Chris Feliciano Arnold, Author
Chris Feliciano Arnold is a writer, journalist, and professor, whose book, The Third Bank of the River: Power and Survival in the Twenty-First Century Amazon, brilliantly mixes genre and styles to present a sweeping, and even prophetic view, of the Amazon region of Brazil. Despite a very busy schedule of writing, teaching, and participating in international panel discussions and seminars, the author made time to talk with Lunch Ticket about tackling enormous subjects using a variety of craft tools, considerations in mixing first person with reportage, Pan-American problems and realities, and the critical importance relationships play in the life of a writer. The author also generously offers a ground-level perspective on making a living and making life work as an artist.
This interview took place by phone on August 7, 2019. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Buffy Visick: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your path to becoming a writer, reporter, and teacher? Where did all of this begin for you?
Chris Feliciano Arnold: Like so many writers, it all started with me as a reader. I was really into books when I was a young kid, and growing up in a relatively small town in the middle of Oregon, access to books—especially the public library and the Scholastic Book Fair at school— was really my way to “get out of town” and explore the world and use my imagination and so forth. Then in the latter half of high school—I was really into music, really into books, but didn’t see myself as having a clear path per se—my English teacher pulled me aside one day (I forget the assignment , like “write a two page story” or whatever) and said, Hey, you know, this is good stuff. Have you read this? He gave me a reading assignment of some Stephen Crane short stories on the side. That was the first time that a teacher in any subject had encouraged me, or told me that I had a talent in any particular area. It also felt like he had smuggled me this book and I really gravitated toward that and started devouring short stories. The next year, I joined the high school newspaper as a senior, and I loved it. Then, before I knew it, I was at my community college, and writing for their newspaper; then at University of Oregon freelancing for their newspaper. It was almost astonishing to me that at that point, in the late ’90s, early 2000s, we were getting paid by the column inch. So I could spend half a day covering a student protest or something, and get paid thirty-five, forty bucks. Which, when you’re a college freshman, that’s a lot of beer.
And of course, like so many undergrads, I got sucked into the vortex of the creative writing workshop, which was an awesome, fun scene—you meet so many cool, kindred spirits. And after that, there’s no going back. Once you get a taste of that. Since then I’ve been oscillating between journalism and so-called “creative writing,” throughout the rest of my life really.
“At a certain point I realized that if I wanted to really pursue writing, to hone my craft, I needed to put it at the center of my life.”
After undergrad, I was a high school English teacher for a few years, and that was a chance to smuggle my own favorite books to my students. I was also that high school English teacher working on a novel on the side. At a certain point I realized that if I wanted to really pursue writing, to hone my craft, I needed to put it at the center of my life. And that’s when I went to an MFA, at Purdue University. That was a three-year program and I got to teach, but most importantly a three-year program is a lot of time, when you’re in your mid-twenties, to be writing. So that’s the origin story, I guess.
BV: That leads me to my next question, which gets into your writing itself. You’re curious about a lot of subjects and wear a lot of hats, which shows in your book: there’s sports, there’s history, there’s music. Would you say that connects to your passion for blended genres?
CFA: I feel like first and foremost, it’s a really big world, and there’s a lot to see, and there’s a lot to do, and a lot to think about, and a lot to write about. I’ve always been just a very curious person. In my experience, so much of what beginning writers are encouraged to do is find YOUR voice, right? Write what you know, or, pick what do you write? Are you a poet, are you a nonfiction or a fiction writer? Maybe I was just stubborn or non-conformist in some way, but it seemed to me like kind of a raw deal! Not to repeat myself, but there’s so much more to do and think about and experiment with than just that. Like you mentioned music. There’s tremendous overlap with music, there’s tremendous overlap with film. One of the most important creative writing classes I ever took, actually, was at my community college, “Literature into Film.” All we did was read novels, watch the filmic adaptation, and discuss how the filmmaker translated that novel into film. That alone is incredible to think about. So whether it’s thinking about different forms or genres, or different subjects, I guess I’ve always felt somewhat confined and claustrophobic by the idea that you have to pick your subject, your form, and your genre.
Don’t get me wrong, I think that for some people, that can be really enlightening, to really hone in on your subject or your lived experience. I’m not trying to bash specialization here. There are people who really thrive with that focus, and the world of knowledge needs specialists to dig in and spend their whole life on a single form or a single subject or a single place in the world. I guess it’s just not me. So, that’s a long-winded way of saying it’s because I’ve come around to enjoy it.
