Monday April 18, 2016

Alissa York on swimming with anacondas in the Amazon rainforest

Alissa York captures the thrill and danger of the Amazon rainforest in her new novel, The Naturalist.

Alissa York captures the thrill and danger of the Amazon rainforest in her new novel, The Naturalist.

Listen 18:09

Alissa York's new novel, The Naturalist, is full of themes of life, nature and the nature of the human heart. If boating upriver in the heart of the Amazon rainforest sounds appealing, this book is for you. It's set in 1867, a time when Darwin's theory of evolution was shaking the world. A naturalist named Walter Ashe plans an Amazonian expedition, but dies in an accident before the trip. Despite his death, Ashe's son Paul, his wife Iris and Iris's young Quaker companion Rachel decide to go through with the expedition, and each of their lives is changed forever by the beauty and the danger that they encounter in the rainforest.

Alissa York spoke to The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers in Toronto.

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The Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon River, at night. (Alissa York)

ON THE BENEFITS OF KILLING OFF THE PATRIARCH

When I knew that I would write about the Amazon, I started reading everything that I could get my hands on, and the naturalist accounts from the 19th century were the most compelling to me. So this character of a 19th-century naturalist began to take shape, but then he had this shadow character who was a young woman. Really, it's about what happens to that kind of expedition when you remove that patriarch from the centre of the expedition. Even if he's a benevolent patriarch, there's that kind of room it leaves. I was interested in thinking about a new kind of naturalist and a new kind of naturalism.

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Alissa York with the caiman cake she made for her book launch at Toronto's Ben McNally Books.

ON THE SYMBOLISM OF REPTILES

Reptiles are a fascinating and frightening area in the human mind. I think they function quite often as a memento mori in a landscape — you can have a beautiful jungle scene and then there's a little crocodile in the corner and you remember oh yes, we're mortal, it could happen any time, it's lurking there. There's also that irony of, how at the flash of a snake in the grass, we go back to our own reptilian mind, we become instinctual, and sometimes we can't override that fear. I am also astonished by the variety and the beauty to be found among reptiles. That's part of what drew me to them.

ON FACING HER FEAR OF ANACONDAS

I went [to the Amazon] on my own, and I knew that I could say to myself "Well sure, you could be afraid, but you can't. When you have the opportunity to swim in the river, you're going to get in and swim in the river." And I did, and I had to overcome all these visions of anacondas and piranhas and stingrays — and sharks! They have sharks, thousands of miles inland in freshwater. It's a crazy place.

German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt speaks about the Amazon as being "the locus of the life force." And you really do have that sense, both in reading and in writing about it, and in being there. The biodiversity, the sense of everything humming with life. 

Alissa York's comments have been edited and condensed.

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