The Forgetting Tree
Behind the Scenes: Home | The Second First Novel
~ THE SECOND FIRST NOVEL ~
Readers can be forgiven for believing that books are published easily, that authors take a grand view of the world around them, choose a subject — mix and bake — and two years later a beautiful new book appears. The reality, like life, is always much messier and more complicated.
I’d devoted a good six years off-and-on to writing my first novel, The Lotus Eaters, about a photojournalist in Vietnam. The book had been roundly rejected, and my agent told me none too gently (he’s of the tough-love school) that I needed to move on and write something new. I was in mourning. The first lines in The Forgetting Tree are Octavio’s, but to a much lesser extent my own feelings of loss at the time were mirrored in his.
But he also was in mourning for the missing boy. Did they not see?
What I did during this difficult period in my life is the same thing I do almost every day when home — take long walks in the regional park where I live. When I first moved to this area in Southern California, one could walk through orange, avocado, and eucalyptus groves and rarely run into another person. It was incredibly beautiful and peaceful except that over the years it began to change. A eucalyptus grove on top of a hill where we used to picnic is now a gated, luxury development where we can no longer walk. The flat, sandy bed where my puppy loved to run is now paved road. One of the most painful sights that I can remember was driving past bulldozers tearing out orange trees. This scene found its way into the book:
Each tree was an individual, with a personality, and this treatment seemed a desecration of nature. When the trees were dead… bulldozers came and tore their roots from the earth, piling them into big heap from where they were trucked away to be shredded for compost.
One of my favorite writers, J.M. Coetzee, writes, “To imagine the unimaginable” is the writer’s duty. Novels grow from complex root systems. I don’t know what the turning point was, but during those walks in the groves the story of the Baumsarg ranch, and the struggle of its owner, Claire, against the dark forces that confronted her began to form in my mind. Hers was a family torn apart by tragedy and time. The crown jewel, though, was Minna, who appeared to me like the Indian god Shiva, both creator and destroyer, concealer and revealer, ultimately unknowable. At this stage these were all simply pieces that would take months to put together into a story, but they captured my imagination.
The tree had not resurrected — rather, its life was simply hidden to the eye, beating deep in the soil, trembling within the roots hairs, in sap, wood, and bark.
So I wrote my “second” first novel not with the idea of an audience, or the idea of it being published, but because the story burned inside me, and the writing of it was the thing that fulfilled me as a writer. As I finished a first draft of this book about Claire and her search for redemption, I got the surprise call of my life that my first novel had sold. Was I ecstatic? Of course. But I had already proved to myself that even during the most fallow times, story could appear mysteriously. What made one a writer ultimately was the daily laying of those words on the page.