Unearthing The Lion Trees’ Roots, an interview with Owen Thomas
A good story inspires its readers to do two things: think and feel. The characters that incite these activities should live within you, speaking in your mind long after the words on the page cease to be their translator. Owen Thomas’s The Lion Trees accomplishes these goals in such a successful manner it seems he’s hardly trying. Lawyer he may be, but Owen Thomas has the soul of an artist. His voice is so unique and his perceptions so sharp, you will become spoiled by his intelligence and insight, taking for granted his next beautiful metaphor or perfect choice of verb.
The Lion Trees explores the question: what is the human default setting for identity and what do we do when we become aware of our pre-programming? Through the characters of Hollis and Susan Johns, and their children David and Tilly, we experience the emotions of both self-denial and epiphany, seeing blame and accountability fight each other for prominence, like two past-their-prime boxers.
The resurfacing current pulsing behind the storylines of the four main characters is the creation of the sci-fi movie, The Lion Trees, in which Tilly Johns is cast.
This story, created by the fictional character Angus Mann, is born as a parable, becomes a story, and then short story. Angus Mann turns it into a novel and Hollywood wants to make it a film. Mann, unlike any of the Johns family, neither justifies nor condemns his own nature. He believes we have no choice but to be who we are.
Yes, there’s plenty to think about and much reason to feel either hope or distress–can we change who we are, or do we have no choice but to perpetually recreate an indelible image of ourselves?
Let’s find out what Owen Thomas has to contribute to the intellectual feast that The Lion Trees lays before us. I encourage you to settle down for a tantalizing multi-course meal, this isn’t a trip to grab a burger at the drive-thru.
Amy: Hollis, the patriarch of the Johns family around which The Lion Trees revolves, is a pinnacle of self-denial. Hollis reasons: “He had unwittingly cultivated a belief that they had a say in who he was.” Interestingly, while he cares too much about what others think of him, he often appears to care too little for those closest to him. Hollis, for me, becomes a metaphor for the hypocrisy of humanity and also of the governments that people create. What is your view of Hollis?
Owen Thomas: You are absolutely correct that Hollis is a pinnacle of denial. He has honed his self-delusion into something almost sublime. One of the more prominent metaphors I use to capture Hollis is the bonsai he is always taking such care to prune: a miniaturized version of something grand, in its own little pot, isolated from every other living thing, and trimmed according to an arbitrary aesthetic that Hollis cannot begin to fathom but that he pretends to have mastered and which, he believes, evidences his superior wisdom. Hollis has conveniently shaped his identity around the inconvenient facts of his existence: his estrangement from his own children; his control over, and gradual marginalization of, his wife over decades of marriage; an employer that can manage itself just fine without him; a once exemplary athletic body in decay; a sexuality waning with age; and, overall, an ordinariness he cannot abide. Hollis has created an identity that avoids, or that aspires to avoid, all of these things. But in his effort to convince himself that he is exceptional, he has pruned himself into an isolated, idealized miniature of a real person. He convinces himself that he is someone whom others, specifically including his family, are incapable of understanding. To prove his own point, he indulges in esoteric knowledge and solitary pursuits. The result is that Hollis Johns lives a life calculated to confirm his own self-understanding. Each of the characters in this book follow a similar path, living in service to an identity they cannot relinquish, even as it wrecks havoc in their lives. In Hollis’ case it leads to the irony you have identified: he needs other people to help confirm that he is in a class by himself. So he turns a cold shoulder to his wife but then fawns almost sycophantically after others who are in a position to hold a mirror up to his ego, like Akahito Takada and Charles Compson and Bethany Koan.
You suggested that Hollis might be a metaphor for human hypocrisy generally and of human government. Hollis is certainly a symbol of our seemingly endless capacity for self-deception and he is an example of the power of personal identity over the trajectory of our lives. I also believe that societies of people build and nurture and reinforce cultural identities and that those cultural identities end up limiting perspectives and driving decisions (through government and other social institutions) in a way that is at least analogous to the forces at work in each of us individually. I did intend a very loose symmetry between Hollis Johns and, if not the Bush Administration per se, then at least the prevailing national identity that twice installed that administration. Self-aggrandizing hubris and a penchant for self-mythologizing lead the Bush White House astray with the entire country in tow. The same foibles lead Hollis Johns astray, with his wife, Susan, in tow. The country (or at least parts of it) eventually woke up, just as Susan eventually wakes up. In the end, Hollis finds revelation in true self-discovery and redemption. The same, sadly, cannot be said for the Bush Administration and his die-hard neocons.
