Major Fake Interviews
The New Yorker
On October 1, 2012, Owen Thomas sat down with The New Yorker** to discuss his novel, The Lion Trees, his first major interview in anticipation of its publication. Or not.
NY: Owen Thomas, welcome.
OT: Thank you.
NY: I suppose this is a bit odd for you.
OT: How so?
NY: Well, you are essentially interviewing yourself.
OT: I suppose if you look at it in just the right way, I am, in a strange sense, kind of interviewing myself.
NY: Is there any sense in which you are not actually interviewing yourself?
OT: Well, I’m hardly The New Yorker Magazine, am I?
NY: True enough. Out of all of the interviews you could have done first, why did you select us?
OT: Because The New Yorker is … how do I put this? I think The New Yorker is the finest literary publication in the country.
NY: I’ll bet you say that to all of the magazines.
NY: So if I was to be, say, Playboy Magazine** instead of The New Yorker, your answer would be different?
OT: Of course.
PB: So, Mr. Thomas, out of all of the interviews you could have done first, why did you select Playboy?
OT: I wish you wouldn’t do that.
PB: Your answer, sir.
OT: Because … Playboy has always been right there staring back at me every time I’m in line waiting to pay for my Slim Jim and Slurpee and it is really a thrill for me to finally be inside those pages. Now, do you mind?
NY: Nicely done.
OT: Thank you.
NY: We could try Popular Mechanics**.
NY: Tatoo Nation**?
OT: No. Please.
NY: Let’s talk about your book, The Lion Trees.
NY: Your story centers on a family living in Columbus, Ohio. The Johns family. And in telling the story of the Johns family, you have chosen an uncommon narrative structure.
OT: Yes. The novel is really a weave of four separate narratives, each told in a distinctively different voice. Hollis Johns, the Paterfamilias, is written in the third-person omniscient. His wife, Susan Johns, is written entirely as dialogue. The oldest son, David, is written first person, present tense. And the daughter, Tilly, is told in the third-person, past tense. There is also a variation in the temporal perspective at work in the storytelling because Tilly’s story is narrated from the future. She is an old woman looking back on her past and remembering. All of the other characters are told in current time.
NY: Well, by current time…
OT: Right, well, late 2005. And Tilly, short for Matilda, is remembering from a hospital bed in 2065.
NY: There is one more narrative voice that is rather sparsely woven through the plot, and that is the story of The Lion Tree, by Angus Mann. Can you explain that?
OT: Yes. Angus Mann is a character in the Tilly narrative. Tilly, I should say, for most of the book, is an actress living in Glendale, California and trying to survive the character-testing challenges of a Hollywood starlet. Angus Mann is a famous author who, when he was a young man, wrote a kind of Bradburian science fiction short story called The Lion Tree. And excerpts of Angus Mann’s original story, The Lion Tree, are interspersed throughout the novel as a kind of beacon for the guiding premise that pulls all of these narratives together.
NY: And in a nutshell, what is the basic arc of Angus Mann’s short story?
OT: Angus Mann’s The Lion Tree is a futuristic tale set in a time when the Earth is in its last gasps. Humanity has outstripped the Earth’s capacity to support life. War and unrestrained consumption has all but killed the planet. Reproduction without governmental approval is a crime. After centuries of strife, all governmental structures have collapsed and consolidated into a single world government, known as UNIX…
NY: Which stands for UN-9.
OT: Right. UNIX is basically the ninth iteration of the United Nations. And UNIX’s primary mission has become to find another planet to support human life. Toward that end, they have sent one expedition after another out into the stars to find a home, all without success. So all of that is kind of an implied, unstated backdrop to Angus Mann’s short story. The story itself focuses on a military colonel named Elena Ivanova and her lieutenant, Alan Miller, who have been sent out into space to monitor the status of a planet named Rhuton-Baker. A large portion of the planet has been domed and chemically soiled in the hopes that it will support crops of sufficient yield to support the dying civilization back on Earth.
NY: But the short story is really more about Ivanova and Miller than it is about saving humanity or replacing Earth.
