Sarah Dunster on her debut novel Lightning Tree

Sarah Dunster talks about her YA historical fiction novel Lightning Tree, which was recently published by Cedar Fort.

AMV readers may be familiar with Sarah Dunster as a frequent comment here or as a contributor of poetry to our sister blog Wilderness Interface Zone and the Peculiar Pages anthology Fire in the Pasture. It turns out that Sarah also writes prose fiction. Her debut novel Lightning Tree has been recently published by Cedar Fort. Upon hearing this news, I asked for an author interview, which she was willing to grant. Here it is:

First off, can tell us briefly about what Lightning Tree is about?

Lightning Tree is a work of historical fiction that takes place in 1858 just after the end of the Utah War and exactly a year after the Mountain Meadows Massacre. It follows the journey of Magdalena Chabert, a fifteen-year-old French-Italian immigrant girl who loses her parents while crossing the prairie and is taken in by an American family who settles in Provo. The story begins when she makes a startling discovery that leads her to doubt the honesty and good intentions of her foster family. She has terrible nightmares that seem like they might be coming true. The journey is about Maggie figuring out whom to trust, and who her family really is.

How did you decide to make the family a French-Italian family?

The narratives of those early immigrant converts have always fascinated me. What is it like to join a new faith, and then end up leaving not only religion, family and loved ones, but also your culture, your country, your language, and come to mix in a predominantly white, English-Speaking, New-England-centric community? As I studied the saints who immigrated from Italy, I came upon this fascinating group of people, living high in the Turin Valleys in northern Italy: the Waldensians. They were the first Italian converts, but they weren’t exactly Italian, they were French refugees who moved to Italy in order to be able to practice their religion of choice, which was basically an early version of Christianity — without a lot of the doctrines and rituals that the Catholic church imposed. Brigham Young heard of these saints and what they had suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church and felt that they might be a natural and easy mesh into the LDS gospel. Lorenzo Snow and Thomas B. Stenhouse were the missionaries who converted that first handful of Waldensian, or Valdois families. They traveled across the ocean and crossed the prairie in about 1854.

This is your first novel that has been published. What was the writing process like for you? What about the road to publication?

This is the first novel I have published, but the third that I have finished and submitted. My breakthrough with this story was some very timely and incisive feedback I received from the acquisitions editor of one of the smaller LDS publishers (now no longer in business). I took her suggestions and made a complete revision. It made my story much stronger, and Cedar Fort seemed to like it. Covenant also made some noises, but I decided that between the two of those, Cedar Fort was a more natural fit for my book. Publishing has been a much more emotional, stressful process than I thought it would be. But also very exciting, and I have met some wonderful people in the process.

Lightning Tree is a work of historical fiction even though its’ characters are solidly YA. What kind of research did do to write the novel? Do you have any tips or good sources for other LDS writers who might want to set stories in this time period of Mormon history?

The funny thing about this book is everything seemed to fall together perfectly, like it was supposed to be written. I did exhaustive research on the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the Utah War, using the texts that most people have read on those subjects. But I also went and got copies of diaries from some of the Waldensian families, I scoured the Provo Library for ward histories with entries during the years I depicted, and a firsthand account by the daughter of bishop Aaron Johnson (bishop of Springville at the time, and a very relevant figure in the history I was studying) fell miraculously into my hands just as I was rewriting the part of my story that deals with the takeover of Provo by Judge Cradlebaugh and General Johnston’s troops. It was like it was meant to be… a firsthand account from someone who actually rode up into town and saw the soldiers surrounding the seminary building, saw the celebrations when the soldiers finally left. (And because that is historical fact, I don’t consider it a spoiler to say that!)

Okay, I gotta ask. Why is the novel titled Lightning Tree?

It has reference to a story that is told to Maggie, the main character, to illustrate the importance of relying on community as family in the wilderness. If readers come away with just one message, I’d like it to be that one — the importance of community.

Who did the cover? It’s quite (pun, perhaps intended) striking.

It is, isn’t it? The brilliant graphic artists and designers at Cedar Fort are fully responsible for this one, although they did go off a few suggestions/ideas I had as a starting point. I was completely stunned when I saw it the first time. I feel that Cedar Fort is very talented in this area, though… they have many very well designed and “striking” covers for their books.

What works of Mormon art are you finding interesting or inspiring at the moment?

Currently I am reading Fire in the Pasture, and not just because a few of my poems are in it. I have been so moved by some of these poems. If you’re looking for Mormon lit that gets at the meat of some of the insecurities and issues and passions inherent to our culture and gospel, you need to read these poems. In addition, I just read Letters in the Jade Dragon Box by Gail Sears. That one moved me, and startled me, not only with the quality of writing but also in the uniqueness of its subject matter.

What about non-Mormon works?

I love nature writing, and lately I’ve been turning back to that. My favorite nature writers are David Quammen and Oliver Sacks, and also Robert Michael Pyle. I also enjoy Barbara Kingsolver’s fiction. Her book, Prodigal Summer, is one of my favorites. It has the same sort of calmness and wide-eyed “observant-ness” that you find in nature writing, and she somehow winds it into a story that moves.

Finally, what are the next creative projects you are going to be working on now that your debut novel is coming out?

Since being accepted by Cedar Fort I have finished my fantasy novel, which I am currently trying to find a place for. And I have started another story — a contemporary narrative fiction that I have wanted to get going on for a while that has a very special place in my heart.

Thanks, Sarah!

10 thoughts on “Sarah Dunster on her debut novel Lightning Tree”

  1. Oh, I love Oliver Sacks, although I’d never thought of him as a nature writer before (except maybe for Cycad Island).

  2. And Katya, you’re right. Sacks is more I guess you’d say science writing? Than natute writing. I just tend to categorize Quammen and Sacks together because they remind me of each other.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s