Q&A With Louis Bayard
How much of Roosevelt's Beast is grounded in fact?
Virtually everything about the Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition – the death of Simplicio, for instance – is drawn from historical accounts. But when the idea for the book first bubbled up, I hadn’t yet read Candace Millard’s “The River of Doubt,” so I didn’t know how close Teddy Roosevelt came to death or how grueling that journey really was – backbreaking labor, disease, starvation and those realities animated so much of the writing. Of course, the scenes of Teddy and Kermit when they stray from the group and encounter the Beast are entirely fictional. The actual Roosevelt-Rondon expedition passed right through the heart of Indian territory – land that belonged, in effect, to the Cinta Larga – and yet they were never once attacked. This was a stroke of great good fortune for them because they were almost certainly too weak to have withstood a full-out assault. Still, the mystery remains: Why were they allowed to pass? In my alternative reality, the Cinta Larga do attack, and the Roosevelts are forced to fight for their lives.
If your fascination began with Teddy Roosevelt, at what point did your focus shift to his son?
Very early on. If there’s one constant in my work, it’s that I’m drawn to the untold story. But where historians might despair at such a void, historical novelists delight in it because we can come up with our own answers. Kermit Roosevelt was something of a public figure in his day – a decorated soldier, an explorer, an author, a friend to writers like Kipling and Edwin Arlington Robinson. You have this gifted, courageous, accomplished man who should have had a golden career – a golden life – and instead lost his way, succumbed to drink, and faded from public view. Tto this day, nobody can say why. So this book is an effort to figure out, at both the psychological and symbolic levels, what happened.
Why are we still so drawn to Teddy Roosevelt? Why is he still such a charismatic figure?
That’s a great question. Part of it, I think, has to do with the sheer force of his personality. Someone once said that, when he walked into a room, it was as if the doors had blown open. When you read the letters he wrote to his children, you see a man deeply engaged in their lives, the kind of dad who’d cancel a Cabinet meeting so he could go clambering through Rock Creek Park with his boys. We don’t have a whole lot of audio and film recordings of him, but we still feel him, don’t we? We feel like we know him. He was also able to work both sides of the aisle, and it’s that positive, can-do, bipartisan spirit that’s most conspicuously absent from our political culture today. We could use more Teddies.
How is this book—with its elements of supernatural horror—a departure from your previous work?
It certainly felt like a departure at first. But in fact, I’ve been using supernatural elements in my books since Mr. Timothy and The Pale Blue Eye. And whether I’m writing about Tiny Tim or Edgar Allan Poe or Kermit Roosevelt, I’m always trying to get down in there and figure out what’s going on. This time, I started with the Rio da Dúvida itself – the River of Doubt. What better metaphor is there for a human life? You’re traveling down an uncharted waterway. You don’t have a map – in fact, you’re making up the map as you go along. (Come to think of it, that’s not a bad metaphor for the writing process.) The Beast itself is closely allied to Conrad’s heart of darkness. It’s that unseen terrifying thing that lives inside all of us. I’ve met him a few times myself.