Courtney Miller Santo has dual degrees in Journalism and Russian Studies at Washington and Lee University. She teaches creative writing at the University of Memphis. Her debut novel THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE was published by William Morrow. Visit her here.
NAW- Tell us about your book, The Roots of the Olive Tree. How did you get the idea for it? How long did you take to write it?
The idea comes from my own family. When I had my daughter, she became the fifth generation and it became very important to me to have a photograph with all five of the women in my life. We drove the twelve hours down to Corning, California where my mother’s family had grown up and I introduced my daughter to her great-great grandmother, Winnie White. Watching Winnie hold Sofia, I knew that I’d write about that relationship and all the ones in between. For the book, I expanded it to six generations, which allowed me to explore more deeply the issues associated with aging. Winnie lived to be 104, dying the October after the book came out.
NAW- How did you decide the title? Is it inspired from your own life?
I’m terrible at titles, it was actually suggested by my husband, who was inspired by the content of the book and the way I kept talking about my own family tree. Corning, which I used as a basis for Kidron is the olive capital of the United States. The city was founded on this idea that settlers could live in a small acreage of olive trees and the harvest of the fruit would pay for their mortgage and other expenses. So, there exists in the town; these neighbourhoods in the middle of olive groves of hundred year old trees.
NAW- The book is marked by an absence of male characters and focuses on women instead. Was this a deliberate choice?
It was a deliberate choice. Too many books about women become about their relationships with men. I was most interested in exploring these women’s relationships with each other. I wanted the men to feel incidental to the story. For me, what I learned while writing this book is that one of the ways to get to know the women in your life outside of their titles (Mom, Grandma, Aunt, Sister) is to talk to their mother. In my case, I came to a much stronger understanding of my own mother by talking with my grandmother and I learned who my grandmother was by talking with her mother. This is what the book tries to do—to give the reader five different viewpoints on each of the women so that by the end there exists a complete picture of who Anna was and is.
NAW- Tell us about the character of Anna. How did you develop the character?
Anna is based on my great-grandmother Winnie White. She was the most stubborn and the most wonderful woman I’d ever met. I wanted to get that part of her on the page and to let her speak as the matriarch of these women. Once I started writing her, I found that she kept talking to me and is still talking to me about her life. I knew that it was important that people see these women not as old, but as women. In truth, my great-grandmother could still touch her toes at a hundred and was in perfect health until very close to the end of her life. The idea of her being a superager is based on how capable she remained through much of her life.
NAW- Tell us about your other works.
THREE STORY HOUSE, which tells the story of three cousins working to save themselves and a family house in Memphis just came out in August. It was such fun to write and Anna makes an appearance in the book because one of the cousins is a kin to Bets. The women have all reached a point in their life where they realize that they aren’t going to achieve the thing they wanted most and so they need to make decisions about what comes next. The house they try to save is a Spite House, which is to say that it was built out of hate or anger and not necessarily to live in.
NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?
I’m a busy soccer mom! I shuttle my two children from one field to the other and I almost always have a book with me to read or papers to grade because I also teach at the University of Memphis. I love taking our retired racing greyhound on long walks and also traveling.
NAW- Please name your favourite writers. Are there any who you’d like to name as an inspiration?
My inspiration comes from the books I read as a child—anything by L.M. Montgomery or Laura Ingles Wilder or Louisa May Alcott and also John Steinbeck, who understands landscape so well and John Irving who gets the complications of family as well as Alice Munro who does all of those things I mentioned and does it in a way that communicates the whole of a woman’s life.
NAW-What are you currently reading?
After a summer of fun reading—I loved, loved, loved Laura Lipmann’s After I’m Gone and Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred Year House, I’m reading for class. I just finished Pride and Prejudice, The Red Pony, Antigone and Life Studies. And now I’ve stared into the Intuitionist and a collection of Alice Munro stories.
NAW- What will you be working on next?
The next book really takes up the tradition of a family saga as exemplified by The Thornbirds, or a Thousand Acres, but tackles the idea of what happens when you grow up in a house where the business is throwing weddings for other people. How does that change your idea of love, of romance and of course they’ll be plenty of family secrets.