Amy: You choose to bring forth the characters of Hollis and Susan Johns in third person, but use first person for the voices of their children, David and Tilly. Why don’t the parents get a more direct voice? Is to highlight the potential for the offspring to be more aware than their parents–a type of evolution, as it were?
Owen Thomas: I was not actually attempting to give any character or group of characters a more or less “direct” voice than others, although every choice a writer makes has consequences. In writing The Lion Trees it was important for me to create four independent and distinct voices. I wanted the reader to know instantly whose story and perspective she was getting. Even more than that, given that this book is built upon themes of identity, I needed each voice to feel unique in the reader’s head, rather than have a story of four different characters all translated into the same narrative voice. The choice of what kind of “voice” should be given to each character was mostly a function of how each character ultimately comes to terms with the dysfunctional identity disrupting his or her life. So, for example, Hollis’ problem is largely one of a pervasive self-deception about who he is and how others perceive him. Of the four main character arcs, Hollis’ is the most interior and I decided an omniscient perspective was necessary to pull what was going on inside his head out onto the page. David, by contrast, has a very active, here-and-now storyline. He is being seduced and surveilled and tossed in jail and hauled into a courtroom. A first-person-present-tense narrative promised to deliver the immediacy that I wanted with David’s story. As for Tilly, it was important for her to be able to tell her story with a retrospective wisdom that none of the other characters had. Tilly narrates her story from deep within a coma at the end of her life many years into the future. I needed someone to be looking back and telling the family story, or at least parts of it, from a greater distance. Accordingly, I thought a first-person-past-tense voice worked best for her. Finally, Susan’s journey is presented exclusively in dialogue. This is a character who in many ways had lost her voice over the years as she became buried in a marriage and the demands of a family. Her story arc is really about clearing her throat and asserting her true self, which she ultimately does in dramatic fashion. It is the raising of Susan’s voice in the world – the actual sound of it – that was important. So I wanted the Susan chapters represented in a way that presents her perspective entirely through the words she uses in dialogue with others. Writing in those different voices was one of the most challenging things about writing The Lion Trees. That aspect of the novel also, I think, really sets it apart. That said, there are obviously other writers who have been very successful in telling a single story in a variety of different voices and tenses. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is a particularly good example.
Amy: I find it fascinating that Tilly’s narrative does not keep temporal pace with the others. Like Hollis, Susan, and David, Tilly also self-perpetuates what she believes to be the essence of her being. But unlike them, she has the benefit of hindsight. And, in fact, she is the only character who speaks from the perspective of time. For me, this created a gentle net in which to contain the story, to keep it from flying apart too wildly. What did you intend with this technique?
Owen Thomas: I like how you put that: a gentle net in which to contain the story. That’s exactly right. The multiplicity of narrative styles and character perspectives in this book would have resulted in a very fractured story without some greater voice – both in the sense of being wiser and more encompassing in its temporal scope – to bind everything together. Tilly serves a dual role of bringing her own unique drama to the novel and also integrating all of the other stories into a single work. I also just happen to enjoy non-linear storytelling. I think it adds some texture to have a different time signature in the mix.
Amy: What do you think Tilly’s perspective would be if you recorded it extemporaneously?
Owen Thomas: If you mean what would Tilly’s perspective be if I had not given her the wisdom of a long life from which to tell her story, I think it would be a lot more confused, self-serving and inauthentic. She would be telling her story in a voice that wants to be liked and for which approval rather than truth is the ultimate objective. Like all of the characters in this book, Tilly makes decisions on the basis of hidden priorities that she does not fully understand. It takes Tilly many, many years for some of those decisions to make any real sense. At the time she experiences the events of her twenties and thirties, there are convenient decoy explanations for everything she does – including the state of her various relationships and all of her self-sabotage – and I think she would use those explanations to deflect any real responsibility for her circumstances. Like most people, Tilly spent a lot of time and energy locating the origin of her difficulties outside of herself. She was indomitable as a child, a hellion as a teenager, very headstrong as a young adult, stubbornly independent as a mature woman and always ferociously intelligent. It was a life-long struggle for her to really figure things out. Even well after Tilly’s time in Hollywood, she spent a lot of time in relationships that did not work out because she was still motivated by a history and relational forces she did not understand. Years of reflection tend to relocate responsibility for our actions and decisions inward. I needed the reader to have the benefit of that wiser perspective from the beginning. But told from a contemporaneous point of view, Tilly would have sounded a little more like David: a mess.