BV: To get into your excellent book, The Third Bank of the River, when I approached this book, I had a few trepidations not knowing anything about Brazil. But it turned out to be a non-issue due to your ability to present and narrate a vast amount of information on a wide range of subjects. I would assume you’re very conscious of taking large chunks of information and making them palatable, and even suspenseful and interesting. Does this come from your experience with reporting? How did you, as a writer, develop that skill?
CFA: I think part of that does come from my training, for lack of a better word, as a journalist. As an undergraduate at the University of Oregon School of Journalism, one of the required foundational courses was called “Information Gathering,” in which we picked a subject and spent the entire semester doing a thorough, deep-end dive with as much information as we could find, from a variety of sources, so legal documents, advocacy and non-profit research, academic research, original historical source documents, etc. The actual paper at the end was twenty pages or something? And the other eighty pages were annotations—annotating the sources, analyzing their bias, and so on. So in that sense I was actually somewhat trained to do that.
But in another respect I was trained—and this gets to the intersection of journalism and creative writing—in the narrative mode of fiction writing, in which you want your reader to be wondering what’s going to happen next, what are the conflicts, what are the stakes? I realize I’m just rattling off workshop tropes here but that’s what you learn in fiction, right? And so for me, it was learning to blend those two. How do you take a ton of information and condense it, but then also how do you make it narratively interesting and suspenseful and character-driven? To go back to what we were talking about in terms of the value of specialization, one of the reasons why I pepper the entire manuscript with footnotes, is hopefully to lead readers to some of that deeper, richer, academic, historical, scholarly text, because those are the anthropologists, the historians, the Latin Americanists who have spent their entire academic careers digging into this stuff, thinking about this stuff, witnessing it firsthand. I cannot lay claim to that level of depth of experience, but I can hope that by making this suspenseful, narratively driven, engaging story about this region, that maybe it will lead readers to take that next step into the body of knowledge about the subject.
BV: To talk further about that, did your decision to bring yourself into the story and how the story’s told evolve organically? Did you know you were going to be in this story from the beginning?
CFA: Yeah, well, that’s a great question because I actually did not anticipate being in the book, at all. In a book like this, that proposes to explore a subject or a part of the world, I generally don’t want, as a reader, to see a ton of the writer mixing it up in the subject, unless the writer has a deeply, deeply profound reason to be centered in the story. So in my case I went into this book very conscientious of the fact that I do not live in the Amazon, that even in the context of [being born in] Brazil, I’m not from the Amazon region; I’m just a guy who was taken and swept away by and moved by my experiences traveling in the Amazon. Fairly early in the process, my editor was like, this would benefit from a greater sense of like why you’re here. There were places I was writing around myself in ways that maybe were conspicuous. I don’t know. But that’s what really sent me down the path of thinking about, what is my role in this story? And how can I tell this story in a way that my presence as the narrator, or for the character that I’ve created as myself as a narrator, to answer why is this person telling the story? Which is a question that we ask of any narrative. And how can I do that in a way that doesn’t center myself? What I came around to in the course of writing the book was trying to situate myself as almost a surrogate for the reader. How can I position myself as somebody who moves from ignorance to knowledge about this place? A fish out of water story almost. Somebody that the reader can follow along with and feel that displacement.
And going back to the idea of this book being intended for somebody that this may be the only book they ever read about the Amazon, I felt like, okay, let’s give readers somebody that they can bumble through this landscape with. Then also this book ended up being very panoramic with many meandering braided storylines. At some point I could have said, okay, I’m going to pick one of these elements, the isolated tribes, or the urban chaos around Menaus and the drug trade there, or a history of the region, etc. But going back to what I was saying earlier, there’s just so much to write about. So when you have all those balls in the air, you need to have some sense of narrative grounding, and the first person also ended up being a way to knit everything together in that respect.
BV: One thing that really struck me early on was your account of that 1000-mile, seven-day boat trip, The first person POV really connected me to the feel and scope and slog of things, providing a scale that helped me grasp somewhat the vastness of everything. Like you say, there’s so much going on.
