Courtney Miller Santo saw her debut novel The Roots of the Olive Tree published last year by William Morrow. She teaches at the MFA program at the University of Memphis (of which she is an alumna). If you read the Mormon literary outlets, you’ve seen her work in Irreantum and Sunstone. In fact, she has a story in Sunstone‘s latest issue which is, I think, the most heartbreaking thing she’s written to date. But much like the painful moments in her novel, every painful aspect of humanity is balanced with a sense of growing freedom and peace. Based on what I’ve read of her work so far (the novel and at least three short stories), I suspect this balancing may be a hallmark of her work.
Theric: I want to start with a question I usually save for later. I hope you don’t mind.
Courtney: I always eat dessert first, so it seems appropriate.
Theric: I’ve heard it said that every first novel is autobiographical. The connection between you and the clan from Kidron is easy: five generations of women, all together at once. How similar are Anna and her family to your own heritage of women?
Courtney: Like many Mormon women, I come from a long line of incredibly strong and stubborn matriarchs. In my case, they also happen to live long lives and live them well—that is to say there have been little physical or mental limitations placed on them as they age. Anna is in many ways a version of my own great-grandmother, Winnie White, who died in October at 104. I modeled the town Kidron on Corning, California, where she spent her childhood and her retirement. I’m also fascinated by family stories—and because our family is so large, I’ve been able to collect many of them. While in my direct matriarchal line, I haven’t had anyone shoot their husband, or be the sole survivor of an airplane crash, these moments in the Keller women’s lives come from stories I’ve collected from my own family over the years. However, these are all just story points.
Where the novel is most autobiographical is in its depiction of the relationship between mothers and daughters. I find that sometimes you don’t get the mother you need. As an adult I had conversations with all the women in my family that revealed that hard truth, but I also learned by talking to my grandmother about my mother, to my great grandmother about my grandmother, that we don’t truly know our mothers. What we know is the version they’ve presented to us that allows us them to be a parent.
So this book really traces my complex and evolving relationship with my mother. As an adult I feel that I know her as a person, but only because I’ve been able to listen to her mother, and her grandmother talk about her.
Theric: One of the strength of the book is the respect you give your older women. They’re not identical dowagers puttering around the house without distinction. Each is a real person. I’m not sure old women usually get this respect. I’m curious if other people have reacted similarly.
Courtney: I’ve had the most difficult time when people find these women unbelievable (and not because they are 112 and can still touch their toes). There are reviews where people have said—I don’t think women in their sixties could be attractive, or could fall in love. It makes me want to scream. I’ve watched women in their sixties do exactly that. My grandmother, at seventy, took up kayaking.
The one bit of advice I held onto from my writing program is to write the book you want to read that nobody has written yet. For me, what I wasn’t seeing in the fiction I read was a depiction of older women as anything but old. It seems they are in books to serve the purposes of the younger protagonists.
In this case, I wanted the reader to get a sense that each of these women is vibrant and interesting and not at all perfect. I made it a rule early on that none of the grandmothers were going to bake cookies or knit. I will say that at bookclubs, which are nearly always older women, they are thrilled with the depiction of women in the book. I’ve heard a dozen stories of amazing accomplishments of women who are in their sixties, seventies, and beyond.
The key for me when I wrote this book was a conversation I had with my own great-grandmother when I was in my twenties. She was putting cold cream on her face and talking to my reflection in the mirror. What she said as she pushed around the wrinkles on her face was something to the effect of you know I still think I’m twenty-five. I know I’m old, but every time I look in the mirror, I’m surprised that I’m an old woman. So for me, I wrote these women as if they were the people they became at twenty-five—only with a bit more life experience.
Theric: I’m glad you said that, because my experience is everyone feels that way as they age. We’re who we made ourselves to be when we were young—only seen through a different filter.
Two writers I imagine you haven’t been compared to much but who came to mind as I was reading Roots (do you have a preferred abbreviation?) are Stephen King and Orson Scott Card. I was actually reading The Green Mile simultaneously with your novel and I couldn’t help comparing their depictions of love and vigor in very old age—and of prison too, though that connection might seem a bit more surface. And Orson Scott Card has written that too much of modern fiction is about adolescents—that we need more books about adults.
This doesn’t really add up to a question, but two things I hope you’ll respond to: Which authors would you most like to be compared to? and how diverse do you find current fiction’s protagonists?
Courtney: I find the fact that you bring up Card and King quite flattering—I include The Stand and Ender’s Game in my list of top ten books of all time. I spent most of my teens and early twenties reading science fiction and fantasy and then I discovered the South Americans and eventually Aimee Bender and George Saunders. Having said that, I don’t believe I’m playing at the same game as these writers, but I do count them as influences and in some cases deep influences.
The two writers who I can’t barely mention in the same breath as my writing, but who I am chasing when I write are both Canadian—Carol Shields and Alice Munro. I’ve been reading Munro also since my early twenties and she strikes me as a writer who has managed to write the breadth of a woman’s life. She’s in her eighties and I felt as amazed by Dear Life as I did by Lives of Girls and Women when I read it at twenty-one. Shields wrote my favorite book—and one that I’ve read fifteen times, Unless. It is one of those books that speaks exactly of what it means to be a woman in today’s world and speaks about feminism without getting caught up in blaming men. It also has the best depiction of female friendship, I’ve ever read.
Your second question is so much harder—I work at a job that requires me to read lots of literary fiction. In that case, I find the protagonists dispiritingly similar in age, gender, political affiliation and moral center. The same is true for some of the lighter reading I do. Where I find diverse characters and the sort who I find interesting is often in crime fiction and detective fiction. It’s been said that the genius of these books is that you get to see a character at work. I find that tenet of the genre to be freeing in terms of character development.
I will say that in women’s contemporary fiction, it remains rare to find a novel that isn’t romance driven in some shape or form. My goal with Roots (and I totally abbreviate) was to create a story that had plenty of women, but none of them talking about men, or in actuality, lovers.
In part two of this series, we’ll discuss difficulties in writing—both for ourselves and for our students—and the important of structure.