Amy: Hollis latches on to men he barely knows like Akahito Takada and Charles Compson and creates a false persona that paints them as near demi-gods. This seems to parallel the tendency in society to idolize movie-stars or sports heroes. What is it about the human character that causes us to believe in the goodness or evil or another without ever really knowing them?
Owen Thomas: I think it has to do with our endless capacity for projection. The less we really know about the other person, the more useful they are to us; the more we are able to make them into whomever we need them to be. Akahito Takada and Charles Compson were externalizations of Hollis’ ego constructs. He projected the character traits by which he wanted to define himself onto these men that he never really knew, and then he created a reality in which these same men admired Hollis for the same traits. A good analogy can be found, of all places, in how the Bush administration manufactured credibility from its own misinformation. It goes like this: first Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney leak to sympathetic reporters a version of the Iraq War that they would like to be accepted as true. Second, said reporters would then publish that imagined reality in their various publications. Third, Cheney and Rumsfeld would then show up on Meet the Press and quote the publication as evidence for their fantasy reality. The difference, of course, is that when Hollis projects his own fantasy onto Takada and Compson and then uses his society with these men as evidence of his own exceptionalism, he does so largely unconsciously. Sports fans are doing a version of the same thing when their team wins the big game and everyone goes home with their chests inflated and feeling a whole lot better about themselves than the day before. They have projected a part of themselves onto their favorite athletes and then re-injected that imagined association back into the veins of their own self-esteem, choosing to ignore that, individually, they had absolutely nothing to do with the outcome of that game. So this phenomenon is entirely normal in human society. The phenomenon in Hollis Johns is writ large for dramatic and comedic effect and to really show how it works.
Amy: At one point, Charles Compson says, “If I hadn’t been pretending to be such a good person I would have been a much better person.” How debilitating are the lies we tell ourselves?
Owen Thomas: The purpose of any lie is to misrepresent reality. Although some ethicists will certainly disagree, it is possible to conceive of a “white lie” we may tell to another person for the benefit of some value (avoidance of unnecessary pain or distress, for example) that in some circumstances we decide eclipses the competing value of pure truth. But it is hard to conceive of a “white lie” that we tell ourselves. They may be more or less harmful, but misrepresentations of reality to the self are inimical to personal growth. Even the worst of experiences can serve as grist for the mill of personal development. The lies we successfully tell ourselves are always, to some extent, debilitating. Stated differently, we should allow ourselves to consciously acknowledge the things we already actually know. Lying to ourselves is really an internal process of suppression, or convincing ourselves that reality is not real. Now, all of that is a very long ways from suggesting that self-deception is abnormal or always avoidable. As a species and as individuals, we are masters of self-deception. We persuade ourselves into believing all kinds of things that are not actually true, and for all kinds of reasons, from some mundane expediency to an artificial but convincing sense of self-satisfaction. We convince ourselves that we are patient when we are not; kind when we are not; smarter and wiser when we are not; better drivers than anyone else on the road when we are not. We tend to be very taken with ourselves, just as Hollis Johns is very taken with himself, and we tell ourselves some very kind stories. But that is not how we grow and evolve and mature. That requires truth. That’s what Charles Compson means when he says: “If I hadn’t been pretending to be such a good person, I would have been a much better person.”
Amy: David repeats, “I am an optimistic person,” so many times that it becomes a waving crimson flag that signals its opposite. Like his father, his fabricated conscious-level beliefs contrast with those of his true subconscious. And it is those deeply hidden beliefs that continue to rule his choices. Exploring this dichotomy is, for me, what makes The Lion Trees great. What intrigues you about this duality?
