Interview with Caroline Alethia, author of Plant Teacher

Caroline Alethia is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, on radio and in web outlets. Her words have reached audiences on six continents. She lived in Bolivia and was a witness to many of the events described in Plant Teacher. You can visit her website at


Hailed by Huffington Post contributor Joel Hirst as a compelling and powerful story, Plant Teacher begins in 1972 when a hippie in Oakland, California flushes a syringe of LSD down a toilet. Thirty-five years later, the wayward drug paraphernalia has found its final resting place in Los Yungas, Bolivia, the umbilical cord between the Andes and Amazonia. Enter into this picture two young Americans, Cheryl Lewis, trying to forge her future in La Paz and Martin Banzer, trying to come to terms with his past in the same city. The two form an unlikely friendship against the backdrop of a country teetering at the brink of dictatorship and revolution. Bolivia sparks the taste for adventure in both young people and Martin finds himself experimenting with indigenous hallucinogenic plants while Cheryl flits from one personal relationship to another. Meanwhile, the syringe buried in the silt in a marsh in Los Yungas will shape their destinies more than either could anticipate or desire. Plant Teacher takes its readers on a fast-paced tour from the hippie excesses of Oakland, to the great streams of the Pacific Ocean and to the countryside, cities, natural wonders and ancient ruins of Bolivia. It reveals­ the mundane and the magical, and, along the way, readers glimpse the lives of everyday Bolivians struggling to establish equanimity or merely eke out a living during drastic political crisis.

Q: Welcome to The Writer's Life, Caroline. Can you tell us how long you’ve been writing and how your journey led to writing your latest book, Plant Teacher?

For my first professional job after graduate school, I worked as a technical writer at the United Nations. Later, I was an international business journalist. I have always been interested in international themes. I lived overseas for 13 years and studied international relations for my master’s degree, so it makes sense that my first novel would take place in a foreign country.

Q: How did you choose your title and was it your first choice?

My working title for the book was The White Flower, but I later decided that Plant Teacher was a stronger choice. Plant Teacher drills down to a central theme of the book: Can we purchase wisdom and, if we can, at what cost? So-called “plant teachers” are wild hallucinogenic plants that many people believe provide spiritual guidance.

Q: We all know that publishers can’t do all of the publicity and that some lies on the author. What has your publisher done so far to publicize the book and what have you done?

I started a small imprint, Viator, several years ago to publish a multimedia textbook on globalism, and I published Plant Teacher under this same imprint. Viator’s mission is to publish books that teach about other cultures. Thus, all of the publicity efforts have been mine. I have built a website, produced a promotional video, given away free copies on Kindle, and contacted a prominent Bolivian expert to write an independent review.

Q: Open to a random page in your book. Can you tell us what is happening?

Page 175: Martin Banzer and Cheryl Lewis, the two main characters, are analyzing Martin’s earliest childhood memories. Cheryl adheres to the Adlerian school of psychology which holds that early memories are metaphors for an individual’s life philosophy.

Q: Do you plan subsequent books?

In fact, I have drafted a book about early memory interpretation that is intended both as a self-help handbook and as an exposition of Adlerian theory.

Q: What is the one thing you learned about your book AFTER it was published?

It has occurred to me that even though Plant Teacher was not intended to be political, it draws some deep and strong conclusions about modern-day Bolivian politics. I don’t know if I will be able to return to that country at any time in the near future. This realization has been somewhat disturbing and certainly saddening.

Q: What is your most favorite time of the day or night to write?

I like to take all day to write­—starting when I wake up and continuing until I go to bed.

Q: What is usually better – the book or the movie?

If the movie is true to its own art form, it can be as good as the book—but it will probably be different. I think of The English Patient. The female lead in the movie plays an important but small role in the book. Other main characters who inhabit the book didn’t even make it to the big screen. Both versions, however, movie and novel, are richly developed and deeply satisfying.

Q: You’re about to write your next book. What did you learn from your previous book to help you write your next book?

My next book will need to be pure fiction. By that, I mean that no character should be based on me. This is the case in Plant Teacher: None of the characters are me. When I was younger, I wrote many short stories and many poems, and, ultimately, I was unwilling to publish these pieces because they revealed too much about me.

Q: Finally, what’s your best tip you can give to writers who want to be published?

The quality of the writing has to be top notch. Go through multiple rounds of reviews with your most honest and insightful critics, and be willing to make the necessary changes.

Q: Thank you for your interview, Caroline. Do you have any final words?

One critic has described Plant Teacher as “honest” and a “must-read,” while another blogger has described it as “neocon” and dishonest. I tried my best to get my facts about Bolivia straight, and I tried to describe the country as I had experienced it. I hope readers will set aside what they think they know about Bolivian politics—because the reporting hasn’t been adequate on this continent—and approach Plant Teacher with an open mind.

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