Interview with Jennifer Boyden
on her novel the chief of rally tree

Jennifer Boyden is also an award-winning poet, for instance of The Mouths of Grazing Things, Winner of the Brittingham Award in Poetry.  For her full bio, please go to Contributors, and for one of her poems, please go to the Poetry in this issue.

 

LEE: The emphasis of my conversation with you will be on “the chief of rally tree.” But I’d like to quote from your poem “The Speaking.”

I go to the trees after storms;
I listen.  I must find the one that is to be kindled
with what I would be kindled by. I must find it

 before it ignites without me and the birds are ruined,
before the air is pulled from the lungs of the forest.
Oh, forest, among you, I trust there is a speaking.

 I can hear the forest speaking in your novel.

To what extent is this novel an outgrowth from your poetry, in the imagery of trees and also stylistically in its poetic prose?

JENNIFER: Image and language drive whatever work I’m doing, whether it’s poems, essays, or fiction. I just really enjoy spending time inside of the one-word-leads-to-the-next process and seeing where it goes. So I wouldn’t say that the novel is an outgrowth of my poetry, but that it’s an outgrowth of my relationship to language and to my experience in the world, which is a pretty tree-heavy experience.

 

LEE: You have lived alone among trees so did they motivate you to write this novel?

JENNIFER: I think our environmental fatalism calls for new kinds of stories so we can begin to imagine and enact different types of narratives about our relationship with nature.

I lived by myself for several months at the edge of a forested wilderness area. I had a few trees I regularly sat with during the days. Sitting with them introduced me to a new concept of time and of what it might mean that different organisms inhabit time in very different ways.

I also became aware of how much noise trees make: whistling, groaning, crackling, dropping things to the ground. Underneath that noise was another conversation too, a conversation of presence and of being.

So this is all a way of saying that while the forest is also a character in this book, I do not know if the experience itself motivated me to write the novel. I was mainly motivated by the rush of feeling like I was onto something, and I wanted to write my way into it to see what the something was.

Because writers tend to bring all of themselves to the page, to put in everything they’ve got, I was not surprised to see the trees and themes of isolation show up. Perhaps the trees and I invited each other into a kind of conversation which this book reveals.

 

LEE: Dina, the wife of your protagonist, “enters the forest to present her last body to the trees, which will accept it, and then allow her to become them.”  Would you care to elaborate?

JENNIFER: I am interested in what or how we communicate with organisms which are unlike us. Even if we are unaware of exactly how to communicate, or how to interpret an organism’s response or expression, there is still an exchange of information happening.

I believe our deep DNA history has a latent memory of being “nature”—of not being separate from it and of being in seamless conversation with it. It was a part of our evolutionary history and experience for a lot longer than texting or driving or living in homes. But of late we haven’t needed to develop the sense-making practice needed to hear non-human communication and so we have lost a connection to it.

Dina, however, does not distinguish between herself and other organisms. Whatever that connection is, she still has it. She sees trees not as a “what” but as a “who,” so when she enters the forest, she is also joining the part of herself that is forest. Because she believes she is able to process their collective trauma, it is a conversation she wants to have. She wants to matter. More than anything, she wants to matter. Whether what she’s up to is real or not, she understands that there is something at stake in the conversation, in her being real in the presence of it, and that simply because of this the conversation is worth having. For her, this is about being utterly present to something that is also present for her. In this, she feels seen, and she can pass through the mirror of this seeing.

 

LEE:  While this novel is poetic it also has a realistic, darkly humorous plot propelled by Roal Bowman, a small-town, small college professor, fake Zen master and fake Native American.  Roal is not equipped to deal with his wife Dina’s transformation. “Though not terrible, it had not been fulfilling enough to overcome the argument of becoming a tree.”

At the beginning of your novel, Roal is so seemingly content with mediocrity that he cannot understand how Winter, the (in)famous nature mystic, has managed to transport Dina to another level of existence. Roal cannot break through to a mystical level by himself. In fact, Roal must literally be hit over the head to have a “moment of being,” to borrow a term from Virginia Woolf.

How would you describe Roal’s journey?

JENNIFER: My answer to this has been changing over time. When I started the novel, I wanted to explore, among other things, this idea of being “content with mediocrity” because the characteristic puzzles me—and makes me sad for the waste of it.

As I got to know Roal better, I understood that his contentment was related to feeling entitled to the value of mediocrity because, as a tall, white, educated male, even mediocrity would open doors for him. But even that entitlement had a deeper root. For him, it’s less of an individual character flaw than a problem of cultural conditioning which made entitlement feel like the natural order of things. Complacency, then, is just a cover for a deeper fear—a quivering dread that entitlement may be a form of fraud: that others see something special in an individual that the individual doesn’t know how to enact.

As I wrote my way into Roal’s story, I got to explore empathy and how, as a product of his culture, Roal had a lot of blind spots. And choices to make as he becomes aware of them. His journey is one of trying to see those blind spots and to reckon with the desolations of emptiness they produced. I don’t know how well he achieves this, but it does bring to a head that particular “moment of being.”

 

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