I love talking with other authors—both for my New Books in Historical Fiction podcasts and here on the blog via the written word. But it’s a special pleasure to host a fellow Five Directions Press author.
I met Joan back in 2016, when I interviewed her about her reissued novel The Last Wife of Attila the Hun. Time went by, she needed a new publisher, and in due course she joined our writers’ coop. As an editor and former publisher, as well as a talented writer, she’s a natural fit for us. And although we didn’t know it at the time, she also has a particular gift for social media. All those lovely articles about books and readers and related matters that show up on our Facebook page come from her.
Best of all, we just published Gifts for the Dead, the second novel in her Rivers trilogy (Before We Died is the first). So read on to find out more about both books.
Gifts for the Dead is a follow-up to your previous novel, Before We Died. Without giving away spoilers, what do we need to know about that first book to understand this new one?
Gifts comes furnished with enough of the relevant info from Before We Died to make it make sense as a standalone novel. Basically readers learn that in the first book, Jack and Baxter Hopper, two young Irish American brothers, leave their jobs as longshoremen on the docks of Hoboken, NJ and travel to the rain forests of South America to become rubber tappers, in the year 1908. They embark on this trip because they are young and adventurous, but also because they are looking for a way to distract themselves from the grief they have suffered since their father’s sudden death in an apartment building fire. And since the rubber boom is in full swing at that time, they believe they can make some quick money too. They are absolutely unprepared for the realities of the rubber tapping industry, which include not only the dangers inherent in working in the deep jungle but also the greed of the barons at the top of the industry hierarchy. As a result of these dangers, Jack Hopper eventually returns to Hoboken—without his brother.
Where are Nora Sweeney and Jack Hopper at the beginning of this novel? What do each of them want, and what keeps them from getting it?
Jack returns from South America so very ill with a combination of jungle diseases and infections that all he really wants in the first pages of Gifts for the Dead is to continue along on his path into oblivion. Nora, who was to have married Baxter, wants Jack to live. Nora has known the Hopper family since childhood, and she is uncommonly close to Maggie, Baxter and Jack’s mother. Maggie has already lost her husband, and now, with Jack’s solo return, it seems she’s lost one son as well. Nora feels that losing Jack would be more than Maggie could bear.
And what about them as individuals? Let’s start with Nora, whose story is told in first person. How would you encapsulate her personality and her background?
Nora’s parents died of consumption when she was four, and she was raised by her Aunt Becky, an advocate for various political issues, particularly workers’ rights. Aunt Becky knows just enough about child rearing to glean that it’s not a good idea to leave a four-year-old alone for hours at a time. As she doesn’t have the money for a sitter, she drags Nora along with her to her various political events from the get-go. Not surprisingly, Nora grows up to be politically oriented herself. When we first meet her, she is a proud suffragette. She is also alone, because as soon as Nora is old enough to manage without a guardian, Aunt Becky flees to Boston to get on with her own life. Nora sees herself as flawed, but also fearless and somewhat invincible. The reader will see her other side as well.
And Jack? What drives him in this book—and in general? What made him the man he is today?
Even as Jack recovers from his illness, he cannot get over the loss of his brother. And he can’t talk about it either. For one, he is harboring a secret about what actually happened to Baxter in the deep jungle, and he is not ready to share it. For their part, Nora and Maggie have come to respect—or at least tolerate—his reticence, and to imagine that if forced to open up, Jack might fall back into the same mental stupor he was in when he first came home. Jack’s guilt and regret drive the decisions he makes throughout the book. And for all of them, but for Jack in particular, Baxter is always the elephant in the room.
And what drew you to write about the Amazon (that’s the river, not the mega-store) in the early twentieth century?
Two things occurred at about the same time: One, a freelance job I had with a local publisher required me to read a slim diary written by an early twentieth-century rubber tapper, probably the only one in existence. I knew nothing about the rubber boom in South America before then, and I found the information fascinating. And two, around the same time I decided to put aside my fear of snakes and bugs and travel to the rain forests of Ecuador with a group of environmentalists and sustainability advocates. This “perfect storm” was life-changing for me. As soon as I returned from the rain forest I began reading everything I could find about the flora and fauna of Amazonas, the history of rubber in South America, the city of Manaus, Brazil, which was the hub of the rubber boom back then, and on and on. And all the while I was reading, I was imagining the characters I would need for my own retelling of the rubber boom story. When I had a first draft of book 1, I returned to South America to spend time in Manaus and to travel the rivers with a private guide to see, among other things, rubber trees.
Most of the story in Gifts for the Dead, however, takes place in Hoboken, NJ. Why there, and what kinds of research did you need to do?
While the rain forest informs all three books, I still needed a location for my main characters to hail from. I grew up in New Jersey, so I was familiar with Hoboken, and I knew it had an active shipyard and train station and ferries running into Manhattan back in the early twentieth century. It was the perfect location for characters who would do a lot of traveling. But the more I learned about Hoboken, the more I realized I had to learn. Since Gifts for the Dead unfolds between the years 1911 and 1928, it necessarily covers the First World War—among other events. Hoboken played a huge part in the war, for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that doughboys from all over the country departed for Europe from Hoboken once Woodrow Wilson declared war. Hoboken at that time was home to three immigrant communities: Irish, German, and Italian. As you can imagine, German Americans took some abuse during the war for having connections to Germany. This was true in the whole country, of course, but particularly in Hoboken.
What can we expect in Rivers 3?
The third Rivers book will be called River Aria, and yes, it does concern itself with opera. How do I go from the rubber boom to WWI and its aftermath to opera? I can’t say without giving away some of the stuff that happens in Gifts for the Dead. I can say the last book follows the lives of the same characters—plus or minus one or two—and it takes place in the same two locations, with the addition of a third location, Manhattan, right across the river from Hoboken. I’m about three drafts in, with at least two more to go.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Thank you very much.
Joan Schweighardt is the author of five stand-alone novels and the Rivers Trilogy. In addition to her own writing projects, she writes, ghostwrites, and edits for individuals and corporations. Find out more about her at http://www.joanschweighardt.com.
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