Kevin Peter of Moterwriter.com caught up with author Owen Thomas and got him to talk a little about his latest novel The Lion Trees. This is what transpired in the tête-à-tête with the author.
Kevin Peter: For all the curious readers, explain to us in brief, what does your writing process look like?
Owen Thomas: My other life is spent as a practicing employment lawyer. I have a full practice and I manage a medium-sized law firm in Anchorage Alaska. That means my ‘writing process’ includes trying to find as many spare minutes laying around to string together and actually be creative. Sometimes that is quite difficult. I wrote a great deal of The Lion Trees sitting in my car in the middle of fast-food restaurant parking lots between meetings and court appearances. In an ideal week, I am able to devote Saturday and Sunday mornings to writing; maybe four to five hours each day. That writing time is important because it allows a deeper focus. On those days I try not to do anything before writing – I do not open the newspaper. I do not turn on the radio or television. I avoid conversation. The less of the everyday world that is in my head, the better I am able to immerse myself in the world of whatever I am writing. If I am able to write in the afternoons and evenings, I tend to spend that time editing simply because by then the real world has invaded my thoughts to such an extent that filling the blank page with fresh thoughts and new words is much more difficult.
To the extent your question is getting to the larger question of how I go about writing a novel, I don’t really have a formula. A concept or idea will take root in my head and I will carry it around with me, usually for a long time. Eventually, I start to get ideas onto a computer screen. Then, like drops of water on a window, those ideas start to coalesce into something larger. Before long, the book starts to develop its own voice; its own presence in the world. I tend not to prepare detailed outlines because I think there is a real danger of creative confinement. The book can change out from under me and I want to allow that process as much as possible. If written organically (a term I use to distinguish my idea of creative writing from a kind of reverse-engineered, plot-manufacturing process), the characters and the story will tell you where they want to go. For me, writing is a very dynamic process that moves forward in the interplay between the writer and the story. If the writer tries to set it all down in stone at the beginning of the process, he or she is missing out on what to my mind is the best part. There is an awful lot to learn about the story you are telling that you simply do not know in the beginning. Getting to know your characters and their situation is like getting to know anyone else. It takes time and a willingness to adapt to new information and jettison preconceived notions.
KP: Any vices or habits that you can’t seem to do without while writing?
OT: No, not really, and I’ve always been a little bummed about that. There is a strangely romanticized view of the novelist that involves a collection of vices as necessary evils in excavating the story within: cigarette smoke unfurling into the lamplight; an uncorked bottle of something nearby. I don’t smoke, but I have frequently felt like the words might come out better or easier if I did. I love a good bourbon, but I can’t really write and really drink at the same time. Same thing with the hookers; these are mutually exclusive activities. Okay, I’m kidding about the hookers. But there is this stubborn stereotype that serious fiction either comes from a caldron of dysfunction or unhappiness and that serious fiction writer necessarily develop a defining vice or personality twitch as a natural by-product of their effort. So I have actually wondered if my writing or my insight would improve or deepen if I was less satisfied in my personal life. If I was lonely and broken and bitter and had pack-a-day habit. Maybe I should take a page from Hemingway and look for inspiration in an alcoholic haze, or from Henry Miller and have sex between paragraphs. Is that pathetic? Don’t answer that. Of course it’s pathetic. Writing does not make me fidgety, so I don’t start compulsively snacking or chewing my fingernails. The boring truth is that my writing effort takes a huge amount of energy and I am too lost in the other world to eat, drink, smoke or indulge in anything that might be considered a vice or a bad habit. If anything, writing keeps me out of trouble. Like I said before, I don’t even like to read the newspaper on writing days because it is too distracting. After four or five hours of writing I will come out of my fugue, simultaneously exhausted and amazed that more than an hour has passed.
KP: Just as your books will inspire others, any authors that have inspired you to write?
