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My sweet friend Courtney Miller Santo has written a novel, The Roots of the Olive Tree, and I pestered her to let me interview her on the blog.
The novel’s setting is one I believe many people with at least one foot in the rural life would appreciate: a working olive grove. The cast of characters is a matriarch-led family of “SuperAgers” (people over 80 whose cognitive performance is as least as good as that of people in their 50′s or 60′s) and their extended relations.
Until October 16, you can get in on Redbook magazine’s online book club discussion of her novel, here.
Q. Courtney, let’s start with what’s really important: Which of your characters is most likely to be a faithful reader of Little House in the Suburbs?
A. I would say Callie. She owns a store that sells every olive product known to man (olive wood, olive soap, olive platters, olives stuffed with anything and everything and olive oil). She is also very interested in the healing and restorative powers of olive oil. She’s also practical and likely to love all the ways in which Tomato Lady and Ivory make having the good country life completely doable for suburban folks.
Q. The novel’s matriarch, Anna, is counting the days until she is the reigning world’s oldest person. I’ve always wondered whether it’s really true that with great age comes great wisdom. After living with these long-lived people so intimately for so long, do have the answer to that question?
A. Maybe if I were as old as Anna I would. What I can tell you from my own family, which includes my great-grandmother who is 104, is that people get smarter about some of the stuff but we all still have our blind spots. It will probably never get easier for me to be the first person to apologize, even though the older I get the more I know I should. There is the tendency as we age to get stuck in our ways and our habits. What I’ve learned from my own family is to break that mold you have to keep trying new activities and experiences. I don’t know if it gives you wisdom, but it keeps you from being bored.
Q. You’ve probably been getting a lot of reflections and feedback on your book. Is there a theme that keeps reasserting itself in people’s response to Roots?
A. Everyone tells me that they ate a thousand times more olives and olive oil while they were reading the book. In doing readings and events at independent bookstores, the issue of intergenerational friendships has also come up. My own experience has been that it is easier to understand my grandmother than my mother and that makes the relationship between us easier. I think that is reflected in the book and so many people have wanted to talk about their own relationships with those of different generations. I’ve been thrilled to hear them because I know how much value there is to collecting stories from people who haven’t’ had the same life experience as you. It makes us all better people. I truly do want people to close this book and find someone older than themselves to talk with.
Q. Since the family in this novel are olive growers and olive oil producers the reader finishes this book with a greater appreciation for olives and olive oil in particular. What are some of the surprising or most interesting things you learned about olive culture and olive oil in your research for this novel?
A. I had no idea that olives actually are on a two-year cycle. That is it takes two years from bud to fruit for them to mature, but at any given time, there are olives in different stages on the trees, so you can still harvest every year. I also hadn’t ever seen an olive tree in bloom because the season for that can be only weeks long. I kept googling pictures of olive blossoms to get a feel for how to describe them. In doing that, I learned that one olive tree can produce upwards of 50 gallons of olives.
Q. There’s a recipe in the ebook. Can you dish some about what you’ve got to tempt our tastebuds in there?
A. If you like garlic, you’ll love the rustic take on spaghetti and roasted garlic. It is the dinner that the Keller woman like to make with the first pressing of olive oil. Your readers might want to mark their calendars, as you can only get the specific type of olive oil (olio nuvo) used in the recipe in the fall. It is a treat if you’ve never had it before.
A warm thank you to Courtney for fitting this interview into her busy day!
If you would like a free preview of the novel, you can read the prequel novella, Under the Olive Tree, for free here.