OT: Right. Lieutant Miller is in love with Colonel Ivanova. And over the course of the long trip out to Rhuton-Baker, he basically woos her into a romantic relationship, contrary to every personal and professional instinct that has made her an exemplary military officer. This is not a woman who has ever allowed herself the vulnerability of loving someone else.
NY: So she falls for her lieutenant.
OT: Yes. She is in love and they are making plans to make a new life on Rhuton-Baker and start a family. But when they make it out to Rhuton-Baker, they discover that the crops are not thriving like they had hoped, which is another dose of bad news for humanity.
NY: But that’s not all.
OT: No. Colonel Ivanova also starts getting disturbing dispatches from home from military investigators back on Earth. It turns out that, unbeknownst to her, Lieutenant Miller was married to a woman named Jules. Jules, it turns out, was unlawfully pregnant. And the unfolding investigation suggests that Lieutenant Miller murdered his wife and unborn son by poisoning them before leaving Earth on the long mission to this far-away planet.
NY: And I take it that the Colonel does not take these revelations in stride.
OT: No. Ivanova is emotionally devastated and the shock of the deception and the betrayal essentially drive her back into the safety of her military shell. And from this intense emotional pain – an emotion that she never gives Lieutenant Miller the satisfaction of seeing on her face – she metes out a rather serious punishment.
NY: Which is to abandon him.
OT: Right. She leaves him alone on this enormous planet and heads back to Earth. The abandoner has been abandoned. There is a kind of Hammurabi, eye-for-an-eye flavor to it, although that is not Ivanova’s conscious calculation.
NY: And before she leaves him to his fate, she tells him a story.
OT: Yes, I’m getting to that. Ivanova tells Miller a parable that she learned from her uncle. He was a psychiatrist for the military and he used to tell his patients a story into which they could kind of insert themselves in order to help them sort out issues of guilt and responsibility and identity. The parable was about a man who takes his wife and two children out on an African Safari. One night the man slips out of his tent to make love to the daughter of one of the cooks. While he is gone, a pride of lions comes into camp, savagely devouring and carrying away most of the people, including his wife and children. Only the man and the cook’s daughter and a few others are spared. The man spends many, many years afterwards devastated over what had happened, believing that he had unjustly escaped death because he was off sleeping with the cook’s daughter rather than sleeping with his wife.
NY: And this guilt shapes him.
OT: Yes. He does not return to his own country. He stays in Africa. He nurtures an identity as the undeserving man. Undeserving of life, of love, of happiness. He is suicidal. He makes weekly forays out into the Serengeti, unarmed, all but begging the lions to come for him. He can hear them roaring in the distance, but they never come. Time passes. He raises goats for a living. And then one day he bumps into the cook’s daughter at a bazaar on the streets of the small Kenyan city in which he lives. She is as sweet and kind and lovely as ever. The undeserving man can feel his identity beginning to weaken. He begins to think of himself as maybe someone who has been blessed with fortune. He has not, after all, been devoured by lions, even wandering around the Serengeti without protection. And now, out of the blue, he has met up with the cook’s daughter who clearly loves him after all of these years. But even as he marries her and she becomes pregnant, he clings tenaciously to his guilt and to his identity as the undeserving man.
NY: Because that is who he is now.
OT: Yes. Exactly. That is who he is. That is who he has become. The Lion Tree – parable, short story, movie, novel – is ultimately all about the identities we cling to in our lives, even if those identities are unfair and even if they spell our doom.
NY: Okay, so what happens to the undeserving man?
OT: That identity is being challenged by the reality of his own life, which seems to be improving. He continues on his weekly walk-about safaris, but he starts taking protection with him. He starts to feel fear that the lions might actually find him. And then one day, the undeserving man and his new wife agree to join a photography safari and head out into the Serengeti. This is a big deal for both of them.
NY: Their last safari did not go so well.
OT: Right. So here is a symbolic opportunity to put the past behind them. The safari party is armed to the teeth with cameras and guns, but they do not see any lions. On the last night, the underserving man wakes up in his tent next to his beautiful pregnant wife and he hears roaring off in the distance. It is like they are calling his name. They are calling him by the name he calls himself. He is the undeserving man. So he sneaks out of the tent and walks out of the camp, out into the dark savanna grasses, following that deep, bone-rattling sound for two miles out into the African night to meet his fate. After a lot of walking he can finally see them, these large dark shapes in the branches of an enormous acacia. The air smells like death and the undeserving man is terrified to his very core.
