One in a series of stories-behind-writing-the-books, which I offer intermittently here on my blog.
Montana-born Rex loves nothing more than to take his kayak out on a river, the faster and more powerful the better. When he gets the opportunity to tackle the well-named El Furioso in southwest Colombia, he is thrilled. He anticipates the river’s challenges, but finds himself in a situation where the real danger is human.
In Colombia, he meets Myriam Calambás, an indígena, who has lived along the El Furioso all her life. Though she loves its rushing waters, she dreams of leaving to get an education so that she can help her people. Her dreams, and her very survival, are in the balance when she and Rex are caught up in the clash between paramilitaries, working for rich landowners, and guerillas, who are supposed to be protecting the poor.
Pam Withers’ skill at writing about extreme adventures combines with a compelling story about an endangered world and a people struggling for their very right to exist. 
Interviewed by Darian Tichler 

So Pam, you’ve been a whitewater kayak instructor and written several books on the sport. How did you first get into it?
My parents taught canoeing, and I enjoyed that. Then, my very first semester of university, as a cub reporter for the university newspaper, I found myself covering a kayak race. The minute I’d finished interviewing the instructor, I asked to join the class. It looked to me like the cool version of canoeing. I had no idea it was a wet, cold, scary and dangerous sport, but by the time I’d figured that out, it was too late, because I was hooked. 

Have you ever had to make any dangerous calls on the water?
Having been involved in the sport for more than 25 years, I’ve had to make numerous calls I’d rather not think about – but I guess I made the right decisions often enough to still be around to write this book.

Extreme danger, racism, warring factions, death and destruction! This book doesn’t hesitate to delve into the farthest reaches of the human experience, and yet the romance that some authors capitalize on (hem hem, Twilight) is somewhat played down. As exciting as Rex and Myriam’s relationship is, it doesn’t have the same emotional highs as the whitewater rapid scenes. How and why did you plan the relationship between Rex and Miriam to go the way it does?
From the earliest notions of this story, I wanted a slightly arrogant whitewater kayaker and a indigenous person who had her own troubles to deal with. In other words, two highly different cultures, clashing. I figured that would provide plenty of tension for the novel. By adding a hint of romance, I ratcheted up the tension.

So it was a natural extension of the original characters you conceived of?

Pam Rafting
Pam rafting in Ecuador while researching First Descent

Did you base your characters consciously or unconsciously on people you know?
As a female in a male-dominated sport, I have dealt with more than my share of slightly arrogant male paddlers. So Rex was easy to develop as a character. He’s not based on any one person – if he were, I couldn’t admit it or I might get sued! Miriam took a lot more research to develop, and I consulted extensively with a young Colombian anthropologist, Lina, who had worked in the region where my novel is set. I explained the novel’s plot to Lina, and then spent hours interviewing her so she could help me develop Myriam’s character. It was Lina who named Myriam.

So Lina kind of created Myriam?
Definitely. I hoped that would help make Myriam authentic.

Rex has some negative characteristics that, should we meet him in real life, might even cause us to dislike him – racism, cockiness, pride. Yet we remain curious about him because of the danger he is constantly in, and because we want to know if he conquers his river. Were you ever tempted to have something horrible happen to him or to make him completely the anti-hero?
He was definitely the anti-hero throughout my early drafts — too much so. It’s dangerous for an author to make a hero an anti-hero. The hero has to be sympathetic even if he has some unlikable qualities. The first few versions of the manuscript, Rex was way too unlikable. I had numerous early readers tell me so. In fact, at one writers’ retreat, the instructor told me, “You obviously hate Rex, so why don’t you just make Miriam the protagonist?” Some book reviewers have said that Myriam became just that, sort of stole the show, but I really wanted to keep Rex the main person. So in my rewrites, I really worked at toning Rex down, making him likable and sympathetic even while a touch arrogant.

Did you want Rex rather than Myriam to be the main character because you thought your readership might sympathize more with a white male than with an indigenous female?
Perhaps, but more-so because I have a reputation of writing for boys, with boy heroes. Also, I felt I knew Rex intimately, from having lived so long in the paddling world. Myriam took longer to get into.

What’s the deal with the avocado sandwich?
First Descent Necklace
In the story, Rex’s grandfather traded an avocado sandwich for a valuable necklace owned by an indigenous woman, who agreed to the unfair trade only because she was starving. One editor who looked at an early version of my manuscript told me that story was completely unrealistic and I should delete it. The irony is that that plot element grew from an actual event, and was one of the first seeds from which the whole idea of the book grew. I have a friend, who must remain unnamed, who in her 20s was backpacking in a remote part of South America when she came across an indigenous man who tried to sell her a cultural treasure. She told him she had no money and showed him her avocado sandwich to prove that that was all she had on her. He told her he would accept the avocado sandwich as payment for this item. Astonished, she went ahead and made the trade, even though it was illegal for her to take that item out of the country. She feels badly about that trade to this day, yet has the item displayed on her bedroom bookshelf. When she showed it to me and told me the story, it got my creative juices going.

It seems like a lot of research went into this novel. How did the experience of writing it rate next to your other novels?
Most of my other novels took me two to four months to write. This one took me a year. Also, because I had a writing grant, I was able to pay for a researcher, article translator and interviewee: Lina, the Colombian anthropologist. She subsequently became a friend and my Spanish tutor. My husband made me promise I wouldn’t go to Colombia – many parts of it are still dangerous – so I went to Ecuador instead. During my time there I rode a zipline – there’s a zipline in First Descent – and rafted down a whitewater river. I also went to a refugee centre with a translator and got permission to interview Colombian refugees.

Did you become interested in the plight of indigenous people before or after you started this book?
As some of my readers will know, I have had First Nations characters in some of my previous novels as well – Raging River, Peak Survival and Surf Zone. I spent most of my growing up years around native reserves because my father, a minister, served reservation churches most of his life. My 17-year-old niece, Esther, who is half native-American, served as one of my teen readers. She was upset by the chapter in which Rex snubs an attractive First-Nations girl in his high school, solely on the basis that his grandfather would not approve. “Why?” she asked me, and I couldn’t find any words to explain why some people are like that.

So this is your 15th book, and you have another on the way. Any plans for slowing down, or are there are still stories to be told?
I’ll never run out of ideas, but I am slowing down in how fast I put out books. A few years ago, it was two to three a year.

How would you describe the experience of writing your first novel — in five words or less.
Gung-ho enthusiasm plus total naivety.

Do you have any tips for up-and-coming writers?
Hold on to that enthusiasm as long as you can. Follow your passion. But support it with courses/books/CDs/DVDs on the writing craft, like those from Writers Digest Books. The best book I’ve found is The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. The best CD/DVD I’ve found is The Hero’s Two Journeys by Michael Hauge and Chris Vogler.

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