Interview with Erica Ferencik, Author of Into The Jungle

It should come as no surprise for fans of Erica Ferencik’s heart-stopping novel The River At Night that she’s returned with another knock-out adventure. Into The Jungle (Gallery/Scout Press) releases May 28, 2019. I was lured in, caught off guard, and ensnared by the story of a tough and wounded young American woman, Lily, who winds up broke and at loose ends in Cochabamba, Bolivia. She falls for a local man, Omar, who has left his village for the city only to be called back when a jaguar kills his nephew. Into The Jungle is both a love story and a riveting adventure novel about Lily and Omar and their journey deep into the pulsing heart of Bolivia and the Amazon. The menacing pace and ripe, dripping prose made every brush with danger—the two-, four-, six-, and eight-legged variety; the whispering, biting, slithering kind—that much more enthralling. I spent hours balled up and tense, hunched over every word, deliciously creeped out. Kirkus Reviews calls Into the Jungle, “thrilling, bloody, and ferocious.” In a starred review, Publishers Weekly says the novel is “an alternately terrifying and exhilarating tale.” Ferencik is a devoted Grubbie and I’m thrilled to share this interview with her.

ERICA! OMG! Yes, I intend the all-caps screaming because when I read Into The Jungle, I swear I yelled this multiple times. I have never read a novel that was so exquisitely a color before but this is so lush, so intoxicating, so green! Absolutely loved it. Of course, I want to know the origin story, the why of this novel, then we can get to the details.

For me, finding a story worth telling is like falling in love. All the gears in my head and heart go click-click-click, and I know I’m doomed to do nothing else but live inside this idea for the foreseeable future. That’s what happened when my friend Pamela Rickenbach told me the story of her early life. A troubled, rootless foster kid, she made her way at age sixteen to Cochabamba, Bolivia, where she fell for a local man, following him to his ancestral home, the remotest in a series of remote river villages in the Amazon rainforest. No roads, no electricity, no running water. Just a crescent of land carved out of wild jungle. She stayed for ten years, not returning to America until she was twenty-six years old.

So, Into The Jungle is based on a true story? That’s incredible! How closely does the novel hew to her real-life story? Does she know she’s been fictionalized?

Pamela stayed in the jungle ten years; my novel takes place over a ten month span. She knew I was writing this story and gave me her blessing. I’ve used elements of her life as a jumping off place for my own story and characters. But it’s funny. Some of the things that people are calling “magical realism” actually happened to her, or she witnessed. For example, she saw a tribal member call a Harpy eagle out of the sky. And after going down to South America and spending a month immersed in this world, I believe everything she told me.

I read an interview you did for your previous novel where you said you were done with whitewater rafting, that you were getting your thrills from books and film. But then you took off for South America to do research for Into the Jungle! And you went by yourself! I am in awe of your ferociousness, your adventurous spirit. Can you pinpoint where that comes from and talk a little about how it informs your creative process?

You’re so right about that comment of mine from way back when—I’m done with doing dangerous stuff that—for me—doesn’t really have a point. I remain terrified of roller coasters (even Ferris wheels freak me out). But I will do pretty much anything to get the “real feels” of a setting I’m trying to portray in a book.

If the setting is a character, which it is in this book as well as The River at Night, I need to know this character. To bring the jungle to the reader, I had to go there myself, because no matter how many books I read, YouTube videos I watched, or people I interviewed, I knew I wasn’t going to “get it” like I would if I actually put myself there. I went by myself because I work better on my own—this was a research trip, so I didn’t want to be responsible for anyone else’s comfort or desires. I knew it was going to be hot and dangerous and exhausting but I was on a mission, ya know? And I’m no martyr. I loved every minute of it.

I told you before that when I was reading Into The Jungle, I had a very specific picture of your protagonist Lily Bushwold. She is such a complex young woman. On one hand, she’s a total badass—self-assured, free-spirited, out of f*cks to give. But, she’s also sensitive and vulnerable and rudderless in a way that made me fear for her. All of this is to say that she was very real for me. How did you build such a rich character?

