The Story behind the Story: Treesitting in Yggdrasil

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Few are the books we read in adulthood that change the way we see the world. The Overstory, by Richard Powers, is such a book for me, and The Overstory is all about trees.

You cannot be a person who enjoys the outdoors without having a sturdy personal affection for trees. But this novel made me feel as if I’d never really seen a tree before, much the way that Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings made me feel as if I’d never really seen a flower.

Employing a rotating POV, The Overstory takes a look at the lives of many characters, each of whom have a connection to a particular tree–all of whom are deeply and intimately connected to each other, whether they know it or not, much the way trees and their symbionts are connected. The novel is set at a time of unprecedented destruction of the natural world–a time when the whole of humanity’s salvation lies with forests, even as we continue clear cutting. Which is to say, now.

Many of the characters in Powers’s novel are based on real-life activists, including those who resisted the clear-cutting of Oregon’s Warner Creek in the 90s, occupying the land there under the banner of Free Cascadia, and those who, frustrated with government inaction (and, in some cases, outright collusion with corporate interests), set fire to nearly $40 million in private property across the West.

Which to say, the same people I wrote about in Hot Season.

In my debut novel, the character Dyson Lathe is based a real person, Bill Rodgers, who was a member of a group of radical environmental activists known as The Family. I knew Bill, and after his death in FBI custody, I knew I had to write about him.

Apparently, upon hearing his story and those of others like him, so did American literary heavyweight Richard Powers, whom Margaret Atwood has likened to Herman Mellville in terms of his scope and ambition; Powers won the 2006 National Book Award for his novel The Echo Maker, which the WaPo calls “a neuro-cosmological adventure.” The Overstory could be called the same, but in a way that foregrounds the natural world–in particular, trees, and our relationship to them.

I purchased a copy of The Overstory in hard cover this summer, never having heard of the book, on the recommendation of a bookseller in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Moral of the story: Always ask for recommendations from booksellers.) Around the same time, my husband happened upon a copy of A. S. Byatt’s Ragnarok: The End of the Gods in a secondhand store. (I’m a huge fan of Byatt, so I was stoked.)

I wound up reading these two books at the same time–Powers’s epic novel about the mystery, majesty, and central role of trees in the story of life on Earth, and the extreme danger to our kind in continuing to destroy them, and Byatt’s slim retelling of the Norse mythological cycle that spells out how the world will end, the result of disastrous overconfidence on the part of the gods. The two felt connected in more ways than one.

In the latter, I found an extraordinary description of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, upon which all of life depends. Which got me thinking: What if the ancient Norse were right? What if the world as we know it is utterly and completely dependent upon trees? The archetype of the tree in general, and living individuals in particular?

Mashing up these two inspiring works of art, I created my own, a flash fiction piece entitled “Treesitting in Yggdrasil.” In it, a young man experiencing a “so-called mental break” has stumbled upon the World Tree, Yggdrasil–a stunning behemoth of a tree, so immense that fish circulate amongst the pools between its immense limbs and a goat gambols up and down its mossy trunk.

The tree’s location isn’t always clear–there are places where it appears to be a Doug fir, others where it could only be a banyan, still others where it’s clearly a kapok, one of the titans of the Amazon. But in every place where it might be located, it is (you guessed it) in the direct path of a coming clear cut. What choice does our hero have but to take up residence in it, and resist?

This month, I’m sharing this story with my Patreon subscribers. If you’d like to receive a copy in your inbox, become one of them by the end of the month, and support my voice and vision in the world.

“When is the best time to plant a tree? Thirty years ago. When is the second-best time to plant a tree? Now.”

–Richard Powers, The Overstory

Original Fiction: The Hunger from the Deep

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I ducked into Hutson Alley, my heart pounding in my chest—not because of the caterwauling of fire trucks, though their sirens filled the city streets, and not because I feared the citizenry would soon run to riot, though they stood on the sidewalk in nervous knots, clutching their handheld devices.

No, I ducked into the alley, my heart pounding in my chest, because I had been there at the waterfront when that thing had arisen up out of Charleston Harbor. I was among those lovers and holiday makers gathered there on the promenade, when what had at first appeared an especially active pod of porpoise had revealed itself as single, sinister wave, rippling darkly toward us through the waters.

A gasp of shock rose up from the crowd. But only I did fully apprehend the ominous nature of that black wave streaming toward us in the burning moonlight, and only I ran. Such fear had seized me, such animal terror, that I ran as far from the waterline as my legs could take me—which, owing to my love of a good meal, and general aversion to physical exertion of any type, turned out to be a mile or so away, to this alley just off King.

I do not flatter myself a man of courage, but those of my acquaintance might note my erudition. I am, at the least, in the possession of various advanced degrees, a great deal of debt, and one underpaid adjunct teaching position in the sciences. Though the college where I am employed has thus far proven deaf to my entreaties for advancement, they have acceded to my demands for a subscription to The Journal of Environmental Sciences. Which was how I came come to learn of a recent discovery in the Gulf of Mexico with some bearing on that cursed black wave I’d seen streaming toward the Holy City.