CFA: That’s interesting that you mentioned the scale, because I hadn’t thought about it that way. But when I stew on that, one of the things that, when we, “we” meaning Western or American audiences generally, are shown the Amazon, we’re shown through helicopter flyovers and drone footage, or super high-definition Planet Earth documentary film where the sense of scale is either ultra close-up, look at this crazy lizard, or super sweeping, like where you’re climbing the whole rainforest in an aircraft. And so maybe not thinking in terms of scale but at least in terms of thinking about representation, I tried really hard throughout the book to avoid wildlife cinematography-type of stuff, or some of those Discovery channel tropes. But I do think scale as you mention is a really interesting way to think about it, because it is such a huge place, and sometimes if you want to get an appreciation for it, like it helps to stay rooted in one person’s journey.
BV: It also showed, for me, almost a mirror image of the US, and got me invested in the Amazon region and current events, in that, even though my reasons are different than your reasons, it really gave me a lens I could see things through that wasn’t just, like you say, a tiny lizard or a giant thing, or a mythical place, or just people on the beach or people with guns everywhere.
CFA: That’s incredibly gratifying for me to hear that, because the Amazon suffers from a lack of understanding and a lack of representation, and that’s only magnified when you look at it on a worldwide scale. If I had a mission in this book, it’s to get American readers or Brazilian readers, or Brazilian Americans or really anyone to think twice about Brazil the next time they hear Brazil or see it on a map. That’s what I’m hoping to do with the book apart from, but just as important to me, as anything craft-related.
BV: So that’s leading me into talking more about what you’re doing currently, but before we move on, I wanted to ask you about the title of your book, taken from the short story by João Guimarães Rosa. Can you tell us about why you chose that story’s title as part of your own?
CFA: First of all, any readers of Lunch Ticket who have not in their reading life encountered the work of and particularly the short story of João Guimarães Rosa, “The Third Bank of the River” which the book is an homage to, I urge them to check it out. It’s widely available online and widely anthologized. There are a couple different connections of that story to the book. One is that the story appears in an anthology of Brazilian short fiction, one of the books I’ve traveled a lot of miles with and that I was toting with me on that original trip down the rainforest. And also, it was one of those moments reading that story where—and I remember I was in my earlyish twenties when I first read it—it’s so breathtaking and mystical and beautifully crafted, and I’d been studying writing and literature for many years and felt like a fairly well-read person at that point, and was like, how have I not encountered this author, how have I not encountered this story?
“What is my role in this story? And how can I tell this story in a way that my presence as the narrator, or for the character that I’ve created as myself as a narrator, to answer why is this person telling the story? Which is a question that we ask of any narrative. And how can I do that in a way that doesn’t center myself?”
Secondly, the title’s just beautiful and mystical and amazing, and even though the story itself does not take place in the Amazon, it takes place in the sort of fabulous realm. For me, it was that the profound reflections on nature and mortality and life and death in that story have always lingered with me, and through some way it just felt connected to the feeling that I get when I’m on the river in the Amazon. There’s feeling of scale—not just scale of base but scale of time, scale of life and death—and it’s really easy when you’re on these long boat rides to just trip out on stuff like that for a long time. And—another mission—if this book fulfills no function for some readers than to introduce them to Rosa’s work, than it’s again, ah, victory.
BV: Getting back to tying this book into getting people to care about the region or even just know basically anything about what’s going on, I saw on Twitter you had shared your article about the NRA down there which was extremely eye-opening. Are you still actively involved in reporting on the region?
CFA: Yes—when you choose your subject and become obsessed with it, it’s not like after the book is finished you just stop caring about it. For me, if anything, it started to feel even more urgent after the book. That’s when Bolsonaro began to really emerge on the scene. He makes an appearance at the very end of the book as sort of this ominous, looming figure during Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. But then afterwards, things started taking a pretty dramatic turn. So last April I was up on the border of Brazil and Venezuela, and totally out of happenstance and coincidence, Bolsonaro was there on his campaign bus touring around the city, on a loudspeaker chanting all these pro-military, you know the rhetoric he spouts off…
BV: “Bullets, beef, and bible”?
CFA: Yes, exactly. So he was definitely on my mind. Then I was there again last fall, not in the Amazon, but down in Belo Horizonte to cover the actual election season. Then most recently, I was in Portugal a couple weeks ago doing some reporting on the new wave of Brazilian immigrants and expats who are now leaving Brazil for Portugal during the age of Bolsonaro. So it’s one of these things where, you can’t go anywhere without Bolsonaro’s impact being felt in some place and some way. He’s having effects everywhere; it’s not just localized to Brazil. So that’s where, to answer your question, I have continued to trace this story.
