Seeing Every Tree - Anita Kovacevic Today's guest is Anita Kovacevic, a remarkable author whose tireless work on behalf of other authors makes her an unsung hero -so let's do some singing.
Tell me a bit about yourself - where do you live and what do you do when you’re not writing? My family and I live in Croatia, where we are all from. I teach English in a private school for foreign languages to groups of various ages; this is a full-time job. Writing sneaks in whenever possible, usually on breaks and holidays, but when a story is particularly active in my head, it will worm its way even into my dreams at night. Writing makes time for itself, but, for now, it tries to understand my main priority – family.
Can you give me a brief picture of your personal journey as a writer? Another author friend recently celebrated his anniversary and, as I congratulated him on his success, I checked my own publishing dates. It all still seems so fresh, especially knowing how much I have yet to learn about the craft, but it was only at that moment, when I checked the date, that I realized my books have been in the publishing world for over three years now. There are four of my children’s books out there and, in the world of adult fiction, there’s a novella, two novels, two poetry collections, and finally my stories and poems in six anthologies. If I am doing my math well, that sums up to fifteen titles available online to my own name. It still seems totally surreal at times.
There are two wonderful charity projects which came even before my own books and sort of started the whole business of books for me – an educational story book published traditionally a long time ago,Teaching Children from the Heart (currently unavailable) and the international anti-bullying anthology Inner Giant (available on Amazon). I was invited to both by Mr. Letras, an author and teacher, as a member of an online teachers group. These two collections are, in a way, why I dared publish at all. They are linked to my work in education and I am very proud of participating in them.
Most of my books are self-published, because I too have had my share of encounters with vanity publishers, which are way too costly for all of my resources, financially, time-wise and emotionally.
When I think back to my childhood, I was always writing something, and then it continued throughout my education, as well as my teaching. I often write lesson materials, stories, riddles and limericks for my learners and theatre plays which they perform. This is actually how all of my children’s books started.
As for my current position as a writer, I would say I am still exploring my possibilities and learning as much as I can. Teaching is my primary occupation and it takes up a lot of my time, especially now that the school year is ending, but it also provides a lot of inspiration.
I have not distilled my writing into one single genre, nor do I plan to. There are still too many stories in different genres which I feel should see the light of the publishing world. They are waiting in my laptop and notebooks (yes, old-fashioned hand-writing has its advantages) for their time to come and for me to give them proper attention.
Let’s talk about The Forest of Trees, a book which left a huge impression on me because of the questions it raises and because it is so unusual!
You know that the title put me off reading the book and that it was only after starting the book and reading your explanation, that I thought about it differently. Why do you like a title that repeats the obvious? First of all, thank you very much for reading the book. It means a lot to me, because I admire your work tremendously.
Yes, The Forest of Trees is very unusual and difficult to sum up. Trust me – the blurb was the most difficult thing to write. I suppose when you’ve spent seven years writing something, it is only right that it should be difficult to sum up.
But let’s start from the title. I had tried changing it many times during the writing and revision process. It would not be changed. Whatever I tried to do, I’d go back to it. Anything else caused havoc in my mind and a severe stomachache. This book wanted to be called The Forest of Trees from the very moment it clicked in my head, and it feels right to me. The marketability of the title is something I am not yet worried about in my writing career. The obviousness of the message, seeing or not being able to see a forest for the trees, doesn’t bother me at all, knowing that nothing else functioned for me. To be honest, nowadays the obvious needs to be stressed – you might be amazed how many people I’ve talked to who know of this saying, and think it refers to weeds in a garden or forest, without any idea of its metaphorical strength. (Sometimes I wonder if people really don’t see or simply choose not to.) I admire the people who are able to see the big picture still respecting each individual tree, and you know, of course, that I am not only talking about plant life here. I have been privileged to know and work with some of such people. The novel abounds in characters, and their stories are so different, and yet all connected, even when we don’t want them to be. Kind of like life.
The Forest of Trees deals with a family who move out of a big city, drained from illnesses, unemployment and their son being bullied, and they set off in search of a better life in a small town. Their lives change tremendously, as the children start a new school, the mother starts working and the father is temporarily not the bread-winner of the family. Opportunities abound, and unusual new friendships are formed, but, naturally, nothing is ever perfect. Small towns have their own secrets, some wonderful, some less. It’s how we deal with them that matters, on our own but also together.