NY: So what happened?
OT: Have to read the book.
NY: Oh, come on.
OT: Seriously. I’m not giving it away. It really needs to unfold in the context of the other narratives.
GaA: All of the loyal readers of Guns & Ammo** are going to be very disappointed.
OT: Please don’t do that.
NY: Okay. So then this is the parable that Colonel Ivanova tells Lieutenant Miller before abandoning him in outer space. This is the parable at the heart of Angus Mann’s short story.
NY: And Angus Mann is a character in this novel, which really has nothing whatsoever to do with science fiction or space travel or anything of the kind.
OT: Correct. The novel is about four people in an Ohio family trying to figure out why their respective lives have come unraveled.
NY: And so what role does the Angus Mann short story have in the greater plot? Anything?
OT: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. As the novel unfolds, Tilly is asked to audition for the role of Colonel Elena Ivanova in a movie called The Lion Tree, which is a cinematic adaptation of Angus Mann’s short story by a well-respected director named Blair Gaines. Tilly Johns meets Angus Mann for the first time in Africa, where they’re shooting part of the movie on location. Angus, who sold the rights to the story when he was a young starving writer, is a reluctant consultant on the project. Angus has an intense loathing for Hollywood and the film industry so he is rather grudging. He likens his involvement in the film to that of a father marrying off his only daughter to a pimp.
NY: So then The Lion Tree is also a movie.
OT: Yes. If it ever gets made. There are lots of problems with the production, at the heart of which are corrosive relationships between Tilly and Angus, between Tilly and Blair Gaines, and between Angus and Blair.
NY: Are these amorous relationships?
OT: Yes. And no. Let’s just say that Tilly has developed some notoriety for bedding her directors and that this reputation has consequences in a lot of different directions.
NY: So I can only imagine that Angus is not especially wild about Tilly, with her reputation, playing the part of Ivanova.
OT: I can say that Tilly perceives, down in the pink of her marrow, that Angus Mann would sooner cut off his right arm than have her soil the character of Colonel Ivanova. And that perception greatly complicates their relationship.
NY: Why, exactly?
OT: Because she feels judged by Angus. She feels unworthy in his eyes. His very presence is an accusation that resonates very deeply.
NY: How deeply?
OT: That is so not a question that The New Yorker would ever ask.
NY: Of course it is. Howww…deeply?
OT: Childhood deeply. In many ways, Angus Mann is a surrogate for Tilly’s father, Hollis.
NY: How does Hollis feel about Tilly’s career?
OT: Like he has married off his only daughter to a pimp. Like she is living a life of debasement.
NY: So we’re paralleling the feelings Angus has in turning over his story to the movies.
OT: Right. Hollywood is something of a lion, devouring loved ones in the night.
OT: Yes, literally. Hollywood has sharp claws and fangs. Of course not literally. What kind of bush-league question is that?
DF: Perhaps Dog Fancy** should rephrase the question.
OT: No. Sorry. Okay. Hollywood is not literally killing them, although death and the threat of death is certainly very present in Tilly’s story. It’s more that Hollywood is a kind of mirror, confirming the harshest judgments that these characters have about themselves. There is a lethal consumption going on, but it is a self-consumption.
NY: So is Tilly’s estrangement from her father something that has its roots in her decision to be a movie star?
OT: No, no. It goes way back. Our deepest, most enduring sense of identity goes back to childhood. It’s all right there in the basement next to the photo albums. Tilly’s fight for herself is historic, as it always is.
NY: Is it just me, or is there an intended resonance with Caddy Compson in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury?
OT: Oh my. Very… very perceptive. You are good.
NY: Gee, thanks.
OT: You may recall that Caddy Compson essentially abandons her family, including her retarded brother Benji, who pines for his sister. Caddy rejected the false pride of her family and engaged in a kind of destructive pattern of promiscuity to give her rejection a voice that her parents would understand. In Faulkner’s book, Caddy is defined both by her absence from the family fold and by the flagrancy of her sexual choices; namely, losing her virginity early, having sex with men she cared nothing for, becoming pregnant, and then trying to avoid scandal by marrying a banker named Herbert Head. Similarly, Tilly Johns is defined by her absence from the family fold and the flagrancy of her sexual choices. She lives and works in Hollywood, easily the most depraved place on the planet as far as Hollis is concerned.
