Louis Bayard blends historical narrative and otherworldly mystery in his reimagining of Theodore and Kermit Roosevelt’s 1914 Amazon expedition.
What was the initial inspiration for Roosevelt’s Beast?
That’s a bit shrouded in mystery. All I can remember is standing in a Borders— that’s how long ago this was—and thinking: “Wait, didn’t Teddy Roosevelt go on some crazy journey through the Amazon jungle?”
At that point, I hadn’t yet read Candace Millard’s The River of Doubt, so I didn’t know how close Roosevelt came to death or how harrowing that journey really was—backbreaking labor, disease, starvation, drowning. The only thing I had, really, was a question. What would that experience have done to Roosevelt’s mind—or, to be metaphysical about it, his soul? The rest of the book just flowed from there.
Did you get the chance to see the Rio Roosevelt for yourself?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing historical novels, it’s how elusive the past can be. You can go to Paris, you can go to London, and I’ve done that, but if you want to reconstruct Napoleonic Paris or Victorian London, you have to head back to the library. And that’s what I did with Roosevelt’s Beast. I immersed myself in primary sources until I had the clearest possible picture of Teddy Roosevelt’s jungle. (Plus I’m fortunate to live in a city that gets pretty damned tropical in the summer.)
What made you decide to focus your novel on Kermit instead of his much more famous father, Theodore Roosevelt?
I’m always looking for the blanks in the historical canvas—the people and things that nobody really knows about. When it comes to the Roosevelts, we know a hell of a lot about Teddy, but Kermit remains a mystery. Here was this gifted, courageous, accomplished young man who should have had a golden career—a golden life—and instead he lost his way. And to this day, nobody can say why. Even his own family didn’t know why. So this book is an effort to figure out, at both the psychological and symbolic levels, what happened.
The beast in this story is quite mythical and supernatural in nature—is the beast based on any particular Amazonian or Brazilian legends?
I refer in the book to the Brazilian figure of Curupira, who supposedly defends the forest and its creatures from invaders. But I think all legends, no matter how local, draw on the same notes. Terror and the sublime, in some combination.
Many have noted echoes of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in your novel—was this particularly inspirational?
I can’t imagine a writer who wouldn’t be inspired by it, it’s such an extraordinary work. What I particularly love is how Conrad keeps buzzing around the central mystery, coming at it in fragments, but never making the grand definitive statement. Even that famous line—“The horror! The horror!”—that’s an open-ended line. The horror of what? Conrad leaves it for us to decide.
You have written pieces for CBS News and Salon about your experiences with depression: do you personally identify with Kermit, who was also diagnosed?
Yeah, that part of the book required zero research on my part. And it makes perfect sense to me, by the way, that he would have medicated himself with alcohol because, in those days, what else was there? You begin to understand why alcohol was such a force in American life—far more than it is today.
From Mr. Timothy on, many of your novels have dealt with complicated father-son relationships, and this one is no exception. Why are you drawn to this particular dynamic? Do you have a favorite father-son relationship in literature?
I do keep coming back to that theme, and I’m not sure why. Maybe because being a father is always kicking my ass. It’s the one job I never seem to master. On the page, maybe I can get it right.
As for fathers and sons in literature, it’s hard to pick just one. The Road was pretty damn beautiful. The Brothers Karamazov. Seize the Day. Gloucester and Edgar in King Lear. If I can pluck from the film medium, Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief has a father-son relationship that will destroy you.
What do you love most about writing mysteries?
They’re always in motion. Which is a great way to get your characters in motion—and to address the same themes that “serious” literature does, only without calling a lot of attention to yourself. I guess mysteries save me from ponderousness.
When teaching creative writing to university students, what’s the one piece of advice you try most to impart?
Put the story first. I find that young writers, in that first intoxication of language, want to create all these magical word-spells, and the spells don’t work unless there’s something to anchor them. If you get the story right, the poetry comes out of it naturally. You don’t have to lift a finger.
What project are you working on next?
I’m writing a young-adult novel, also historical, with a teenaged female protagonist. A daughter this time! I can’t wait.