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SunLit Interviews

A Colorado author’s “dream trip” to the Amazon rain forest inspired “Tree of Dreams”

For Laura Resau, seeing the landscape and learning about the culture of indigenous people led to plans for artistic collaboration -- including one that soon will come to fruition

Laura Resau is the award-winning author of nine highly acclaimed young adult and children’s novels, including “The Lightning Queen (Scholastic), “What the Moon Saw,” “Red Glass,” and the Notebooks series (Delacorte/Random House). Her new novel, “Tree of Dreams,” was praised as “a moving exploration of friendship, activism, and how chocolate makes everything better” in a starred review from Kirkus.

Resau lives with her husband, son, and beagle in Fort Collins, Colorado. She donates a portion of her royalties to Indigenous rights organizations in Latin America.

The following is an interview with Laura Resau.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


What inspired you to write this book?

The short answer? My love for chocolate and trees!

The not-so-short answer? Most of the story is set in a Huaorani (Waorani) community in the Ecuadorian Amazon. I’d already set two books in the Andes of Ecuador, where I’d taken several trips to spend time with Indigenous Kichwa friends and learn about their culture. I was curious to learn more about Indigenous Amazonian communities in the eastern part of the country, so I traveled there to explore possibilities. 

This trip was a dream come true. For decades, I’d been interested in Indigenous people’s rights and their leadership roles in nature conservation. This was one of my areas of focus for my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in cultural anthropology. I was thrilled to finally have the opportunity to spend time in an Indigenous community in the Amazon. 

Laura Resau

My time there gave me a visceral understanding of the threats Indigenous people in the Ecuadorian rain forest are facing. Both their culture and sacred forest are in immediate danger from oil operations, logging, and mineral extraction. But along with dismay, I felt inspired by the brave Indigenous women, children, and men who are joining forces to protect their rain forest— the lungs of our Earth. 

And then there’s the chocolate! I’m lucky to have one of the world’s best bean-to-bar chocolate shops just a few blocks from my home in Fort Collins. I fell under Nuance Chocolate’s spell when they opened, and became utterly enchanted by the process of making craft chocolate. I learned that the origin of cacao was the Amazon rain forest, and that some of the finest, ethically sourced beans come from that region. 

My experiences with chocolate and the rain forest made me think of all the ways we are interconnected with people and nature around the world. This sense of global interconnection was the ultimate inspiration for “Tree of Dreams.”

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole and why did you select it?

This excerpt is from the chapter when 13-year-old chocolate-maker, Coco, and her companions arrive in the remote Amazon rain forest. A month earlier— back in Heartbeat Springs, Colorado— she and her former best friend, Leo, won a prize trip to a cacao co-op in the Ecuadorian rain forest. Accompanying them now are their mothers, Mara and Nieves, as well as Gali— a mysterious, grandfatherly figure who was supposed to plan the itinerary . . . but has proven a bit inept. 

So that’s how they find themselves on their own, deep in the rain forest. Coco has her own secret motivation for this trip— a recurring dream about a mystical ceiba (kapok) tree that promises a treasure within its roots. She’s determined to find the treasure and use it to save her family’s chocolate shop from closing. At the end of this excerpt, we first meet Isa, who will later become Coco’s friend and make her question her true purpose for coming to the Amazon.

Tell us about creating this book: any research and travel you might have done, any other influences on which you drew?

The research was mind-blowing! On the chocolate side of things, I had an excuse to eat a wide variety of exquisite craft chocolate as often as needed for “research.” I toured Nuance chocolate factory, interviewed the generous owners, indulged in many chocolate tastings, visited a sustainable cacao farm, and generally surrounded myself with all things chocolate as I wrote the book. (Did you know that chocolate releases neurotransmitters that make you feel smart, clear-headed, and happy? Chocolate was my go-to solution for any bits of writer’s block . . . and as a result, the writing process for this book was remarkably pleasant.)

“Tree of Dreams” by Laura Resau

On the Amazon rain forest side of things, I took a four-seater plane deep into the remote Amazon rain forest, where I was greeted by families in a Huaorani community who ran their own off-grid ecolodge. We rode downstream in a dugout canoe to the hut where I stayed, right on the stunning Shiripuno River. 

My Huaorani guide, Pegonka, shared his knowledge and skills with me as we walked and canoed through the lush rain forest. (Fortunately, we’re both fluent in Spanish.) He brought me to a sacred ceiba tree and told me stories about the mother ceiba who had fallen many years ago— her trunk became the Amazon river and her branches, its tributaries. 

