Interview with Courtney Miller Santo, author of The Roots of the Olive Tree

Courtney Miller Santo is a writer of mainstream/literary fiction who has been published in the Mormon literary journals as well as nationally. Her debut novel was just published last month. You can find out more about Santo at her author blog.

I’ll be honest — I had never heard of you until you were published in Irreantum. Tell us a bit about your background as a writer (you worked as journalist, right?), including when you started writing fiction with Mormon characters/themes.

There’s no reason you should have heard of me unless you read the Charlottesville Daily Progress, where I worked as a reporter for a bit. I didn’t get serious about my writing until I went back to school to get my MFA. Although I’d always been a voracious reader, I hadn’t considered the parallels (or I should say potential for parallels) between certain communities of writers and Mormons. I read Ozick, Malamud, Singer, Roth and even Jennifer Weiner and I kept wondering what Mormons could learn from them about writing about the culture surrounding religion, if not the faith itself. This is not to draw comparisons between the religions, and the traditions, just to say their approach to being Jewish struck a chord in me. I’ve primarily integrated Mormonism into my short fiction. It’s present in the novel, but not in any overt way and none of the protagonists are Mormon. But anyone who has a passing familiarity with the Book of Mormon will recognize the importance of the olive tree and the large families.

I really loved your short story “Flight”. What was its genesis?

Thank you. That story grew out of an afternoon I spent wandering around Balboa Park in San Diego. I’d bought the tickets intending to attend a wedding, but the wedding got called off and so I spent the afternoon thinking about why relationships fail and ended up taking the wrong path. Instead of going to the botanical house, I ended up on the backside of one of the park buildings is a tree filled with dozens of hummingbird feeders. The day I stumbled upon it there were also dozens of birds feeding and I sat on the curb watching them and outlining the story that would become “Flight”.

One thing that struck me about “Flight” was that you actually engaged with modern technologies like blogging. As a writer of mainstream/literary fiction, what opportunities and difficulties do things like blogging, text messaging, social media, etc. create for writers?

I feel like I’m gambling. There are those that say don’t incorporate technology because it changes so rapidly and it dates your story, and then there are those who insist it’s here to stay and we ought to reference it. My preference is for Hemmingway’s advice to write simple, true sentences, which he worked out while looking at Cezanne paintings. Of course at the time, Cezanne was cutting edge. If you’re writing such sentences then it doesn’t matter if your characters blog or send letters. Of course, that’s what I’m always working at–writing those types of sentences.

Your debut novel The Roots of the Olive Tree was published last month by William Morrow. I’ll let readers click through to read the synopsis. What I’m curious about is the focus on genetics. Would you be willing to share how that aspect of the story developed?

Honestly? My interest in longevity can be traced back to the first time I watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and learned about the Holy Grail. I became fascinated by the idea of not only eternal life, but eternal youth and all of it without dying, which as you know and all Mormons know isn’t possible without translation. When I started to write about Anna and her quest to become the oldest person who ever lived, I realized very quickly that I also wanted to explore this fascination with aging through the eyes of a scientist. Like the nurture vs. nature debate, there’s a debate about whether living long and well has more do do with your environment or your genetics. The women in The Roots of the Olive Tree each have different notions about that idea and it causes them to act in different ways.

There is a prequel novella — Under the Oliver Tree — available for free. I think that’s an interesting strategy. How did you and William Morrow come to test that approach?

Having a prequel story was my editor’s idea, who’d had some success with it previously. I immediately jumped at the chance because the characters are still very much alive in my head and telling me what they are doing and what they’ve been doing. Since releasing the free-quel (see what I did there? ha!) it has worked to get people interested in the book, and it has also served as a bonus for people who read the book and wanted to know more about the Keller women.

You have stories forthcoming in Irreantum and Sunstone. I’m curious about your engagement with other Mormon fiction writers. What works in the field have you read that resonated with you as a writer and/or Mormon?

When I read Angela Hallstrom’s Bound on Earth, I cried for its beauty and exactness. That is the book I wanted to write about being Mormon. I give it to every Mormon writer I know. I also have read all of Brady Udall’s work and Peterson’s the Backslider. There are also so many stories in Dispensation that I find beautiful–specifically “Obbligato”, “Calling and Election” and “Clothing Esther”. They are absolutely perfect in their execution. As far as my engagement goes — when I first started writing seriously again I tried an online writing form for LDS authors which is now defunct, but I did meet Lisa Downing and we’ve remained good friends. I had the chance to shake hands with Jack Harnell and Josh Allen at AWP ( the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference) a few years back. I read Irreantum, Dialogue and Sunstone religiously and am constantly highlighting authors I’d like to meet.

Now the question I ask everybody: what works of art — narrative, visual, musical, whatever — are resonating with your right now?

I am currently head over heels for the poems of William Stafford and the paintings of Samantha French, who I discovered via a lovely online magazine called Design Tonic. Her paintings of subjects underwater somehow convey exactly how I feel about being a woman and Mormon at this time in my life.

And, finally, what are you currently working on?

I’m working on the next novel, which is due to the editor in October. If I have time to breathe when its finished, I’ve tucked away an idea or two for short fiction.

Thanks, Courtney!

4 thoughts on “Interview with Courtney Miller Santo, author of The Roots of the Olive Tree”

  1. .

    “Flight” was great. I’ll add this novel to things I want to read. (But I just ordered three MoLit books last night so . . . I may wait a while before adding this to the stack. Please understand.)

  2. Courtney is a very talented writer and I’m so excited to read her novel. (It’s next in my queue.) And I’m thrilled to see a Mormon who’s publishing mainstream literary fiction for adults, with another one coming! Wonderful stuff.

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