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Interview: Caroline Alethia, Author of Plant Teacher

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Caroline Alethia is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, on radio and in web outlets. Her words have reached audiences on six continents. She lived in Bolivia and was a witness to many of the events described in Plant Teacher.

Readers can learn more about Caroline Alethia and her work by visiting the following links:

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Amazon | Amazon Kindle Store |

Please tell us a bit about your book and what you hope readers take away from reading it.

The two main characters in Plant Teacher, Martin Banzer and Cheryl Lewis, arrive in Bolivia just in time to witness President Evo Morales’ heavy-handed consolidation of power. Their stories unfold against a backdrop of protest marches, hunger strikes, and lethal push-back from the government. Both Martin and Cheryl are recent college graduates and, as young people, they are often more concerned about their own lives than about the turbulent political change that surrounds them.

At the same time — and I witnessed this during my own sojourn in Bolivia during this time period — many in the population developed a similarly schizophrenic approach to life. While the protestors amassed in the streets, people still relaxed in their favorite coffee shops, attended outdoor concerts, and went on excursions to the countryside, as if all the hysteria was not happening. I hope that readers will be interested in how easily people can compartmentalize the different strands in their lives. We all have a need for normalcy, and we will create normalcy even when the world around us is in tumult.

Who are your favorite characters in the story?

Martin is my favorite character in the story. He could easily be a caricature; he is an extremely wealthy kid with a pampered but also neglected upbringing, and at the beginning of the book he is dissatisfied and spoiled. He makes a life-changing mistake toward the beginning of the narrative, and this mistake forces him to mature. As I was fleshing out his character, I enjoyed the way he evolved from dissatisfied to determined.

Do you have a favorite line or excerpt from your book?

I reworked the language often to make it as rich and beautiful as I could. I put a great deal of time into several poems in the book, and, while I am happy with how many of the verses came out, I particularly like the last stanzas of Cheryl’s poem about her mother leaving Vienna:

And when the skinheads break out like disease
Chanting old time Nazi verses
And the canals’ putrid vapors
Make the Blue Danube run brown
And the women rush to the WC’s
Holding fast to their purses
Then you’ll know, my friend, you’ll know
You’ll know Vienna is bleeding.

If your current release were to be turned into a movie, who would you love to see play what characters and why?

I would love to see Kevin Spacey play the missionary Gus. He has the right balance of earnestness and humor to bring life to this complicated character. I think Rooney Mara would do a great job as Cheryl, and maybe it would be good to find some fresh blood for Martin. I would see this as an indie film with a quirky approach and new faces.

What are your favorite aspects of writing?

I find writing soothing and it is, frankly, a compulsion for me. I write like some people work out or play music. I need it as a regular regime in my life in order to feel balanced.

Your least favorite aspects of writing?

There is always a balance between heeding other people’s critiques and remaining true to the story you want to tell. It is possible to become so emotionally invested in the story that one is not objective about whether the writing is working or not. Sometimes, it is necessary to take a leap of faith and just accept and work with the critiques.

Who are some of your favorite authors/books?

I love books that are particularly innovative. I love, for example, Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume. The entire conceit, that old Gods are disappearing as they lose their followings, was wonderfully amusing. For similar reasons, I am tremendously impressed by Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. He creates an entirely new structure for a novel, and one that cannot be replicated.

What are you reading right now?

At the moment, I’m trying to brush up on my Spanish. I’m reading newspapers like El País and El Mundo online, and I’m also watching a lot of Almadovar films.

If you could have a dinner party and invite five authors — dead or alive — who would they be and what would you serve them?

I’m going to list these in alphabetical order, because there are no favorites. I’d like to have dinner with Isabel Allende, Italo Calvino, Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, and Mark Twain. I wish I could invite many more. My culinary repertoire is fairly limited, so I would probably offer a simple Italian meal: caprese salad, gnocchi with pesto sauce, and tiramisu for dessert.

What is a book that you wish you could say that you had written and why?

I really don’t think that way. There are people I wish I could write as well as. Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon blew me away; what a talent to be able to write a book that poetic and also that powerful.

What is the greatest piece of advice (for writing and/or just living) that you have heard?

I have to go with Freud’s greatest critic, Alfred Adler. Humans are social beings, and success in life comes through cooperation. The more we learn to get along with others, and the more we work to improve the situation of others, the more we also advance our own well-being.

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