A good story inspires its readers to do two things: think and feel. The characters that incite these activities should live within you, speaking in your mind long after the words on the page cease to be their translator. Owen Thomas’s The Lion Trees accomplishes these goals in such a successful manner it seems he’s hardly trying. Lawyer he may be, but Owen Thomas has the soul of an artist. His voice is so unique and his perceptions so sharp, you will become spoiled by his intelligence and insight, taking for granted his next beautiful metaphor or perfect choice of verb.
The Lion Trees explores the question: what is the human default setting for identity and what do we do when we become aware of our pre-programming? Through the characters of Hollis and Susan Johns, and their children David and Tilly, we experience the emotions of both self-denial and epiphany, seeing blame and accountability fight each other for prominence, like two past-their-prime boxers.
The resurfacing current pulsing behind the storylines of the four main characters is the creation of the sci-fi movie, The Lion Trees, in which Tilly Johns is cast.
This story, created by the fictional character Angus Mann, is born as a parable, becomes a story, and then short story. Angus Mann turns it into a novel and Hollywood wants to make it a film. Mann, unlike any of the Johns family, neither justifies nor condemns his own nature. He believes we have no choice but to be who we are.
Yes, there’s plenty to think about and much reason to feel either hope or distress–can we change who we are, or do we have no choice but to perpetually recreate an indelible image of ourselves?
Let’s find out what Owen Thomas has to contribute to the intellectual feast that The Lion Trees lays before us. I encourage you to settle down for a tantalizing multi-course meal, this isn’t a trip to grab a burger at the drive-thru.
Amy: Hollis, the patriarch of the Johns family around which The Lion Trees revolves, is a pinnacle of self-denial. Hollis reasons: “He had unwittingly cultivated a belief that they had a say in who he was.” Interestingly, while he cares too much about what others think of him, he often appears to care too little for those closest to him. Hollis, for me, becomes a metaphor for the hypocrisy of humanity and also of the governments that people create. What is your view of Hollis?
Owen Thomas: You are absolutely correct that Hollis is a pinnacle of denial. He has honed his self-delusion into something almost sublime. One of the more prominent metaphors I use to capture Hollis is the bonsai he is always taking such care to prune: a miniaturized version of something grand, in its own little pot, isolated from every other living thing, and trimmed according to an arbitrary aesthetic that Hollis cannot begin to fathom but that he pretends to have mastered and which, he believes, evidences his superior wisdom. Hollis has conveniently shaped his identity around the inconvenient facts of his existence: his estrangement from his own children; his control over, and gradual marginalization of, his wife over decades of marriage; an employer that can manage itself just fine without him; a once exemplary athletic body in decay; a sexuality waning with age; and, overall, an ordinariness he cannot abide. Hollis has created an identity that avoids, or that aspires to avoid, all of these things. But in his effort to convince himself that he is exceptional, he has pruned himself into an isolated, idealized miniature of a real person. He convinces himself that he is someone whom others, specifically including his family, are incapable of understanding. To prove his own point, he indulges in esoteric knowledge and solitary pursuits. The result is that Hollis Johns lives a life calculated to confirm his own self-understanding. Each of the characters in this book follow a similar path, living in service to an identity they cannot relinquish, even as it wrecks havoc in their lives. In Hollis’ case it leads to the irony you have identified: he needs other people to help confirm that he is in a class by himself. So he turns a cold shoulder to his wife but then fawns almost sycophantically after others who are in a position to hold a mirror up to his ego, like Akahito Takada and Charles Compson and Bethany Koan.
You suggested that Hollis might be a metaphor for human hypocrisy generally and of human government. Hollis is certainly a symbol of our seemingly endless capacity for self-deception and he is an example of the power of personal identity over the trajectory of our lives. I also believe that societies of people build and nurture and reinforce cultural identities and that those cultural identities end up limiting perspectives and driving decisions (through government and other social institutions) in a way that is at least analogous to the forces at work in each of us individually. I did intend a very loose symmetry between Hollis Johns and, if not the Bush Administration per se, then at least the prevailing national identity that twice installed that administration. Self-aggrandizing hubris and a penchant for self-mythologizing lead the Bush White House astray with the entire country in tow. The same foibles lead Hollis Johns astray, with his wife, Susan, in tow. The country (or at least parts of it) eventually woke up, just as Susan eventually wakes up. In the end, Hollis finds revelation in true self-discovery and redemption. The same, sadly, cannot be said for the Bush Administration and his die-hard neocons.
Amy: You choose to bring forth the characters of Hollis and Susan Johns in third person, but use first person for the voices of their children, David and Tilly. Why don’t the parents get a more direct voice? Is to highlight the potential for the offspring to be more aware than their parents–a type of evolution, as it were?
Owen Thomas: I was not actually attempting to give any character or group of characters a more or less “direct” voice than others, although every choice a writer makes has consequences. In writing The Lion Trees it was important for me to create four independent and distinct voices. I wanted the reader to know instantly whose story and perspective she was getting. Even more than that, given that this book is built upon themes of identity, I needed each voice to feel unique in the reader’s head, rather than have a story of four different characters all translated into the same narrative voice. The choice of what kind of “voice” should be given to each character was mostly a function of how each character ultimately comes to terms with the dysfunctional identity disrupting his or her life. So, for example, Hollis’ problem is largely one of a pervasive self-deception about who he is and how others perceive him. Of the four main character arcs, Hollis’ is the most interior and I decided an omniscient perspective was necessary to pull what was going on inside his head out onto the page. David, by contrast, has a very active, here-and-now storyline. He is being seduced and surveilled and tossed in jail and hauled into a courtroom. A first-person-present-tense narrative promised to deliver the immediacy that I wanted with David’s story. As for Tilly, it was important for her to be able to tell her story with a retrospective wisdom that none of the other characters had. Tilly narrates her story from deep within a coma at the end of her life many years into the future. I needed someone to be looking back and telling the family story, or at least parts of it, from a greater distance. Accordingly, I thought a first-person-past-tense voice worked best for her. Finally, Susan’s journey is presented exclusively in dialogue. This is a character who in many ways had lost her voice over the years as she became buried in a marriage and the demands of a family. Her story arc is really about clearing her throat and asserting her true self, which she ultimately does in dramatic fashion. It is the raising of Susan’s voice in the world – the actual sound of it – that was important. So I wanted the Susan chapters represented in a way that presents her perspective entirely through the words she uses in dialogue with others. Writing in those different voices was one of the most challenging things about writing The Lion Trees. That aspect of the novel also, I think, really sets it apart. That said, there are obviously other writers who have been very successful in telling a single story in a variety of different voices and tenses. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is a particularly good example.
Amy: I find it fascinating that Tilly’s narrative does not keep temporal pace with the others. Like Hollis, Susan, and David, Tilly also self-perpetuates what she believes to be the essence of her being. But unlike them, she has the benefit of hindsight. And, in fact, she is the only character who speaks from the perspective of time. For me, this created a gentle net in which to contain the story, to keep it from flying apart too wildly. What did you intend with this technique?
Owen Thomas: I like how you put that: a gentle net in which to contain the story.That’s exactly right. The multiplicity of narrative styles and character perspectives in this book would have resulted in a very fractured story without some greater voice – both in the sense of being wiser and more encompassing in its temporal scope – to bind everything together. Tilly serves a dual role of bringing her own unique drama to the novel and also integrating all of the other stories into a single work. I also just happen to enjoy non-linear storytelling. I think it adds some texture to have a different time signature in the mix.