What makes the story different and special are The Forest and all the characters. The Forest is an infamous wood right next to their new residence, with sort of an urban legend behind it, which turns out to be partly true. In a way, the nature and the magical parts of the story are a reflection of what happens in human reality – nothing is ever totally good or bad, and communication and empathy are the keys to handling things and connecting all the trees in the forest. And again, I am not only talking about plant life here. Speck and Tallulah, the link between the magical and human world, are both tiny, which is how much magic humans allow into this world.
I never expected everyone to like the title, cover or the story. I am a writer and teacher, which automatically makes me crazy, but I am not so crazy as to think any book could please everyone. Being at peace with this may be the result of my joining several truly positive author communities, where other authors helped me put things into perspective. It may also be the result of having children and working with them – they teach you very early on that ego is a ridiculous thing and you can never please everybody. The trick is to live with yourself as you are, or else you are living a lie.
I felt that the fantasy creatures of the forest highlighted the same problems experienced by the human characters: bullying, peer pressure, violence, and losing touch with nature (in all its senses). Did you write the fantasy thread with this in mind? Absolutely, they do highlight them. Thank you for interpreting it in this way. I did not write them with this in mind though. They had me write them. From the very beginning of the story, they were part of it. They grew with the characters and developed the relationships naturally. I am pleased they revealed themselves in true form too, not all of them as good or bad, just like humans. I have always believed we are just parts of the intricate tapestry of the universe, and that there is far more to this world, call it magic or nature or whatever you want, than we allow ourselves to see.
As my characters, the fantasy ones and the ‘real’ ones, connected and formed their relationships, it made me feel more complete, more connected, happier. There are several scenes in the book which made me cry happy tears. The initial scene of the boy, Jeremy, whistling in the middle of the forest the very first day they arrive from the city, waking up the slumbering trees and his own soul… this one was so lovely to write, but grew more and more powerful every time I reread it during revisions. Now that I’ve had some time to cool my head from the story, it still evokes strong emotions within me. And that’s just chapter one.
There are some hard-hitting scenes, showing abusive family relationships and how these affect the wider community, in school, or in the neighbourhood. Were these hard to write? Horribly difficult to write. I tried not to write some. I avoided them.
Old Jackson, the malicious ‘pig’ king, was a special torment for me. The scene where he bullies his youngest grandson and then suffers a just punishment (which should bring some gratification, but doesn’t make you feel good), haunted me as a nightmare for 2 weeks. I would wake up in cold sweat with him whispering in my ear. It is the writer’s horror – the scene repeats itself, word for word, with even more detail every single time. Finally, I gave in, got up one night at about 2 a.m. and wrote it down. I slept like a log the rest of that morning.
A similar thing happened with the French teacher, Gabrielle, waking up in the motel room, beaten and half-conscious, trying to decide if she wants to try to remember or to forget what exactly happened during the night. This one woke me up after I’d dreamt it, and the entire chapter was dreamed almost exactly as it appears in the book.
Philip, the little boy who uses his talent in computer sciences for his unbelievably malicious plans, was a shock. I’d known from the start he’d be worse than Angel, who is merely a physical bully with learned behavior who needed some love. But the extent of Philip’s wickedness gave me that feeling of defeat. Having almost twenty-five years of teaching experience, I have seen children grow into people I’d hoped they wouldn’t, but this happened really rarely. I love children and their potential, which needs only be unlocked, nourished and inspired by positivity. All the children at Tillsworth seemed to be my learners, so seeing one of them perform such devious acts actually hurt. I remember writing out his final scenes in the book constantly thinking ‘You’re not really going to do that, are you, Philip? Please, don’t. You can do so much better, be so much more…’ It didn’t help. He is very savvy on computers, but uses his power for evil, with total disregard for others or any responsibility. What he did in the end started an avalanche of events which crumbled the town to pieces and tested all relationships. Some might say his deed was eventually productive, but I’d always rather have people water the trees than shake them.
These difficult characters and scenes still have that effect on me which you might call 'writer’s PTSP'. Some might know what I mean. I was not just writing those scenes. I was actually there witnessing them and could do nothing about them. It’s a terrible feeling to wake up with the taste of blood in your mouth which is virtual, and yet not.
One layer of the story follows a teacher and her family to a new job and environment. How far did this story draw on your own life, as a teacher, and as a mother? Well, I am happy to report none of the abuse scenes come from my own life, which is probably why they were so difficult for me to witness and then write. Somehow, putting them on paper makes them real, as if I am admitting these situations exist. They do, but I wish they didn’t.
