The Naturalist, Interview, The Winnipeg Review

May 20, 2016

By Julienne Isaacs


Natural Phenomena: An Interview with Alissa York


Alissa York is the author of a number of acclaimed titles: along with a collection of award-winning short fiction, Any Given Power, she’s published the novels Mercy, Effigy (shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize), 2011’sFauna and this year’s The Naturalist. 

It’s The Naturalist that intrigues me most: it’s a rich and provocative historical drama infused with the wildness of the Amazon. I reached York by email to discuss The Naturalist, field notes, travelling to the jungle and personal growth in wild places.

Women play a key role in The Naturalist. Individual female characters’ encounters with the natural world differ a great deal—Rachel is the most “at home in the wild,” as the dust jacket asserts, while Iris remains at an observational distance and records what she sees. The novel’s “certified” naturalist is Walter, though his son Paul also pursues the science from an academic distance. Which of these characters is the naturalist the book is titled for? (And what judgments are at play in how society determines who is legitimately a scientist and who is a hobbyist?)

I was initially drawn to the “place” aspect of the novel’s setting; it was through reading accounts of nineteenth-century naturalists who travelled to the Amazon that I discovered the “time.” The works of Henry Walter Bates, Alfred Russel Wallace, Alexander von Humboldt and others are my kind of adventure stories—tales in which the hero’s focus lies with the natural (and, to a lesser extent, cultural) phenomena he encounters, rather than with any dream of political conquest or financial gain. The more I learned about the men who identified as naturalists at the time (and they were men—at least those individuals who set off for “the ends of the earth”), the more I felt the need to create one of my own.

To my delight, as I moved deeper into the world of the novel, a second naturalist emerged—this one a young woman with less of an interest in bagging and cataloguing species, and more of an inclination to observe. Walter, my first naturalist, ceded his place at the centre of the expedition (and the present-day narrative) allowing his widow’s assistant, Rachel, room to grow. For that matter, Walter’s son Paul also had to step aside, relinquishing the role of presumed successor—for Rachel’s sake and for his own. In the end, Walter and Rachel are the novel’s “natural naturalists.” The pair of them—the old-school “field man” and the new Goodall-esque observer—share the title of the book.

In an interview with Christine Fischer Guy for Hazlitt, you briefly discuss your fear of predators living in the Amazon River, and how you overcame that fear in order to swim in the river and gain a deeper sense of the richness of the novel’s setting. In some ways, Paul experiences a similar sense of foreboding in the Amazon. In what ways is fear an appropriate or a problematic reaction to foreign, “exotic” settings? In what ways did you hope to complicate this reaction in The Naturalist?

The year before I travelled to the Amazon, I had the good fortune to visit Torngat Mountains National Park in Labrador. That trip put me in touch with my fear of the exotic (the waiver we signed listed all manner of possible injury/death, including helicopter crashes and attacks by wolves and polar bears), but I made a decision not to let my trepidation win. Incredibly, it worked; I stayed open to the experience, and about three days into our week-long stay, my understanding began to shift. I had thought I was going to the hinterland, but I learned through both the people and the creatures I encountered to envision the Torngats region as a homeland. I took that lesson with me to the Amazon. Even though I was an outsider in awe of my surrounds, I did my best to respond to the place as neither an “Eden” nor a “green hell,” but as itself. The same goes for my characters. Whatever they think they know about the Amazon and why they’re going there, the place, its people and its creatures know better.

How important to you was it to visit the Amazon as research for this book, and in what ways were you surprised by what you found there? For example, did the real Amazon accord with or differ from the accounts you’d read in nineteenth-century explorer narratives?

For nineteenth-century naturalists, the Amazon offered seemingly limitless opportunities to expand their knowledge of the natural world. Remember, this wasn’t the fragile, endangered Amazon we’ve come to know—this was the mother of all jungles, the ultimate locus of what Humboldt called “the uninterrupted action of organic forces.” Of course, those forces were already being interrupted at the time—by the colonialist impetus and even by men of science like Humboldt himself. Then came the rubber boom, the gold mines, the hardwood logging industry, the slash and burn cattle ranches, the dams . . .

I’ve dreamt of going to the Amazon since I was a kid (picture me reading up on anacondas in the family wildlife encyclopedia and watching David Attenborough hoist himself up into the jungle canopy on the celebrated TV series Life on Earth). When the time finally came, I flew into Manaus, Brazil, a city of factories in the heart of the jungle. I saw the urban decay and the harbours full of floating trash. Once out on the boat, I encountered mostly secondary forest—the primordial jungle still there, but farther off the beaten track than I had time to go. Still, the place didn’t disappoint. In spite of all we’ve done, the piranhas and the pink dolphins are still hunting in the flooded forest, the sloths and the howler monkeys are still hanging on. The “organic forces”—the life force—of the Amazon is just that strong.

I’m interested in the diary motif as a plot device: do you think Walter’s diary serves as a way to keep Walter “alive” in the story, to flesh out his character? Or does it offer a psychological “way in” to the Amazon for Paul, who is more a reader than an adventurer?

During my research I came upon a wonderful book called Field Notes on Science and Nature, edited by Michael R. Canfield. The excerpts and essays collected therein gave me no end of insight into, and fascination with, the form of the field notebook. Walter’s notebook evolved as a response to both the published naturalist accounts I’ve mentioned and the daily notes upon which they were undoubtedly based. As a structural device, his writings allowed me to explore his absence as a presence while weaving two narratives into one. And yes, Paul finds a way in—to his surroundings, to his father’s history and to his own origins—through reading the notebook, layering Walter’s experience over (or perhaps beneath) his own.

The natural world functions as far more than a setting in your books: it encroaches and invades the “civilized” world, upends and disturbs organized systems. There is a profound respect for wildness in your work. In what ways do your characters’ encounters with wildness enable their psychological development, their progress through a story?

Nature (in the form of blood-hungry insects) harries Walter’s widow Iris on the first leg of the journey, exacerbating her grieving process and causing her to withdraw from her friends and her art. When the party reaches the Rio Negro, however, where the acidic “black” water (actually the colour of strong, clear tea) is less hospitable to insect life, the beauty of the natural world serves to return Iris to her work. Art is how she made sense of the world before Walter came into her life, and it’s how she’ll continue to find meaning now that he’s gone.

In Paul’s case, nature is even rougher. He believes he must follow in his father’s footsteps—indeed, he has no awareness of any other kind of life—until one creature in particular pushes him off that predetermined path.

For her part, Rachel has been shaped by the natural world since she was small. As a child she haunted the banks of the creek on her father’s farm, paying close attention to every life form that came her way. As a young woman she augments that early understanding through the knowledge that lives in her mentors, Walter and Iris, and in books. The expedition builds upon this development; faced with the most biodiverse region on the planet, Rachel has no option but to grow.