This interview originally posted on the Writers on Wednesday on August 31, 2016. Interviewer: author, Leslie Lindsay:
By Leslie Lindsay
What an amazing read! Five fascinating women. The same historic home. One hundred years. Interconnected stories of love, courage, and heartbreak.
When I first read this description of ROOT, PETAL, THORN (Kensington Publishing, August 30, 2016), I fell in love. The first home my husband and I owned was a two-story stucco built in 1920. The front was flanked with a charming three-season porch, a maple tree, oodles of peonies, hydrangeas, and more charm inside: wood floors throughout, fireplace, claw foot tub, and small built-ins. I often wondered what families had inhabited the house before us. Obviously, we knew who we purchased from: a childless artist couple, their impressive art lining the plaster walls. Once, we met a little girl dressed up as a fairy princess on Halloween, who rang our doorbell and boldly told us, “I was born at this house.” And we knew who built the house: a minister and his family. Apparently, it was on the grounds of the church, the church long gone, ironically.
And then ROOT, PETAL, THORN came along. Immediately, I knew I had to read it. Ella Joy Olsen writes beautifully, tracing the lives of Emmeline, Cora, Bitsy, Lainey, Eris, and Ivy through tumultuous times, from two World Wars (the first inhabitant of the house is Emmeline, 1913), the Great Depression, Korean war, Vietnam war, and ‘present-day.’ Set in Salt Lake City, Utah, ROOT, PETAL, THORN is different than the history of my Northfield, Minnesota home, but ultimately it’s about the permanence of place and the impermanence of people.
So grab your coffee, or bubbly late-summer beverage and join me with Ella Joy Olsen as she chats about her inspiration and the story behind ROOT, PETAL, THORN.
Leslie Lindsay: Stephen King tells us its bad form to ask a writer what inspired them to write a particular story; that it’s akin to asking what you ate for dinner last night or where your children were conceived. But I’m going to do it, anyway. What were your inspirations behind ROOT, PETAL, THORN? And feel free to tell us what you had for dinner, too.
Ella Joy Olsen: I actually love this question because you could say ROOT, PETAL, THORN is the book of my heart.I think most authors would agree the first book written lingers in the author’s mind the longest. That doesn’t mean it will be their best book (or even the first published) but it’s the one dreamed about well before the nitty-gritty process of putting words on paper. And so it was with me.
My inspiration came from two places. First, my home: I live in a hundred-year-old bungalow very similar to the one in the story. My husband and I have spent years remodeling, fixing things, making it ours, but as we worked we found crazy things: a trapdoor at the bottom of a closet leading to a tiny dirt-floor enclosure (where we discovered a single button-down shoe). We think it was the laundry chute that was boarded up when the basement was remodeled, but who knows? There were other odd discoveries, all of which I won’t list here, but many found their way into the book. I don’t know who left these items (or improvements) behind, or why, but I love to imagine.
The second inspiration: My across-the-street neighbor, George. He lived on my street for fifty years helping the neighborhood evolve, watching his children grow. He went from young man, to old man, to gone – all in the same house. When he died, I was newish to the neighborhood and had my own young children. I couldn’t imagine the passage of so much time under one roof. Now I’ve lived nearly twenty years in my home. I figured it was time to tell the story.
Regarding dinner, thanks for asking (giggle). Last night I grilled pizza and my husband and I shared a bottle of wine.Two of the three kids were home, which made it delightful!
L.L.: ROOT, PETAL, THORN is told from the perspective of five different women, their stories bound by a common ground: the house. But there’s more, too. It’s about being a woman in uncertain times, about history, and the bittersweet passage of time (we’ll get to that later), but I’m curious to know if there was a particular character who ‘revealed’ herself to you first? One you felt a particular kinship with, and if there was one that provided more of a challenge for you?
