Interviews

‘Treeborne’ Is a Deliberately Non-Nostalgic Look at the South

A conversation with debut novelist Caleb Johnson.

In his richly rewarding debut novel, Treeborne, Caleb Johnson takes readers to Elberta, Alabama, and balances character with place. The entire novel brims with vibrant language that takes hold of readers and refuses to let go. Centered on the life and legacy of an orchardist named Janie Treeborne, Treeborne takes a look at how the past shapes our present—and how our dreams of the future often impacted our past.

Caleb and I spoke recently about the South and the importance of the past.

***

Bradley Sides

First of all, Caleb, I have to say congratulations on the release of Treeborne. It’s a beautiful first novel, and I think a lot of people are going to fall in love with it. With this, of course, being your debut, what part of the process has been most exciting for you?

Caleb Johnson

Before we sold the book, I reckoned there’d be a single, grand climax where I felt like, yes, I’ve done it, I’m a novelist now. That hasn’t been the case though. I’ve learned that the publication process is speckled with lots of small moments strung out over a long stretch of time. Getting a phone call from my agent saying Picador wanted to buy the book, looking over the first round of edits, seeing an initial cover design, writing the acknowledgements, completing copyedits, holding an ARC in my hand for the first time. Each of these moments felt exciting and mysterious and humbling and satisfying in different ways.

Bradley Sides

I think of Treeborne as a kind of epic, family saga. It moves through time, with different generations. I imagine that there was a certain difficulty in creating a world so intertwined. What was your process like as you were creating your novel? How did you keep everything organized?

Caleb Johnson

I’d written one stalled-out novel before writing what became Treeborne. My process went something like this: write as complete a draft as I could, put it away and start writing a new draft. Whatever I remembered from the previous draft made it over into the new one. Sometimes I’d peek back to poach a scene or a sentence. This maybe wasn’t the most efficient way to write a novel, but I think this process worked for Treeborne because, I believe, the novel is so much about memory and how it works. The layering on, forgetting, recalling, peeling back, refining. I also keep a notebook next to my computer. I’d scribble things in it and, as I got deeper into drafts, sketch rough outlines of each chapter and tape those up on the wall. As you can imagine, those papers eventually stretched halfway around the room. I kept the intertwined world and different timelines straight, best I could, by writing every day, or at least touching the manuscript and/or my notebook in a smaller way.

But I had no idea when I started what became Treeborne that the story you read would be the one I’d write. At first I tried writing a straight historical novel about Hernando de Soto’s conquest of the South in the 1500s. I’d got caught up in this idea that some historians believe de Soto and the Spanish brought the peach to America by way of China and the Silk Road. Being from Alabama too, you probably know we have a peach-growing region that produces fruit that matches up with any from Georgia or South Carolina. Anyhow, I soon discovered that I don’t really care for the kind of research needed to write a straight historical novel. But I couldn’t give up de Soto and the peach. So I moved them forward in time, making them the economic engine and driving mythology of the fictional town of Elberta, Alabama.

Bradley Sides

As a fellow writer from Alabama, one thing I fell in love with in Treeborne is the way you authentically capture the southern vernacular. Whether it’s someone saying, “Foot yes, I do,” “There’s one right yonder,” “Reckon what happens” or somebody else using the word “plumb,” I immediately recalled the voices of the people I grew up with. Being from Arley, Alabama, was it your past that served as your research when you wrote the voices of Treeborne?

Caleb Johnson

Though I’ve lived outside the South for several years, I stay in touch with my people and the place. I’m a phone-talker, I go home as often as possible, I’m very aware of how I cling to my accent and vernacular on a daily basis. I fight the subconscious urging to enunciate or use different words when speaking up here in the North. Amplifying the voices I grew up among is, I feel, my responsibility and privilege. I didn’t need to research those voices while writing this novel because, even though I’ve moved away for now, they don’t feel like the past to me.

Bradley Sides

In Treeborne, there’s a very genuine understanding of the South’s dualistic relationship with the past. There’s this notion that we shouldn’t let it go, but, at the same time, there’s great progress to be made in embracing the future. You capture that really well when looking at The Authority’s arrival to town. On one page, there’s this description:

“Everything stopped for the crane. You couldn’t get a wagon through the streets for gawkers watching the machine being unloaded off a barge. It was named Goliath and, The Authority said, ran on steam. If you owned a camera you could make two-three bucks some weekends off folks wanting a keepsake. Goliath was followed by a whole mess of equipment and by men dressed in new wool suits making a price on folks’ land, threatening jail time and court fees if you said no. Many houses were pulled apart nail-by-nail and hauled out of the county. It was those folks who stayed put that came and watched Goliath roar to life. A marching band played. The wild game fled to places unknown or forgotten. Change had come to Elberta, Alabama. From there on out the racket continued day and night, rumbling and explosions, and a concrete wall rose up where once had been but treetops and unbroken sky.”