OT: That is one of those questions that is fair to ask and, for me, nearly impossible to answer. I have been inspired by so many writers and books that to name one or a few does an almost unpardonable disservice to all of the others. So let me answer it this way. The Lion Trees as a literary creation was inspired by several different writers and books. The structure of the novel as a story told in a variety of different voices and tenses each handing off to another was inspired by Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Some of the social-satirical elements of the book, as well as the hubristic aspects to Hollis Johns was at least partly inspired by Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full and his brilliant character Charles Croker. Aspects of the arc of Tilly Johns, the sexual rebelliousness of her character and the relationship she has with her brother Ben owe something to William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The nesting of a story within a story (a novel called The Lion Trees about a movie called The Lion Tree, based on a short story called The Lion Tree, which is written around a parable of The Lion Tree) had its first inspiration from Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. The Johns family as a study of intimate, history-driven dysfunction was at least partly inspired by Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. The short story by Angus Mann (a fictional character) and all of it’s circa 1960; stripped-down science fiction born of nuclear paranoia was inspired by the incomparable Ray Bradbury. The list goes on. There is no better fuel and inspiration for writers than good writing.
KP: What do you think is the best way to influence others, through your actions and your deeds, or through your words?
OT: In everyday life, words are a cheap substitute for good deeds. Inspiring people in your life requires living by example. People will tend to discard what you say and what you write if those words are contrary to your actions. But to reach people who are not personally present in your life, the opposite can be true. People who do not know me personally could not care less how I conduct my life. They only care about the words, which supply the only connection and the only basis for the relationship between writer and reader. If I want to inspire strangers in distant lands (or even in my own city) then that inspiration has to come from the art of putting particular words in a particular order on the page. It is not about me. In fact, my goal as a writer is not different than the goal of an actor, which is to disappear. I want the words to be transportive; to conjure characters and events and to inspire an authentic reaction in the reader. If the reader can see the writer, then something is lost. Of course, all of the foregoing concerns the fiction writer. It is in memoirs and other non-fiction that you really should see an inseparable merging of the writer and the writer’s story (“the gripping true story of how one man beat cancer, foiled a terrorist plot, and saved several kittens on the way to winning an Olympic gold medal in Synchronized Freestyle Awesomeness. Blindfolded.”) all toward a single inspirational effect in the reader. The whole point is to make the writer visible and an integral part of the work. The opposite should be true in fiction.
KP: What was your inspiration behind ‘The Lion Trees’?
OT: I think more than anything else it was the idea that people will do almost anything to reinforce what they already believe about themselves. We are willing to accept a lot of unhappiness in order to defend our sense of self. You may believe that you are one of those people for whom life never really works out. Events never really fall your way. Relationships always crumble. Work promotions never really materialize even when they seem possible. Your parents never really believed in you. You are morally flawed. People always assume the worst about you and misconstrue your intentions. If that is really the sense of identity that you carry around in your subconscious, then the sad reality is that you will work diligently, in every situation, in every relationship, at the doorstep of every opportunity, to prove yourself right. Reaffirming that self-concept – having a rock-solid identity that we can count on – is actually far more important to us than being happy. We would rather accept an unfounded and maladaptive identity than question the legitimacy of that identity or change it to something else. That concept fascinated me and over a long period of time I developed a cast of characters, a number of plots and subplots, and a narrative structure to help examine those issues in a fictional setting.
KP: The interlocking narratives, jumping from one story to another, time skipping… what made you select this approach for the novel? And how tough or easy was it?
OT: I think woven story-telling is very tricky. The writer runs the significant risk of so distracting the reader with an ever-changing voice, tone, perspective, etc., that he or she never really has the opportunity to invest in the greater story. But, when done effectively, I think a story of woven narratives has the opposite effect. First, each narrative helps to spell (i.e. rest) the other narratives so that no one voice or perspective gets tiresome. In The Lion Trees the idea was to allow the reader to immerse herself into the trials and tribulations and perspective of, say, David, and then, before she is sick of him, she leaves that story and resumes with the story of Hollis or Susan or Tilly. The David narrative is held in suspension as she reads about someone else and when she comes back around to another David chapter she is anxious to pick up where she left off. And this same dynamic is supposed to work for each of the characters so that the reader is simultaneously reticent to let go of one narrative but eager to pick up the next. I think (I should say hope) that the renewed freshness of each narrative is one of the reasons that this very long book seems to go much faster than expected.
