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Author Talk: August 23, 2012

Courtney Miller Santo’s debut novel, THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE, tells the story of five generations of miraculous firstborn women who live in a house together on a California olive grove. When a geneticist comes to study these marvels of longevity, Erin announces she is pregnant with a firstborn boy and the Keller women's world is blown wide open. In this interview, Santo discusses her extensive research process and shares some of the latest incredible findings about human longevity. She also gives insight into her characters and explains how some of them came into her mind fully formed.

Question: How much research did you have to do about olive oil and olive tree cultivation in order to write this novel?

Courtney Miller Santo: As far as hands on experience, although I never had an olive tree growing up, my father has the greenest of thumbs and as I child I helped him plant all varieties of stone fruits. The work of growing such a tree --- with grafting and cultivation is much the same. However, when I set this book in a town similar to the one my own great-grandmother grew up in, I realized I had a lot to learn about how olives are grown and processed. I spent an entire summer with a stack of books larger than my desk on olive cultivation. Some of the most interesting texts were those written in the early 1900s when olives had just begun to be grown for production purposes in Northern California. I was able also to visit a small olive oil company in Corning that is located in the middle of an olive grove. There I got to observe first-hand the mechanics of olive oil production. Whenever I had writer’s block, I found it was easily broken by reading a chapter or two about how to cultivate olives. My vocabulary broadened to include such lovely terms as drupe, burr, senescence and whorls. Currently, I have a very small tree that I am trying to keep alive and with any luck I’ll be pressing my own olio nuevo.

Q: Is the story about moving the town of Kidron based on facts?

CMS: Yes. In reading through some of the early stories of California settlement, I came across the story of Dixon, which is near Sacramento. Learning that the railroad tracks wouldn’t be coming to their town, a Danish cabinet maker who had recently moved there, offered the radical suggestion of moving the town to the tracks. So in 1871, he supervised the loading of buildings onto platforms atop large wooden rollers and they rolled the town within a stone’s throw of the tracks. The church, which was part of the move, still stands today. In imagining Anna as a child, I kept fixating on her perception of the world being cemented by seeing how an entire town could be moved. Of course, I altered many of these details --- that is the wonderful attractiveness of fiction.

Q: Each of the five generations of Keller women are distinct characters. Did they come to you fully-formed or did you spend time developing them for the novel?

CMS: To me, Anna is a real person. She showed up in my brain and started to tell me her story. It is through her and trying to write her story that I became acquainted with all of the other women in the book. So in that sense, the Keller women arrived as fully formed individuals, but it took time for me to understand them and to uncover all of their secrets. In writing the book and in rewriting the book, they would talk to me and let me in on bits and pieces of their lives. There are days when I’d be working on Bets’s section and I’d find myself getting into arguments with her because she out of all the women, was the most secretive about her life and the reasons for her decisions. Even now that I’ve written their story, I find that Erin or Callie, and especially Anna, will show up in my brain and I’ll hear them talk to me about their lives. They’re happy, and that gives me a sense of peace.

Q: Which Keller woman do you think readers will find most relatable?

CMS: This is like asking a mother to tell you who her favorite child is! What fascinated me most about these women is the insights they offered me into the different stages of our lives. I think that at first women will identify with a character who is similar to them in age and interests, but I hope that as they progress through the novel and get to know each of these women as intimately as I have that they will see how much we are alike --- no matter what our age is.

Q: Do you believe that scientists and doctors will one day unlock the genetic secrets of “superagers?”

CMS: Do you know that humanity’s quest for immortality goes back almost as far as stories themselves? I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of longevity and it seems to me that we are on the verge of deepening our understanding of the aging process. When I started writing about Anna’s longevity, I had a few ideas in my head about how much genetics played into the ability of a human being to live not only for a long time, but also with a high quality of life. I have the example of my own great-grandmother who at 104 is a marvel of a woman and I realized quite early on that very few families had such an example. When I started researching the science behind aging, I was shocked by how little scientists actually understand about the process and yet through simple alterations in medical care and diet, humans have been able to double their life expectancy. The next frontier is genetics. Just last week, researchers published a study on a particular kind of worm that is immortal. And scientists do believe that the first human being who will live to be 150 has already been born. What I was most interested in, though, wasn’t the science, but how the idea of immortality changes how you value your own individual life. I think the book gets at that question in the different ways that Anna and her daughter respond to their own unique longevity.

Q: Your descriptions of the Keller orchards are so evocative. Have you ever lived on an olive grove?

CMS: I grew up in a series of suburban houses with lots big enough only for kitchen gardens. However, I am indebted to the books I read as a child and the books I’ve continued to read as an adult for teaching me the importance of creating a setting that a reader can get lost in. When I was seven, I heard THE SECRET GARDEN being read on a public radio station. The evocative descriptions of that world transfixed me. I remember putting aside my doll and sitting for two hours listening as the story of Colin and Mary unfolded. I could feel that garden and that old drafty house. That is what I wanted to be able to create when I started writing my own book. Anna’s olive grove is created from that feeling and the moments in my life where I’ve found myself inside of nature --- the autumn day I spent picking apples, a childhood romp thorugh the patchy woods that backed up to my grandparent’s house, the summer hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains and of course the time I spent in my great-grandmother’s town, which is rimmed by olive groves, that I didn’t go into until I was an adult, but I’d imagined for years.

Q: Mother-daughter relationships are so complicated and fraught. In your novel, are they easier for the elders or for the younger women?

CMS: I think that mother daughter relationships are never easy for either party, but that for the elder, there is at least the sense of having already experienced one end of the relationship and that knowledge somehow makes it easier to take the long view. I remember the first time I told my mother I hated her, I thought I held such power. And then when my own daughter pulled out those words on me, I just laughed because I knew how little power they actually held. What is never easy is letting go of expectations and I think that is one of the main problems with all of the Keller women. They expected certain behaviors and emotions form their mothers and daughters and it is the let down where the real difficulty arises.