In parts one and two, Courtney Miller Santo—author of The Roots of the Olive Tree—and I have discussed Stephen King and prison and Canadians. This time we get to the important stuff: jellyfish.
Theric: As I came to the final section of Roots—narrated by Bets—I was concerned. She’d seemed the least dynamic character to that point. Yet the first thing she does when she takes control is change her name to Elizabeth. And she only gets more interesting from there. I know the cover of your book makes secrets the Meaning of your book, but until Elizabeth I didn’t see it. Then, with Elizabeth, the layers of secrets truly begin to reveal themselves. Even when it ends up they’re not secrets. How are secrets important to your conception of the novel?
Courtney: Thank you for saying that about Bets. I argued with so many people about why in each section some of the women would use their full names instead of their nicknames and what you state is exactly what I hoped would happen.
What I’ve learned about secrets from my family is they are usually only secrets to the person who is keeping them. That is that we spend so much time trying to hide our mistakes or our personal natures from each other and don’t realize that in the hiding we reveal ourselves. I also found, especially with my older relatives that just because they didn’t speak of something didn’t mean it was a secret. My own grandmother had an illegitimate sister show up when she was a teenager and instead of being embarrassed or in denial, everyone in her family was like, well of course that’s Alice’s daughter.
I feel that way about secrets in my own life. There are actions and knowledge that I’m keeping from my kids, but when they are adults, I expect the reveal of such information will be much less dramatic than I expect.
Theric: That seems like a decent segue into the closest thing you have to an explicitly “Mormon” part of the novel. One character in the novel was born Mormon. But he was born in 1916 to a polygamous family so I’m not sure how, ah, Salt Lake-approved that family might have been. He also ends up being the novel’s only gay character. Given the difficulties inherent in representing a character who has slipped well into senility, he’s an extraordinarily well drawn character. But enough about art. Let’s ask the unfair leading question you would be thrown on cable news: “Courtney—your only gay character is your only Mormon character is your only character to fall into utter madness. How does your Church cause its gay members to lose their identity in order to belong?”
Courtney: I can’t speak directly to the experience of being gay or being a gay Mormon except to say that with Frank, I’d hoped to draw a character who helped readers understand the complex choices gay men and women have faced historically and continue to face when they are required to deny a portion of their identity. I cannot fathom being asked to abstain from the blessings of family and marriage because of my sexual identity, of which I have no choice in making.
Theric: Something I’ve not investigated but which the novel has left me wondering about is the science of aging. I’ve read a bit about the immortal jellyfish, but I have no idea how much advance has been made on the genetics of aging well. Given the importance on this science to your characters (one is spending his career on the question) and the novel’s structure (you’ve taken the risk of stepping away from the plot to discuss the science and public reaction thereunto)—I don’t feel totally out of line describing Roots as slightly science fiction.
How much did you research this science and how important was it to get the details right? (Also, as a side question, do you worry about it, ironically, aging the novel more rapidly?)
Courtney: At the end of the novel, I absolutely take a step outside our current reality and propel the characters forward into an as yet unwritten future. As I mentioned earlier, this current generation of writers grew up reading science fiction and fantasy and I feel like we are particularly open to mixing genres in a way that writers coming out of the academic tradition haven’t been in the past. Lauren Groff does the same thing in her amazing novel, Arcadia. I hope that it doesn’t age the novel, but immortality is a rare bird in the written word. My decision to add this element was driven by the characters themselves and wanting people to have a sense that this year in their lives changed the women, but it wasn’t the end of their existence.
As for research. . . . I did a ton, but it was mostly from tertiary and secondary sources. I read a ton of Time Magazine and New York Times articles on aging and genetics. Most of what Amrit discusses in his sections is true, if not exactly scientifically accurate. I was struck by the idea when working on this book that so many of our myths and religions are directly connected to immortality and yet science knows so little about aging—which is the process working against immortality. If there is any part of this book that is explicitly addressing being Mormon, it is in those sections about aging (and of course the olive tree).
Theric: After finishing Roots, I read the promotional short story “Under the Olive Tree.” (Which I have since thought about as much as the novel.) One thing it emphasizes is the stories Anna tells in both fictions. And through the short story I went from enjoying and admiring the stories to really loving them. Honestly, I kind of wish you would write a full volume of them for the kids. And, you know, me. Even considered that?
Courtney: Anna continues to tell me her stories, and I tell them to my own children. If there’s ever a book of them, they’ll probably be written by my daughter.
Theric: I can’t imagine a better or more suitable answer to that question.
Well, Courtney. It’s been a pleasure. In the end, I enjoyed your book a great deal. Sure, I had some issues with pacing and this and that, but overall, I won’t be shy about recommending it. Before I let you go, what question should I have asked? Answer that one too.
Courtney: How about if I just give you an answer and you and everyone else can supply any question they want. It’s my 42 if you will.