Owen Thomas: What intrigues me is that this is such an odd, but incredibly common signpost on the way to the truth about ourselves. As the circumstances of our lives bring us closer to the truth, the more we resist them by boldly declaring the opposite. The more painful the truth, the louder and more emphatic the declaration. We try to beat back reality with earnest assertions of the opposite of that reality. One is reminded of Queen Gertrude’s comment to Hamlet – The lady doth protest too much, methinks – not realizing that she is actually the person that ‘the lady’ on stage represents. David is hard-wired to believe he is doomed from the very beginning. His problem is that, deep inside where it really matters, he believes that no one will ever be inclined to believe in his innocence. He believes he is destined to be wrongly accused and that, once again as always, he will end up sacrificing himself on a pyre of good intentions. David has written the ending to his story before his story has even started. And yet, over and over, he boldly declares the opposite: I am an optimistic person. The truth is that he is not an optimistic person. History, and his interpretation of it, has made him a fatalistic person. But that truth is a painful one, so he resists it. We are right back to self-deception. David-the-optimist is a character in a fairy tale he tells himself so that he can get through the day believing there is hope and that everything will turn out okay. The problem is that David cannot become a truly optimistic person until he acknowledges, and then defuses, his fatalism. It is another good example of how self-deception is debilitating. The I’m-an-optimist fairytale feels helpful, and is certainly a kinder reality in the moment, but it is obfuscating the rules by which David is really living, enabling one of his greatest weaknesses, and inhibiting his growth as a person. All of the characters in The Lion Trees experience that same tectonic slippage between what they say about themselves consciously and what they “know” about themselves subconsciously. That friction always makes for interesting earthquakes.
Amy: Is there a full script for The Lion Trees somewhere? It’s a great story and a movie I would love to see. If not, write it!
Owen Thomas: I have had a lot of readers express an interest in seeing The Lion Trees developed for cinema (or a cable drama). There is not a script as yet and I am not sure I am the person to write it. I believe strongly that books and movies are entirely different forms of artistic expression and need to be developed as such. I would love to see that happen with this book and would certainly participate in the process. If nothing else, there seems to be a kind of built-in momentum in that direction. After all, The Lion Trees is a novel about a horrific experience, made into a parable that is placed in the center of a short story that itself becomes, against all odds, a classic motion picture. Angus Mann, the author of that short story, agonizes over a process of cinematic adaptation that he likens to the selling of one’s children into sexual slavery. Do we really live in a universe in which I am spared that specific agony? I hope not. How can this beast of a book not become a movie? There is something ironically poetic to that outcome.
Amy: Angus Mann, the writer of The Lion Trees (in the novel), says to a table of actors, screenwriters, and the director of the adaptation of his novel: “we always feed ourselves to the lions of our own judgment. I mean you do get that, don’t you?” Does this encapsulate one of the core questions you were exploring in your novel?
Owen Thomas: Absolutely. You’re right at the heart of it. The judgment that matters the most – the judgment that has the biggest impact on our lives – is not that of our parents or our teachers or our friends. Ultimately, we live and die by the judgments we carry around about ourselves. The principle at work throughout this story is that we will do almost anything to protect and fulfill our own self-concept, even if that self-concept is maladaptive and based on unsupportable distortions of our own history.
Take, for example, the woman (let’s call her Jane) who, for whatever reason, experiences the unpleasant disintegration of three successive romantic relationships. Assume these are formative relationships for Jane; important enough that she draws lessons from them as her life continues to unfold. It does not matter who was at fault for the failure of these relationships; assume that in each case the man in question was abusive and unfaithful. The experience will always boil down into some judgment that Jane holds about herself. That judgment could easily be I am Jane: the type of person for whom relationships never work out. Or she might decide that I am Jane: the type of person who inexplicably attracts lovers who will ultimately betray me and abuse my trust. These sorts of judgments have a lot of importance for the next relationship that comes around the corner. Jane’s conclusions about her identity may or may not be sound, but they are powerful. They have the gravitational pull of truth. The Lion Trees explores the psychological phenomenon in which Jane has a kind of vested interest in proving that she knows who she is and that her judgments are correct. She will select men (or make herself available to men) who are more likely to be unfaithful and abuse her trust, thereby vindicating and reinforcing her identity: I am Jane – always betrayed. So when Angus Mann explains that we always feed ourselves to the lions of our own judgment, his point is that the threat to our happiness, to our success, to our fulfillment is internal, not external. We make our own meaning and our own truth. We believe what we tell ourselves, we take our own judgments to heart, and we move heaven and earth to make those things true. If we judge ourselves as being undeserving, then the truth by which we live is that we are not deserving and we will prove it to ourselves every day of the week.
Amy: Fish and exploding fish tanks take on special significance in your story. Any reason for that?