NY: He’s obviously never been to Vegas.
NY: Sorry. Continue.
OT: Like Caddy, Tilly’s life careens out of control and a scandal that she cannot escape is waiting for her. Tilly has a younger brother with Downs Syndrome, Ben, whom she adores and who adores her. The Compson family in Faulkner’s book is part of a crumbling aristocracy in post Civil War Mississippi. Its antebellum financial holdings are depleted. Its land has been auctioned off. Mr. Compson is an alcoholic. Mrs. Compson is a hopeless neurotic. The Compson name is living in the shadow of its former self and Caddy sees her family as false and superficial even as it disowns her. In The Lion Trees, Hollis Johns suffers from something of the same problem. He is constantly fighting the realization that he no longer measures up to his old standards of greatness. The members of his family, especially Tilly, seem to rub his face in it. He is no longer in control. No longer an authority. He drinks too much. The alcohol, along with his various esoteric pursuits, distract him from the truth of his own life and isolate him even further. But that’s Hollis, so I’m getting ahead of myself. To answer the question, there is a very loose resonance intended between Tilly Johns and Caddy Compson.
NY: Well then let’s talk about the Hollis Johns narrative. Is there more to him than his problem with Tilly?
OT: Much more. Hollis is a man… how to put this… Hollis is a man with a keen appreciation for himself. Hollis is, or was, a commercial banker. Politically conservative. Square corners. Sharpened pencils. He has been forced into an early retirement by an Ohio bank that has recently been through a frenzy of mergers and has replaced him with a younger version of himself. After his long service for the bank, Hollis resents this treatment and feels unappreciated. And that lack of appreciation, he finds, echoes throughout his family. He suffers an estrangement of sorts not just from his daughter, Tilly, although hers is the most explicit, but also from his wife, Susan, and his eldest son, David. Hollis labors under the resentful disappointment that his wife and eldest children do not respect and revere the Paterfamilias. David is an underachieving high school history teacher whose relationship with his father has congealed down to that of debtor-creditor in which Hollis’ role is to provide financial assistance without seeming to notice or mind. He feels like he is more of a banker to his son than a father and the fact that none of Hollis’ passions – fishing, golf, Buckeye football – ever took root in David is a source of rejection that continues to fester. To make matters worse, Hollis is an Ohio loyalist when it comes to education, and it has wounded him that both Tilly and David chose to go to college out of state.
NY: What about Susan?
OT: There is certainly an estrangement there too. To Hollis, Susan seems to do nothing but harp critically about everything he does as a husband and father, devoting her spare time to complaining about his drinking. She blames Hollis for driving Tilly out of Ohio and yet, he observes with some self-righteous disgust, she is simultaneously star-struck with Tilly’s level of success in a morally bankrupt industry. For another thing, there is the sexual dynamic. Hollis has convinced himself that his virility is, despite the years, still very much in tact. He used to be a competitive collegiate swimmer and he can still feel his old physique beneath the decades of deskwork, business lunches and accumulated obligation. So his youth is not lost; it has just been ignored into submission. But sex has long since left his marriage and Hollis feels that he has a lot to offer in that regard that is being left to hang on the vine. As it were.
NY: Really? Left to hang on the vine? What kind of magazine do you think we are?
OT: It just came out that way. I can’t unsay it.
NY: Sure you can. Just hit the delete key.
OT: That’s not the kind of thing that happens… you know, in an in-ter-view.
NY: Oh. Riiiiight.
OT: So where were we?
NY: Hollis gets no respect.
OT: Right. So the only person in the family that seems to pay Hollis his due is his teenaged son, Ben. But Ben has Downs Syndrome. Ben loves and reveres everyone in the family without distinction, so his devotion is perhaps not as satisfying as it might have been otherwise.
NY: So are these various family estrangements real or are they self-imposed?