Read the rest of the story on my Patreon page–and if you enjoy it, consider becoming a sponsor!  

Breaking Through with Your Final Draft

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There are a lot of online classes for writing fiction. Many of the best–or most popular, at least–are aimed at new writers. Final Draft, my online writing class for LitReactor, starting May 22, has a different target audience: writers who’ve honed their craft, worked hard, and perhaps even put in their ten thousand hours, but have yet to break through with their first book deal.

MFA-havers, MFA refugees, or MFA avoiders. Those who’ve dedicated so much time to what is beginning to feel like a fruitless pursuit that they’ve begun to question their life choices. Those whose friends and family have been questioning those life choices for years.

Those who really are this close to landing their first major publication.

I created this class because I’ve been that writer, and I know how hard it can be, to feel stuck in this limbo between apprenticeship and authorship.

I’ve also been the person on the other side of the slush pile, as a reader for journals like Tin House and Alligator Juniper, the director of the Doug Fir Fiction Award, and, most recently, a member of the editorial committee for Forest Avenue Press.

I make my living (aside from my writing) as a freelance editor and book coach. So I know that most of the writers who think they’re ready to publish really are not.

But some really are. And all those writers really need are some solid strategies, industry knowledge, and detailed editorial feedback on their first ten pages, through multiple drafts, to make it happen.

So that’s exactly what I’m offering with Final Draft, which one former student called, “a finishing school for writers distilled into just four weeks.”

Here are some other things students have said about the class:

“She covered not just how to take a so-so manuscript and sharpen it up into a more professional product, but also how to approach the publishing scene once you have that finished manuscript in hand, be it short story or novel-length work. Lessons consisted of more than just common sense tips, they contained truly actionable ideas to apply to any piece of fiction writing. I came into the class with what I thought was a pretty decent piece of writing, and it was completely transformed.”

—Andrea (TheScrivener)

“I really enjoyed Final Draft. Susan had insight into taking my novel’s opening to the next level. Although I had received feedback on my opening in the past, Susan was able to identify what I needed to connect with readers.”
—Heidi Timmons

Call me a fiction evangelist, a champion of the underdog. Call me the coach who knows you can win.

Call me crazy, but if you’ve put the time in with this craft and you’ve got something to say, I believe there’s a place for you in publishing.

>More information on Final Draft, a four-week online class, beginning May 22, at LitReactor.

The Story Behind the Story: To the Fire

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Friends, I’ve been sitting on this one. Until I had the space to really talk about it–the first fiction I have written about having had cancer.

The story is called “To the Fire,” and it’s featured in the current issue of High Desert Journal, alongside work from Rick Bass and Rachel Toor, two authors I admire. I also had the pleasure of being edited by Laura Pritchett, author of Blue Hour, a novel-in-stories set in Colorado that I absolutely loved.

This publication marks the second story from my collection-in-progress, Dream Studies, to have found a home. The first was “The Mind-Body Problem,” published in Forest Avenue Press’s City of Weird anthology. And just as City of Weird was the perfect home for that story, High Desert Journal was the perfect home for this one.

Readers of my novel, Hot Season, will recognize the town where this story is set: Prescott (aka, Crest Top), Arizona, where I lived for fourteen years. The protagonist is a woman who has been diagnosed with an unnamed cancer that will require a full hysterectomy, eliminating her chance to have biological children.

I had the same surgery for the same reason nearly three years ago and received a clean bill of health after surgery; there was no grueling course of treatment and no recurrence. I was lucky, and I know it, and for that reason, I have not spoken much about the experience–there are so many who have gone through so much worse.

But that does not change the fact that I found myself staring down the barrel of my own mortality at thirty-eight–considerably earlier than virtually anyone expects to. Certainly earlier than I expected to. And in those days between diagnosis and surgery, I was struck by the sensation of not knowing my own story. What if the story of my life turned, “at the last moment, laughably tragic”?

The protagonist of “To the Fire” is a poet, and poetry proved a touchstone for the experience again and again. Like me at thirty-eight, her ambitions as a writer are largely unfulfilled, leading her to imagine her life as being, potentially, “a fragment, such as we were given by Sappho: So we must learn in a world made as this one / a human being can never attain their greatest desire…”

As a writer of fiction, feeling like my own story was so completely and utterly out of my hands was sobering. What if I “had no choice but to break my husband’s heart, my parents”? What could possibly redeem such a narrative? What kind of legacy would I be able to leave behind?

These are surely the same questions asked by anyone who finds themselves possibly dying young. And yet I had ever read an account in fiction of a protagonist in this situation, exploring this territory I’d somehow wandered into. So after the storm had passed, so to speak, I knew I had to write it.

I hope you enjoy reading “To the Fire.” And if you’ve found yourself in the midst of such a passage, I hope this story helps you to make sense of it, as writing it did for me.

More than anything, I hope it helps you to feel the importance of your own story, and the majesty of your own life.