Second, a woven story requires the reader to participate by gathering these various and disparate narrative threads and making a collective sense of them. I think stories are much more satisfying if we have had to work a little and participate to understand them. Adjusting time; adjusting tone; adjusting language, plot tempo, suspense, sentimentality, philosophical perspective can all help keep the reader engaged and participating, both mentally and emotionally, in the resolution of multiple character arcs. When you get used to this type of story-telling it can be hard to go back to a single-narrator, single-tone, single-perspective story. As a culture I think we are steadily increasing our capacity to make sense of non-traditional, non-linear narratives. We owe a lot of this increasing sophistication to movies and television (which is ironic because I think movies and television and the tyranny of the visual media has been simultaneously responsible for a blunting of our cultural intelligence and creativity, proving that there is good and bad in just about everything). I remember when the movie Memento came out. The entire story in that film is told backwards; starting at the end and ending at the beginning. I remember how much effort I put into making sense of every detail just because that is not the way I normally consumed stories. It took some effort (and the story was so much better for that required effort). Memento was released almost 15 years ago. I am amazed at how much easier it would be for me to follow that movie today. The culture is always evolving. Now it is incredibly common to turn on your average network crime drama in which the first scene is the end of the story, followed by a scene that begins with the caption: “two months earlier.” We take that backwards-forward structure in stride these days. That same evolution in sophistication, or some version of it, is at work in literary story-telling. Consider the unreliable narrator. We’ve come a long way from the days when a character like Salinger’s Holden Caufield will really raise eyebrows. Measure the distance between our beloved Holden, the classic unreliable narrator, and Tyler Durden of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Tyler Durden is an unreliable narrator on steroids. And yet we are ready for him. It works. I doubt that it would have worked in the age of Holden Caufield. The culture is changing. We are all in motion. David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas; The Bone Clocks) is a great example of a good contemporary writer who has realized great success in challenging his readers through non-traditional narrative frameworks. The Lion Trees is my effort to do something other than spoon-feed the reader a passive experience.
Third, the thing about a novel that weaves a lot of independent narratives into a single rope of story is that it take a lot of pages. You cannot do this in a short book; or at least it is a lot more difficult to do it well in my opinion. When you take a step back and look at it, The Lion Trees is really four fully-realized character narratives – four “books” – woven into one. I decided from the beginning that I had to give each character his or her due and that I could not let concerns over the length of the book control the story. The length is really what makes it possible. I had an agent once ask me quite pointedly in response to a query letter: “What exactly do you expect me to do with this?” She was commenting on the length of the book and there were definitely expletives in the subtext of her question. I wanted to say “Just read it. Read it first, judge it second.” I knew I was wasting my breath.
You ask whether it was easy or hard to write a book with such a complex structure. The odd thing is that for all of its complexity, the actual writing process occurred like any other story: one word at a time. The complexity of the finished work is, thankfully, not really a part of writing the details of how Tilly feels about Angus, or what David is going to say next to Officer North. Although I do confess to having taken some very long winter walks just to keep the big picture straight in my head.
KP: America of 2005 looms large over your character’s many socio-economic choices and circumstances, any reason in particular why you chose that period to set your story in?
OT: There were a few aspects to that period that intrigued me as having some thematic value. The Bush-Cheney administration was churning into its second term with enough hubris and conceit to spare. This is the year that George Bush declared that he had earned political capital in the campaign and that he intended to spend it; and boy did he ever spend it. The Iraq War was out of control and deepening notwithstanding the Vice-President’s assurance that the Iraq insurgency was in the last throes and notwithstanding the President’s Mission Accomplished speech two years earlier. The war protest movement, partly personified by Cindy Sheehan, was finally reaching a critical mass that warranted news coverage, much of it sneering and accusatory and spun to call into question the patriotism of those who would dare to object. And, of course, it was also the year that Hurricane Katrina decimated the gulf coast, particularly New Orleans. So it seemed to me that 2005 had a lot going on, a lot of pointed turmoil, that could be harnessed to the central theme of identity.
