Digging Deeper: The inspiration and research behind Treasure of the World by Tara Sullivan
I spent my childhood in the Andean highlands. All of my kid memories—”sledding” down a glacier on a shower curtain, wandering the artisan and traditional healing markets on weekends, (accidentally) eating roast guinea pig—take place on the altiplano of Bolivia. Then, when I was ten, my eyes were damaged by the UV radiation ravaging South America from the hole in the ozone layer to the point the ophthalmologist feared I’d go blind. We left. But even after we moved, the sights, sounds, and scents of Bolivia filled my imagination. They inspired me to write Treasure of the World. I reveled in researching the first draft of the novel—poring over maps lined with memories, refreshing my basic Quechua, watching documentaries and reading books—each rewarded me with a different half-remembered glimpse of my childhood home.
First draft in hand, I booked my research trip to Potosí, a hulking brick-colored hill, the richest silver mine in history. An apocryphal saying tells that the Spaniards took enough silver out of this one hill during the colonial period that they could have built a solid silver bridge from Bolivia to Spain and still had enough left over to carry across it.
But the price of Potosí’s silver has always been blood. For those who mined it, this hill has been a place of deep inhumanity and crushing hardship. Treasure of the World tells the story of Ana, a twelve-year-old girl fighting to dig out from under the weight of generational poverty and build a better future for herself and her family.
My research trip was the first time I had set foot in Bolivia in over twenty-five years. It took my breath away—both literally and figuratively. Landing in El Alto, the highest airport in the world, brought back the gasping altitude sickness I had always been prone to. But even more breathtaking was the experience of returning to a place as an adult that I had only experienced as a child. For the first time, I had a framework for understanding things like historical precedent or systemic injustice. There were dimensions to Bolivia I just hadn’t been aware of as a kid. I realized that the story I had written hadn’t taken any of this nuance into account. Because of its lack of depth, I had written realistic fiction that was in no way realistic.
For me, “research” is an ever-evolving process: it’s the give and take between information and story that arches over and winds through every decision I make in a novel until my publisher tells me they have to go to print and I’m not allowed to make any more changes. I ditched that first draft and began again.
It was a struggle. I rewrote the novel again and again. There were versions with Ana at different ages and in different family constellations. I tried dual timelines, multiple points of view, and verse. I wrote drafts with different supporting characters, different plot inflection points, and different endings. They weren’t easy rewrites, or quick ones. At one point I was so stumped I had to put the novel aside for over a year while the story percolated in my back brain. But it mattered deeply to me to find a way to give a voice to the girls I met who had confided in me, in whispers, that they were no longer thinking of their own futures, but hoped that maybe, if they quit school, they could keep a younger sibling out of the mines. So I kept trying. Slowly, I unearthed the changes necessary to make the fiction shine.
Learning leads to new questions which, in turn, prompt further research. By the time the book was finished, so much time had passed since my trip (especially with the overthrow of the president and the changes in the Bolivian government), that I was no longer certain my book reflected present-day truths. I had to redefine it from ‘contemporary’ to ‘historical’ fiction.
It was only by bending to the push and pull between the resonance of the story and the demands of accuracy that I slowly discovered the book that Treasure of the World needed to be. The Inca, who never mined the mountain, named it Sumaj Orko: beautiful hill. The Spanish conquistadores called it the Cerro Rico, the rich hill. More than eight million descendants of the Inca, those who died bringing out its riches, gave it another name: the Mountain That Eats Men. To accurately and fully tell Ana’s story, I needed to honor all three. I had to show the beauty of Ana’s Incan heritage, I had to incorporate the grandeur of a history the world has forgotten, and I had to respectfully depict the true scope of the suffering of those living in the shadow of colonialism’s exploitative legacy.
When you look at the same thing through different eyes, you see it differently. The Treasure of the World that is finally hitting shelves in 2021 is unrecognizable from the draft I first wrote in 2015. Each rewrite taught me something new, and the learning changed me as much as it changed the book. It taught me that, no matter your initial knowledge, reality is beautifully complex and that the true journey, in both fiction and life, is to find a way to embrace that complexity.
Tara Sullivan is the author of the award-winning and critically acclaimed Golden Boy and The Bitter Side of Sweet. She was born in India and spent her childhood living in Bangladesh, Ecuador, Bolivia, and the Dominican Republic with her parents, who were international aid workers. She received a BA in Spanish literature and cognitive science from the University of Virginia and an MA in Latin American studies and an MPA in nonprofit management from Indiana University. Her first novel, Golden Boy, won the 2014 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People Award and was selected as a top-ten book of 2013 by YALSA and as a best book of the year by Kirkus Reviews and The Wall Street Journal. Her second novel, The Bitter Side of Sweet, won the 2017 Children’s Africana Book Award Honor and was an ALSC Notable Children’s Book. She currently lives with her family in Massachusetts.
About Treasure of the World: A young girl must find a way to help her family survive in a desolate and impoverished Bolivian silver mining community in this eye-opening tale of resilience. Twelve-year-old Ana wants nothing more than to escape the future set for her and her classmates in her small mining village. Boys her age are beginning to leave school to become silver miners and girls her age are destined to one day be the wives of miners. But when her often ill eleven-year-old brother is forced by their demanding father to start work in the mines, Ana gives up her dreams of school to volunteer in his place. The world of silver mining though is dark and dangerous and the men who work there don’t want a girl in their way. Ana must find the courage to not only survive but save her family after the worst happens and a mining accident kills her father and leaves her brother missing.