OT: Well, both. I think all estrangements are to some extent things that we create for ourselves and that we have the power to dissolve. But dissolving them requires understanding them and acknowledging that we have had a role, maybe even a primary role, in creating them. That is part of Hollis’ struggle. He has a blind spot that is roughly the shape of his existence. He does everything not only to create the estrangements in the first place, but to make them worse.
NY: How so?
OT: How so? Really?
NY: It’s a question.
OT: It’s a two-word question.
NY: Still. You want it in Latin? Quam sic? Is that better?
OT: Fine. Let’s take Susan, for instance. Hollis does everything he can to increase, not decrease, his isolation. As we meet Hollis, he is spending a great deal of his time down in the basement of his house locked away in his study where he drinks lots of wine and indulges in post-retirement pastimes that are virtually guaranteed to exclude everyone else.
NY: Such as?
NY: Such … as?
OT: Such as taking a sudden interest in Buddhism, bonsai pruning and meditation.
NY: Interesting departure for an Ohio banker who likes square corners and sharp pencils.
OT: Yes. In some respects, Hollis’ reaction to his kick-in-the-gut retirement has been to abandon the banker identity that he feels was so callously rejected, but to do so in a completely superficial way. He’s still the same Hollis, but he takes on the personae of someone who, through his various esoteric pursuits and the depth of his private cogitation, has become far more enlightened than anyone else he knows. Certainly more than his wife and kids. Hollis is playing to his own ego. He is acting. He is acting every bit as much as Tilly is acting. It’s just that Hollis doesn’t know that he’s acting. Or, at least, he works very hard not to know that he’s acting.
NY: So, back to The Sound and the Fury for a second.
NY: Faulkner’s title is taken from a soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
OT: Right. Hollis is essentially an actor on stage, playing to an audience that consists of his own ego-construct. And he’s shamelessly overacting. He is full of sound and fury, for the benefit of his own gratification, but it’s ultimately false, signifying nothing, or at least nothing that’s real. And everyone can see it except Hollis. But you left out an important line of the Macbeth soliloquy, which goes: “And all of our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle.” Hollis’ past is lighting his way to dusty death. To some extent or another, that is true for all of the characters in this book, including the Underserving Man of Colonel Ivanova’s Lion Tree fable. Their way forward through life is poorly lit by the past, rendering their identities in a shadow which they follow into certain trouble if not doom.
NY: So, literary allusions aside, it is fair to say that Hollis’ reaction to retirement is maladaptive.
OT: Definitely. Although it is not so much about the retirement. Retirement has simply set into motion feelings that have been building for decades. Retirement has given him lots of time to think and to be with himself and that’s dangerous, or I guess I should say potent. So much of what we do in life is a distraction from weighing and evaluating who we are and what we really mean to ourselves and others. Where we are going. All the big questions. We’re great at staying busy and distracted in a sea of minutia. Lots of quiet time with a bottle of wine and a bonsai tree will get a man to asking dangerous questions. I think it’s ironic that Hollis has pursued these various esoteric avocations in a superficial, self-aggrandizing sort of way, all to prop up his self-appreciation as an exceptionally wise and knowledgeable person, and yet those pursuits in fact end up leading him down a road of genuine self-discovery that completely breaks him down as a person, dissolving his self-conceits, and taking him to places far deeper than he would have imagined.
NY: He answers the big questions.
OT: Yes. Well, he tries. At least as important is that he is forced to ask the big questions. Getting the answers takes a lifetime, but that journey starts with asking the questions. Hollis is forced to consider who he is and who he has been; to himself and to others. To Susan and Tilly and David. He is forced to confront his actual identity; the one he believes in and that has been driving him to do the things he does.
NY: There’s that word again.
OT: Yes. Identity. All of these characters share something fundamental with the Undeserving Man who is out wandering the dark savanna looking to be reunited with, or devoured by, his own identity. Not the identity Hollis or Susan or Tilly or David or Angus want others to see and believe in; the identity each of them believes in and carry around in their own hearts.
NY: So what is it that actually gets Hollis out of his study and onto the path of self-discovery?
OT: He places a call to the president of a Japanese bank…
NY: Oh, well, that will do it every time.
