Author Interview

Tessa took time out to respond to some frequently asked questions.

  1. Your first published novel, The Tree of Red Stars, garnered considerable acclaim, including being named one of the five most recommended books of 1997 by the Independent Reader. Could you offer some personal anecdotes of that period in your life and what it felt like to receive such a wealth of positive response to the book?

    Black-necked Swan (cisne cuello negro)

Receiving such a positive response to my first published novel was overwhelming. I had written about many of my own very personal experiences of and those of people I knew well, and felt that I had said all I was prepared to say on the subject in the book. I was unprepared for how much more interviewers and readers wanted to know. At the beginning, I just wanted to disappear and let the book speak for itself. Gradually, as I spoke to students, in particular, who had been assigned the book in colleges and universities, I realized that I could answer most of their questions without endangering myself emotionally. I learned to trust both the questioners and myself, and actually came to enjoy the genuine interest people showed in the subject matter of the book.

2. Of The Tree of Red Stars, The New York Times stated that “Tessa Bridal brings a fresh voice to Latin American literature.” How have the intervening years since then influenced your craft and writing style, specifically as reflected in River of Painted Birds?

Southern Screamer (Chauna Torquata)
Southern Screamer (chajá)

I am an avid reader, and always learn something about writing from every book I read. What I have learned is to trust what I want to say. I have not felt any pressure to copy any other writer’s style, only to aim for their mastery of the craft of writing. I write novels based on real events, so reading non fiction for research is a huge part of the work. Much of the non fiction I have read for River of Painted Birds has been in Spanish, and much of it was written in the 18th and some in the 19th century. Styles of writing have changed significantly since then, and as I plowed through some of the tomes that held the facts I was seeking, I developed a sense for finding the one detail or story that I believed would enrich the novel. It has been this sifting through millions of words that I believe has helped me hone my own craft and style.

3. Your heritage as a descendant of Irish immigrants who settled in Argentina over a century ago, coupled with having been born and raised in Uruguay, certainly provides a rich palate from which to draw upon in your fiction. Can you offer a snapshot of your early life and how it affected your sensibilities as an individual and subsequently as a writer?  As such, how deeply did you draw upon personal and family historical experience in creating the plot and characterizations in River of Painted Birds?

Greater Flamingo (flamenco rosado)
Greater Flamingo (flamenco rosado)

Being the descendant of immigrants in Argentina and Uruguay was nothing special – in Uruguay, about 99% of us were in that category. What was difficult for me was that my Irish ancestors had married Englishmen, and they considered Uruguay a British colony, even though officially it was certainly not. They spoke of England as “home,” and during the First World War my mother’s father was one of the foremost leaders of organizations devoted to raising funds for the allies. It went without saying that the sons and grandsons of these Englishmen would volunteer to serve in the armed forces, and most did. I wasn’t yet born, but later I identified with the few who had no longer felt that Britain was in any way their “home” and maintained their Uruguayan nationality. Many of them had never even been to Britain.  

Glittering Bellied Emerald Hummingbird (colibrí esmeralda)
Glittering Bellied Emerald Hummingbird
(colibrí esmeralda)

By the time I came along, my mother’s efforts to teach her children English led only to frustration in my case. I wanted no part of England or the English language and much to her embarrassment when the time came to register me at the British School I had to be placed in the non-English speaking kindergarten. While I had no doubt as to my identity as an Uruguayan, doubts were cast on it on every side. My family was appalled when I refused a British passport that was offered to me based on one of my grandfathers having been born in London and on my own father’s service in both World Wars. It was inconceivable to the British community that I didn’t want to be British.

I didn’t really recognize personal and cultural identity as being an issue until I came to the United States. I am light skinned, with light brown hair and blue eyes. When I say I am from South America, people hear South Africa and often proceed to tell me of their experiences there. I am often asked if I am the child of missionaries. So questions of identity are very much a part of River of Painted Birds, where one of the principal characters even prays to a god whose native name is Tupá, or “Who Are You?”

4. What do you feel is significant vis-à-vis the setting, time frame, and circumstances of the story? What will readers learn about in terms of history as well as contemporary cultural issues?

Rhea (ñandú)
Rhea (ñandú)

I feel that the significance of the setting, time frame and circumstances of River of Painted Birds are unique in terms of place and time period, but universal in terms of circumstances. River is a story of humans and power, that which is theirs to exercise and the power others have over them, even at vast distances. From Spain and the Vatican came dictates on how to rule, to engage in commerce, how to treat native peoples, and how to conduct oneself in relation to all of these. While circumstances have changed, outcomes have not. We are still ruled by powerful entities we are not part of shaping or controlling, and in place of colonial or religious powers we now have commercial ones.

5. What is the significance of the painted birds?

The novel is set in the 18th century before Uruguay was even thought of as a nation. The title River of Painted Birds refers to the River Uruguay, after which the country of Uruguay was named. Derived from Guaraní and some of the other now-lost native languages, the word “uruguay” has long been translated as “river of painted birds” or río de los pájaros pintados. The area is renowned for its variety of bird species, and attracts bird watchers from all over the world.

6. River of Painted Birds is published in both English and Spanish languages simultaneously. How did you arrive at this decision, and how will it impact the audience and scope of your readership?

Yellow Cardinal (cardenal amarillo)
Yellow Cardinal (cardenal amarillo)

The decision to publish River in both languages simultaneously was inspired by my publishing consultant and fellow writer Patti Frazee. Once she voiced the idea it made perfect sense. The translation was done and only needed revising. I am fluent in both languages and so could speak to those interested in the book in either language. It also occurred to me that I had never heard of a simultaneous release before and that this would be my way of recognizing Latino readers.

7. Who are the authors you most admire and have influenced the style and genre in which you write?

Ovenbirds (horneros)
Ovenbirds (horneros)

The list of authors I most admire and have been influenced by is a long one! It begins with Charles Dickens and courses through Mary Webb, Isabel Allende, Eduardo Galeano, Marcela Serrano, Marilyn French, Kurt Vonnegut, Bernard Shaw, Zora Neale Hurston, Salman Rushdie, Jessamyn West, Pablo Neruda, Amy Tan – to name but a few of the writers who continue to teach and inspire me.

8. Are you currently at work on another book? At this point in your life, what sort of ideas and issues inspire and motive you to write?

Blue and Yellow Tanager (naranjero)
Blue and Yellow Tanager

I am at work on three books. One is finished. It’s called Disappeared! and is the result of interviews with the mothers and grandmothers of over 500 children who disappeared during the Cold War under the secret Operation Condor pact between Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Chile, with the United States as a “silent” partner. The other two books are novels in progress, one set in 17th century Peru and the other during World War II in France. Issues of identity, displacement, and social justice continue to motivate me.


River of Painted Birds will be released in October 2015.

Author of River of Painted Birds and The Tree of Red Stars