Ella Joy Olsen: For anyone who has already read the book this answer will be a surprise. Most readers think the modern day character, Ivy, is based on me. She’s the one researching and imaging the other women, after all. But she was actually a late addition. I’d written all of the other stories (in rough form) and handed them to a couple of beta readers who said they weren’t sure what the book was supposed to be – A short story compilation? A disjointed novel? I knew I needed a character to entwine the stories into a cohesive narrative. So I created Ivy (and now you know the meaning behind her twisty name). Once I wrote her, I realized how closely her story mirrored many of my own experiences, but not until she was fully written.
Emmeline came to me first. Probably because I’m such a fan of historical fiction and I love the history of my hometown. My great-grandma wrote several essays detailing events in her life. They are a treasure trove of family lore. I incorporated many details from her experiences into Emmeline’s story. Lainey was the hardest(more on that later).
L.L.: The house on Downington Avenue stands sentry to a world spanning 1913 through ‘present-day,’ roughly one-hundred years. It covers a lot of ground (the house and the story). But what I’m really getting at is the permanence of place and the impermanence of people; that structure stays, but people go. Can you talk to that, please?
Ella Joy Olsen: I love that you asked about this! Permanence of place and impermanence of people is at the heart of ROOT, PETAL, THORN. It is the very nature of home for all of us. Think about the time spent in one comfortable spot, the only place you can truly let it all hang out. Think about the money and careful detail incorporated into remodeling, painting, decorating – an expression of self. In the novel, the house on Downington Avenue is an anchor and an oasis for each of the women. But like the characters in the novel, no matter how much we adore our homes – at some point, for one reason or another – eventually we all must move on.
I want to add a few more thoughts (slightly off topic) in response to this question. Like many, I’m crazy about the typical historical sites like the Acropolis or the Empire State Building, places with a traceable past. But more often, I find myself considering the garret where we stayed in Paris rather than the Notre Dame cathedral. I like to ponder the less noteworthy places. Maybe it’s because I get to imagine the history of those locations rather than reading the facts. I seek out places or things that give me only a tiny glimpse of the past – forgotten barns surrounded by weeds, amusement parks which had their heyday decades earlier, historic houses with mismatched additions and rusted clothes lines, a crumbling grand hotel on the corner of a busy intersection. Who created these places? How did they evolve into their current state? What were the stories of the people who frequented them?
L.L.: And so, the passage of time. I tend to look back on memories, well…fondly. I still think of that old house in Minnesota and wonder who is living there now, and our very early beginnings as husband and wife. But there were hard times there, too. We were miles away from family, from the life we knew in Missouri, and I felt like my work at the time wasn’t my true calling. Are you the type of person who looks back on your life, or do you look forward to things with giddy anticipation, and does it really matter?
Ella Joy Olsen: Again a very telling question. Leslie, you’re super intuitive because this is currently a hot button at my house. My impulses are in opposition to each other on this point. I anticipate grieving over my college-bound son’s empty room (looking back) so much that on several occasions I’ve shopped for office furniture to fill the void (desperately looking forward). My husband insists I’m hiding my heartbreak with an unnecessary purchase, which is true. So I won’t turn my son’s room into my office because I ache for him to come home, but still, his echoing room…how can I bear it?
On that same point, I’ve already informed my husband we’re moving from my beloved bungalow (inspiration for Root, Petal, Thorn) just as soon as all the kids are in college. It would seem I lack sentimentality based on these hasty retreats, when I’m actually overwhelmed by it. So to answer your question, I must look forward with giddy anticipation to avoid being swallowed by the bittersweet passage of time.
L.L.: But part of my life wasn’t always so rosy. My mother, like your character, Lainey suffered from a myriad of mental health issues, among them, bipolar disorder. I have to applaud your accurate portrayal and sensitivity to this stigma. I can only imagine what it must have been like in the 1960s, when the character of Lainey inhabited the house. Can you share your research and why you chose this particular issue to highlight?
