Last winter, Alexander Olchowski returned from a month-long trip to the interior of Suriname, the setting and inspiration for his latest novel, "Buskondre."
Since 2000, Olchowski has written six novels, four of which he self-published. He is currently working on the final book of a trilogy that began with "The Farmer" in 2009.
"Buskondre," which is the second book in the trilogy, is available through the author’s website, slowbookmovement.com, at independent bookstores and farmers markets around the northeast, and now also at Vaco Press in Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname.
"The Farmer" and "Buskondre" both were published at The Troy Book Makers, a print-on-demand company in Troy, N.Y.
The story focuses on Jack Brown, an upstate New York dairy farmer who is trying to find his way in a changing world. Following a period of family turmoil and encroaching development that threatens his family’s way of life, he decides to start a cashew farm in the interior of Suriname.
"I’ve travelled all over North and South America," Olchowski said, "but I’d never been there, so I just started to research the country and get really fascinated by it - for the book - so then I ended up taking these two month-long journeys."
Suriname lies on the northeastern coast of South America, bordered by French Guiana to the east,
During the transition to independence, nearly a third of the population emigrated to the Netherlands, anticipating the social and political turmoil that would erupt in the 1980s and ‘90s as a result of the change in leadership.
"Buskondre" (pronounced boos-con-dray) means "bush country" in Sranan Tongo, a fusion of Dutch, English and traditional African languages that is spoken by most Surinamese. It refers to the interior portion of the country, where only a few villages occupy an area of savanna and Amazon Rainforest about the size of New Jersey.
On his first trip to Suriname in 2011, Olchowski was unable to reach the interior district of Sipaliwini, where "Buskondre" ends and most of the final book will take place. The only main road stops about halfway into the interior, he said, making travel nearly impossible without a guide.
He returned to Suriname in March of 2012, accompanied by Karl Schroder, a friend and photographer from New York City. In Paramaribo, the two friends were able to book a private trip into Sipaliwini, led by the only available guide in the city and two locals from villages in the interior.
One of Olchowski’s goals has been to make the book directly available to the people of Suriname. "They have a really great bookstore there, in the capitol, and there was all this back-and-forth this fall with the owner and the buyer and readers and trying to get them to buy the book and stock it, and they finally did a couple weeks ago," Olchowski said. "They placed an order, just for five, but that’s a start."
The five copies, which will be arriving in Suriname by boat this winter, will bring the project full-circle.
"The tour company has helped me a lot - the people that guided me out there," Olchowski said. "They connected me to the owner of the bookstore and they did a radio show and mentioned the book and mentioned me. I think the people there will be fascinated to read it and just to have an American [presence] - hardly any Americans even go there or know where it is."
Some of Schroeder’s photography from the trip is included in the book, and several of his color prints are currently on display at Tunnel City Café in Williamstown. In August, Wild Oats Market in Williamstown hosted an event celebrating the book and photography.
As with "The Farmer" and Olchowski’s other stories, Buskondre is written in a style that Olchowski calls reality fiction, or a process that allows actual experiences to be the starting point for creative writing.
"Maybe half the characters I’ll totally invent from scratch, but half will be based on people that I’ve met travelling Š and then I just turn them into characters - kind of use their real story as a foundation, but not to define a character," he said.
While the characters and setting for "The Farmer" were a reflection of Olchowski’s connections to Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock, and of his own experience raising goats in 2007-8, "Buskondre" represents a departure from the familiar rhythms of New England life - both for Olchowski and for his characters.
But the grounding force of land and family - framing the changes brought about by development and technology - is a theme that runs through both books.
"I’d like to go back one more time and maybe do an event or two in the city, and then go back into the interior," Olchowski said. "I decided to make a trilogy, so there’s going to be a third - picks up at the end of this one. It takes place almost entirely out here in the savanna. I started that about two months ago."
Olchowski writes all of his manuscripts by hand, a process that usually takes 16 to 18 months, he said. He is about two months into the current project.
Although he has been pursuing a publishing contract, Olchowski is glad to know that people are buying and enjoying his books. The Farmer has sold between 500 and 600 copies and is now in its fifth printing. Buskondre, now in its second printing, has sold about 70 copies since August.