And on the very next page, there’s a different perspective:

“A job with The Authority meant a chance to start over from hard lives turned harder for reason they weren’t sure of, reasons the paper said had to do with places faraway as New York and Chicago. These men had seen war, felt hunger. But this? This was something else. Foot, they joked, if nothing else the dam’ll make a good spot to leap from—way old Chief Coosa did.”

Maybe it’s all just a personified Faulkner quote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” What do you think?

Caleb Johnson

Look, nostalgia can be a dangerous thing. Sometimes I fall prey to it. The push and pull of the past and what we mean when we talk about progress in the South is obviously something we Southerners have struggled with — for better and certainly for worse. In this book I was interested in how that tension plays out in terms of land stewardship.

Alabama is such a biologically diverse place (E.O. Wilson has said it’s among the country’s most biologically diverse places, particularly the Mobile-Tensaw Delta). Growing up I had this idea that the land surrounding my grandparents’ house in Arley, Alabama was unspoiled. As I got older I learned and understood more of the history of, say, the TVA and timber companies, which had altered the landscape years before I was born. Hell, Arley is located on a manmade lake meant to progress the lives of folks who lived there by producing more electricity and providing recreation for the area. I mourned this knowledge in a way because it kind of destroyed some of the mythic qualities of the place I love so much.

The land has of course changed and been changed since my coming of age – this is always happening – and I mourn that in some way too, even as I know it’s assured to continue. Profiting off land, or natural resources, is not new. I just grew up among a storytelling tradition and a religion, in a family, that convinced me profit was not the purpose. The land was something we were meant to care for and learn from by being among it.

Last summer when I was home I hiked down to the bottom of a holler behind my mawmaw’s house. A little stream trickled through a mostly dry bed. I stood hemmed in on either side by sandstone bluffs draped with poison oak and moss and I stared up at broken pieces of sky showing between the treetops. I felt pure awe. There’s no other place on earth I get this particular feeling. I reckon I wanted to explore this notion and my childhood memories through Janie Treeborne and her relationship with her grandparents’ 700 acres.

Bradley Sides

In the South, there’s Sunday morning church, high school football games on Friday nights, little yearly festivals, and community gatherings. It seems as if the entire community turns out for these events. Your novel certainly depicts a certain kind of ritualism among your characters and your town of Elberta, Alabama. Do you think there’s more of a focus on the importance of ritualism in the South than with other sections of the country?

Caleb Johnson

I think so. Overall, especially those of us who live in rural areas, Southerners are a religious and a superstitious bunch. Ritualism is essential to a belief and participation in both. I find comfort in many of the rituals of Southern life, even as I know the dangers inherit to them. These dangers sometimes rear their heads in Treeborne.

The ritualistic aspect of Southern culture is changing too though. The population of rural communities gets older, generations pass, and when younger folks don’t return some rituals become – if not lost – reduced. This is a matter of guilt for me. I try to get home for my high school’s football games, community suppers parades, decoration at my family’s cemetery. But will I – or could I – ever permanently move back to my hometown? Probably not. Still, it’s a question I drag around like a sack of stones.

Bradley Sides

I love Janie Treeborne—and all of the Treeborne women for that matter. I also have a great fondness for Lee Malone and his story. I want to ask about the genesis of two of my other favorite characters, Geronimo the cat and Buckshot the dog. They aren’t relegated to the background. These two appear frequently and have their own stories. From where did they come?

Caleb Johnson

Thank you for saying so. I was raised by some strong, funny, caring women. The Treeborne women, I hope, pay tribute to them. Without my momma, mawmaw and aunts I wouldn’t have been able to write Maybelle, Janie or Tammy.

When I brought my fixing-to-be wife home for the first time, she noticed how cats and dogs were just wandering up and down the road and through yards. I’d never thought about this, though it is true—in the country, cats and dogs have secret lives apart from whoever claims them. This seemed normal. Putting a dog on leash, keeping a cat inside, that was odd. I became fascinated with the independence of country animals and wanted to explore it in writing.

Geronimo and Buckshot are collages of cats and dogs I’ve known throughout my life. Primarily, my mawmaw’s yellow cat, which she calls Baby or Him, depending on her mood, and a stray dog who my parents’ neighbor took in and named Buckshot. The real Buckshot used to swim all the way across the lake and wander around until someone found him and carried him home. There’s some of our dog Hugo in the novel’s Buckshot too, since he and I spent so much time together while I wrote Treeborne. Maybe the best writing advice I ever got was to get a dog because it is the only living thing that will love you unconditionally and always be happy to see you when you get home.

I remember how Joy Williams, who I studied with at the University of Wyoming, after reading a draft of Treeborne, she said she despised Geronimo! Joy is a dog person too. I knew I’d done right by Geronimo though if she felt this way. Cats are bastards.

Bradley Sides

Do you consider Elberta a character?