The characters in The Lion Trees all wrestle with questions of identity; they are each driven to reaffirm personal and deeply buried self-concepts, even though those self-concepts are hurtful and maladaptive. In the background of these individual character stories is the story of Ohio and of the country as a whole. There was a sense that Ohio was wrestling with its own political identity. It was the state of Ohio that ended up putting President Bush over the top and with more than just a little drama. You might recall the last minute effort by Congressional Democrats to challenge Ohio’s twenty election-deciding electoral votes. The state was split right down the middle; half red and half blue. The popular vote went for President Bush by 119,000 votes out of 5.6 million ballots cast, a margin only about 2.1%. That internal political identity crisis or schism within Ohio intrigued me and I used it to mirror internal conflict within the characters and within the Johns family.
A similar dynamic could be seen nationally. With the highly politicized war raging in Iraq, clear battle lines had been drawn in this country and people had to decide who they were. They had to decide what it meant to be a patriot; what it meant to be an American; what to think about those who took to the streets to object to American foreign policy. It was a time when even the act of eating a french fry was freighted with political meaning. In those respects I tried to draw some parallel with what American culture went through over Viet Nam. I saw these events through a lens of a culture trying to understand itself; trying to figure out what it is; struggling to know its own mind and to find its own soul.
There is a passage in The Lion Trees in which Tilly Johns is ruminating on the difference between cities and towns, remembering that her agent Milton Chenowith always referred to Hollywood rather anachronistically as a town. It is one of several places in the book that hits on the how cultural identity can mirror aspects of personal identity.
“He liked to call Hollywood a town. Mostly, this was just Milton polishing his anachronistically avuncular charm. But he was not entirely wrong. A place is a town for reasons wholly independent of its lack of area sprawl, its population density, its relative affluence, its commercial sophistication, or the fragmentation of governmental services and structures. Those are the measurements of cities, where social cohesion is a function of ever more complex economic and legislated relationships.
“A town, by contrast, is bound together by a common and enduring understanding of itself, even if that understanding is largely mythic. A town has a self-concept—an identity – usually simple enough to fit within a single thought and yet complicated enough to incorporate elements of both self-glorification and self-loathing.
“As Milton well knew, the identity of a town is affirmed and enforced through the stories it tells to itself, about itself, sustaining and nourishing on its own lore; a rich, perpetually-steeping stew of hard fact, magical coincidence, apocryphal serendipity, aggrandizement, romanticized tragedy, and wishful redemption. On the spectrum of human associations, a town more closely resembles the family than it does the city. Los Angeles is a city. Miami is a city. New Orleans is a town. The Columbus of my youth was a town. America is a town.”
And as for Hurricane Katrina; she is truth. She is consequence. She is a meteorological lion tree. We can fool ourselves only up to a point. We can pretend that we are a city above sea-level and that the levees of our conceit will hold. We can pretend that the weapons of mass destruction actually exist somewhere in the desert and that they justify every dead soldier and civilian. We can indulge in the tautological solipsism of proclaiming ourselves “#1” in any conflict because we are American and because Americans are, by convenient definition, #1. Hollis Johns can pretend that he is an island of exceptionalism; a perfect bonsai growing alone in its little planter. Tilly and David can pretend that they are autonomous adults, free from the childhood judgments of their father. Susan can pretend that her marriage is normal and that she is a fundamentally different person than when she was a young woman. But there is always a reckoning. There is always a consequence to what we choose to believe about ourselves.
KP: Were all your characters created from scratch or did you get some help from people you’ve met or known before?