Whatever we may think, that we are not guided by our own life when we write, that we are not divulging our own thoughts and details in our writing… I believe it is impossible to separate the two completely. There are some scenes related to lessons which probably stem from my own experiences, even some methods Emma uses in class. Emma’s feelings of inadequacy as a mother during her days at home with her firstborn are something I can completely relate to. There are some tiny details in the Stone family life which sneaked into the story with love and honesty, such as Emma not being much of a cook, Dot’s dislike of wearing proper skirts, Jeremy’s art, which must have been inspired by some situations from my own life. Some characters were inspired by the people I know, but never entirely, just in some mannerisms, clothing style, etc.
Fantasy often presents Good versus Evil in grand battles and in this book you show that battle in both fantasy-style action and in metaphorical human struggles. I loved the section offering youngsters a way to deal with bullying. But you don’t offer easy solutions. One youngster is portrayed as being beyond redemption. I was reminded of Kevin, in ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin,’ and of real teenage murderers. Do you think containment is sometimes all that’s possible? You are talking about Philip, but also some other children. Bullying is often copied, learned behavior. There is a difference between kids who bully others physically and those who abuse them mentally. Philip’s is the worst kind, I think. He operates from the shadows. I’d hate to see what he grows up to be.
Interesting you should mention containment. I believe it depends on timing. Forgive my bluntness, but it’s like a serious illness – if discovered early, things can be done about it. Philip’s mother Gloria is not a bad person; she herself has obviously been taught that her beauty is her only value, and as it fades, she gets more scared. She knows no better. She never even sees what he is growing into. I’d always felt that at one point she realized his intelligence had surpassed hers and she simply escaped into herself. She may have felt he was not taking the path of positivity, but being lost herself, she was no guide. I have seen this happen – people who are unable to follow their children’s talents or mental development, who are either too weak to ask for help or even too ashamed to ask for help.
This is why I cannot stress communication enough. Solutions to problems are never easy, because the problems are not easy. I believe for Philip it was too late to do anything. Regrettably, there are situations like that. I remember seeing this in some children. It is a frightening feeling in the pit of your stomach as you gaze into that child’s eyes and you realize they do know the difference between right and wrong, but it doesn’t interest them – all they care about is what they want. It is one of the scariest feelings in the world, seeing future in that light. You hope you are wrong. And then you meet the source – the parents, and the feeling in your stomach sinks in – irredeemable. Frightful feeling. I am glad it is rare.
But overall, bullying and abuse in children can be handled and steered in the right direction. All my other children characters are proof. The project they work on at school is one I feel so privileged to have witnesses in my mind. It has nothing to do with bullying, and yet demands all the positive things I believe in education – creativity, team work, individuality, respect, problem solving, collaboration with adults… even things getting literally messy in water colours. It is my firm belief that by focusing on positivity and creativity is the way to go.
As for Jeremy’s method to handle bullying by finding his own inner strength, I’d thought a lot about it. For a moment I was even a bit disappointed that he’d chosen such stereotypes (talking to his own angel and demon), until I realized it was normal – children use images we provide them with, so having his own angel and demon was his brain simplifying things for him to a level he was able to handle. The Ready Room is one of my favourite places in the book, but people need to read the book to see why. And it is not even a physical place.
Who is your ideal reader and what would you like him/her to take away from reading your book? Oh this may be the most difficult question of all. I don’t know what kind of person it would take to like The Forest of Trees, but perhaps that’s part of the magic of writing. I would certainly recommend it to educators, parents, family people, even young adults with interest in human psyche. Anyone who doesn’t mind a bit of magic now and then. The fantasy creatures certainly helped me handle some of the ghastly people in the book.
I hope readers feel good after reading the novel and it makes them think about themselves and others. I hope they realize how much respect some people, for instance the Bosworths (the school principal and his wife), deserve – the modest, non-conflicting people who never steal the show but facilitate life to all around them, despite their own personal tragedy.
Everyone has a story. I hope my readers admit that children, and some adults, need to believe in magic, need their own inner world which makes them better people. Tallulah, Speck and the trees, the fantasy elements I mentioned in this interview, they are the links in the book, with the help of the children, of course. They keep the balance. I love my tree characters. I cried over some, and I’d love to meet them in person. I hope my readers will too.
How do you feed your creative engine? Where do you look, or what do you do, to keep the inspiration flowing? With everything else still taking precedence in my life, inspiration flows too often to fit my timetable. I never have to look for it – it finds me. The people at the bus stop, a scent, an image, music, somebody’s laughter, doing the dishes, chatting with my husband or my kids… everything has a story. Everyone has a story.
