This year, I had the jarring experience of reading Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble after Richard Powers’s The Overstory. I do not recommend this pairing, nor would I have chosen it for myself, except that Fleishman was on hold at the library with a 400-person waitlist, and if I didn’t read it right away, it would be another four-month wait, and it wasn’t a book I wanted to buy, mainly because it’s on the long side and would be cumbersome to carry around in hardcover.
The Overstory, on the other hand, was an even longer book that I did buy in hardcover a few months after it was first published, in the spring of 2018. I started reading it shortly after I bought it, and was immediately impressed by the narrative variety of the first 200-some pages, which contain a series of discrete short stories about people and their relationship to trees. Although the stories are from the point of view of humans, the lives of trees quietly steal the narrative.
As an example: The first story in the book seems to be about an immigrant couple moving to the Midwest at the turn-of-the-century but is actually about the chestnut seedling that the husband carries in his pocket and plants on his farm. As the tree slowly grows and reaches maturity, three generations of human life unfold nearby, lives full of drama that could be the subject of multiple novels, but instead are quickly summarized. The real miracle, Powers tells us, is the survival of this particular tree, which evaded the blight that killed four billion American Chestnut trees in the first half the twentieth century.
The Overstory is full of miraculous stories about trees, and it changed the way I see the green giants in my neighborhood. Now I notice their behaviors: In the small park near my apartment, I’ve observed that a number of the trees nurse shoots at the base of their trunks, and I wonder why they’ve chosen this reproductive strategy—does the parent tree think it’s going to die soon and is hedging its bets? (Then, when the Parks Department prunes the saplings, I wonder how the trees feel about that.) In another part of the park, two trees of different species lean toward each other, their leaves intermingling to form a picturesque canopy. There doesn’t seems to be any reason for them to grow so closely and I wonder if they’re friends, or if there is some other benefit from this growth pattern.
The most beautiful trees on our block are the gingkos that tower alongside the Catholic church. In the fall, their fan-shaped leaves turn golden and drift into the backyard our family shares with our upstairs neighbor. One afternoon, when I was sitting outside reading The Overstory, I noticed that a gingko seedling had grown up in the crack between two patio stones. I was struck by its fragility as well as its strength: here was a tiny thing that could potentially grow into something taller than my apartment building, taller even than the church. It could outlive me and my children—depending, of course, on its ability to adapt to the saltwater flooding that will become a regular occurrence in my neighborhood in the coming decades.
I decided to save the seedling, and transplanted it into a small pot. Then I went on vacation. I took The Overstory with me, but I also brought along my seven-month-old baby. I thought for sure I’d read during her naptimes, but instead I dozed off. When I finally got back to The Overstory, a few weeks later, I found I couldn’t remember several of the characters. It felt daunting to start over. So I put it aside—for a year! Meanwhile, my ginkgo seedling grew ten inches and sprouted three leaves.
I returned to The Overstory during another summer vacation, this time with older children and the determination to set aside reading time. I got the book out immediately after the kids went to sleep, and read for two-hour stretches for five nights in a row. To read every night for two hours is generally wonderful, but when I finished The Overstory, I felt a kind of awe. I think it’s the best book to read on the climate crisis, and I say this as someone who read several books on the subject over this past year, including The Uninhabitable Earth, Losing Earth, Falter, and The Myth of Human Supremacy. I got a lot of useful information from these books, and they definitely stoked my anger, but I didn’t stop, midway through any of them, to plant a gingko seedling—though I did engage in panicked online real estate searches for inexpensive property in elevated regions.
Which brings me to Fleishman Is in Trouble, the novel I read immediately after The Overstory. This was a book that everyone seemed to be talking about, and I was very eager to read it. It’s set in contemporary Manhattan, and follows a newly divorced single dad as he navigates online dating apps and feels aggrieved about the poor treatment he’s getting from his ex-wife. Later, we hear the wife’s side of the story. Like everything Brodesser-Akner writes, it is ridiculously entertaining and smart, but when I was about halfway through, it occurred to me that I had just read 200 pages without a single reference to plants or animals. Eventually, the divorced dad gets a dog, somebody looks up at the stars, and I think the dad notices a tree. But that’s it. After the rich tapestry of The Overstory, it struck me as a flat, desolate world of buildings and cell phones. I felt sorry for the characters not because their marriage had ended, or because their children were unhappy, but because they were blind to other living things. I thought: no wonder they’re so lonely.
To be fair to Brodesser-Akner, any number of contemporary novels would have struck me as overly focused on human concerns after The Overstory. Most fiction is filled with human characters who don’t give much thought to non-human species. While writing this essay, I came across this passage in Voices from Chernobyl, Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. This quotation is from a filmmaker named Sergei Gurin, who documented the evacuation of the contaminated zone. After showing one his films to a group of schoolchildren, he is startled by a boy who asks why the animals weren’t also evacuated:
I couldn’t answer that question. Our art is all about the suffering and loves of people, but not of everything living: animals, plants, that other world. . . I want to make a film called “Hostages,” about animals. A strange thing happened to me. I became closer to animals. And trees, and birds. They’re closer to me than they were, the distance between us has narrowed.
I think this “strange thing” is what must happen to all of us if we wish to address the environmental crisis. We need to get closer to plants and animals, to remember that we are all living on this planet together. If you read the climate action platforms of the leading presidential candidates, you’ll see a lot about creating jobs, saving the economy, and averting catastrophe, but nothing about the beauty and value of plants, animals, insects, fungi, and clean air and water; nothing about our shared love of particular landscapes and bodies of water. That seems strange to me, even disturbing. It also seems like poor rhetorical strategy. Our affinity for other living things is our spiritual inheritance. We need a global leap of imagination to reclaim it. A book like The Overstory is one that starts to get us there.