OT: One of the themes in this book is that there is always truth in fiction. Pure fiction and pure truth are rarities. Life is usually an indistinguishable blend of the two. What we presented is the real world, the real person, the real answer, is shot through with falsity and myth, distorted by agenda, kind memory and self-serving aggrandizement. On the other hand, most of what we acknowledge as fictional came from somewhere and in the middle of it, the thing about it that catches our attention is often an unassailable truth. At one point, Matilda Johns declares “I was raised against my will to follow the fabulist tradition. It’s a part of me now. The truth lies in fiction.” Consider Angus Mann, railing against the falsity of Hollywood and the movie-making industry. And yet, the same industry is producing an adaptation of his short story, The Lion Tree, a work of fiction that ultimately tells the very hard truth of Angus Mann. So, to answer your question, all of the characters in the book are a healthy blend of theft and fabrication. They are amalgams of people, and amalgams of fragments of people, that I have known in my life, embellished to a point beyond which it would be unfair to say they represent actual people. It is a work of fiction. But I do not think it is ever possible to start from a completely blank page.
KP: Are you always in full control of your characters or is it the other way around?
OT: Great question. Ideally, my creative process entails a constant dialogue – sometimes “wrestling match” seems like a more apt analogy – between author and character. I follow as much as I lead. I experience as much as I create. As I noted before, I feel at my creative best when I am actually allowing the character to tell me what he or she would do or would want to do in any given situation. That takes a lot of restraint because the temptation to play God is always right at the fingertips. But to force some development or twist of plot runs the very real risk of making the character inauthentic based on the person you have created. If your goal is to write believable fiction, once you create a character then certain rules of believability immediately come into play. So, how would a character act? What would a character say? How would a character evolve over the course of four hundred pages? There is no way to answer those questions without consulting and deferring to the character that already exists up to that point. Of course, this approach also tends to really slow the writing process down because it is not always clear what the character wants to be or do next. Sometimes there is no substitute for taking a long break and waiting for the character to speak her mind and make herself known.
There is another type of writing – much more lucrative and popular than anything I am ever likely to write – that is intensely plot-based and formulaic, in which characters are expected to be a certain way, do certain things, and resolve conflicts along predictable arcs. That, to me, entails a kind of fiction assembly, a process of literary manufacturing, that I would prefer to avoid in favor of creating a story and letting it grow in natural, believable and, hopefully, unpredictable ways. I think that is a quality that often distinguishes literary fiction from some forms of genre fiction.
KP: I know an author isn’t supposed to name their favourite character (at least not publicly!). So let me ask you this, who left you most drained or exuberant by the end of it all?
OT: The David chapters were the most immediate. He was written in the first person, present tense. When I was writing David it was almost like the chaotic free fall of his life was unfolding in real time. A lot of energy came out of those chapters that spilled over into my relatively mundane existence. Whenever I had to pause the writing process on the David chapters I felt like I was leaving him hanging by his fingertips. Tilly and Hollis, by comparison, tended to require much more reflection and interior development. The writing for those characters was more intricate and required a finer touch and in that way required a greater, slower effort. Writing Hollis tended to be more intellectual while Tilly was more emotional. So they all drained me and energized me in different ways.
KP: What would you like to say about the character of Ben? And why wasn’t he given his own narrative?
OT: Ben was intended to be a constant presence in the lives of the others. If Hollis, David and Susan had lives that resembled the hurricane laying waste to Louisiana, then Ben was a stillness in the eye of that hurricane. Every now and then, it was important to reflect on each of the other characters through the lens of their relationship with young Ben. In the context of that relationship, these characters found peace and authenticity. Ben accepted each of them as they were, and each of them took great comfort from that acceptance. Ben did not have his own narrative because the narratives were reserved for the dynamic character arcs, tracking the unraveling and the rebuilding of these people. Ben, Down Syndrome notwithstanding, represents a kind of perfection. He is content with himself and his life and his family. He lives entirely in the present. He has found the music of living and he has internalized it. As Matilda reflects, Ben was Zen.
KP: It’s not often you pick a book this size and then claim it to be a breezy read. So who should get the credit, the author or the editor?
