To view the latest edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter, click here. To sign up for our monthly newsletter, click here.
North Melbourne Books talks to Elizabeth Crook
North Melbourne Books: Set in 19th century Texas, The Which Way Tree tells the story of a young girl, Samantha and her half –brother Benjamin who set off in pursuit of a panther that has viciously killed Samantha’s mother and left the girl badly scarred. In order to avenge her mother’s death the children are joined by a Mexican outlaw and a preacher with a bullheaded aging tracking dog. Their journey is made even more dangerous with the realisation that they themselves are being pursued by a Confederate soldier with a score to settle.
The Which Way Tree is wonderfully narrated by Benjamin in a plain speaking voice that brings to life the story’s many thrilling, humorous and frightening moments At no stage do we sense a contemporary author at work. How hard a task was that to achieve?
Elizabeth Crook: Benjamin’s voice came to me from reading so many letters and journals written in that time. And once I had the voice in my head, telling the story was surprisingly easy-- almost like listening instead of writing. Benjamin is an earnest character, and although he relates events that are often violent, and traumatic, his straightforward narration and total lack of self pity or self absorption and his kind, steady nature gave me the sense I could pretty much turn the story over to him and just let him tell it. From chapter to chapter, I had only a vague idea of what would be happening next, and was often, I think, as surprised as readers will be. In other words, I had a lot of fun writing this book.
NMB: The American West has always been a popular setting for characters in pursuit of something be it treasure, justice or revenge. What do you think it is about this aspect of American history that continues to fascinate?
EC: I think it’s the allure of the unknown at the edge of what’s familiar. In the old American West survival was more determined by the laws of mother nature and raw human nature than by laws mandated on paper. Life was harder and yet simpler, in that it was more basic and centered on the greatest challenge of all—that of survival. There was always the heart-pumping question of what, exactly, one would encounter around the curve in the trail or over the slope of the hill—would it be a life-saving source of water, or, instead, a violent surprise attack? The extremes posed by weather and violence and by the the vast, endless nature of the landscape tested people in harsh ways, and I think many of us, as readers today, like to watch our characters manoeuvre through these extremes and wonder how we would hold up if we were in their situations.
NMB: In your novel it is the search for the elusive killer panther that helps propel the narrative. At what stage did you decide to have an animal play such an integral part?
EC: It wasn’t as if I had a sense of the story and decided that the mountain lion—or panther, as these cats were then called—would play a pivotal role. It was the other way around. I simply had the cat in my head first. The characters and the story were built around that central image of the cat. It happened this way because of an event in my own life: many years ago my son, at the age of fourteen, became lost with a friend while camping in the rough hill country of Texas. We searched for the boys all night, and during the search the deputy sheriff spotted an enormous mountain lion trailing alongside him in the canyon where the boys had disappeared. Near daylight, the boys were located by helicopter and the deputy sheriff hiked down into a narrow ravine to retrieve them. He told me afterwards that when he reached their little campsite, where they had built a small campfire, the cat was there watching them. They had no idea of its presence. Almost certainly, it was only curious and the boys weren’t in danger. But the idea of those eyes on my son stayed with me and became the spark for The Which Way Tree.
NMB: Benjamin and Samantha are two children placed in extremely dangerous situations. Your depiction of Samantha, still nursing the physical and emotional scars of a violent attack, is one of a child trying to sort out a mixture of grief, anger and insecurity. How important was it to create young characters who retain realistic childhood traits despite immersing them in such dramatic adult
EC: It’s important to me that characters act like real people rooted in their own time, not ours, and think and behave in accordance with their background and ages. If they don’t then I can’t believe in them. And of course, if an author doesn’t believe in his or her characters, then readers won’t either, and won’t care about them or care what happens to them—and this would render the plot, as well as the characters, irrelevant. Readers would simply put they book down. So it’s essential to keep the characters authentic and their actions plausible. A writer has to think at every turn: Is this what these characters would do if they were real people? Is this how they would feel and how they would behave in the situation I’ve put them in? If, as the author, I’m not getting that right, I have to re-think the characters or back up and approach the scene again.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
EC: I’m a slow, slow reader, and therefore I have to spend most of my time reading research material rather than fiction. I just don’t have enough time to read both. So on the top of my reading stack there’s a journal of a trip across the southwest in 1858 and a history of a Texas town called Indianola that was an important coastal port before it was wiped out by a hurricane. I’m not sure what I’m going to write next, so I’m casting about, reading these histories and plucking out interesting facts and events that might help to make a good story.
The Which Way Tree, by Elizabeth Crook. Published by Scribe. RRP: $29.99