OT: I wasn’t finished. He places a call one day to this very powerful Japanese banker, Akahito Takada, whom Hollis met several years earlier and whom he reveres as a wise man who has managed to garner all of the professional and familial respect that Hollis seems to lack in his own life. Hollis calls just to reach out and connect; to feel some association with greatness. If he could have placed a person-to-person call with the Buddha, he would have. And much to Hollis’ surprise, Akahito Takada is delighted to hear from him and has a favor to ask. It turns out that Akahito’s daughter, Suki Takada, has graduated from Columbia and is touring the country evaluating business schools. Akahito asks Hollis if he would escort Suki on a tour of Ohio’s many fine schools.
NY: So he jumps at it.
OT: Of course. Not only is he doing a favor for his new best friend in the whole world, the great Akahito Takada, he gets a chance to do what his own children would never allow which is to use his old business connections to open the doors of Ohio academia. Hollis gets a chance to really strut his stuff.
NY: So then Suki Takada becomes kind of a surrogate for Hollis’ children.
OT: Suki Takada becomes a surrogate for just about everybody. For Suki is not what she seems.
NY: In what way?
OT: In many, many ways. For starters, she turns out to be tall and blonde and gorgeous, and the name she prefers is not Suki Takada, but Bethany Koan. Hollis calls her Beth.
NY: My, my. The game’s afoot.
NY: So … Beth, as in Macbeth.
OT: Right. She is Hollis’ way to dusty death, poorly lit by the past. Like Macbeth, Hollis is pursuing an identity to which he believes he is entitled. Like Macbeth, Hollis is burdened by a knowing conscience that must be wrestled into submission in order to reach his destination. Somewhere inside, each of these men knows that his true identity will be found not in the destination itself, but in what he does along the way.
NY: And Koan, as in a nonsensical or paradoxical question to which an answer is demanded. Like, what is the sound of one hand clapping?
NY: Playboy would never have known that, by the way.
OT: This is why you’re The New Yorker.
NY: So Bethany Koan is not the Suki Takada that Hollis expected, but I take it that this development does nothing to dampen Hollis’ enthusiasm about shepherding the great Akahito Takada’s hot daughter around Ohio.
OT: Not at all. It is fair to say that he completely abandons himself and everyone else, and Ohio for that matter, to the task.
NY: How does Susan respond?
OT: Well, ultimately, she responds as you might expect. But I think what is important here is the extent to which Hollis resists acknowledging his own motives. In his own mind, his motives are unimpeachable and his character is beyond reproach. The very suggestion that his time spent with this beautiful creature half his age is for anything other than helping her find a business school is absurd and insulting. In his own mind, Hollis simultaneously takes the ego stroke of telling himself that this beautiful woman, who is roughly Tilly’s age, is sexually interested in him while, at the same time, taking the opposite ego stroke of judging those who would be so low and imperceptive as to consider any sexual motivation on his part. Hollis’ capacity for self-deception in service of a false identity is very much at work. And Susan, for her part, is suspicious but I think wants to believe that Hollis is, in fact, who he pretends to be: a person of such high moral standards that he feels comfortable lording them over everyone else, most especially his wife. Susan is also placated to some extent by the sense that comely Bethany Koan could easily have her pick of men and would not in a million years need to mess around with Hollis.
NY: So does Hollis ultimately give in to temptation?
OT: You need to read the book.
NY: There is no book.
OT: Yes. There is. That’s why… I’m being…interviewed.
NY: It’s not published.
OT: It will be. I’m agent shopping. Do your job.
NY: Let’s talk about Susan. What’s her story?
OT: I’m sure that as a journalist working for The New Yorker you meant to say narrative arc.
NY: Are you really lecturing The New Yorker?