Owen Thomas: There is nothing intrinsically or even metaphorically important about fish or exploding fish tanks. The point, rather, was to show that the past was still very much alive in these characters, particularly Hollis, Tilly and David. Many years before the events of this novel unfold, back when David and Tilly were children, they share an experience involving shattered fish tanks and the carnage of dozens of beautiful saltwater fish strewn all over the carpeted basement of the neighbors’ home. The event has importance in a number of different ways that are meant to reveal themselves as we learn more about the characters. So, without spoiling that process of discovery for readers, it should suffice to note that one of the children is responsible, the other is unfairly made to take the blame, and Hollis, acting out of his own sense of shame, solidifies the injustice. The event becomes an identity marker for each of them. It helps to shape the people they become. So the prevalence of present-day exploding fish tanks is merely to reflect that these characters are still acting and evolving under the influence of past events – the fish tank incident and others.
Amy: In my opinion, David is the most likeable character of all (excluding Ben who represents pure-lovability). I think this may be because he is the only character who has a sense of humor. I laughed out loud many a time while reading David chapters. Still, David doesn’t take control of his life, as often pointed out by his friend Cee Cee. What is it about humor, especially self-deprecating humor, that makes us more likely to forgive another’s faults?
Owen Thomas: Humor is a softening agent for even the hardest of truths. Comedians make their living on that principle. A good comedian can reach inside something horrible – cancer, the Spanish Inquisition, scrapple, the very idea of a President Trump – and pull out some aspect of it that you have never before considered and that makes you laugh at something that really has no business being funny.
In all relationships, humor naturally tends toward resolution. It’s difficult to hold a grudge against someone who can make you laugh. It takes a lot of energy, motivation and determination to stay mad at someone after a good laugh. We all have faults and make mistakes and do things for which we need to seek forgiveness. We encounter people like David bumbling through life from one mistake to another, or Hollis steamrolling others with his sense of exceptionalism, and our first inclination is to judge them for their faults. But people like David, who are naturally self-deprecating and who can laugh at their own foibles, manage to take judgment out of the equation, or at least lessen it. Once we get past the need to represent our judgment, it is easier to move on to the much more complicated and worthwhile task of understanding why the others act the way they do. Somewhere on that road to understanding is forgiveness. But it all starts with letting go of the judgment. When someone shows you some humility wrapped up in an engaging sense of humor, that’s an invitation to forgive.
From a purely literary perspective, humor is a medium, a kind of epoxy that fills the gap and blurs the distinction between reader and character. Humor, correctly deployed, is a powerful way to humanize what might otherwise be just a collection of squiggles on a page. Emotions connect us with others. We have all laughed, cried, and been afraid. These are opportunities for readers to identify with characters. Hollis’ state of mind makes him easy to judge and harder to like. He does not, for most of the book, know how to acknowledge his own shortcomings and so as readers we are far less inclined to let up on our judgment. David is an important counterbalance to Hollis in that respect. I needed a character that the reader was quick to forgive and eager to root for in spite of his colossally poor judgment. David’s self-deprecating humor helps me to pull in the reader and get them caring.
Amy: Perhaps I’m being cynical but does your daytime job increase your likelihood to believe everyone is a liar/justifier of their own story?
Owen Thomas: My daytime job has certainly bolstered my belief in the elasticity of reality and our ability, when sufficiently motivated, to stretch the truth just enough to cover one’s interests. So yes, there are lies-a-plenty in the law and maybe lawyers are more sensitized than others to expect them. Lawyers are certainly not rewarded for being gullible or overly trusting. Is that cynical? No more cynical than to suspect that those in law enforcement are more sensitized to the potential for violence. The law, or at least civil litigation, is very much about holding one version of reality up against another version of reality and trying to persuade a neutral fact finder as to which version should prevail. That contest certainly attracts the potential for deception.
