Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Andrew Westoll

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Ten Questions with Andrew Westoll

Andrew Westoll is an award-winning journalist specializing in issues of science, travel, conservation and culture. A former biologist and primatologist, he now writes regularly for many of Canada's premier venues, such as The Walrus, Explore, Outpost and the Globe and Mail. His book, The Riverbones, was published this fall by McClelland & Stewart.

OB:

Tell us about your book, The Riverbones.

AW:

The Riverbones is about my search for the soul of South America’s forgotten wilderness. It is a travel memoir set deep inside the jungles of Suriname, a little-known country just north of the Brazilian Amazon that might legitimately be called the world’s Last Eden. The book describes the five months I spent journeying through Suriname’s incredible rainforest, my immersion in the globally unique Afro-American culture of the Surinamese Maroons, and the environmental, social, political and personal revelations I undergo along the way. The book is structured as a classic quest, which is embodied by my obsessive search for a rare and beautiful blue frog called okopipi that can only be found in the valleys of a single mountain range on the remote southern border with Brazil.

OB:

What lead you to travel to Suriname in the first place?

AW:

At twenty-three, as a young biology graduate, my dream was to become a primatologist. As a first step, I took a job as a monkey researcher deep inside the jungles of Suriname. Although it was an incredible adventure, during my year there I fell out of love with science as a way of spending my life. But I fell in love with the country, became wholly obsessed by it. Five years later, I returned to the country to satisfy this strange fixation.

OB:

How did you research your book?

AW:

The research was broken up into two stages. After I left the country the first time around, I read everything I could find about Suriname – books, websites, Dutch newspapers, whatever. I wouldn’t call this research, though. I’d simply call it curiosity. After leaving science, I thought I was going to be a novelist. So while writing fiction, I read casually about Suriname.

The second stage was much more intense. This was after I’d returned from my second visit, as I was writing about my adventures there. I spent months inside the Toronto Reference Library. I ordered used copies of books that were long out of print. I contacted various world experts on Suriname and barraged them with questions. I brushed up on my Sranantongo, the lingua franca of Suriname. I delved deep into South American social history, especially the writings of Galeano (as they are so beautifully forceful), in an effort to locate Suriname within the context of the Caribbean and Latin America.

OB:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote The Riverbones?

AW:

Not really. I wanted to write a page-turner aimed, I guess, at the travel-literature set. But I also wanted to write something more than simply an adventure book. I wanted the book to be as much an appeal for social and environmental justice as it is a rollicking good read. I just went on faith that a readership existed for a book of this sort. Time will tell.

OB:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

AW:

The Toronto Writers’ Centre:
Quiet. White noise machine. Coffee. Dedicated work space. Eight-foot-long couch to accommodate napping tall guy. Friends/colleagues hard at work around me. There is no wood-paneling, or fireplace, or smoking room. The TWC takes the romance out of writing, so you can focus on the reality of it, which is simply this: apply bum to chair.

OB:

What was your first publication?

AW:

The first essay I wrote for the UBC MFA program was a piece about being a monkey researcher in Suriname. It was co-winner of Event magazine’s Creative Non-Fiction Contest and published in 2003. The dye was cast right then, I guess.

OB:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

AW:

Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels
The Great Bear Rainforest, by Ian and Karen McAllister
Maps and Dreams, by Hugh Brody

OB:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

AW:

To realize early on that to write for a living is not to obey some divine calling, but to follow through on a (perhaps irrational, but nonetheless conscious) decision one has made.

I once read an interview with Jane Smiley in which she told of a small sign she keeps above her workspace. It reads: “No one asked you to write.” I think this is the most important thing to remember as a writer. That no matter how frustrating this process can be, how exhausting or impoverishing or simply futile it might be at times, no one has ever put a gun to my head and told me, “Write, or else!”

This was my choice. So suck it up, keep plugging and focus on the highlights.

OB:

Describe the most memorable response you’ve received from a reader.

AW:

Hands down, the eighty-year-old woman who told my mother last week that she had fallen in love with her son (me) by page two.

OB:

What is your next project?

AW:

A book about our complicated relationship with mining. Partly set in Bolivia (like the new James Bond) and partly set in Canada.




"Suriname, an almost secret place: very few people know this is the cradle of many famous football players, and almost nobody knows that these sport stars are the historical heirs of the Maroon slaves who once defeated Dutch colonialism. Andrew Westoll went deep inside the jungle, looking for a sacred, tiny, shining, blue frog, and discovered that perhaps hell and heaven have the same address." - Eduardo Galeano


Read more about The Riverbones at the McClelland & Stewart website.

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