It took a lot of drafts to really get Lily! But I think I got her when I related her “lost-ness” to my own as a young woman. I didn’t have it as bad as she did, but I left home at sixteen, making a stab at college but then traveling aimlessly around Europe for a couple of years, at times getting into some really dangerous situations via my own youthfulness and naivete. I know that I was looking for a home, because my “home of origin” never felt like one, and it was one I couldn’t wait to leave. It just turned out to be harder than I thought to find a place where I felt at peace, where I felt loved, where I had a community. I’m still working on that, as perhaps many of us are.

Into the Jungle is definitely a Literary Thriller. Not a word of prose is sacrificed to plot. You have an incredible talent for immersing readers in this visceral place which I can only imagine is sensory overload in real life. Yet somehow you manage to keep the story moving at a frightening clip. Does your natural writing style skew toward the beautiful sentence or the plot first? I guess what I’m asking is, how do you write the first draft of your novels?

Thank you! Well, after many painful learning experiences (30 years of writing, ten novels, half a dozen screenplays), I know now that in order for me to write what I consider a successful novel, I need to proceed in this order:

  1. Find an idea that fascinates me and that will continue to enthrall me for the sometimes years it will take to complete the book.
  2. Expand that idea into a detailed outline, sometimes as long as sixty pages. Only when I’m stoked about the outline, then…
  3. Fall into the delicious task of actually writing the book. Any beautiful sentences come from relentless rewriting/rethinking/reimagining.

The literary community is in an ongoing conversation about who gets to write the story. What hesitations did you experience in writing about the indigenous population in the Amazon as a white American woman? What role do you think research should play in writing outside of experience? Did you use a sensitivity reader?

Could be I’m insensitive, but I think anyone should be able to write anything they want. If someone wants to write a novel about a suburban, middle-aged white woman with a bit chardonnay pudge—not unlike myself—and they aren’t those things,well, I say, go for it! Maybe it will be one hell of a great book and why deprive the world of that? I know I’m always hungry for one. Regarding writing about an indigenous population as a white woman, all I could do was write through the eyes of my character, Lily, with the intention of moving the story forward through her own evolution as a person walking into what was—to her—an utterly foreign environment. As I’m sure you noticed, I made up my own village, Ayachero, and my own tribe, the Tatinga, to avoid being nailed on any accuracy issues. I didn’t use a sensitivity reader—not saying I shouldn’t have.

Regarding research outside of experience and its role in writing a novel: for me, the most seductive and dangerous part was falling madly in love with it. All I wanted to do was read about the Amazon’s tortured history, the amazing animals and plants. I had to keep reminding myself that I had to come up with my own story and focus on that. As you research, I believe you have to ask yourself: What is my story about? How is this information relevant? No matter how much you want to say: I’ll do that later, after I google this amazing thing, you must answer that first question first. And I’ll say it again: What is my story about? How is this information relevant? No matter how hard these questions are to answer. Otherwise, you’ll fall into the glorious pit of exploration and never emerge.

Some of what’s going on in the background of Into The Jungle has to do with colonialism, environmental exploitation, and western religion versus tribal customs. The Waorani tribe recently won a court case against the country of Ecuador to protect their lands against oil exploration. Can you share a little about your feelings on these topics and why you felt it was important to include these themes in this novel?

Someone once said these cautionary words to me regarding writing novels: If you want to send a message, call Western Union. That really struck me, because I really don’t like being hammered over the head with messages, however much I may agree with them, when I am sunk deep into a novel. But because every story needs a setting, and Into the Jungle is set in the Amazon, I needed to be true to where I was and what is happening there, and frankly what’s been happening there for decades.

I was overjoyed to read about the Waorani tribe’s victory. Like millions of others, I’m devastated and heartbroken by the decimation of the rain forest by corporate invaders, climate change’s increasingly disastrous effects, the persecution of indigenous people and stealing of their lands, the loss of habitat for the animals and plants. This precious rainforest cloak—known as “the lungs of the world”—has taken 55 million years to evolve and is being destroyed at the rate of two football fields a second.

