An Author Branching Out
Writing The Tree-Sitter an excursion into the unknown for Matson
By Sean Smith
When Prof. Suzanne Matson (English) embarked on her third novel, she envisioned doing something different - but probably not interviewing a masked man with the pseudonym of a popular cartoon character in the middle of the Pacific Northwest wilderness.
Yet Matson found a journalistic approach was immensely helpful in writing The Tree-Sitter, which chronicles a young woman's struggles with love, idealism and morality when she joins a group of radical environmental activists trying to stop encroaching development in an Oregon forest.
In preparation for the book, Matson researched the forest protection movement and its various organizations, then traveled to Oregon to visit their offices before finally journeying out to a "tree-sitting" site. Looking up at the activists occupying a tree, Matson tried to explain the purpose of her visit: "I yelled, 'I'm a novelist! I'm doing research!'" she recalls with a laugh. A few minutes later, a young man wearing a bandana to disguise his face lowered himself to the ground and, identifying himself as "Wily Coyote," agreed to speak with Matson and show her around.
"I was venturing into unknown territory, quite literally," says Matson, "and I felt that in terms of describing the life of the activists - even details like how they got up and down the trees, or what their camp looked like - I really needed to see for myself."
Matson will discuss The Tree-Sitter on Feb. 23 at 7:30 p.m. in Devlin 101, one of two events being held this month as part of the "Writers Among Us" series on Boston College authors. On Feb. 28, Prof. Richard Blake, SJ (Fine Arts), will give a talk on his recent book, Street Smart: The New York of Lumet, Allen, Scorsese and Lee [see separate story].
Realistically depicting environmental activism was one of several challenges for Matson in writing The Tree-Sitter. It is, she says, a coming-of-age tale centered on Julie, a college student who seems poised for conventional success but chooses a different path when she meets Neil, part of a "tree-sitter" group.
Another element to the story is Julie's complicated relationship with her mother, a liberal lawyer with strong ideas about her daughter's future. Gradually, as Julie becomes more committed to Neil and his cause - and the activists become more militant - the personal strains between her and her mother develop an intensely political overlay, Matson says.
"Through it all, we see Julie begin to develop a moral perspective, confronting some very troubling dilemmas: How far do you go to support your beliefs? When is it wrong to do good too zealously? How much damage do you do by not acting?"
Matson says such questions usually help provide the impetus for her novels in the first place. For her first, Hunger Moon - which explores the unlikely bond between three single women of different generations - the question was, "What makes a family?"
In the case of The Tree-Sitter, Matson says she became increasingly intrigued by the phenomenon of domestic terrorism, especially in the high-anxiety atmosphere following 9/11. "We hear about incidents in the news, of campaigns of violence and intimidation carried out against individuals, corporations or organizations for sociopolitical reasons. The question, for me, became 'Who gets involved in that?'
"That helped lead me to the character of Julie: someone who's from a 'good' background, well-educated and with many opportunities, but young and impressionable enough to be influenced to take part - up to a point, anyway. Because of her personal and family circumstances, her decisions are not made in a vacuum, but she's often oblivious to that."
Having put on a journalistic hat for The Tree-Sitter, Matson says she is taking on another new role for her next book, which will be set in World War One-era Montana. "I've never written an historical novel before, so I'll have to teach myself. You always hope to keep evolving and growing as a writer, and for me each new book is about learning the writing process all over again."