OT: My wife is my editor and she is spectacularly good at it. She really challenged me to slay my darlings as Stephen King would say. I slew and slew and the book is better for it; lighter, if you can believe that. I am fortunate beyond words. In the end though, when all the writing and editing is done and all of the blood has been spilled, I think the answer is that the authenticity of the characters and the narrative structure – one story handing off to each of the others and back again – allowed for an immersion in this other world that makes the reader less conscious of the time spent reading. My goal is to hit the mark of any good fiction: when you close the book you should have no earthly idea what time it is.
KP: End of the day, what’s that single core message you were trying to send out? Was it that no matter how bad it gets, you can always start afresh? That real positive change is always possible?
OT: I like both of those take-aways. For me, the molten core at the center of this book is that it is what we think of ourselves – our own self-concept – that will most shape our lives and determine our fates. We will conform our lives to that blueprint of belief, whether we know it our not. I do believe that we can always start afresh and that real positive change is always possible. That is the truth. But realizing that truth first requires giving ourselves permission to inherit that truth. We have to be candid about what we think of ourselves and, above all, we have to forgive ourselves. This was something that The Undeserving Man in Angus’ story never did and he pays the price. Until we are conscious of what we think of ourselves, until we cut ourselves free of old judgments, we will return to that limiting self-concept again and again and again, like a needle stuck in the scratch of a record. We will look for opportunities to prove to ourselves that we are, in fact, who we believe ourselves to be. If we believe we are undeserving, then we will always be undeserving. To borrow the metaphor that Caitlyn Carson Lewis offers to David in his darkest hour, we were all meant to float, but we have to cut the chains of history that hold us to the bottom of the sea.
KP: Reading anything at the moment?
OT: I just finished The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt and The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. Currently I am working my way through The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, by David Sedaris. I also try to keep a steady diet of short fiction. Currently, those stories are coming from Raymand Carver (“Where I’m Calling From: New and Selected Stories”), John Updike (“My Father’s Tears and Other Stories”), David Foster Wallace (“Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”), and Karen Russell (“Vampires in the Lemon Grove”).
KP: What is your favourite and least favourite part of the writing/publishing process?
OT: My favorite part is that moment when a character finally snaps into focus and makes sense in the grand scheme of things. It’s is always a process, sometimes a long and difficult process, to discover the heart of what you are creating. Writing for me is in some ways a process of excavation. When I brush off enough earth to finally discover the hidden shape of the thing and what it all means, that is a magical feeling. A very close second is hearing from someone else who has invested the time to read the words I have set down in a particular order and who came away feeling glad they did and somehow changed by the experience.
My least favorite part of the writing process is the whole darling-slaying thing. That can be physically painful. As for the publishing process, I often cringe at the collision of artisty and commerce. They depend on each other and in so many ways are also inimical to each other. There is nothing new in that observation, but there it is anyway. I do not like the suggestion of having to compromise artistic vision for the sake of marketability. On the flip side of that coin, however, I am receiving requests for The Lion Trees from Europe, Australia, India, Canada and throughout this country. I owe that particular thrill to the same engines of commerce that run more on profit margins than inspiration. So commerce needs the writer and the writer needs commerce. It reminds me vaguely of the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones and his would-be assassin stop fighting long enough to cooperatively steer their careening jeep away from certain destruction. Boy would Angus Mann hate that example.
KP: Any writing advice you have for other aspiring authors?
OT: Yes, and it’s this: don’t worry about selling. Kick the commerce part of it out of the room for the writing phase and lock the door. Don’t write what the market expects you to write. Don’t write something you think will sell. Write with the sole purpose of doing justice to the creative vision in your head. Write something good. Write something authentic. Write something that moves you and you will move others. Have fun. Worry about selling later.
KP: And lastly, thank you for parting with your valuable time Owen Thomas and all the very best for your book.
OT: Thanks so much, Kevin, to you and to Moterwriter for helping spread the gospel of literary fiction.
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