Caleb Johnson

Absolutely, though I’m not sure I could define what makes Elberta a character in this case. As I worked on Treeborne though, I kept in mind something Eudora Welty wrote: “Paradoxically, the more narrowly we can examine a fictional character, the greater he is likely to loom up. We must see him set to scale in his proper world to know his size. Place, then has the most delicate control over character too; by confining character it defines it.” I was chasing myths of all kinds in this novel. The Welty quote helped me understand that a confining place could, to borrow her words, make all the characters residing there loom up in mythic ways. The idea of Elberta being a character in the novel is also present in how the narrator and other characters talk about the town as if it has its own whims and history apart from, yet intertwined with, them.

Bradley Sides

Since completing Treeborne, is there one character you miss more than the others?

Caleb Johnson

You know, while writing the novel, I wondered if I’d grow attached to characters in a way where they felt “real” to me. I’ve always found it a little strange when writers talk about characters as if they were “real” folks. Without wading into that debate, I will say I do miss writing about Maybelle Treeborne. She’s one of the characters who appeared in early drafts and I came to know her story in a way that, over time, parts of it felt like parts of my past.

There’s certainly more to Loudermilk’s story and it was a wonderful surprise when he arrived and intervened with Hugh Treeborne’s art. I enjoyed writing Ricky Birdsong too. He’s a thread connecting nearly every character in the novel and they each project onto him these different emotions. I found that fascinating to write.

Bradley Sides

There’s this optimistic, nearly-mythic core in Treeborne. You have characters who are ordinary people, but their lives are extraordinary. Are we all destined for grand moments?

Caleb Johnson

Because I had loving, well-intentioned parents I grew up believing I was destined for grand moments! Which maybe made the inevitable struggles and failures more difficult than they otherwise would have been.

I won’t say we’re all destined for grand moments, but there is absolutely extraordinary beauty in every life. This isn’t a revolutionary thing to say of course. But I wrote this novel, in part, to remind folks – those who the novel is and isn’t about – that extraordinary beauty existed and remains and will so in this particular people and place. I especially want younger rural Southerners to recognize this and not shy away from our beauty and our ugliness too, to not fall for the narratives told about us, but instead to go out and create their own narratives. This summer I’m launching The Smith Lake School, a free creative writing workshop in my hometown, to do my part in aiding this notion and the work. I can’t wait to hear the stories these kids tell.

Bradley Sides

I enjoyed the article you wrote for the Paris Review Daily about Gabriel García Márquez’s southern adventure. How much did One Hundred Years of Solitude serve as an influence for your own novel?

Caleb Johnson

I didn’t read One Hundred Years of Solitude until I’d already started writing what became Treeborne. When I read it, I had this moment all novelists have, I think, where I realized somebody had already written my novel—and done it far better than I could!

Nonetheless, I fell head over heels for Solitude and saw kin in Márquez, which is, in part, what the Paris Review Daily piece you mentioned is about. I mean, I could not shut up about this novel. I consider it one of the greatest things ever written. Period. How could it not influence my work? Lately, when folks ask what Treeborne is about, I’ve been saying it’s a redneck One Hundred Years of Solitude, which, to me, is the highest compliment.

Bradley Sides

Which writers of today do you admire the most?

Caleb Johnson

To name a few: Anthony Doerr, Edward P. Jones, Rachel Kushner, CE Morgan, Jesmyn Ward, Claire Vaye Watkins, Brad Watson, Joy Williams.

Bradley Sides

You teach in Philadelphia now. You were out west for a while. You’ve lived away from the South for a good period of time. Do you feel anyone can ever fully leave the South?

Caleb Johnson

I can only speak for myself—no, I can’t ever leave. I wouldn’t want to leave the South. Physically speaking, I left to earn a graduate degree. I thought I’d go to the Rockies for two years then return home with a novel draft in tow. Instead I fell in love, stayed out West, then followed this love back east to Pennsylvania for now. I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had outside the South, though I do miss my home something terrible. There’s a misconception I’ve encountered where folks I meet sometimes think because I moved away I must not like the South, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Often, when they find out I’m from Alabama, they’ll immediately start talking shit on the place. Not that we Alabamians – or anybody for that matter – should be immune to criticism. But there’s something vulgar about the way folks do this with me. I’m quick to shut it down.

I think Treeborne would have turned out much different had I written it in the South though. The physical and psychic distance certainly influenced what I saw, how I saw it, and what I heard inside my head all the years it took to write.

9781250169082_6044f

FICTION
Treeborne by Caleb Johnson
Picador
Published June 5, 2018

Caleb Johnson is the author of the novel Treeborne. He grew up in Arley, Alabama, studied journalism at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and earned an MFA from the University of Wyoming.Johnson has worked as a small-town newspaper reporter, an early-morning janitor, and a whole-animal butcher, among other jobs, and been awarded a Jentel Writing Residency and a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship in fiction to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Currently, he lives with his partner, Irina, and their dog, Hugo, in Philadelphia.

Bradley Sides is a writer and English instructor. His work appears and is forthcoming at the Chicago Review of Books, Electric Literature, The Millions, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He lives in Florence, Alabama, with his wife, and he is at work on his debut collection of short stories. For more, visit bradley-sides.com

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