, Tatjana Soli’s new novel about the unlikely bond between two women living in an orange grove, is a vast departure from the award-winning The Lotus Eaters, but she still explores her central theme—what happens when cultures collide.
Your first book was a New York Times bestseller. What was the pressure like when you began writing The Forgetting Tree?
I was actually lucky in a sense because it took a few years to sell my first book. During that time, I finished my M.F.A. and everyone says when you do that, you go through a kind of postpartum depression because you’ve lost your peer group and your deadlines. So that first week after graduation, I started on The Forgetting Tree so that I had something to pour myself into, and also to attempt to put what I thought was going to be an unsold novel behind me. By the time The Lotus Eaters was bought and going through the publication process, I already had a draft of The Forgetting Tree done. I never had to face a blank page.
The setting of the novel—an orange grove in California—seems almost as important as the characters. What was the inspiration for that?
I live in Southern California, right in the middle of where the orange groves used to be. When [my family] moved here in the late ’80s, it was all open fields and you could see the trees blossoming. All of a sudden one day, they were bulldozing the groves down and putting up roads. I witnessed the change firsthand and it was very upsetting. I know some people say the characters come to them first, but for me it was really the setting. Claire was created by her surroundings—she’s a character that’s really attached to the land and all this tension develops because what she loves is disappearing.
Let’s talk about Minna—the mystery girl from the Caribbean who moves to the farm and strikes up the unusual bond with Claire. How much research did you have to do to create her story?
Going in, I knew what most of us know from newspapers and recent stories about the Haitian people. So I read quite a few books about the history and culture, and of course the hardships that so many Haitians go through, particularly when they enter the United States.
Where does your fascination with other cultures come from?
I was born in Austria and then my family moved to southern Italy, so even though I came to America as a little girl, it feels very natural to me to travel to different places. When I was 12, my mom gave me a Pearl S. Buck book. I was in love with her and I think reading was another huge reason I wanted to travel. The best thing a writer can do is get out of the house.