Amy: Is there a full script for The Lion Trees somewhere? It’s a great story and a movie I would love to see. If not, write it!
Owen Thomas: I have had a lot of readers express an interest in seeing The Lion Trees developed for cinema (or a cable drama). There is not a script as yet and I am not sure I am the person to write it. I believe strongly that books and movies are entirely different forms of artistic expression and need to be developed as such. I would love to see that happen with this book and would certainly participate in the process. If nothing else, there seems to be a kind of built-in momentum in that direction. After all, The Lion Trees is a novel about a horrific experience, made into a parable that is placed in the center of a short story that itself becomes, against all odds, a classic motion picture. Angus Mann, the author of that short story, agonizes over a process of cinematic adaptation that he likens to the selling of one’s children into sexual slavery. Do we really live in a universe in which I am spared that specific agony? I hope not. How can this beast of a book not become a movie? There is something ironically poetic to that outcome.
Amy: Angus Mann, the writer of The Lion Trees (in the novel), says to a table of actors, screenwriters, and the director of the adaptation of his novel: “we always feed ourselves to the lions of our own judgment. I mean you do get that, don’t you?” Does this encapsulate one of the core questions you were exploring in your novel?
Owen Thomas: Absolutely. You’re right at the heart of it. The judgment that matters the most – the judgment that has the biggest impact on our lives – is not that of our parents or our teachers or our friends. Ultimately, we live and die by the judgments we carry around about ourselves. The principle at work throughout this story is that we will do almost anything to protect and fulfill our own self-concept, even if that self-concept is maladaptive and based on unsupportable distortions of our own history.
Take, for example, the woman (let’s call her Jane) who, for whatever reason, experiences the unpleasant disintegration of three successive romantic relationships. Assume these are formative relationships for Jane; important enough that she draws lessons from them as her life continues to unfold. It does not matter who was at fault for the failure of these relationships; assume that in each case the man in question was abusive and unfaithful. The experience will always boil down into some judgment that Jane holds about herself. That judgment could easily be I am Jane: the type of person for whom relationships never work out. Or she might decide that I am Jane: the type of person who inexplicably attracts lovers who will ultimately betray me and abuse my trust. These sorts of judgments have a lot of importance for the next relationship that comes around the corner. Jane’s conclusions about her identity may or may not be sound, but they are powerful. They have the gravitational pull of truth. The Lion Trees explores the psychological phenomenon in which Jane has a kind of vested interest in proving that she knows who she is and that her judgments are correct. She will select men (or make herself available to men) who are more likely to be unfaithful and abuse her trust, thereby vindicating and reinforcing her identity: I am Jane – always betrayed. So when Angus Mann explains that we always feed ourselves to the lions of our own judgment, his point is that the threat to our happiness, to our success, to our fulfillment is internal, not external. We make our own meaning and our own truth. We believe what we tell ourselves, we take our own judgments to heart, and we move heaven and earth to make those things true. If we judge ourselves as being undeserving, then the truth by which we live is that we are not deserving and we will prove it to ourselves every day of the week.
Owen Thomas: There is nothing intrinsically or even metaphorically important about fish or exploding fish tanks. The point, rather, was to show that the past was still very much alive in these characters, particularly Hollis, Tilly and David. Many years before the events of this novel unfold, back when David and Tilly were children, they share an experience involving shattered fish tanks and the carnage of dozens of beautiful saltwater fish strewn all over the carpeted basement of the neighbors’ home. The event has importance in a number of different ways that are meant to reveal themselves as we learn more about the characters. So, without spoiling that process of discovery for readers, it should suffice to note that one of the children is responsible, the other is unfairly made to take the blame, and Hollis, acting out of his own sense of shame, solidifies the injustice. The event becomes an identity marker for each of them. It helps to shape the people they become. So the prevalence of present-day exploding fish tanks is merely to reflect that these characters are still acting and evolving under the influence of past events – the fish tank incident and others.
Amy: In my opinion, David is the most likeable character of all (excluding Ben who represents pure-lovability). I think this may be because he is the only character who has a sense of humor. I laughed out loud many a time while reading David chapters. Still, David doesn’t take control of his life, as often pointed out by his friend Cee Cee. What is it about humor, especially self-deprecating humor, that makes us more likely to forgive another’s faults?
Owen Thomas: Humor is a softening agent for even the hardest of truths. Comedians make their living on that principle. A good comedian can reach inside something horrible – cancer, the Spanish Inquisition, scrapple, the very idea of a President Trump – and pull out some aspect of it that you have never before considered and that makes you laugh at something that really has no business being funny.
In all relationships, humor naturally tends toward resolution. It’s difficult to hold a grudge against someone who can make you laugh. It takes a lot of energy, motivation and determination to stay mad at someone after a good laugh. We all have faults and make mistakes and do things for which we need to seek forgiveness. We encounter people like David bumbling through life from one mistake to another, or Hollis steamrolling others with his sense of exceptionalism, and our first inclination is to judge them for their faults. But people like David, who are naturally self-deprecating and who can laugh at their own foibles, manage to take judgment out of the equation, or at least lessen it. Once we get past the need to represent our judgment, it is easier to move on to the much more complicated and worthwhile task of understanding why the others act the way they do. Somewhere on that road to understanding is forgiveness. But it all starts with letting go of the judgment. When someone shows you some humility wrapped up in an engaging sense of humor, that’s an invitation to forgive.
From a purely literary perspective, humor is a medium, a kind of epoxy that fills the gap and blurs the distinction between reader and character. Humor, correctly deployed, is a powerful way to humanize what might otherwise be just a collection of squiggles on a page. Emotions connect us with others. We have all laughed, cried, and been afraid. These are opportunities for readers to identify with characters. Hollis’ state of mind makes him easy to judge and harder to like. He does not, for most of the book, know how to acknowledge his own shortcomings and so as readers we are far less inclined to let up on our judgment. David is an important counterbalance to Hollis in that respect. I needed a character that the reader was quick to forgive and eager to root for in spite of his colossally poor judgment. David’s self-deprecating humor helps me to pull in the reader and get them caring.