NY: I didn’t think so. You were saying…
OT: Susan is trapped in a four-decade marriage that is too small for her. The life she lives is not sufficiently her own. Her story, like the others, is about discovering what she really thinks about herself and understanding how it has motivated her. In her college years at Kent State, Susan was very much a charismatic leader of fellow students in a tumultuous political time. She was vibrant, irrepressibly optimistic about the world and free-spirited in all of the ways that we have come to associate with students in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. It is at Kent State that Susan meets Hollis Johns, a quiet, charming, well-built swimmer from another school who, in spite of his establishment-friendly political leanings, wins her affections and convinces her to follow him into the future. That future, as it turns out, is marked by one small deferential surrender after another, seemingly as the expected price of matrimony and parenthood. She has given up her calling as a teacher. She has effectively retired her political consciousness. She has tamed her sexuality and dulled the edges of her once formidable personality. As Hollis has built a rewarding career as a banker, Susan has gradually buried herself in the daily effluvium of homemaking. That is the Susan we first meet in this book.
NY: But there is an evolution, I take it.
OT: Of course. Susan wakes up. She comes to consciousness and begins to see the world for what it has become and to see herself for what she has become. Following Hollis’ lead, she has been lulled across the political aisle, voting twice for George W. Bush, who, as the book opens, has been reelected and has mislead the country into the Iraq war. She finds herself unhappy and unfulfilled in a marriage for which she has sacrificed everything. The man she married seems far more interested in indulging his own self-appreciation, which includes shepherding around young Bethany Koan, than he does spending any post-retirement time with his wife of forty-something-years.
NY: And so what does Susan do about it?
OT: Well, she takes matters into her own hands. She pushes back and takes responsibility for her own life. For Susan, that transformation entails going back to Kent State and picking up the thread that she dropped when she met Hollis. The parts of who she was back then, the aspects of herself that she abandoned, are all still there, like articles of clothing in an old closet – the idealism, the self-confidence, the drugs, the sex, the politics – it’s all still there for her to reclaim. But reclamation puts Susan in the position of having to abandon her current life, including her family, most notably Hollis and Ben, her special-needs son for whom, as a mother and a homemaker, she is primarily responsible. It is a struggle between competing personal identities. The struggle is messy and in its own way, violent.
NY: There are casualties?
OT: Yes. Of a sort. In fact, the Susan narrative is written against the backdrop of the Iraq war and is meant to parallel America’s struggle to define itself. It is Susan’s increasingly horrific realization that just as she has been asleep in her own life, America has been lulled into a misunderstanding of its own nature. It has deferred to a misguided, self-enamored authority, one step at a time, straying from the path of its own best destiny until one day it wakes up with a bloody sword in its hand, reviled by much of the world, several constitutional amendments in jeopardy, and wondering what the hell happened.
NY: Hollis Johns is George Bush?
OT: No. Not even close. But the threats inherent in surrendering to a benevolent dictatorship, be it political or familial, are similar, or at least analogous. After thirty years, Susan essentially woke up beneath the shadow of a unitary executive with delusions of grandeur.
NY: So why did you choose to write Susan’s narrative entirely as dialogue?
OT: In the first instance, I wanted to offset her voice from the other characters. It was important that each character have his or her own distinctive voice. The book is about identity and perceptions of identity, so I wanted Hollis, Susan, David and Tilly to each have a sound and feel and rhythm all their own. Tilly is remembering, so first-person past tense works well for her part of the story. The Hollis chapters are written in a third-person omniscient voice because it was important for the reader to have a perspective from outside of Hollis’ head so as to allow some more objective observation about what is going on inside. David is written in a first person present tense, narrating what is happening as it happens because his life is characterized by one curveball after another and using that voice was a way of keeping the reader on the edge of the seat about what the future holds. So…what was the question?
OT: Oh, right. And then there’s Susan, who is rendered exclusively in dialogue, not only to separate her from the others but to highlight that her evolution is one of listening to others talk at her, whether it is Hollis or the incessant cable news punditry, to finally finding her own voice again and speaking to the world on her own terms. When Susan finally speaks her truth, she roars.
NY: So we have discussed Tilly, Hollis and Susan. That leaves David.
OT: Yes. Last but not least.
NY: You say that David’s life is one curve ball after another.
OT: David, first born to Hollis and Susan Johns, is a high school history teacher who simultaneously fails to learn from history and is unable to escape it. The high school in which he teaches is actually the high school he attended as a teenager. Like Tilly, David carries around some baggage from his childhood that is warping his adulthood identity. And, again like Tilly, David’s issues stem from his relationship with Hollis and the tenacious self-perception that flows from that relationship.
