Amy: In your interview with Kevin Peter of www.moterwriter.com, you say, “If the reader can see the writer, then something is lost.” And, yet, The Lion Trees is infused with many opinions you seem to share (as referenced in the Kevin Peter interview). How do you stay true to your characters’ viewpoints while allowing your own perspectives to show?
Owen Thomas: All art is ultimately an expression of the artist. The same is true with creative writing. What hits the page is all coming from some aspect of the writer. Everything I write is reflecting, either directly or by some degree of contrast, some part of me and my experiences. But for fiction to be effective it needs to be written in a way that credibly presents a world that is broader than simply my opinions about things. People are not interested in my opinions about things. I’ve tested and retested that premise and it’s true: they simply don’t care. But people just might be interested in reading about characters who bear a fair resemblance to others they have encountered in the world and who cheat death and fall in love and do things to embarrass their parents. Now, if the reader sees me in the background using thinly-veiled characters to spoon-feed them my opinions, then I have failed as a writer of fiction and I should start writing newspaper editorials. So the act of writing fiction is not for me an exercise in proselytization. My effort, rather, is to bring to the page a dramatization of the world as I experience it or conceive of it. Since that dramatization is from me, my opinions will be well represented. But purveying my own opinion is not the point of the effort. The point of the effort is to entertain, to encourage reflection and maybe even to educate along the way. That takes well-drawn characters that feel authentic to the reader, which means I want to stay out of the frame as much as possible. I try to create characters that represent a slice of the world as I see it, not strictly as agents to carry forth my opinions.
Amy: Again, in the moterwriter interview you comment, “All people will do almost anything to reinforce what they already believe about themselves.” I’m not saying I disagree, but why is this such a strongly held conviction for you?
Owen Thomas: The full quote is: “I think more than anything else it was the idea that people will do almost anything to reinforce what they already believe about themselves. We are willing to accept a lot of unhappiness in order to defend our sense of self.” This is a strongly held conviction of mine simply because I have observed the phenomenon so frequently that it has the ring of truth to me. I have found this to be a very helpful principle in understanding other people and what motivates them. Whether we mean to or not, whether we work at it or not, we all have a sense of who we are. We each have an identity. That sense of self may be relatively static or fluid, but at any given time we know what we are to ourselves and it is instinctive for us to reinforce that understanding at every opportunity. If you believe that you are a person on whom fortune regularly smiles, then you will tend to go through life subconsciously creating situations and relationships in which that understanding about yourself is reinforced. If, on the other hand, you carry around the belief that you tend to get ripped off and taken advantage of by others, then you will be looking for ways to reinforce that identity and prove that you are right about how the world works and your place in it. I think this is a fundamental aspect of understanding the concept of our own existence. I exist. Who am I? I am me! This is the only thing in the world of which I am certain. So I will devote all of my energy proving to myself that I am who I believe myself to be. Dogs don’t have this problem.
Amy: You also tell Kevin Peter, “I think stories are much more satisfying if we have to work a little and participate to understand them.” I correlate this concept to listening to a piece of complex classical music, or trying to understand a work of Modern Art. For me, this requires both patience and a relaxing of preconceptions. Do you believe most modern readers have both the patience and ability to conjure the mental standpoint required to truly understand and appreciate The Lion Trees?
Owen Thomas: My hope is that this book works and can be appreciated on many levels. Different readers open a book with different objectives. While I am certainly not trying to be all things to all people, I do think there is room in good literature for a wide variety of appreciation, tastes and sophistication. If I have a reader who mostly seeks to be entertained, then The Lion Trees will succeed or fail on the basis of whether it is entertaining and not on whether the reader was able to appreciate the deeper symbology, literary allusions, and psychological subtext. On the other hand, for those looking for something more substantive and resonant then the measure of success is not whether the book made you laugh. I suppose that purely in terms of numbers, fewer people will have the patience or interest to scoop up the deeper meanings. As far as patience goes, this is a long book and probably more than the average reader is willing to undertake. I think for the most part I am selecting for readers that are not daunted by the number of pages to turn. By in large, people make it to the end of the book faster than they anticipated and find that the length was actually a benefit.
