An Interview with Rachel Devenish Ford, author of The Eve Tree
There is a gentle fragility about Rachel, or Rae as most people call her. She is vulnerable in the strongest way possible, wearing her heart on her sleeve. We've known each other since we were single, she was 18, I was 20, and we traveled the west coast of Canada and the US in a giant 16 passenger van with 4 other girls. It was a pivotal year for us both and we grew up together in the ways that really matter.
I was there the day her husband fell for her reading a poem she wrote about an orange. Words so sensual, so intimate that he says he was immediately drawn in.
Rae's blog Journey Mama is a sensory adventure into her life traveling the globe with her family, rich with photos and words that take you there. Last month she at last published her book The Eve Tree, to the delight of her devoted readers.
Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I was able to interview her at her current home in Pokhara, Nepal from my home in San Diego county. She confided that this is the first time she's been interviewed, which seems fitting considering our history of shared pivotal moments.
You are a mother, you live in India and change houses, not to
mention countries, every 6 months or so, and you home school 4 kids. How did you find time to write a novel? How long did it take you?
Writing The Eve Tree took me almost four years. There were many interruptions. During the span of time that I was writing it, I moved to India, had a baby, did lots of traveling, and yes, homeschooled.
Madeleine L'Engle wrote about the time when your kids are in school as prime writing time. Not the time to do housework, she said. I remember reading that and thinking, "I'm a level up from that". My kids don't go to school, so I have to work harder to find time.
I don't know why I have this drive to be a novelist, but I do, so my life has to take on quite a disciplined shape. Most of my writing I do in the mornings before the kids wake up. I'm up at 5:30, writing, which means I have to be in bed by 10:00 or 10:30. I am almost in a trance when I write. I don't have time for procrastination or futzing around, so as time has gone on, I've honed the practice of sitting down, looking at the page, and diving in.
When I'm editing, I need longer stretches of time to concentrate. I have a supportive husband (with a flexible schedule) who helps me to get a day or two a week to fully devote to writing in these times.
I can't work at night, but in the evenings I read other books, read over my manuscript, or dream about it. Everything I do with my spare time has to do with reading or writing. No TV, a rare movie. I also live in a community and have a lot of events to be part of. It's always a challenge to make room for writing time.
One of the biggest challenges in writing this book was language. Living in an international community, I hear so many different types of English everyday. British English, Indian English... I worked really hard to keep the language local to the place and not put any words like persnickety in there.
You write a blog called Journey Mama about your travels with your family. Could you tell us a bit about it?
When I started Journey Mama in 2005, mine was a figurative journey, as my family was planted in Northern California. In 2008 we moved to Goa, India, and have been traveling ever since. There are six months every year that we are in Goa, and beyond that it's always an adventure.
I see my blog as a way to tell my own story. I find that circumstances have a way of rolling us over and beating us over the head, but we can choose to become authors of our lives. Taking the events of the day and weaving them into a story gave me a lot of power when I started the blog. I was 25 and pregnant, living in a 280 sq ft cabin in the woods with my husband and two kids, and feeling mightily sorry for myself. I needed to rewrite the story to find the beauty in my life. I think my blog is still like that for me. Often people read it and see an ideal life, but they are seeing the shapes I have made out of what I have.
How has your blog shaped you as a writer?
I think novelists like myself are very lucky. I had the chance to write my novel while at the same time getting feedback from a supportive group of readers. Rather than going into the cave and never hearing a peep about what I was writing, I was able to write and learn what resounded with people. It gave me a lot of confidence. It made me believe I was a writer.
I know the blog has suffered from the book, in the sense that I've had to ignore it at times, to find time to work on The Eve Tree. And probably vice versa.
What was it about this particular story that compelled you to write The Eve Tree?
I have good friends who told me a story about their ranch and a fire that was approaching. There was also a moment in a bathtub, with firefighters in the house.
I really mourned leaving Northern California, and at the same time, the story just set my imagination on fire. I started writing and couldn't stop. It felt like a way to hold on to the place and not lose it. The characters came very fully formed and I took what my friends had told me and went wild from there. I was really interested in the act of waiting out disaster. The anticipation.
Also, I was writing about mental instability and love. More about that later.
The characters are very richly portrayed in this story, the reader feels like they really know them by the end. Which of the characters do you most identify yourself with?
