FQ: When you were in the process of writing Solitario: The Lonely One, did you have a character in mind labeled as “the lonely one?” If so, who was it and why?
MANUEL: My thinking was that this label applies primarily to Robbie. He is a sociable person and capable of love, but he suffers from depression. That, combined with occasional poor judgement, drives off, or threatens to drive off, the women he loves—Carmen and then Janey. He is also a leader, and that requires him to stand somewhat above and apart from his clients. I’ve always thought that would be a difficult, and at times lonely, position to maintain.
FQ: How have your own life experiences helped to shape the stories behind Solitario: The Lonely One and The Lower Canyons?
MANUEL: I am a life-long canoeist and have taken trips down rivers all across the country. The Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande on the Texas/Mexico border was the most memorable of these—83 miles of stunning rock formations, whitewater, and the occasional wildlife encounter. On our first lunch break, a rattlesnake burst out of the grass and raced between a man’s legs. A short time later, a group of rough-looking Mexican cowboys came riding down a mountain and crossed over the river to our side. They asked us for cigarettes, which we didn’t have, and eyed two of the women in our group who were dressed, as I recall, in skimpy halter tops. They left without causing trouble, but I’d never felt so vulnerable. I knew right then I had to write a novel set in this location.
My friendship with one particular river guide also shaped this story. I took a dozen canoe trips with him over the years and marveled at his ability to keep a group together over the course of a week on the water. He not only knew how to lead us through some very difficult rapids, he was also expert at defusing occasional arguments among clients.
My close relationships with women also contributed both to The Lower Canyons and Solitario. I didn’t want these to be just “guy” novels, a la Deliverance. I wanted women to play key roles, to embody the struggles women face, both collectively and as individuals, at home, at work, and in the outdoors.
FQ: Crucial parts of your story reference history and ancient artifacts. Did you need to conduct any historical research when writing Solitario: The Lonely One?
|Author John Manuel|
MANUEL: Yes, I read a number of books on the history of the Big Bend region and visited museums at Sul Ross University, Fort Leaton, and the Big Bend National Park. I read online about the particular types of pottery that were made by Native Americans in West Texas. In Terlingua, I arranged for an aerial sight-seeing tour to understand the lay of the land. The owner of that company, Marcos Paredes, knew a lot about the history of the area and pointed out key features, including an old wagon road that was used to transport supplies between Alpine and Terlingua. He also told me about an old man who lived alone in the Chihuahuan Desert. That inspired me to create Luna, the mysterious visitor to Robbie’s campsite.
FQ: Do you have any plans for another book in the future focusing on Robbie?
MANUEL: No, I think I’ve run my course with Robbie. Any more river trips would become repetitive.
FQ: How did you title your book, and can you explain to our readers what “solitario” means?
MANUEL: “Solitario” is a Spanish word meaning “lonely one.” I had already thought of Robbie as being existentially lonely, then as I was surveying the territory for this novel using Google Earth, I came across this astounding geologic feature called The Solitario. It’s a ten-mile-wide circular rock formation, out in the middle of nowhere, composed of concentric rings of volcanic ledges-a veritable maze. As soon as I saw that, I said, “There’s my title.”
FQ: In addition to your novels, you have also authored a memoir, The Canoeist. How did writing the novels compare to writing the memoir?
MANUEL: In writing my memoir, I was always concerned with how people I grew up with—especially my family-would respond to my descriptions. Would they say, “No, that’s not how that happened!” or “Why didn’t you mention this?” With a novel, I could make things up without worry about how people would respond.
At the same time, a novel requires you to come up with a plot, with characters and events, using your imagination. You can’t just rely on actual events from your past.
FQ: What led you to decide to write a sequel to The Lower Canyons?
MANUEL: After reading The Lower Canyons, a number of readers emailed me saying, “You can’t leave us hanging. Tell us what happens to the survivors!”
FQ: Were any of the characters in Solitario: The Lonely One based on people you know in real life or were they developed purely from your imagination?
MANUEL: As I mentioned, Robbie’s character is based in large part on a guide that I have canoed with in the past. However, he and Robbie differ in crucial aspects. Robbie is more intense, more impulsive.
The character of Lara is based on a friend of mine’s daughter whom I don’t know well, but about whom I’ve heard a lot of stories.
Marcos Pena is based on the man who runs aerial sight-seeing tours in the Big Bend. He’s a canoeist himself, and suggested Terlingua Creek as the possible location for Robbie to run a canoe trip down. He also knew about the old wagon road, and the ranchers who lived in the area. I said, “Man, you’re going to be in my novel.”
The other characters all come from my imagination.
FQ: Solitario: The Lonely One is the fifth book that you have authored. Does any book that you have written stand out as having been the most gratifying to write?
MANUEL: My first novel, Hope Valley, was the most gratifying to write. It’s a story about a retired couple, former workers in North Carolina’s tobacco industry, struggling to adapt to the changing culture of the South. I experienced deep emotions—laughter, joy and sadness-walking in their shoes.
FQ: Solitario: The Lonely One is the sequel to your previous novel, The Lower Canyons. When writing The Lower Canyons, were you planning on authoring a sequel to it, or did you develop that idea after the book was completed?
MANUEL: I developed Solitario after The Lower Canyons was completed, based on readers’ requests to explain what happened to the survivors of that novel. I resisted at first, not thinking a sequel was necessary and not wanting to run people down the same river. Gradually, I came up with a story that would involve Robbie tackling a different river—an arroyo that only comes to life after a heavy rain. It was a real pleasure coming up with the different plot turns, and I am thankful to those readers for pushing me to extend the story.