An Interview with Andrew Westoll

I met Andrew Westoll at UBC, but already knew his writing from Event, where he was a winner in the journal’s annual creative nonfiction contest in 2003. That piece eventually grew into his first book, The River Bones, which describes the five months he spent travelling in the rainforests of Suriname in search of the rare blue frog called okopipi. Charles Montgomery called The River Bones a “fascinating journey through a landscape thick with tragedy, rot, mystery and searing beauty;” the book was recently shortlisted for the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Nonfiction.

Q: What led you from biology to writing?

A: When I was 23 years old, I lived the dream of many aspiring animal behaviourists – I spent a year studying wild troops of capuchin monkeys deep inside the Surinamese rainforest, just north of the Amazon basin. And funnily enough, it was while I was there that I decided science wasn’t for me. I quickly grew tired of reduced the monkeys’ actions down to verifiable data points, of learning the Latin names of trees. I wanted to find a way to capture the whole of my experiences, not just those that I was being paid to collect. I had always been a scribbler, so I started scribbling. And soon I found myself sitting in the middle of the jungle writing character sketches instead of doing group-scans.

Q: What inspired you to write The Riverbones?

A: After my year in Suriname I returned to Canada. But the country stayed with me. I became wholly obsessed with it, mostly because no one else had heard of the place. And then, five years later, I was given the opportunity to go back. I didn’t think twice. I spent the next five months traveling the country, and about halfway through my travels, I knew I had a book to write.

Q: What draws you to creative nonfiction as a writer ? What distinguishes this genre, for you?

A: One of my biggest complaints about science was that the practice of it removed the mystery and magic from lived experience. And it is precisely these things that literary non-fiction gives back to lived experience. The old saying that “truth is stranger than fiction” is arguable, I guess, but one thing’s for sure: truth is more important than fiction. To everyday people, I mean. To people mired in their lives. To people triumphing, or struggling. True stories capture our hearts and minds in ways fiction can’t. I won’t try to unpack this comment here, but it’s what I feel and believe. And so, what better world to toil in as a writer?

Q: What was the biggest challenge you encountered in completing the book?

A: Fear and anxiety. Fear comes first. You think, there is no way I can do this in the time allotted. There is no way I will succeed. And once you get over this fear, anxiety arrives. It’s like fear’s little brother. It stops you from sleeping (the best thing about fear is that it is exhausting). It stops you from working. And again, you wonder if you will ever succeed. I am writing my second book now, and have just got over the fear and am wholly ensconced in the anxiety. One down, one to go.

Q: What was the greatest reward?

A: Hearing from Surinamese people. Hearing the pride so many of them expressed about their little country.

Q: The tradition of travel writing goes back at least to Marco Polo. Were you conscious of that long tradition as you wrote? How do you think the genre has changed and developed? In what directions do you see it heading?

A: Yes, I was very conscious of this tradition, and how it’s changing, as I wrote this book. I don’t believe it’s possible anymore to go someplace interesting, write a book about that place and the people who live there, and not engage with the issues, politics, histories and injustices that exist there. The time is long gone when a well-pocketed Englishman could head off into the great unknown with a rucksack and pair of bad shoes and come back with a bestselling book. So much travel writing is set in parts of the planet where incredible injustice and hardship is lived on a daily basis. To not engage with these issues, and to decline the opportunity to become a voice for those who simply don’t have one, is to miss the point of international travel, in my view.

Q: Who are some of your favourite travel writers, and why?

A: I love Peter Mattheissen because of how he combines tough travel, spiritual enlightenment and science all in one. I love Ryszard Kapuscinski because of his courage, his prose, his geopolitical timing, his reporting, his art, and because he was the “Translator of the World.” I love Bruce Chatwin because he was a brilliantly flawed human being.

Q: What books might you recommend to aspiring writers, and why?

A: The Snow Leopard (Mattheissen) because it’s beautiful.

The Soccer War (Kapuscinski) because it’s the perfect combination of journalism and art.

Maps and Dreams (Hugh Brody) because it teaches the value of complete immersion in one’s subject matter.

Q: What are you reading now?

A: I am reading everything there is to read about chimpanzees, as research for my next project. My next book is not a travel book, although it is a pretty wild adventure. I recently moved into an animal sanctuary just outside Montreal where thirteen chimpanzees have been retired after spending decades in an American research lab. The book will be out Spring, 2011, and will be titled, simply, Thirteen Chimpanzees.

Andrew Westoll is an award-winning journalist and author based in Toronto. A former biologist and primatologist, Andrew received an MFA from the University of British Columbia and now works as a freelance writer specializing in travel, science, conservation and culture. He publishes with many of Canada’s premier venues, such as The Walrus, explore, Outpost and the Globe and Mail, and is a past Fellow of the Literary Journalism Program at the Banff Centre for the Arts. Andrew won gold at the 2007 National Magazine Awards for his first feature article, a story that grew into The Riverbones, which is his first book and is published by McClelland and Stewart in Toronto. He is also a launch member of Speakers House Canada, a speaking engagement agency recently founded by Random House of Canada. His website is here.

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