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.
You can visit her website at www.plantteacherthebook.net.
Welcome to Between the Covers, Caroline. Why was writing Plant Teacher so important to you?
Caroline: I lived in Bolivia from 2007 to 2008 when President Evo Morales was very aggressively consolidating his power. I saw numerous protests and prolonged hunger strikes, and the Bolivian news reported on demonstrators being killed and dissenters being arrested. I realized this was an important story and one that could be well explored through the powerful lens of fiction.
What was the experience like writing Plant Teacher?
Caroline: It was fun! I set aside several weeks and wrote all day, every day, from morning until evening. The experience of writing a book is as engrossing and enjoyable, for me, as the experience of reading a book.
You lived in Bolivia which provided you the background for writing Plant Teacher. Can you tell us what that was like?
Caroline: Bolivia is a remarkably diverse country. In the West it has the Andes and some of the highest altitude cities in the world. In the East it is Amazonia and there are beautiful tropical plants and birds and the land is verdant. There are also some 36 indigenous groups in Bolivia and some estimates place the number of Amerindians and mestizos at 86 percent. I lived in the East and I would walk every day through outdoor markets where native women in bowler hats sold slices of coconut and watermelon, chunks of pineapples, and little satchels of tropical fruits. This is how I purchased my breakfast each morning. Mango trees grew in the parks like elm trees here, and you could simply pick fresh mangos from a public park.
Can you tell us more about Martin Banzer, the plant teacher?
Caroline: Martin Banzer comes from an extremely wealthy U.S. Latino family and he goes to Bolivia to get in touch with his roots. One of the first things he does, while there, is to try a native hallucinogenic plant concoction called caapi. Hallucinogenic plants in South America are known as “plant teachers” because they are supposed to provide spiritual guidance and wisdom. As Martin learns, this quick path to wisdom does come at a price.
What are his strengths and what are his weaknesses?
Caroline: Martin starts out as that awkward combination of being spoiled and also neglected. He spends his last year of college vacationing and enjoying sports and ignores his scholarly responsibilities. He goes to Bolivia with no plans to find a job and no set agenda of how long he will stay or what he hopes to accomplish. Yet, as he runs into obstacles and comes to terms with his poor choices, he is forced to mature and does so admirably.
What about Cheryl Lewis? Can you tell us more about her?
Caroline: Cheryl has been raised in small-town Virginia and went to school in-state and is, consequently, convinced that she is lacking a broad worldview. Her move to Bolivia and her work in Bolivia are part of an almost desperate quest to improve herself by becoming more worldly.
Are there any supporting characters we need to know about?
Caroline: Plant Teacher includes a pantheon of characters. Gus Adams is a missionary who studied development economics and constantly spouts statistics about Bolivian socioeconomics. The character, Chobi, a Bolivian anthropologist, arranges Martin’s caapi experience and is later called to task by Martin’s older sister, Karen—a very loving but also very aggressive sibling.
Can you open to page 25 and tell us what’s happening?
Caroline: On page 25, Martin’s mother, Carmen Banzer, is sitting on the kitchen floor of her Northampton weekend home and eating a banana and mayonnaise sandwich. She is missing her late husband but also feels angry at him for his unhealthy habits, which, she believes, hastened his passing.
What about page 65?
Caroline: Cheryl Lewis is walking home after a difficult day at work and also after meeting Martin for the first time. She walks past the brujeria, a “witches’ market” that sells potions, amulets, totems, and other objects used to observe indigenous religious rites.
Now that Plant Teacher has been published, what’s your next project?
Caroline: I may take some classes to improve my quantitative skills in program evaluation for my day job… Sounds boring, but I love analytical work. My next writing project will be a self-help book about Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Adler’s method of early memory interpretation.
Thanks, Caroline, for this wonderful interview. Do you have anything you’d like to tell our readers that hasn’t been discussed?
Caroline: Thank you so much for this opportunity. If readers would like to listen to podcasts where I read from Plant Teacher and talk about writing the book, please visit the website at www.PlantTeacherTheBook.net.
ABOUT PLANT TEACHER
Hailed by Huffington Post contributor Joel Hirst as a compelling and powerful story, Plant Teacher begins in 1972 when a hippie in Oakland, California flushes a syringe of LSD down a toilet. Thirty-five years later, the wayward drug paraphernalia has found its final resting place in Los Yungas, Bolivia, the umbilical cord between the Andes and Amazonia.
Enter into this picture two young Americans, Cheryl Lewis, trying to forge her future in La Paz and Martin Banzer, trying to come to terms with his past in the same city. The two form an unlikely friendship against the backdrop of a country teetering at the brink of dictatorship and revolution.
Bolivia sparks the taste for adventure in both young people and Martin finds himself experimenting with indigenous hallucinogenic plants while Cheryl flits from one personal relationship to another. Meanwhile, the syringe buried in the silt in a marsh in Los Yungas will shape their destinies more than either could anticipate or desire.
Plant Teacher takes its readers on a fast-paced tour from the hippie excesses of Oakland, to the great streams of the Pacific Ocean and to the countryside, cities, natural wonders and ancient ruins of Bolivia. It reveals the mundane and the magical, and, along the way, readers glimpse the lives of everyday Bolivians struggling to establish equanimity or merely eke out a living during drastic political crisis.