NY: So Hollis really is kind of at the center for each of these other characters.
OT: Yes, certainly, although each of the characters are embroiled in dramas that exist independently of Hollis’ own drama. But, yes, ultimately they are all connected.
NY: Speak to me of David and curve balls.
OT: David gets tangled up in allegations that he has abducted and become sexually involved with one of his students. He is thrown headlong in to a gut-churning world of imperiled children, over-zealous police detectives, criminal lawyers, and school administration politics. He is trying desperately to hang on to his girlfriend, his job, his freedom, and, perhaps most important, his father’s good opinion. As if his criminal troubles are not enough, the school principal and the parents of David’s students want him fired for teaching the heresy of truth rather than the fairytales of history offered by the approved textbooks.
NY: Such as?
OT: The genocidal agenda of Christopher Columbus, the namesake of the city in which these children live. The socialist agenda of Helen Keller. The role of this country in arming Saddam Hussein. Jesus, that middle eastern Black Jew.
NY: Too challenging.
OT: Right. And that gets him in big trouble with the small minds in power. But the important point is that here you have David, fighting for the truth of history and trying to dispel the stories people tell themselves to shape the past into a trite narrative that feels better to recite, but in his own life, David is the one who is refusing to look his own history in the eye and deal with it. It takes a courtroom trial with everything on the line before David allows himself out of the prison of history to deal with the current circumstances, which are genuinely train-wreckish.
NY: Like to try that again?
OT: Which resemble a train wreck.
OT: Carrying nuclear warheads.
NY: We get the picture. And at this penultimate courtroom trial, David is the defendant?
OT: Yes. At long last, after a lifetime of failing to do so, David is forced to defend himself against accusations that he is actually the person he has always believed himself to be.
NY: And what kind of person is that?
OT: A guilty person.
NY: I see. We’re back to the Undeserving Man in Angus Mann’s parable of the Lion Tree.
NY: I’m also sensing a kind of riff on the trial of Socrates, accused of corrupting the youth of Athens, not only in a physical sense but through the heresy of truth, as you put it.
OT: Wow. Very good. It’s almost as though you wrote this book.
NY: Mm. How odd. Tell me, finally, about Ben. How does he fit into all of this?
OT: In a way, Ben is this point of stillness inside the heart of each of these characters. Each of them take a kind of unspoken solace in Ben. Like many with Downs Syndrome, Ben is completely guileless. He has no inclination or ability to deceive others or himself. He has no inclination or ability to suppress or warp his own identity. He is who he is. He has an authentic relationship with each of the characters that they do not have with anyone else. Those relationships – with his sister and brother and both parents – is utterly without judgment. He cares nothing about who they were in the past. He accepts each of them unconditionally as they are in any given moment. In that sense, unlike the rest of his family, Ben is kind of outside time. There is an eternal quality to Ben. Ben is Zen.
NY: So who do you think will be interested in reading The Lion Trees? I mean, besides your wife and mother.
OT: I think there is a lot in here to talk about. The themes are relatable to just about anybody. So I like the idea of book clubs and discussion groups reading it. Oprah. Also, people who respire.
NY: Your target audience are people who breathe in and out?
OT: Yeah. I’m not going to get greedy. The book isn’t for everyone. If you’re not breathing then maybe your time is better spent on other things. Lying still maybe. Or haunting people.
NY: So is there anything else you would like to tell The New Yorker, you know, as long as you’re being fake interviewed?
OT: No. Nope. … I like your cartoons.
NY: Yeah, I have nothing to do with the cartoons.
OT: Nevertheless. They’re very clever.
NY: Thank you. I guess.
**Lest any reader, especially those with legal degrees, harbor the impression that The New Yorker, Playboy, Popular Mechanics, Tatoo Nation, Guns & Ammo, or Dog Fancy actually had anything whatsoever to do with the forgoing, including the conducting of an actual interview with the author, allow the author to forever disabuse them of that notion here: nothing of the kind happened. It was all fake. Well, not the book or anything said about the book or its characters, but absolutely everything else. All fake. Including that the author has actually ever had the occasion or opportunity to “say” anything set forth above. That’s why they call it fiction. Go in peace.