Anna gave birth to Bets, Bets to Callie, Callie to Deb, and Deb to Erin: That's five generations of women from the town of Kidron in the Sacramento Valley of Northern California, a town known for its olive groves.
Anna, age 112, is the matriarch, and it was her father who brought his family from Australia to California to establish an olive orchard in the late 19th century. That orchard is still producing a good crop, and Anna is still going remarkably strong — a feat owing to her diet rich in olives and olive oil? Or does her status as a "supercentarian" have to do with genetics?
That's for a scientist, who is studying Anna and her offspring, to find out. Even more, there are family secrets to unearth in The Roots of the Olive Tree (William Morrow), a debut novel from Memphian Courtney Miller Santo. It's a story that has a lot going for it: multiple generations of women living under one roof and answering to multiple issues: family expectations versus individual fulfillment, the fear of personal entrapment versus the pull of family loyalty, not to mention murder.
It's a book that has a lot going for it in terms of pre-publication publicity too: a beautifully designed press packet that's second to none; a book-club reading guide in anticipation of big sales; advance praise from booksellers; a national-size advertising campaign; an online social networking campaign; and a book-signing tour that launches in Memphis on Tuesday, the official publication date for The Roots of the Olive Tree. The tour continues to Nashville, Oxford, and Blytheville, Arkansas, and in September, the author travels to California, Portland (Santo's hometown), and Seattle.
All told, it's an impressive marketing campaign to dizzy even an established author. According to Santo, however, it's been "a fairy tale come true," the months leading to publication more like "a roller coaster." But as she said in a recent phone interview, Santo's at the top of that coaster now: "I can see where I'm going. But I still pinch myself. It all seems unbelievable."
And, believe it or not, in the middle of all this activity, Santo makes room to write a second book, due to her publisher in October. The new writing is keeping her grounded, Santo said, and the writing's going great: "I'm in a good groove."
Santo's also in a good — no, great — place for a first-time novelist. The Roots of the Olive Tree is already generating discussions among those who received advance reader's editions, and those discussions have often been between adult daughters and their mothers. There's also talk on the subject of longevity, an issue Santo knows firsthand: Her own great-grandmother in California turned 104 this past January.
If Santo's extended family inspired The Roots of the Olive Tree, credit the University of Memphis for steering the novel's composition. Starting with a class in novel writing taught by Tom Russell of the school's creative-writing program, Santo said she wouldn't be here with the book if she hadn't also had Cary Holladay to act as mentor and Richard Bausch to offer encouragement. Santo earned her MFA from the U of M (where she teaches and acts as the writing program's administrator) with The Roots of the Olive Tree as her thesis.
Keeping track of five interlocking characters was, Santo admitted, "tricky": "The characters showed up with their own voices in my head early on in the writing. The challenge was translating those voices to paper."
Tricky too: Santo's skillful handling of her characters' buried secrets, which come to full light only gradually. Credit the lessons Santo learned from Nancy Drew.
"Deliberately withholding information from the reader? If I've done that successfully at all," Santo said, "it's because I've read a gazillion books on exactly how to do that — from Nancy Drew mysteries to more modern stuff. It's hard, though. You've got to build up trust with your reader."
In The Roots of the Olive Tree, Courtney Miller Santo does just that. But what of her own indoor olive tree? "Memphis is not the best climate," she said. "But I've got it in a sunny window. It's limping along."
Courtney Miller Santo will be discussing and signing The Roots of the Olive Tree at the Booksellers at Laurelwood on Tuesday, August 21st, at 6 p.m.
For updates on the author, go to her website at courtneysanto.com, her Facebook page at facebook.com/courtney.miller.santo, and her Twitter handle @courtney_santo. Santo's introductory "Under the Olive Tree," a prequel to The Roots of the Olive Tree, is available as a free download designed for e-readers at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.