This interview by Brandi Megan Granett first appeared in the Huffington Post on August 30, 2016
Ella Joy Olsen’s debut novel, Root, Petal, Thorn, explores how the history of a home and its many inhabitants overlap and reach through time to touch the heart of its current resident at a time in her life where she needs all the support she can get. You will find yourself captivated by how the different story lines throughout time weave together to the present day.
How does a woman with the middle name Joy write this beautiful line: “Understand there is a little sad in every story?” How did you come to this assessment? Do you agree with this point of view?
I started writing Root, Petal, Thorn shortly after my sister died in a boating accident (she was overcome by Carbon Monoxide while swimming). One day she was fine and the next day she was gone. It was unfathomable. After her death, the one thing that comforted me, that let me know joy would return to my life, was realizing everyone carries a quiet sadness, something they may or may not disclose. In grief, you are never alone.
As I wrote the stories of the five women who inhabit the hundred-year-old bungalow on Downington Avenue, I realized I gave each of them this, a secret grief, or a little sad in their story. As writers, we can label it “conflict” intended to keep the narrative active, but I prefer to think of it as the truth.
In the novel, this conflict comes to my characters in many forms: from sending a child to war (like Eris), coping with a mental illness (like Lainey), or surviving the loss of a husband (like Ivy). But one thing all the women share - that we all share - is given enough time and love, joy can also be part of every story.
I’m pretty sure that Bitsy’s story is my favorite; how did you decide which characters to weave in and which to follow more strongly?
The modern day character, Ivy, is the one who weaves the stories of the four other women together. She’s the one searching for clues from past occupants and researching the house. I really wanted her to meet a one of the historic characters face-to-face, to hear the story of the house told in-person. So I gave her Bitsy. I’ve always wished someone who lived in my house decades ago would visit and tell me how things were, back in the day.
I’m so glad you like Bitsy. She’s also one of my favorites! In the novel, Bitsy is a child who lives in the home during The Great Depression. It nearly breaks her to move away, but her father loses his job and the family is unable to pay the mortgage. Bitsy is an old woman when she finally meets Ivy. Together they search for an antique diary she kept as a child. Those youthful memories paint a vivid and, at times, heart-wrenching picture of Bitsy’s past.
Root, Petal, Thorn is also a love story to a home. What makes a house a home in your case? How is that reflected in this novel?
I probably shouldn’t say something cliché like, “Home is Where the Heart Is.” But actually it’s true. Not everyone lives in the same home for decades, not everyone owns their own home. Some folks have the white picket fence, or a mansion, or a downtown apartment. These places can all be homes, but they are not the definition of home.
Home, to me, means sanctuary. It should be a place where you can be your truest self. Maybe that means eating ice cream out of the container and spending the day in a bathrobe. Or maybe that means safety from the overwhelming world, from mean people, and uncertain situations. Home in this sense is not a given, but it’s something we all strive for. No matter the appearance of the dwelling, we all want a place we can call home.
In Root, Petal, Thorn each of the women finds a true home in the little brick bungalow. They are changed by the years lived within the walls, and in turn, the home is altered by each of them.
What did you learn about writing from the process of creating Root, Petal, Thorn?
If I answered this question completely this interview would fill the pages of an encyclopedia. How about I go for a best and worst?
Best: Fellow authors are the best “co-workers” I’ve ever had. They are sponsoring, irreverent, smart, kind, and funny. And they totally understand the pleasure and pain of writing for a living.
Worst: I’m not writing for a living. Meaning most authors will never make enough money to give up their day job. Many non-writer friends are aghast to learn I’m not sleeping under a quilt stitched of hundred dollar bills. I liken it being in a garage band. One or two of those bands will become the Beatles, but most will continue to play in the garage. A writer must love the process to persevere.