But for as prevalent as it may be in my business, lying – the knowing and intended deception of another – is actually a less remarkable concept than our capacity for self-deception. The human species has many distinctions. One of them is our prowess at deceiving ourselves, or put less pejoratively, our ability to stray from the ground zero of experience. We have the ability to tweak reality, to shade it ever so slightly, a little at a time, so little that the alteration always falls just inside the margin of interpretive error and we carry around in our head a version of the truth that is fair to call an approximation of what we actually believe. Then we do it again. And again. And again. We work hand-in-glove with the natural degradation of memory, rebuilding what we “remember” over and over until we remember something very different than what the other people at the same accident scene remember. And then, eventually, we carry around in our head a version of the truth that conveniently happens to suit our interests but that – if you were to ask an objective arbiter – is no longer a fair approximation of reality. But, of course, by that point it is too late: we believe in this adjusted reality with all of our heart and soul and, right hand raised, we will loudly declare it to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
So I guess I would say that practicing law has sensitized me not only to the person who knows he is lying, but also to the person who is in the process of unconsciously aligning his own reality with his interests. The latter is far more common. We do this all the time. It’s as natural as breathing, and we think about it consciously about as much as we think about breathing, which is almost not at all. So here is the important take-away: like it or not, know it or not, we are architects of our own reality. Stated differently: the “reality” that practically matters the most in our lives is something we create. The other reality – the real, objective reality – is so rare as to be mythical. Unicorns live and frolic in the land of “objective” reality. We naturally imbue the events of living with our own meaning and we assemble our own truth. “Reality” is a living, dynamic, mutable field that envelops our conscious understanding and is always coloring our perception. Which brings us back to fiction and, in particular, The Lion Trees and the characters struggling to free themselves from the consequences of the realities they have created. 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.” When you realize that much of what is declared to be “reality” is actually fiction – when you fully appreciate our capacity for self-deception – then it is at least worth the exercise to mine our own delusions, our stories, our dreams, our poetry, our song for the truth about ourselves.
Amy: Angus Mann perpetuates the idea that “we are who we are.” Yet, ultimately, I would call The Lion Trees, a story of hope. Is that just my natural optimism painting sunny highlights on a darkened sky?
Owen Thomas: The Lion Trees is definitely a hopeful story. This is a story of redemption. This is a story of a family of individuals who each realize that they are drowning, but only because they have strapped themselves to the sunken shipwrecks of historical identities that do not serve them. Cee Cee Lewis, a character who, like Ben, lives in the eye of the hurricane that defines the lives of the other characters, at one point tells David, a history teacher, that he is a prisoner of his own historical dogma. But the solution, she suggests, is as simple as letting go of that identity: “That’s what you’ve got to do, Dave. Let it go. Cut it loose. You were made to float.” All of these characters ultimately realize that happiness and fulfillment – forward progress in life – rests in recognizing the restraint built into their own historical identities and cutting themselves free. All of us chafe at those same sorts of restraints. This is inherently a part of our evolution as individuals. But if we don’t challenge the various fictions we have come to believe about ourselves, then we are doomed to live and reinforce those fictions forever, even if they makes us miserable. Even if they kill us.
But here is the hope in the story: we have the ability to change the narrative in our heads. If, as humans, we have a unique ability to deceive ourselves, we also have a unique ability to intellectually and emotionally process our own history and decide what of that history we want to define us and what of that history we want to jettison. We get to decide what is true about ourselves and what is not true. Hollis, Susan, David and Tilly each come to terms with a personal history and choose to rise above it. They each choose to cut loose the old identities that have served only to keep them pinned to the seabed of history and to float. So is this a story of hope? Absolutely. Cut yourselves free, people. Float.
Amy: You portray Ben, David and Tilly’s special needs younger brother, as standing outside all the hypocrisy and judgment we see in the other characters. But, couldn’t part of his ability to “love despite all” be because of the unconditional love his parents have shown him throughout his life? Both Tilly and David are severely judged by Hollis, but not Ben. Ben is immune to both criticizing and criticism. Doesn’t this also make him a product of what he believes about himself?
Owen Thomas: Ben really is the calm at the center of the metaphorical storm with which every other member of the Johns family must contend. Down Syndrome, for all of its obvious problems, has blessed Ben with the gift of acceptance and a predisposition to live in the moment. He accepts everyone in his family, and he accepts himself, uncritically. He experiences no need to judge or to manipulate others into conforming with some external notion of who they should be. He has no angst about not being someone different than who he is. Ben is the only person in this book who is truly at peace. If Hollis is the unenlightened Buddha, striving much too hard even to appear enlightened let alone to be enlightened, then Ben is the opposite. Ben is Zen.