I think in terms of the “mirror image” you mentioned earlier, in terms of looking at or reading or watching the news about Brazil, one thing I want to be very conscientious of and to make clear at all times in the context of this book and in the context of talking about Brazil, is that these issues are absolutely Pan-American issues and global issues. In other words, environmental degradation, or violation of indigenous rights, or mass incarceration, or gun violence, or drug trade, or racism, or fascism, or any and all of these huge things are absolutely Pan-American. So often times, some listeners or readers may instinctively or even subconsciously dismiss Brazil as, “Oh, well that country is backwards,” or “That’s a South American thing,” or “That’s Latin America,” or “Latin America has always been this way.” That’s when I always tell people, no, no, no, no, this is the Americas. This is happening across the Americas, and to the extent that things are getting worse, or to the extent that atrocities have been committed, the United States has played a very, very major role in that.
BV: To continue with the NRA article, where they state that as Brazil goes, the world goes. Would you say it’s the same with Bolsonaro and the Amazon, as with gun laws? They say that the rainforest is the lungs of the planet, so it’s literally affecting everybody in the world. [Note: this interview was conducted prior to the massive devastating fires throughout the Amazon which made the US news beginning in August 2019]
CFA: Yes. So everybody needs to be tuned in. As to guns and gun violence, I’ve covered those in a few different contexts. In 2012, I was at a gun show in Phoenix, AZ—sort of the crossroads of the west, one of those fish out of water stories again, right? Like, “Send the liberal guy to a gun show and see what happens or see what he sees.” I talked to the gun show people and tried to understand their point of view on gun rights and so forth. Flash forward to 2018, and I’m in Belo Horizonte about a week before Bolsonaro’s election, talking to voters, literally just asking people, “Who are you voting for and why?” And some of the people mentioned that their number one issue was guns and self-defense, and the talking points, although they were in Portuguese, were indistinguishable from what I heard in Phoenix, AZ, six years prior. So, those are the sorts of things that worry me. Those are the things that keep me up at night, I guess.
BV: I really appreciated your description of La Pierre as a hobgoblin, I just want to say… Good editorializing. Okay, so let’s move back to you, a little bit. You’ve got a family, you’re traveling, you’re teaching, you’re writing, you’re continuing to cover stories. Can you tell us a little bit about your day, or your balance over time? The practicalities of just doing the writing? I think a lot of writers are struggling to keep the writing going, to pay the bills, and take care of our loved ones. So what does that look like for you?
CFA: Yeah, it’s something that we all grapple with I think. Writers, journalists—you know it’s certainly not getting any easier for anyone. Earlier in my writing life, I was much more singularly focused on writing and art-at-all-costs type of thing, and my wife would likely agree that it probably came at a cost to our relationship at times, in terms of my monomaniacal focus on my writing. The short answer, that’s painful to admit, is that earlier in my career, I think I balanced it all by damaging my relationships.
BV: There you go.
CFA: As I’ve gotten a little more, for lack of a better word, mature, and especially now that my wife and I have a baby girl at home, I’m much more likely now to put down a book or put down my writing or my computer or my pen, and just stop and spend some time with my family. Clearly it seems obvious that [those relationships] are more important than writing, but I was just so hungry when I was younger that I wasn’t able to internalize that. This is not really answering your question I guess. In practical terms I think it’s just a matter of being tired all the time, and working a lot either very early in the morning or late at night.
“I think what it boils down to is, it’s really, really hard to earn any money in writing or the arts in general, so when you have somebody who believes in you and is willing to pay you to do it, whether writing or teaching or reporting or editing or really anything, just really try to be mindful and appreciative of what a privilege that is, and just do your best.”
And also, one of the hardest parts about freelance journalism is just getting work. So whenever I’m working with an editor, I focus not only on the piece, on the writing itself, but on the relationship with the editor and trying to be reliable, timely, friendly, so that, if I want to work with that editor or that publication again, I can. I tend to write for the same handful of publications again and again, largely because I love working with those editors; I learn a lot from them. But also, I don’t want to be out there having to cold pitch all the time, because that’s… I’ve been there, and cold-pitching is time-consuming, it’s demoralizing, and— this is not an uplifting part of the interview…
BV: Being a writer is fun and easy.
