historical past like a gem in a very direct way.

The three women I wrote about from Pepys’ Diary were women he mentioned in passing. Yet now I have re-imagined rich and vibrant lives for Deb Willet, Bess Bagwell and Mary Elizabeth Knepp. You won’t know who they are because they are footnotes in history. The only portrait of them that exists, is in Pepys’ Diary and my books, and so to me these characters are unsullied by other interpretations. I got to know them through my own internal imagination and Pepys’ direct descriptions rather than through some other biographer’s lens. These women now live as more than footnotes and have been given imaginary voices, and I hope voices that concord with their status in the period.

Pepys Library in Cambridge

Because of the fact my characters have no biographers, my research is mostly background. I read very few books that pertain directly to my main characters. I love old maps and take great care with the settings to make them as authentic as possible. Here’s one of old Palermo I used in Book I of my new series. Historical events, and their impact on the people in my stories are my main interest. The cities of Palermo and Naples at that period were subject to earthquakes, rebellions and the eruptions of Mount Vesuvius. Politics always looks very different from the bottom, rather than from the point of view of those who make the decisions at the top.

My new series is based around the life of Giulia Tofana, an Italian 17th Century poisoner. She allegedly killed 600 men in the cities of Rome and Naples. She is half legend, half real person. Her story has been embroidered and changed over the centuries, but no-one has written a biography of her. So I had to find an internal way to bring her to life, and one of the ways I attempt to do that is to give her a strong setting, and within that to furnish her with a strong set of opinions. For her poisonings to be convincing, her view of the world has to be skewed in some way by her life’s events. In the first book we see these events brought to life, but by book 2 she is now in a very different situation. From being a courtesan in the first book, she now finds herself a nun in charge of a family of young women incarcerated against their will.

The first novel in the series, ‘The Poison Keeper’, is finished and has been contracted to Sapere Books for publication early in 2021. In my first week writing Book 2, I’m wrestling with how much backstory a new reader needs to jump them into the story. I’m also researching the history of the silkworm which will play a big part in the unfolding events. And as always I’m enjoying breathing life into Giulia Tofana, a woman who has not yet been voiced in an English-speaking novel.

Thank you for reading. Comments welcome.

My new WW2 novel will be published soon, and my latest book is here


Literature and Sisterly Love

My novel THE GILDED LILY is about the relationship between sisters – one pretty and one plain, when they run away to the gilded streets of London to escape a difficult past. Although the novel is set in 1661, during my research for the novel I looked into the relationships between sisters in lots of different periods in order to see where the tensions between sisters commonly lie. In THE GILDED LILY the sisters’ relationship puts them in danger, but also ultimately saves them.
This post was originally a guest article for Heather Webb’s blog, where I thought I’d share a little about the relationship between famous literary sisters, The Bronte Sisters.
Did Charlotte Bronte burn her sister Emily’s manuscript?
Originally there were five Bronte sisters. When Emily was only six she was sent to boarding school – the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, which her older sisters Maria, Elizabeth, and Charlotte already attended. The school was a grim and dismal place, run with the idea of casting out sin by physical punishment. Weakened by this cruel regime, in 1825 Maria and Elizabeth both died of tuberculosis. The same disease later claimed Emily and Anne as well. Following these bereavements the surviving sisters, Charlotte and Emily, were removed from the school but they never forgot their harsh treatment and Charlotte made it the model for the terrifying school in ‘Jane Eyre’.
Life at home was much better for the girls. They were isolated in their house on the Yorkshire moors and so they developed an extremely close relationship, a lot of which was based on a fantasy game. Their father brought their brother Branwell a box of wooden soldiers, and each child chose one and gave him a name and character. Over the course of the next sixteen years they made tiny books containing stories, plays, histories, and poetry written by their imagined heroes and heroines from the fictional “Gondal”. This is the sort of thing I used to do with my sister when I was small. Did any of you?
Unfortunately, only the stories written by Charlotte and Branwell survive. Of Emily’s work we only have her poetry, but her most passionate poetry is written from the perspectives of Gondal’s fictional inhabitants. In 1845 Charlotte came across Emily’s “Gondal” poems and read them, which made Emily furious when she found out. However, the discovery led to the publication of a volume of Charlotte, Emily, and the youngest sister Anne’s poetry under the names of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. They sold only two copies, but it filled them with enthusiasm for writing. Afterwards the three continued to write but not without rivalry. ‘Wuthering Heights’ was probably written in 1845-6, while Charlotte was working on ‘Jane Eyre’, and Anne wrote ‘Agnes Grey’.
‘Wuthering Heights’Emily’s novel, (under the pseudonym Ellis Bell) was published in 1847 to considerable critical acclaim, though some Victorians were shocked and horrified by the violence it contained.
After Emily’s death, Charlotte wrote the preface to a new edition and in it preface she apologizes for her sister’s novel by saying Emily wasn’t in control of what she wrote—her “gift” was not of her own making, but Emily was merely the instrument of inspirations from the beyond.
Whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff, I do not know; I scarcely think it is.
And, when her publisher wrote to discuss the novel with her, Charlotte was apologetic:
Ellis (Emily) has a strong, original mind, full of strange though sombre power … but in prose it breaks forth in scenes which shock more than they attract – Ellis will improve, however, because he knows his defects.
About her sister Anne’s second novel, Charlotte took an even harsher line, writing,
‘Wildfell Hall’ it hardly appears to me desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake.
And she refused to authorize a new edition of  ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.’ Charlotte’s attitude toward her sisters’ literary efforts was patronizing. She decided to “improve” Emily’s poetry when she published an edition of it after her death, altering words and even adding her own stanzas or removing entire parts altogether.
This led to many believing that Charlotte actually burnt Emily’s second novel, a novel for which there is ample evidence in correspondence from the publisher. No novel has survived, hence the accusations. It is unclear whether Charlotte’s motivations were of jealousy, or of protecting her sister’s memory from ridicule. But whatever her motives it is clear that despite this she had great love for her sisters, particularly when she was left the only survivor of the original six children.
This is what fascinates me about sisterly relationships – they can be both cruel and loving, all within the space of a short time. I hope my readers will find as much fascination in my characters Sadie and Ella Appleby as I found in the Bronte sisters. More information about the Bronte sisters can be found at
or at the brilliant blog by Clare Dunkle
or see Juliet Barker’s excellent book, The Brontës.
Click on these links to read about other famous literary sisters who have turbulent relationships.
Joan and Jackie Collins
Margaret Drabble and AS Byatt’s relationship
THE GILDED LILY is published by St Martin’s Press. Watch the live action Trailer here
Pictures: wikipedia