One of last year’s memorable reads was Kaaron Warren’s Walking the Tree. Perhaps because it is a much different book from Slights, but it seems to me that there wasn’t as much buzz around this book. What I like most about Kaaron’s work is how versatile it is. Kaaron’s short fiction collection, Through Splintered Walls gives us a taste of how visceral and discomforting (in a good way) her work is, but her full-on collection entitled Dead Sea Fruit (Ticonderoga Publications) gives the reader a broader view of the range and the reach of Kaaron’s voice. If you’re a lover of short dark fiction, I would definitely recommend either of these collections.
But back to Walking the Tree–which is, I admit, a strong contender for my favorite among Kaaron Warren’s works. Before the blog went on it’s hiatus, I contacted Kaaron and asked her for an interview where we talked about Walking the Tree, the process she went through in writing it and things in the works. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.
Walking the Tree is a much different novel from Slights. I really liked this difference and I loved the world of the Tree as well as your beautifully drawn characters. Would you like to share a bit about the inspiration for the world of the Tree?
The original idea came from a number of different sources. Most directly, I was watching a documentary about ancient objects and was struck with the thought that these things sit there, well beyond human understanding, interpretation and memory. That they exist long after their original meaning is lost. In the end, there is a disconnect between the object and its origin.
I thought that stories are this way as well; they are told and re-told, changed, adapted, edited and censored.
The image of the island came to me fully formed, with the giant, ancient Tree at its centre and people clustered in groups around it. I saw a woman walking the tree, although at that stage I didn’t know why.
I think this image came to me from some of those other sources, most noticeably my early (from the age of eight) obsession with the Redwoods of California, and my adoration for the Enid Blyton novels about the Faraway Tree.
I discovered the Redwoods in a library book. I can actually remember this moment of discovery; remember flipping open the book, then sitting down on the carpet to read the whole thing because I was so entranced by these trees, so huge and ancient. I don’t know how many times I borrowed the book; dozens. We visited Muir Woods a couple of years ago. I talk about it here.
I loved the Faraway Tree because I loved the way each land was different. Even as a child, I knew this was mostly because of the environment. That the topsy turvy people, the sweet-eating people, the magical people; all were products of their environment, their culture, their upbringing. We are all formed to a large extent by how and where we are born. We do change, of course, those changes most often wrought by a chance of place and by new experiences.
I loved that in every land, the people considered themselves the norm. Because we all think we are the ordinary ones, don’t we?
When I was reading Walking the Tree I had to think of a nomadic tribe in the South of the Philippines. I think it’s the culture of the book that makes it feel that way. I found myself wondering if you’d modeled the culture of the book on a tribal culture? How important was it to you to include the intricacies of clan and familial life and relationships on the page?
I had the thought of a partly nomadic tribal culture, inspired by those nomadic cultures that know their land and use it accordingly. Using what is provided in inventive ways, adapting to the environment, changing places when the weather calls for it. My central idea was to explore the differences that the environment and our upbringing can make, and how each of us live the ‘ordinary’ life.
In that, the details and the intricacies were vital. I kept a record of some small things, to keep it clear in my mind. In particular, it was information such as whether they had shade or not, how much sand there was between the tree and the water, what the nature of the sand was, what grew on the tree, etc. These things, to me, all helped to develop the differences. It was also what they used for pain killers, skin care and contraception, what words they used for different things (skerrick is one word I tried to use in a number of the communities, as a marker, I guess).
I looked at what they called their parents, at how they mythologised spiders, the Tree and the possible fire within the tree.
I looked at what they ate off (clay or wood), and what they were famous for (jasmine oil, a recipe for crumbed fish, the use of moss as a ‘morning after’ pill).
I tried to take each community on its own merits, so I’m really happy to hear you felt I did this well. To me, it was vital part of the novel. Ensuring that all of the communities were presented as they were, with little judgement, so that the choices they made were right for them. There are some communities (such as Douglas, where the men are unpleasant in the extreme) where I struggled somewhat, and because I was writing Point of View of Lillah, I presented them as frightening. At the same time, I hope I captured the idea that they themselves felt they were living life as it should be lived, and even the women in their community supported this.
The intricacies of naming plants (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species) was part of how I formed the novel, also. It’s a very structured way of keeping track of plants, which doesn’t necessarily match with the experience of the people in Walking the Tree, but it seemed to make sense in the context of how I wanted to write this story. I named the characters after plants of many kinds, and tried to keep the idea that although they all stemmed from the same place, they had evolved differently.
I was quite interested in the process you went through in writing Walking the Tree and what you wrote above does show in the novel itself because each tribe is distinctly its own in a very natural way.
I can’t find it right now, but there’s this line in the novel, which I think is a true thing but which people are inclined to forget. It’s that line about how meeting other clans/people changes the way you see them so you can no longer see them as the enemy. I was wondering if writing this novel has changed you in any way or if it’s helped to solidify these views that we see coming out in the story?
Is this the part you mean? This is Lillah, talking to a mother who is reluctant to send her child away to school. Lillah says, “He’ll learn nothing here.” As the words came out, she realized they were terribly harsh. “I’m sorry. But school is so vast. Physically, it gives them the basis to be strong adults. And he would never learn all he will learn about the Orders of The Tree, and our history, sitting here protected by you. It’s one of the things which keeps us peaceful, the understanding of the children of other cultures. It is a leap of faith to send our children out. We understand that. A sacrifice of those years with your child for the good of Botanica. So that children will grow up knowing people everywhere, and will be less inclined to plan hurt against people they have known.”