CFA: Yes, really. So when you find somebody—and this goes for book editors, magazine editors, newspaper editors—when you find someone who believes in what you’re saying or believes in your work and abilities, really going out of your way to build and nurture that relationship, I think, is part of it.
Then just in terms of like, lifestyle choices. Until January of this year I drove a 2001 Honda, and now I upgraded to a 2010 Subaru. I like to cook at home. My wife and I both work full time—because as you know, living in California is not easy, so everybody’s gotta work and whether you’re a writer, or whether you’re in any profession… It’s hard these days for anyone, really. I mean, I’ve just recently, I mean very recently, ceased having a day job.
CFA: Thank you. We’ll see if I’m back to having day jobs twelve months from now. I give all of this commentary with the note of caution that I’ve been in the open seas of trying to do this myself full-time and trying to string together a livelihood and a career centered around writing and teaching for a long time now, but up until June this year, I’d also had a day job, so, you know, it’s not easy.
BV: Well, that’s exciting.
CFA: It is exciting, and it feels like the right time and I hope it works out, but I guess in the context of an interview that might be of help to some writers somewhere. I think what it boils down to is, it’s really, really hard to earn any money in writing or the arts in general, so when you have somebody who believes in you and is willing to pay you to do it, whether writing or teaching or reporting or editing or really anything, just really try to be mindful and appreciative of what a privilege that is, and just do your best, right? Just don’t phone it in. Just like do your best.
“I mean as busy as life feels right now, this is the life that I’ve been dreaming about having since I was that kid in high school reading those Stephen Crane stories. So if it gets a bit busy, I just brew another pot of coffee, and move on, right?”
And again, relationships are really, really important. It’s interesting that when people talk about the writing life, oftentimes they talk about volatility, whether related to romance, or creative destruction, or drugs or alcohol or whatever. There’s a romanticized idea of writers leading this really chaotic life. And it’s not an original thought, but really, there’s a such a huge benefit to a writer, to an artist, of having some stability in your relationships and in your domestic life. I’ve been very fortunate to have a partner in my wife who has always been encouraging of this ambition and these creative considerations—even at times when I’ve not probably been easy to live or cooperate with. I think writers don’t talk enough about that. Sometimes there’s value to going out and having this dramatic and volatile life, but then also, I’ve spent a lot of time literally watching tomatoes grow, and I like it. I mow my lawn, I enjoy petting my dogs, or like, I don’t know, this is getting off into the – [laughs]
Probably the definitive quote on this that you may have heard is something like, “Be steady in your habits so you can be wild and reckless in your work.” I wish I could be one of those writers that just plucks from the air the exact quote as well as who said it, but it’s only my second cup of coffee…
BV: Are you able to talk about any of your current projects? Do you have anything in particular in mind in addition to the ongoing work you’re doing? A book?
CFA: This semester I am a faculty mentor at Antioch and also teaching a nonfiction workshop at the University of San Francisco. Spring 2020, I’m going to be the visiting writer in nonfiction at St. Mary’s college in California, so for the next two semesters—and we could have a whole separate conversation about being adjunct faculty—but at least for the next foreseeable year, for the first time in my life as a writer, I actually have twelve months or so of teaching visibility, which is part of the reason I was finally able to leave my day job. I finally have steady teaching in a world where being a tenure-track faculty is increasingly rare, across all fields, let alone creative writing. And along the way, the paperback of Third Bank of the River comes out next month, so I’m going to be doing some writing and speaking in support of that. Then I have a couple of magazine pieces I’m working on right now that, fingers crossed, one of them might be the germ of a future book-length project. I hope at some point I’ll actually have enough oxygen to go back to working on fiction and some short stories and a novel that I’ve had percolating while I’ve been focused on Third Bank of the River, so no rest in the foreseeable future, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I mean as busy as life feels right now, this is the life that I’ve been dreaming about having since I was that kid in high school reading those Stephen Crane stories. So if it gets a bit busy, I just brew another pot of coffee, and move on, right?
BV: It’s exciting to see a writer succeed in what can be a very discouraging industry for a lot of people.
CFA: Yeah, I appreciate that. And it’s a nice and rare opportunity to get a chance to talk at length with someone who’s like, read the book and engaged with it. I appreciate this conversation.
BV: Thank you so much for speaking with Lunch Ticket.