Each of the others draws on Ben’s stability in their lives. No matter how bad things get, no matter how bad they feel about themselves, no matter how deserving they may be of criticism and censure, Ben accepts them unconditionally for who they are. He serves as a kind of constant reassurance that each of them are worth the effort to find and free the person – the true identity – within themselves struggling to break free and come up for air. Ben is in a kind of communion with those true identities. So, for example, when Hollis is in Ben’s company he is able to experience Ben’s genuine appreciation for the real Hollis, the person with whom even Hollis has lost touch over the years. The same is true for all of the other family members struggling with who they have become and what they think of themselves. Ben gives each of them a quiet, personal point of reference with which to help navigate the storm. There is only one chapter, exactly in the center of the book, which is told from Ben’s perspective. In that chapter, a single stream-of-consciousness thought bubble, Ben emotes: … waiting for my Tilly to come home waiting in the music because you are beautiful inside we are all waiting in the music because you are beautiful inside. I really think that is the moral and emotional heart of the book.
Amy: In your interview with Kevin Peter of www.moterwriter.com, you say, “If the reader can see the writer, then something is lost.” And, yet, The Lion Trees is infused with many opinions you seem to share (as referenced in the Kevin Peter interview). How do you stay true to your characters’ viewpoints while allowing your own perspectives to show?
Owen Thomas: All art is ultimately an expression of the artist. The same is true with creative writing. What hits the page is all coming from some aspect of the writer. Everything I write is reflecting, either directly or by some degree of contrast, some part of me and my experiences. But for fiction to be effective it needs to be written in a way that credibly presents a world that is broader than simply my opinions about things. People are not interested in my opinions about things. I’ve tested and retested that premise and it’s true: they simply don’t care. But people just might be interested in reading about characters who bear a fair resemblance to others they have encountered in the world and who cheat death and fall in love and do things to embarrass their parents. Now, if the reader sees me in the background using thinly-veiled characters to spoon-feed them my opinions, then I have failed as a writer of fiction and I should start writing newspaper editorials. So the act of writing fiction is not for me an exercise in proselytization. My effort, rather, is to bring to the page a dramatization of the world as I experience it or conceive of it. Since that dramatization is from me, my opinions will be well represented. But purveying my own opinion is not the point of the effort. The point of the effort is to entertain, to encourage reflection and maybe even to educate along the way. That takes well-drawn characters that feel authentic to the reader, which means I want to stay out of the frame as much as possible. I try to create characters that represent a slice of the world as I see it, not strictly as agents to carry forth my opinions.
Amy: Again, in the moterwriter interview you comment, “All people will do almost anything to reinforce what they already believe about themselves.” I’m not saying I disagree, but why is this such a strongly held conviction for you?
Owen Thomas: The full quote is: “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.” This is a strongly held conviction of mine simply because I have observed the phenomenon so frequently that it has the ring of truth to me. I have found this to be a very helpful principle in understanding other people and what motivates them. Whether we mean to or not, whether we work at it or not, we all have a sense of who we are. We each have an identity. That sense of self may be relatively static or fluid, but at any given time we know what we are to ourselves and it is instinctive for us to reinforce that understanding at every opportunity. If you believe that you are a person on whom fortune regularly smiles, then you will tend to go through life subconsciously creating situations and relationships in which that understanding about yourself is reinforced. If, on the other hand, you carry around the belief that you tend to get ripped off and taken advantage of by others, then you will be looking for ways to reinforce that identity and prove that you are right about how the world works and your place in it. I think this is a fundamental aspect of understanding the concept of our own existence. I exist. Who am I? I am me! This is the only thing in the world of which I am certain. So I will devote all of my energy proving to myself that I am who I believe myself to be. Dogs don’t have this problem.
Amy: You also tell Kevin Peter, “I think stories are much more satisfying if we have to work a little and participate to understand them.” I correlate this concept to listening to a piece of complex classical music, or trying to understand a work of Modern Art. For me, this requires both patience and a relaxing of preconceptions. Do you believe most modern readers have both the patience and ability to conjure the mental standpoint required to truly understand and appreciate The Lion Trees?
Owen Thomas: My hope is that this book works and can be appreciated on many levels. Different readers open a book with different objectives. While I am certainly not trying to be all things to all people, I do think there is room in good literature for a wide variety of appreciation, tastes and sophistication. If I have a reader who mostly seeks to be entertained, then The Lion Trees will succeed or fail on the basis of whether it is entertaining and not on whether the reader was able to appreciate the deeper symbology, literary allusions, and psychological subtext. On the other hand, for those looking for something more substantive and resonant then the measure of success is not whether the book made you laugh. I suppose that purely in terms of numbers, fewer people will have the patience or interest to scoop up the deeper meanings. As far as patience goes, this is a long book and probably more than the average reader is willing to undertake. I think for the most part I am selecting for readers that are not daunted by the number of pages to turn. By in large, people make it to the end of the book faster than they anticipated and find that the length was actually a benefit.