And now, let’s talk about love and sacrifice. Omar is a native of Bolivia, a skilled hunter searching for something more in the big city when he’s called back to his tribal village of Ayachero. Lily is a restless, rootless, inexperienced American, with, honestly, no business going into the jungle with Omar. Yet, one little baby sloth and there it is: love. Please tell me what it was like to be in the heads and hearts of these unique characters.

As you know, being the beautiful writer you are, creating and inhabiting characters in order to bring them alive on the page is both exhausting and exhilarating, a feat of emotional gymnastics. But it’s worth it.

The romance, the love story between Lily and Omar is so compelling maybe because it’s so unconventional. It was painful but so moving to witness their struggle to find a place of their own in the tribal community and to see Lily working so hard, facing such hardship, sacrificing so much to be there with Omar. What do you think Omar and Lily represent to each other?

To Lily, Omar represents the side of herself that wants to feel natural and at home in her environment; he is at home in the jungle whereas she has never wanted to settle anywhere. Her “answer” when things got tough back in the states was always just to take off. Here, in the jungle, she had to stay, she had to cope and do more than make the best of it: she had to make it the place where she could thrive. Omar sees Lily almost more clearly than she sees herself. He knows the strong person inside the damaged shell. In fact, he barely glances at that shell. He also loves her for sharing a passion for saving the natural world.

Speaking of characters, who else did you love writing? I’m guessing The Frannies and the river guide For God’s Sake.

I laughed every time I wrote in For God Sake’s voice. He’s a Tatinga tribesman torn between his allegiance to the Tatinga, who have shunned him; to the Ayachero people, who’ve accepted him probably only because he’s such a good river driver and brings them the occasional keg of warm beer; the Frannies, who are missionaries he delivers supplies to; and his family back in La Paz. I also loved “inhabiting” the poachers Fat Carlos and Dutchie.

Like The River At Night which, hooray, is headed to the big screen, Into The Jungle involves women who must live with and trust each other to survive. You highlight the role of women in tribal life and in the life of this larger community. Why was this important to you?

Great that you noted that connection between the two books. In The River at NightI focus more on female friendships. In Into the Jungle, I wanted to accurately portray life in a typical ribereno (river) community, as described in detail to me by my friend Pamela Rickenbach, who lived that life for a decade. It’s a tough, tough life for both sexes.

What are you reading and recommending now? What’s next for you—Antarctica, the Sahara, Tibet? Surely you have some incredible adventure awaiting you and your readers.

As I work on getting my head together for the next book, it’s helpful for me to reread some books that for me are classics for structure: Story, by Robert McKee, and for contemporary fiction: Writing 21stCentury Fiction, by Donald Maass. I’ve also reread some old favorites that help me remember classic structure and voice in literary thrillers: The Night of the Hunter by David Grubb, The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and Enduring Love by Ian McEwan. I’m reading all of Lawrence Millman’s work. Now there’s a guy who lives to disappear into the wild world, and he’s grumpy and funny and brilliant about it. I just finished four beauties: Whitney Scharer’s The Age of Light, Christopher Castellani’s Leading Men, your novel Winter Loon, and Joseph Moldover’s Every Moment After. Right now I’m loving local authors’ new work: Katrin Schumann’s The Forgotten Hours, James Charlesworth’s The Patricide of George Benjamin Hill, and Crystal King’s new book, The Chef’s Secret.

I can’t divulge anything about my next project right now. What I can say is: Think cold.

About Erica Ferencik: Erica is a novelist, essayist, and former standup comic. She has been a ghostwriter, editor, and screenwriter. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from Boston University but also credits GrubStreet not only for their brilliant classes but for their supportive writing community. Her work as appeared in Salonand The Boston Globe, as well as on NPR. Her novel The River At Nighthas been optioned for film by Miramax. More information is available on her website, www.ericaferencik.com and you can follow her on Twitter @EricaFerencik

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