Molly for sure, although I tend to identify with the characters so strongly that I come away unsure of where I end and they begin. (This is something I've always struggled with in real life. It appears to only be of benefit in writing.) I do also identify with Catherine, and perhaps even appear to people around me to be more of a Catherine, but my insides are a lot like Molly.
You have a male character in this story, named Jack, who is fascinating to me. He sounds believable as a guy, like we're getting a momentary glimpse into what goes through a husband's head. I have yet to make my husband read it to tell me if it's an accurate portrayal, but I'm convinced. When you wrote your male character did you ask any guys if they would really do or think something in the same way as
A lot of what formed Jack comes from long discussions with my husband about what is going on in his head. We talk a lot about it, because with men there is so much that isn't evident on the outside. Watching my guy friends, I had my thoughts on the subject affirmed again and again. But Jack is also completely himself, so I know the inside of his head is not going to be the inside of every guy's head.
Part of the dedication in this book is to "all those who struggle with the dark slippery places of the mind. I wrote this for you." Sometimes in your blog writing you allude to this as well. Is this something that comes from personal experience? How you think that your personal struggle with the dark slippery places affects your writing?
Yes, it is something that comes from personal experience. I live with an anxiety disorder that can be completely debilitating, and I've worked hard to find a way to live with it. It's very important for me to function and be stable for my little ones. I can't lose sleep, for instance. I have to eat regularly. There are so many things that can tip me into anxiety. And I don't mean worry. It's something I almost can't explain, like a wild thing that shakes me and paralyzes me.
Because I've experienced this personally, I will probably always be interested in what makes people do what they do... how much comes from these kinds of disorders, from thoughts that aren't trustworthy.
In a way this book is a love letter to those who struggle with mental instability. It's about loving the imperfect. I think that on top of the burden of dealing with a mind that we have to harness and soothe, we have a lot of shame about being weak. Love covers that shame.
That you understand how relationships work very well is evident in your writing. How would you say you come to this kind of an understanding?
As soon as you say that, I want to say, "No! I don't!" because I feel that I have so much to learn. But I'm always watching, listening, thinking. I've lived in communities for years, so I've had so much up-close experience with relationships. They seem to revolve around all the things we mean to say, all the things we say that we regret, and how hard it is to express and receive love.
One of your characters in this book, Catherine, is a painter. Are you also a painter/artist?
My first love was painting. In school I painted and I was always covered in paint. If my life had taken a different shape, I may never have started writing. But I had kids and we always lived in one room or something crazy like that, and painting takes space. And it takes more time than I had. I worked with one-hour segments of time, the perfect amount of time to sit down and churn out a few hundred words, not enough time to set up paints and easel and break them down again after.
Maybe one day I'll paint again. I hope so.
This book is self published. Why did you choose to go the route of self publishing instead of pursuing traditional publishing avenues?
This is a very long story, but basically I did pursue traditional publication, and at every turn I heard the same thing: that they are taking very few new authors on, that the industry is suffering because of the economy.
And here I am, a girl who had babies and traveled rather than going to university, with almost no credentials. I knew The Eve Tree was a good book. I also knew I was a big risk.
At the end of a year of cold-emailing agents, I stared down the obstacle course that is the route to getting published and found that I wanted to work with a more grass-roots approach and offer my book directly to readers.
I hired a freelance editor who did a couple of very helpful evaluations of the book, combed through it, revised, revised, revised, proof-read, had others proof-read, and made what is in your hands today.
My hope for the book is that readership will grow by word of mouth. That people will read it and love it and pass it on. It will be a long road, and it has already been a lot of work.
Surprisingly, my favorite part of the whole thing was choosing the font and formatting the book to be ready for print. I loved that. Maybe it's the artist in me.
Do you have plans for another book already?
I'm about halfway through the first draft of a new novel. This one is about a traveler in India, and it's been amazing to work on it. It's so different-- The Eve Tree is about people who are very rooted to the land, and this new book is about being a foreigner. It's also written from the perspective of a man, so we'll see how that goes...
I loved reading The Eve Tree, and I cannot wait for you to finish this next one. Thanks.
Buy The Eve Tree at:
Or ask for it at your local bookstore!
Carrien homeschools 4 kids and runs a non-profit from the kitchen counter.