I was changed in the process of writing the story, but that was partly a reaction to the world I was living in at the time. Being far from family and old friends brings a sense of isolation, but the chance to meet new people, to start with a new slate, is invigorating and exciting. So I was in a very open state of mind in the writing of it.
It did solidify my thinking. I’ve always believed that when we know something, we don’t hate it shallowly. Of course there is always ‘familiarity breeds contempt’, and we’ve probably all experienced that! But I’m talking about the moments in our lives when we realise the person we are talking to thinks differently, and that it doesn’t matter.
My idealism tells me that if we know each other, we won’t hate each other.
My realism tells me this isn’t true. I want to believe the former, though, and I want that to guide me in the way I deal with people and the way I talk to my children.
Of the characters in Walking the Tree, who do you feel closest to? Who was the most challenging character to write and who was the easiest?
I felt the closest to Lillah, because she was the one I spent the most time with, and most of what we see is through her eyes. So it’s her understanding of the world, her loves and hurts and ambitions that we see. I like her strength and her sense of humour, but she is also flawed, as the best people are. I thought a lot about her friendships, her lovemaking, her decisions, because the things she did impacted on all that occurs in the novel. I felt almost as if I lived her life with her, at times, and I tried to bring a physicality to some of her experiences that would bring her to life for the reader as well as for me.
The most challenging was possibly Melia. This is someone who is a best friend, yet is not the ‘loyal’ kind of best friend we might expect. I wanted her to act as Devil’s advocate at times, being the sort of person who questions more than ordinary, and who is cynical about day to day choices. Most of us go through life not questioning these things until we leave and see things from another angle.
Thea was also hard in that I could put a lot of anger on her. The frustrations and fury focus on her to an extent.
Even though I felt sorry for her at times, I couldn’t let her off easy. With her, I explored the nature of regret, of guilt, of judgement.
This is tricky! The minor characters were all quite easy, I guess, because they come and go often.
Morace was easier than some of the others because he is a simpler character, I guess. Free in his thinking, unstilted.
Which scene was the hardest for you to write? Would you like to talk about the challenges of that scene and what helped you to work through the difficulty?
There wasn’t one scene, but one ongoing thread I found the most difficult. The idea that Lillah goes against all she knows in order to protect Morace was something I had to work at. It had to make sense from an emotional point of view, and from a point of character logic. I didn’t want it to happen without justification. So I worked in a number of scenes to justify her behaviour. Some moments when she rebels against unquestioned rules. Some moments when she allows emotion to help her make a decision. And some times when she questions the standards of her society, especially as she learns that each society has a different understand of ostensibly the same facts.
If someone wanted you to come up with a cast of characters for a Film version of Walking the Tree, who would play your major characters and why?
I’d absolutely love to see Walking the Tree as a movie, or even a mini-series. All the elements for a mini-series are there; lots of characters, the opportunity for new communities each episode, and lots of sex and death.
I’d want Fijian actors to play the roles, so I spoke to Anurag Subramani, a novelist, film-maker and lecturer
at the University of the South Pacific. He said, For the role of that young male character, I would recommend a young Fijian
man (22-23 years old) who I am lucky to be working with. His name is Filipe Vuli and what’s great about him is that he has
acting training and the kind of discipline and dedication one is looking for in people one works with. I think his discipline
comes from living and training in Hollywood for several years. He’s also good looking and has the actors’ voice. I’ve also
been working mainly with the same group of actors for my feature and short films. There is a girl by the name of Terry Aull
who is very good. She’s done some modelling and ads with Digicel. She is the lead in “Detour” as well as a short film I made
called “Method Acting”. The following is the Youtube link to the film. You will be able to see both Terry and Filpe in the film:
I totally agree with Anurag’s suggestions!
I’m not sure if you’ve read my novel Mistification, but I know who I want to star in that movie. Dynamo, the magician. He’s a perfect Marvo.
For my other novel, Slights, I’m keen on Radha Mitchell, the Australian actress, palying the lead role.
Who are the writers you think readers should be reading more of and why?
Nathan Ballingrud, because he can demonstrate the dark side of human nature in chilling and heart-breaking ways.
David Grann, non fiction. I love his subjects and I love the way he writes about them.
What’s in the works of Kaaron Warren? Do you have any new books coming out soon? Would you like to share a bit about that?
My latest book is a reprint collection of stories, the ebook The Gate Theory from Cohesion Press. This pulls together five of the stories that to me epitomise pain and the way we deal with it in our lives.
Short stories coming up in print
“The Bridge of Sighs” in Ellen Datlow’s Fearful Symmetries
“Death’s Door Café” in Michael Kelly’s Shadows and Tall Trees
“The Optimist” in Anthony Cardno’s The Tortures of Anthony Cardno
“The Book of Climbing Lights” in Nate Pedersen’s The Starry Wisdom Library
“Blood is Blood” in Scott Harrison’s Twisted Histories
Where can we find you on the web?
@kaaronwarren on Twitter
Thanks to Kaaron Warren for taking the time to answer our questions. We hope that you enjoyed this interview as much as we did.