Five years ago, when my first novel was published, I had the experience that I suspect many young, would-be novelists dream about, which is I got to give a reading at my alma mater. When the book launched, I was feted as the big-deal visiting writer on campus and gave my first reading to a room full of creative writing students and my former professors.
I read a chapter from the book, and then in the signing line, I gamely answered questions about how to get from there to here, what to do if you want to become a novelist. You know, read a lot, write a lot, don’t give up, yadda, yadda, yadda. I was absurdly dazzled by the whole experience of being a debut novelist, and was sure my career was on an upward trajectory.
You can guess what happened next: the sophomore slump. After the book tour winded down, I had five years of mostly failures: two books with two agents didn’t sell, and meanwhile a new crop of dazzling debut novelists took the literary stage. Now, my second novel is about to launch on a press I founded, and I’m dreading the inevitable question of what to do to get from young scribbler with an idea to a capital-w Writer on Book Tour.
Maybe, don’t do it.
I’m 36 years old now and have been writing seriously for half my life. In that time, the publishing world is a different game from the one I started playing in college. None of the old rules apply, and I suspect any advice I might offer a student will be irrelevant by the time they find their own way.
Novel writing is such a personal profession that the only timeless lesson might be that you’re on your own. The only “advice,” then, that I can offer is a recounting of my own experience in getting from there to here:
1. Know Thyself. Every day you walk by these words inscribed in Greek on an arch on your college campus. You know you love to read, and you believe you are a good writer, so you decide to become a novelist. Understand you are never going to make money in this occupation, and you probably will never find a tenure-track teaching job. Take a hard look at law school. Fork over the money to take the LSAT, just in case. Don’t be afraid of a career in real estate. Consider an internship.
2. Go to Graduate School. Or don’t. It doesn’t really matter where you go. All that matters is what you do there—namely, read a lot and write a lot. Maybe take advantage of staying on your parents’ health insurance plan and spend your early 20s doing some mind-numbing job. Wash dishes, perhaps. Or serve coffee. Just don’t take on debt. Commit to reading 100 pages and writing 1,000 words a day, at least five days a week. Write a novel. Revise it. Revise it. Revise it. If you can swing it, consider paying a good editor a goodly sum to give you a professional critique. That’ll save you some time.
3. Watch Your Dreams Disintegrate. Send the book out to 50 agents. Don’t get heartbroken when they tell you they can’t sell it because it’s too “quiet.” No one asked you to write a novel, and no one wants to read it, and anyway this first one’s not any good. Don’t take up smoking. Try not to drink too much. Remember Beckett’s quote: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Read and reread Ted Solotaroff’s essay “Writing in the Cold.” Write another novel.
4. Double Down. Revise the new novel. Make it scream! Send it out to 100 agents. Try not to get discouraged when no one wants this one either. Bite your tongue when a famous agent tells you it’s too “depressing.” Have faith: A few years later, someone on Goodreads will say the same thing in a review. It’s okay to get married, get a real job, and buy a house in the suburbs. Remember Flaubert’s dictum: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Maybe take another look at law school, or write three more novels.
5. Enjoy Your First Taste of Success. Publish your screaming second novel with a reputable small press. Go on book tour. Spend all your earnings on gas and drinks for your true friends who come out to your readings. Try not to get discouraged when it seems like every other novelist is getting more money, making more sales, getting calls from Hollywood. You’re on your way. Dream big when a fancy agent emails you to say he wants to rep your next book. Keep working on those next three novels. It’s okay that you don’t live in Brooklyn.
6. Take a Clear-Eyed Look at New York Publishing. It’s not okay that you don’t live in Brooklyn. It’s also not okay that you already have a published novel. The big New York publishers are seemingly only interested in debut novels, preferably from authors who schmooze in Brooklyn. If you write “southern” fiction and want success in New York, it better be in the “methalachia” vein—the great Appalachian meth novel. Realize you are not going to find success in New York.
7. Consider Having Children. Maybe read Bill McKibben’s Falter first. Children are absolutely wonderful, but it’s irresponsible to bring one into this world if you don’t understand the concepts of “wet bulb temperatures,” “carbon parts per million,” and the “singularity.” Your children have some tough skating in front of them. Your generation does, too, by the way.
8. Take Up Powerlifting. You’re getting older, and your body doesn’t spring back like it used to. You need to exercise regularly. Maybe you always rolled your eyes at the bodybuilders in the gym, but there is wisdom in the body as well as the mind. You can achieve that wisdom five reps at a time. Also, the abstract problems of publishing don’t mean as much when you have a 200-pound bar on your back. Find a new agent. Find a friend in real estate.
9. Hit Rock Bottom. Read Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward. Understand the truth of your situation. You have spent the first half of your life building a vessel for your identity, and now the task before you is to fill the vessel up, which is a very different job than the one you were doing. You’re 36 years old. Half your friends are on the rocket ship of success, and the other half are struggling mightily. Nothing is how you thought it would be.
10. Throw a Hail Mary. You’ve committed this far. Take your savings and get ready to push the rock up the hill one more time. Start a small publishing house. Put out your own book. Virginia Woolf did it. Dave Eggers. Kelly Link. You might make it. If not, you’re too old for law school, but there’s always a career in real estate. (You did make friends with a realtor, right?) Remember: Know thyself. You’ll be fine.
Image credit: Unsplash/David Pennington.