Rebecca Rouillard spoke to Emma Rea about the inspiration behind the characters and setting of her new book, My Name is River.
I clearly remember reading about the Amazon Rainforest in primary school and being equally fascinated and terrified—are there any particular books that made you want to write about the Amazon?
I’d slightly tied my hands in Top Dog, the prequel to My Name is River, by mentioning that Floyd’s dad had moved to Brazil. So when thinking of how I could write a longer, more adventurous sequel, Brazil was an obvious choice and the Amazon rainforest an easy leap from there. The intoxicating memory of Eva Ibbotson’s wonderful books Journey to the River Sea and A Company of Swans meant the exotic setting was already alluring and felt possible to me. Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and those boys’ adventures on the Mississippi, were also lurking in my imagination, urging me onwards.
Tell me about your research, you actually went to Manaus and travelled up the Amazon river—what was that experience like?
I was lucky enough to be able to travel with my family to Manaus and right up the Amazon river to stay in a simple floating hotel run by indigenous people. Going with my children meant that I was able to use their experiences: my son did actually feed a leaf into a piranha’s snapping mouth and hold it up afterwards, with the teeth marks showing. We spent a morning with a fisherman in his dugout canoe and caught piranha in exactly the way it's described in the book. And I was amazed when our guide showed us how he could communicate with his village by whacking a particular tree trunk with a stick, and how he could grunt so that caiman (Amazonian alligators) would grunt back at him. I had already done a great deal of research - read books, magazine articles, watched films, but I didn’t feel ‘fluent’ in describing the rainforest until I had actually been myself. Funnily enough someone had breezily said, early on in the writing of this book, that I should do a research trip, and I dismissed the idea as ridiculous. But the seed had been sown...
Without giving away any spoilers, there is a significant digger in this story, and your Twitter bio describes you as an ex tractor driver – do you have a particular interest in farm machinery?
Ha! I loved my two summers driving tractors and grain lorries on a farm in Hampshire during uni holidays, but I had forgotten all about that when I started writing the book. I was gripped to hear that our young neighbour in Wales drove his grandfather’s digger - that’s what gave me the idea. It was only afterwards that I remembered that I’d loved it too. Come to think of it, I’d love to drive a digger or tractor again once in a while. There’s something elemental and calming about it.
I love the way Dylan describes the characters he meets by identifying the substances that run in their veins. How did you arrive at that idea? How would Dylan describe you?
The idea for the fact that Dylan sees what runs in people’s veins came to me in the Museum of Modern Art in Machynlleth. There was a glass sculpture which looked like ice, and the moment I saw it, I knew Dylan would think of Floyd if he saw it. At first the idea was only that he should sense what flowed in Floyd’s veins, then I saw that it could be something he sensed about everyone. What would he see in my veins? A great question! The only way I could ever meet Dylan would be if I was doing an author visit to his school, and I have a suspicion he would be looking out of the window, thinking about building his treehouse, rather than listening. But my daughter said I had cauliflower cheese sauce running through my veins, and I’d like to think he would agree.
Emma Rea, author
Your portrayal of Lucia, a street child living in a Manaus favela, was informed by a true story—can you tell me about that?
I was nervous of writing about a street child without any knowledge of the hardship and danger they face. I asked our guide in Salvador - a man who had grown up in the communities - whether my idea for a girl who taught herself English from a thesaurus she found in the dump was absurd, and he told me about Child of the Dark, the diaries of Carolina Maria de Jesus, published in the fifties in Sao Paulo. In her diaries she describes how, in order to keep herself and her three children alive, she scavenged scraps of paper and metal from the gutter to sell. Despite ever-present hunger and worry, she was an acute observer of the poverty, violence and desperation in her community. The publication of her diaries and their success allowed her to leave their cardboard and wooden shack and buy a real house.
An important message of your book is environmental conservation—is this something particularly close to your heart? Do you feel hopeful that the next generation will look after the world better than we have?
I wanted My Name is River to awaken an interest and love of the rainforest in children, so that when they’re older they will have a clear picture of it and possibly feel moved to action. We flew from Manaus to Tefe for an hour and I didn’t take my eye off the window for the whole flight. We were lucky to see completely unspoilt rainforest - not a road or building or a single gap in the thick green carpet of trees. But great tracts of it are being lost and I found it unbearable to read about the forest fires in Brazil last summer, and how they threaten the livelihoods of indigenous people.
Do you have a favourite river, or one you’re particularly keen to visit in future?
My favourite river is the Dovey, which flows through Machynlleth towards the lovely seaside town of Aberdovey, in Powys. There’s a swimming spot on it which is heaven on earth: cold, clear water, rounded stones and the shade of trees. Swimming there is the high point of every summer.
Do you have an equally exotic location in mind for your next book?
I’ve just finished writing a story about Thomas (from Aberdovey) who accidentally finds himself on an art trip to Venice. But I’ve also got ideas for an adventure in Ethiopia, and a story set in Portugal in the fifties.
Article by Rebecca Rouillard