He explained that he and his community tell each other their dreams every morning so that their dreams can guide them. He told me that when someone dies, their spirit becomes a wild feline— and the most powerful shaman spirits become jaguars. He taught me how to shoot a blowgun, climb tree trunks, call to macaws, clean my spirit under a waterfall . . . and much, much more. 

I felt deeply fortunate to form friendships with Huaorani people of all ages. I connected strongly with several young women and men who were working on their own creative projects that they wanted to turn into published books. We agreed that I would return in a year or two, prepared to assist them with their book projects. 

I felt moved and grateful when my new friend, Obe, said she’d have a 10 foot-long blow gun ready and waiting for me when I returned! I was so excited to see them again and help them bring their projects to fruition . . . but then tragedy struck.

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?

While staying in the Huaorani community, I learned that oil drilling operations were encroaching on nearby forests, and that my new friends’ land was in danger. At the end of my trip, I left their community by canoe instead of plane. After riding downstream for several hours, we encountered a major oil drilling operation. The forests had been brutally razed. It felt gut-wrenching to be in such a bleak, soulless place after experiencing my friends’ sacred, verdant home amid the trees. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Back home, I did more research on how oil operations affect Indigenous Amazonian communities and their rain forests. I was horrified to learn of the devastating health effects from the inevitable oil spills and pollution. Rates of cancer, illness, and poisonings in humans were sky high in these communities. The surrounding flora, fauna, and rivers were often so contaminated that people had no safe food or water supply.

As I wrote “Tree of Dreams,” I knew that in addition to exploring the mystical aspects of a dreamy trip to the birthplace of cacao, the story would also need to face head-on the harsh damage wrought by the oil industry. Most importantly, I wanted the story to honor the brave struggles of Indigenous people to protect their sacred forest . . . and explore ways to support them in their mission.

When I started arranging for my return trip to the Huaorani community, I was shaken to my core to learn that an oil company had begun seismic oil exploration on my friends’ land. Explosives were buried around their sacred forest. They had to close the ecolodge that they’d worked so hard to develop as a sustainable livelihood. Their home became a danger zone. They were ruthlessly displaced.

My heart broke for them. I felt a renewed commitment to write this book and spread the word about what’s going on in the Amazon . . . with an emphasis on how we are all connected, and how we can join forces to protect our Earth.

What’s your next project?

I felt crushed that I wouldn’t be able to help my Huaorani friends with their own book projects. Being off-grid and displaced, they weren’t able to keep in consistent touch with me. 

During this time, I continued learning more about Indigenous land rights movements in the Amazon. I read about a courageous Kichwa woman from Ecuador named Patricia Gualinga. She had received death threats for her work protecting her people’s sacred forest and helping to lead a powerful Amazonian women’s movement. I loved her ideas on how conservation efforts can combine scientific knowledge with spiritual knowledge in order to truly understand that the entire forest is alive. 

I reached out to Patricia to see if she’d be interested in collaborating on a children’s picture book about her community’s triumph over an invading oil company and her work to protect the sacred forest. I was thrilled when she said yes! This book, called “Stand as Tall as the Trees: How an Amazonian Community Protected the Rain Forest,” is currently scheduled to be published in both English and Spanish in Spring 2022 by Charlesbridge.

Walk us through your writing process: Where and when do you write? What time of day? Do you listen to music, need quiet? 

I usually write in my studio, with two giant spruce trees (home to many squirrels and birds) out the window as company. I also do a lot of brainstorming and outlining in spiral notebooks, which I carry along on my travels and outside in nature. When the weather is warm, I love doing edits and page proofs in my silver, 1950’s canned ham trailer named Peachy— she always inspires me. Most days, I go for a walk along the Poudre River, which also helps my creativity flow.

Sometimes I listen to music playlists or nature soundtracks as I write, but I’m fine with silence, too (especially if it’s summer and the windows are open)! I love when I encounter a song that captures a feeling I’m trying to convey in my story-in-progress. For a manuscript I recently finished (on submission now), I listened to a haunting fiddle version of “America the Beautiful” on repeat for weeks on end. My husband and son were concerned about my sanity . . . but then again, they often are! Such is the life of a writer.

Since I do my best work in the mornings, I save that time for creative writing when possible. I try to honor the sacred aspect of creativity by lighting candles or putting fresh flowers in my studio. Over the years, I’ve learned how to stay committed to my stories and set goals for my manuscripts, while respecting the ebb-and-flow nature of the creative process. There are fruitful times and seed-planting times— I try my best to be grateful and embrace every phase of the journey.

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Read an excerpt from the book.