All of that said, my hope is that The Lion Trees successfully delivers on more than one note. That musical allusion is not an accident; the idea of symphonic storytelling really appeals to me. I want to write fiction made up of a lot of different perspectives and styles, each delivering a message or a feeling that not only works independently but also works in concert with other perspectives and styles, all bound together in a larger composite narrative that is ultimately greater than the sum of its parts. The other metaphor that works here is cooking; just substitute flavors for notes. Or weaving textiles, combining different colored threads into some larger, braided whole. Each of the character narratives in this book (Hollis, David, Tilly and Susan) are very different from the others – separate notes, flavors, colors – and for as compelling as these narratives may be individually, they are intended to complement each other as one chapter gives over to the next and to then come together in the end as part of larger literary experience. Part of that complexity includes a variety of depth of meaning and sophistication, so that the reader who really wants to dive can do so and the reader who is content to snorkel will still have plenty to see and will, I hope, have a great time.
Amy: You mention querying The Lion Trees in response to a question from Mr. Peter, what was that experience like and what made you go with self-publishing?
Owen Thomas: The agent querying experience has been incredibly fun and rewarding. Sorry, there I go writing fiction again. I should have said that the experience has been incredibly frustrating and ridiculous. Agents are busy people. They have so much new material coming over the transom and so little time to devote to representing current clients that there is an understandable premium placed on not wasting time on uncertain projects. My sense is that risk-taking is not particularly rewarded in sifting the slush pile. All agents have a portfolio of books that they have successfully sold to publishers and they seem to spend the great bulk of whatever energy they have left over from representing current clients in looking for authors who can replicate those past successes. They are looking for the next book that has the same vibe as one of their previous success stories. I certainly cannot fault that entirely rational mindset, but it does cut the odds of success for books that do not fall squarely within a marketable genre or that are, oh I don’t know, inordinately long.
Eventually I reached the point of realizing that I could query agents to represent The Lion Trees until I am eligible for Social Security with no guarantee of success. So I decided to go it alone. I count myself incredibly fortunate to be living in an age in which digital technology has so effectively democratized the means of production and distribution. Self-publishing is more difficult than the concept would suggest, but when you step back from the process long enough to put it in perspective and realize what you are doing, it is pretty amazing. Producing a book in print and digital form is actually the easiest part of the process. Marketing is the hardest, not only in terms of figuring out what in the hell you are doing and spending the money to do it correctly, but mostly for requiring that you pour oceans of time into getting your name out there. I don’t have oceans of time. I don’t have even small puddles of time. So that part has been particularly difficult. On the other hand, when I look back on the path I have travelled, I realize how much more I know now than when I started this journey. I have books and readers all over the world and fabulous interviewers like you to show for it. This is an exciting time to be a writer. I think we will see a trend over the next decade for most commercially successful writers to have a hybrid career that consists of some work they distribute through traditional publishers and some work that they reserve for self-publication. These two worlds are increasingly blending, even within the collections of individual writers.
Amy: Are you open to restructuring The Lion Trees in a sequel format versus one long novel, if that would bring your work to more readers?
Owen Thomas: There was a time when I seriously contemplated breaking the book up into smaller parts. One idea was to rewrite it into a trilogy. Another idea was to divide it up by character: The Book of Hollis; The Book of David; The Book of Tilly. But separate books would have required untangling the chapters, and sequels hacked out of a larger work in order to solve a length problem just struck me as a bad idea. Ultimately, I concluded that neither of those ideas would work without doing unacceptable violence to the story. The Lion Trees was written as one, interwoven narrative tapestry and, commercially viable or not, needs to be experienced as such.
Amy: Do you have the essence of a new story tumbling in your mind right now?
Owen Thomas: Oh, but of course! More than an essence. I am about halfway through the first draft of a new novel that I am hoping to have out by the late Fall or early Winter of next year. Lined up behind that book is “the essence,” as you put it, of the next book, for which I am in the process of assembling themes, plot ideas and titles. I am rarely at a loss for things to write or develop. What I really lack is the time. I need someone to take over the lawyering gig so can focus on writing. No one really seems to want to do that so I am investing heavily in cloning technology. Crazy, I know, but it is either that or start working some science fiction with psychological subplots into my legal briefs. Judges tend to frown on that sort of thing.