Shelf Unbound: What interested you in writing a novel about a family?
Owen Thomas: Setting the action for a novel in a family context helps to make the story instantly relevant and relatable to the reader. I also find that a well-drawn set of family relationships presents both a good microcosm of society at large and an excellent literary laboratory in which to explore issues of deception, trust, forgiveness, sacrifice and, particularly important in this book, the development of individual identity.
Shelf Unbound: Has being an attorney for 25 years contributed to your writing skills?
Thomas: Brief writing requires adherence to not only a professional tone, but a set of organizational and narrative conventions that seriously limit what you can say and how you can say it. Also, the truth happens to be a very big deal in legal briefs. In writing novels, every decision about what to say and how to say it is entirely up to the writer, and the truth is only as important as the writer wants it to be. So brief writing has made me crave the freedom inherent in writing novels.
Shelf Unbound: How do you create your characters?
Thomas: Main characters usually present themselves in the first instance as ideas, rather than as people. A major theme in The Lion Trees concerns how we work tirelessly to reinforce our sense of identity even if that identity is counter-factual and threatens our own well-being. Developing that kind of theme requires characters whose lives are emblematic in ways that will illustrate the point. So I first needed a cast of ideas. I needed hubris. I needed guilt. I needed self-deception and self-sabotage and a host of other foibles that I could animate to serve my thematic needs. Eventually those ideas condense down into people with names and histories and physical dimension.
What’s the secret to writing great dialogue? The secret is authenticity. It has to read on the page like it sounds to the ear. Rhythm is important. Dialect. Idiomatic shortcuts. Building in negative space. Using implied sequiturs and believable non-sequiturs. Threading in the surrounding environment. You have to care as much or more about how characters sound to the mind’s ear as what information they exchange.