Melina Sempill Watts: The Roots of Tree

Melina Sempill Watts
photo: Elizabeth Jebef, Eyebright Studios

Every author faces a challenge in coming to understand their characters, but Melina Sempill Watts set herself a particularly tough task, in that the protagonist of Tree is, well, a tree, named Tree. Watts has to figure out the perspective of a character whose ideal lifespan makes human life seem brief by comparison; she has to figure out whether trees can communicate with other lifeforms and if so how; she has to figure out how drama and character momentum work when your main point of view character is literally rooted to the ground… Like I say, a significant challenge! In this essay, Watts explains what makes her feel passionately enough about the subject to take that challenge on.

Babies are made—most times—from love. What are books made from?

In the case of Tree, the intellectual grounding of the novel’s world came from two major strands. The emotional center of the book stems from a secret.

The first strand stems from my lifelong passion for California history, reverence for Chumash culture, a crush on the Californio era and from pieces of my own childhood, when I watched the growth of suburbia sneak up and over the green hills in the Santa Monica Mountains.

The second strand came from focusing on biology and ecological history: how did the ecosystems of Southern California transform over time, how did different cultures push plant and animal communities into new forms? The most radical transition, initially, was to grasslands, when species coming from Spain and other European communities took over. Research looking at what plants were used in the adobe bricks from the oldest European buildings on the Western side of the United States, shows that transition was nearly immediate.

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23 October 2017 | guest authors |