Friday, August 23, 2013

Tatjana Soli talks about The Forgetting Tree, second novel feeling like first syndrome, what haunts us and why, and so much more

Tatjana Soli  is one of those writers you speak about with a kind of reverence. Her gift with words is rivaled only by her talent with story. Set on a California citrus ranch, The Forgetting Tree explores how one woman survives not just an unspeakable tragedy , but an illness that could take her land from her, as well as her life. A New York Times Notable Book and Editor's Choice, The Forgetting Tree is now in paperback. You know you want it immediately, right? I'm honored to have Tatjana here today to talk about the book. Thank you, Tatjana!
The book is so wonderful that I think it‘s safe to say that there was none of that ‘fear of the second novel measuring up to the first.‘ If anything, it‘s richer, deeper, more nuanced. How did you do that alchemy? Are you a worrier about things like this or do you just burrow into the story so the only world is the world of the story? What‘s your writing process like?
 Well, luckily or unluckily depending on how you want to look at it, I had trouble getting my first novel published so I reluctantly moved on to a new book. When I started The Forgetting Tree, it was very much with the mindset of this being another ‘first‘ novel, and I wrote it trying to accomplish the goals I had for it, assuming that there might never be an audience for it. That was very freeing, and even now as I work on future projects, I try to separate the writer part of myself from the author who considers how a work might be received. That‘s the good part of the long time between creation and publication.
 Yes! I am a compulsive worrier about anything and everything, most of which I realize is beyond my control, but that makes no difference. The only thing I can do to maintain my sanity as a writer is to try to shut down that part of myself during the period I write, which I find doable. When you are in the zone, you find great satisfaction inside the world of your novel.
 I try to keep to keep to a schedule such as so many pages a day, so many months per draft, etc., but I don‘t beat myself up for inevitably slipping behind as long as I feel something important was accomplished each day, that the process is moving forward on some level. Sometimes you hone the perfect paragraph for a scene and that‘s time well spent.
 I love the whole image of the forgetting tree, a myth about walking round a tree and forgetting our painful pasts. Do you think we can ever forget our pasts--and should we? Doesn‘t being haunted, as Claire and Minna are, serve a purpose sometimes?
 That is a great question. What is that old joke? Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, and repeat it, and repeat it. Seriously, part of the attraction of a good book for me as a reader is following how the pasts of characters and historical events play out in a satisfying way that is seldom available to us in real life. Part of that happens by a winnowing process, a narrowing of possibilities so that fiction is by necessity less complex than real life. If that complexity were allowed, the story wouldn‘t work. The past affects us, but we can‘t let it overwhelm. My main characters, Claire and Minna, go back and forth on this continuum by extreme degrees that most of us luckily will never have to experience.
 I think being haunted can serve a purpose. People focus on the negative aspect ‘ that we become paralyzed in the present ‘ like Claire is by the loss of her son. Yet the more common danger is pretending it has no bearing on the present. That creates an unmoored life that is very familiar in contemporary life. If the past doesn‘t matter, how can anything in the present or the future count either?
 What was the research like? Did anything surprise you?
 I love research because it teaches me about things I might never come across in any other way. For example, I love the orange groves where I live, but knew next to nothing about the nitty gritty of running them. I met an organic lemon rancher in San Diego County who was a retired English teacher and who was really passionate about this life he had deliberately chosen. This connection to land and place is something most of us are divorced from in our daily life.
 In writing about Minna I realized that I didn‘t know enough about current history in the Caribbean, especially Haiti in the last twenty years. So I studied books and documentaries, talked to people. As surreal as anything you can write, the reality of the people living there far outstrips what the imagination can invent. And yet the imagination allows us access that doesn‘t come in any other way. I spoke to people who grew up in Haiti, who had sheltered, privileged lives there, and were blind to the daily realities of what was happening in the streets. They did not share the American journalists‘ views of the country‘s politics. It made me think of my small, daily routine, how much I willfully block out, turn away from. Don‘t we all avoid driving down certain streets, avoid certain neighborhoods? The best research changes the way we see our place in the world.
 I love the photo of the desert island under ‘Future Projects‘ on your wonderful website. What‘s obsessing you now and why?
 Maybe it’s being a certain age, but I think you get to a place in life, and no matter your particular situation, you ask, Is this happiness? Is this all there is? Does this give us meaning? So even though the book I’m writing now is the lightest, comedy mixed with tragedy, it’s also the most autobiographical in terms of what I’m obsessed with at this particular stage of my life. One of my characters, Richard, is a professional chef. He is passionate about cooking, yet he’s kind of lost his way. I’m having great fun writing about food, which always figures heavily in my books anyway. I’m hoping when reading this one, people will be tempted to sneak away to the refrigerator between chapters!

Tatjana Soli, author of The Lotus Eaters, New York Times Bestseller, and The Forgetting Tree. "Quietly mesmerizing... tough and lyrical."  Janet Maslin