All of that said, my hope is that The Lion Trees successfully delivers on more than one note. That musical allusion is not an accident; the idea of symphonic storytelling really appeals to me. I want to write fiction made up of a lot of different perspectives and styles, each delivering a message or a feeling that not only works independently but also works in concert with other perspectives and styles, all bound together in a larger composite narrative that is ultimately greater than the sum of its parts. The other metaphor that works here is cooking; just substitute flavors for notes. Or weaving textiles, combining different colored threads into some larger, braided whole. Each of the character narratives in this book (Hollis, David, Tilly and Susan) are very different from the others – separate notes, flavors, colors – and for as compelling as these narratives may be individually, they are intended to complement each other as one chapter gives over to the next and to then come together in the end as part of larger literary experience. Part of that complexity includes a variety of depth of meaning and sophistication, so that the reader who really wants to dive can do so and the reader who is content to snorkel will still have plenty to see and will, I hope, have a great time.
Amy: You mention querying The Lion Trees in response to a question from Mr. Peter, what was that experience like and what made you go with self-publishing?
Owen Thomas: The agent querying experience has been incredibly fun and rewarding. Sorry, there I go writing fiction again. I should have said that the experience has been incredibly frustrating and ridiculous. Agents are busy people. They have so much new material coming over the transom and so little time to devote to representing current clients that there is an understandable premium placed on not wasting time on uncertain projects. My sense is that risk-taking is not particularly rewarded in sifting the slush pile. All agents have a portfolio of books that they have successfully sold to publishers and they seem to spend the great bulk of whatever energy they have left over from representing current clients in looking for authors who can replicate those past successes. They are looking for the next book that has the same vibe as one of their previous success stories. I certainly cannot fault that entirely rational mindset, but it does cut the odds of success for books that do not fall squarely within a marketable genre or that are, oh I don’t know, inordinately long.
Eventually I reached the point of realizing that I could query agents to represent The Lion Trees until I am eligible for Social Security with no guarantee of success. So I decided to go it alone. I count myself incredibly fortunate to be living in an age in which digital technology has so effectively democratized the means of production and distribution. Self-publishing is more difficult than the concept would suggest, but when you step back from the process long enough to put it in perspective and realize what you are doing, it is pretty amazing. Producing a book in print and digital form is actually the easiest part of the process. Marketing is the hardest, not only in terms of figuring out what in the hell you are doing and spending the money to do it correctly, but mostly for requiring that you pour oceans of time into getting your name out there. I don’t have oceans of time. I don’t have even small puddles of time. So that part has been particularly difficult. On the other hand, when I look back on the path I have travelled, I realize how much more I know now than when I started this journey. I have books and readers all over the world and fabulous interviewers like you to show for it. This is an exciting time to be a writer. I think we will see a trend over the next decade for most commercially successful writers to have a hybrid career that consists of some work they distribute through traditional publishers and some work that they reserve for self-publication. These two worlds are increasingly blending, even within the collections of individual writers.
Amy: Are you open to restructuring The Lion Trees in a sequel format versus one long novel, if that would bring your work to more readers?
Owen Thomas: There was a time when I seriously contemplated breaking the book up into smaller parts. One idea was to rewrite it into a trilogy. Another idea was to divide it up by character: The Book of Hollis; The Book of David; The Book of Tilly. But separate books would have required untangling the chapters, and sequels hacked out of a larger work in order to solve a length problem just struck me as a bad idea. Ultimately, I concluded that neither of those ideas would work without doing unacceptable violence to the story. The Lion Trees was written as one, interwoven narrative tapestry and, commercially viable or not, needs to be experienced as such.
Amy: Do you have the essence of a new story tumbling in your mind right now?
Owen Thomas: Oh, but of course! More than an essence. I am about halfway through the first draft of a new novel that I am hoping to have out by the late Fall or early Winter of next year. Lined up behind that book is “the essence,” as you put it, of the next book, for which I am in the process of assembling themes, plot ideas and titles. I am rarely at a loss for things to write or develop. What I really lack is the time. I need someone to take over the lawyering gig so can focus on writing. No one really seems to want to do that so I am investing heavily in cloning technology. Crazy, I know, but it is either that or start working some science fiction with psychological subplots into my legal briefs. Judges tend to frown on that sort of thing.