Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Ilie Ruby's "The Language of Trees"

Ilie Ruby won the Phi Kappa Phi Award for Fiction, the Eden L. Moses Award, a Kerr Foundation Fiction Scholarship, the Wesleyan Writer’s Conference Scholarship in NonFiction, and the Barbara Kemp Award for Outstanding Teaching and Scholarship. She has published poems and short stories in literary and online magazines, and is the former fiction editor of The Southern California Anthology. A graduate of the Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California, she has worked on PBS documentaries in Honduras, as well as taught elementary school in Los Angeles.

Here is the story of her new novel, The Language of Trees, and her thoughts on casting a big screen adaptation of it:
The Language of Trees is a mystery-love story filled with restless spirits, both living and not. Woven with magical realism and Seneca Indian folklore, the story takes place in the sprawling lake region of Canandaigua, NY, once the site of battles that were fought there, now the site of battles of a different kind—those of love, forgiveness, and addiction. As the story goes, a little boy, Luke Ellis, disappears in the lake on a rainy night, and neither of his sisters, Melanie or Maya, can explain it though they were with him. The mystery is never solved. Over a decade later, Melanie, now a teenager, goes missing, leaving her infant son. Townspeople isolated by years of secrets and old lovers separated by guilt and grief come together in the frantic search to save her, only to discover a world where nature and the spiritual realm intertwine, nothing is as it seems, and the past refuses to stay where it belongs.

Frantic that the past is repeating itself, Grant Shongo, a Seneca healer, who has turned his back on his legacy, and the woman who left him years ago, his childhood love, Echo O’Connell, find themselves drawn into the search with the help of a restless spirit. Echo has returned after all this time to put the past to rest with a secret of her own.

My characters are ordinary folks who have fallen prey to tragedy and adversity, but who are capable of extraordinary things when put to the test. They are rarely beautiful, uncommonly wise, though this doesn’t stop anyone from falling in love with them, nor does it stop them from making very human choices—some that could wreck a life. They have let true loves slip away, they have let themselves become isolated by fear, they have made excuses for themselves—until this moment when everyone is called to action to prevent the past from repeating itself and bring Melanie Ellis home. I like the idea that one of my main characters, Leila Ellis, forgoes her usual raggedy attire and in a definitive act of dignity and self-preservation dons her once-worn suit and high heels before getting in the car to drive the streets of Canandaigua all night looking for her runaway teenage daughter. I love the idea that Melanie, her daughter, has just gotten herself clean for a cause: her infant son, and though she has not lost her edge or her temptation, she will do anything she can to be strong for him, even it means doing the hardest thing of all: forgiving herself for what happened to her brother all those years ago.

Here’s the cast of characters, and those I imagine would play them:

Joseph O’Connell: a former priest, wisdom keeper of the story, who maintains his belief in the goodness of the human spirit though he’s been given every reason not to. Let Morgan Freeman play him. What with those watery tender eyes, and that face full of wisdom. He is grand with depth enough to hold all the human tribulations in the story.

Leila Ellis: the mother of three, whose children have suffered at the hands of her mistakes. The big guns, Sally Field or Meryl Streep. They can play strong, broken, vulnerable, creatures that have made treacherous mistakes and yet somehow remain worthy of vindication and admiration.

Grant Shongo: the Seneca faith healer who can’t accept his legacy. I choose actor Eric Bana, from The Time Traveler’s Wife. He has just the right amount of humility and obsession. Tobey Maguire can also be humble while still being extraordinary. Grant Shongo is a far cry from Spiderman but it doesn’t hurt that Maguire knows how to use superpowers.

Echo O’Connell: the woman who broke Grant’s heart years ago, Joseph’s daughter, she has not let her heart settle into womanhood, remarkably vulnerable yet unshakably strong. This is a hard one. A young Deborah Winger would be perfect. Someone completely natural, who is beautiful mostly because of who she is.

Melanie Ellis: 19, a teenage mother, beautiful but hates the idea of beauty, edgy yet vulnerable, an ex-addict bent on changing her life. I am a huge fan of Brie Larson, who plays Kate Gregson on The United States of Tara. Kristin Stewart would be good here, too. It’s that irresistible quality of self-possession, with an incredible, if not rarely seen, warmth, that is unmistakably forgiving.
Visit Ilie Ruby's website, blog, and Facebook page.

Writers Read: Ilie Ruby.

The Page 69 Test: The Language of Trees.

--Marshal Zeringue