Ella Joy Olsen: Lainey was the last of the historic characters I explored. I could see her but I didn’t know her story.I’d already written characters intensely affected by world events and I wanted to write a character whose life was more affected by personal circumstance. Originally, Lainey was in an abusive relationship but I found I was spending too much time on her husband. I needed something different. Personally, I’ve had several bouts of depression and found an invisible illness so much more difficult to deal with than one where you can point to a wound and say, “See? This is why I feel yucky.” Through Lainey, I wanted to express the double edged sword of mental illness.
Regarding research, I read several non-fiction accounts, but most importantly, my sister-in-law suffers from bipolar and I’ve seen the effects on her life. She has a very supportive relationship with her daughter and she was nice enough to talk with me about some of the emotions, medications, and trials she’s experienced throughout her life. Thanks Linda!
L.L.: Still, ROOT, PETAL, THORN is about grief and the bittersweet connection to people, place, and time. Ivy is dealing with the recent accidental death of her husband, Eris is fraught with sending her son off to war, and Emmeline can’t decide who to marry, or why to marry…was this your intention all along, to create a sort of vignette of grief?
Ella Joy Olsen: I would say it wasn’t my original intention to write a vignette of grief, but I firmly believe in the sentiment expressed in the novel – the one Ivy uses to help her move beyond the death of her husband – that “everyone has a little sad in their story.” People seek out different reassurances when life throws lemons. Many turn to a higher power to explain the unfair things. I started writing this novel a couple of years after my sister died (she was overcome by carbon monoxide in a freak boating accident). Writing the stories of these five women was, in retrospect, part of my grieving process. Originally, I simply wanted to challenge myself to write a book – but ROOT, PETAL, THORN is what emerged.
My sister’s death is still a turning point in my life (and in the lives of my family), but over the years I’ve come to realize there are an awful lot of people out there, going about their business, harboring a secret grief. So, yes, there is a little sad in every story. Learning this certain truth made me a more empathetic person. Understanding it confirmed that despite heartache, joy returns and life is worth living.
L.L.: Switching gears a bit, what’s keeping you awake lately? What has your attention?
Ella Joy Olsen: Launching ROOT, PETAL, THORN has taken most of my attention and has at times kept me awake – which is good, because as I mentioned, my oldest moved away for college in the middle of August. For the first time in eighteen years he’s not shuffling up the stairs for breakfast before school. His absence would kill me (or keep me continually awake) if I thought on it for too long, so I’m forcing attention on book launch details! And there are a bunch of details.
L.L.: What are your must-read fall books?
Ella Joy Olsen: One of the best parts of being an author is mingling in a community of other authors. They understand the journey and are so generous with their help and encouragement! I have many new favorite authors (and friends)! I try to read several of their books each month so I can support my “co-workers” and so I can recommend their books widely. Truly, this is a huge perk of my job! There are tons of debuts I’m excited about but I don’t want to leave anyone out, so I’ll mention a couple of books that have been sitting on my nightstand that I fully intend to finish before Christmas: DEAD WAKE by Erik Larson and FURIOUSLY HAPPY by Jenny Lawson.
L.L.: What questions should I have asked, but may have forgotten?
Ella Joy Olsen: People always ask me if I’m writing another book. I’m in the thick of it, so I’ll reveal. The title is Where the Sweet Bird Sings and it will publish about this time next year. It’s a companion (not a sequel) to ROOT, PETAL, THORN and is told by Emmeline’s great-granddaughter.
Here’s the teaser: Though she has a loving husband, Emma Hazelton is adrift, struggling to rebuild her life after a tragedy. But one day, a simple question and an old black-and-white photograph prompt her to untangle the branches of her family tree, where she discovers a legacy of secrets. What connects us to one another? Is it shared history? Is it ancestry? Or is it love?
L.L.: Ella, it’s been a joy connecting with you and sharing ROOT, PETAL, THORN. I just loved it!
Ella Joy Olsen: Leslie, thank you so much for talking to me about my book. I love your interviews and feel honored to be among the fantastic authors you’ve featured!