What comes first –location, plot, characters? An entire scene plays out in my head, or even a dream. With sounds, scents and all. When that happens, I know I’m in for a story. Some stories continue right away, playing out scene by scene on a daily basis, some don’t. Those take their time, simmer down and lurk. When their time comes, they simply continue themselves. If they don’t, they just weren’t meant to be.
Tell me about your writing day. Do you work to a routine? Do you have a dedicated space to write in? Endless cups of coffee or tea? Oh that would be something – a writing day! Well, that notion certainly gives me something to hope for :) . I had a spot dedicated to writing, but now it’s my daughter’s school desk. Luckily, I am not a slave to a place. All I need is that spark and then I can write on napkins. For instance, a part of The Forest of Trees was written on the back of my old lesson plans. What does happen when I’m in the writing zone is that lack of sleep becomes a routine. I usually eat more and gain less while I write. The perfect diet, huh? And I am generally in a really good mood. Writing makes me a better person to the people around me – must be because I release those demons from my head.
Who or what has been the greatest help to you as a writer? As far as my children’s books are concerned, I’d say my own children and my little learners. They don’t know I write books, by the way (my learners, I mean), so when I tell a story they react as kids do – honestly and brutally. If they lose interest, I know I am doing it wrong. Some of my colleagues have offered lots of support and even use my stories in my lessons. Those people are in my dedications.
My friends and family try to be supportive, each in their own way. My husband has learned to understand my insomniac phases and persuaded me to get myself a very small and very silent laptop, so I could write during the night and not wake him up. I also have been blessed with good friends who tell me my mistakes to my face, not behind my back. I have been privileged to meet some wonderful authors, yourself included, who help with advice, reviews, promoting, even proofreading and editing. Forgive me for not naming them, but I’d hate anyone to feel left out, and then again some people hate feeling tagged. Reading helps me a lot. I often remember my English teachers and writing instructors from my university days when I write. They must have done something right, right?
What has been the hardest thing for you to overcome in becoming an author? Lots of things really. Realizing you can write whatever you want, but once it is in publishing stages, it becomes a business like everything else. I am not much of a business person, so investments, marketing and strategizing are not my forte.
The moment you realize it will take a long time and perseverance is a difficult one. However, it is not as frustrating as I imagined it would be. One has to be at peace with the fact that things need time to happen. Of course, if you give up, you are not allowing yourself that time, so have no expectations.
One thing I am still trying to overcome… well, not overcome but balance and come to terms with is life’s reality – responsibilities and priorities. Let’s say it’s a good thing – it means I am still learning, and that keeps me young.
If you could pick one of your own characters to spend some time with, who would it be and why? Oh I couldn’t. Just one? Can I cheat a bit? I’d love to take a walk through The Forest with my family and see who we bumped into. That would be a treat.
What are you working on now - or next? Oddly enough, or not, I’ve just finished the first version of a non-fiction manuscript. It’s a book about a method I apply when I teach – something I’ve come up with that works for not only my subject, sort of a strategy of learning and teaching which is pretty simple and most effective. I also have several children’s books and adult short story collections in editing stages, and an unusual psychological thriller in ‘lurking’ stage – it wants to be written but knows it requires lots of research.
Tell me about your latest book and why we should all buy it? The latest one is The Forest of Trees, which I talked about a lot during this interview, and thank you immensely for this opportunity. Why should you buy it? Because it is really good, ha-ha. Told you I am no marketing expert. I can recommend you tons of books by other authors though, and be spectacularly creative about it.
I can vouch for that and it's been impossible for me to interview Anita at a time when she's not reviewing and promoting my books! This has made it harder for me to interview her and to review The Forest of Trees but as she would say, 'Finally I gave in to my gut and I slept better.' My respect for her grows every time we exchange views and, as we've both been teachers for a long time, we share the knowledge of how hard it is to be in the front line of a battle that seems to grow ever more dangerous.
What are we doing for and to our kids? This gripping novel makes you wonder!
This is not a children's story although some youngsters would relate to many parts of it. Through a gripping story, the author faces us with some of those big questions behind the news every day, and helps us understand people better. How can we protect our children, sometimes from each other? What drives some adults, and some children to commit horrific crimes? How does our relationship with nature affectour nature, as a human society?
The Forest of Trees is unusual in the way it links a fantasy storyline that seems almost childish, with a realistic depiction of bullying and abuse, in a small town location. Every detail of school life is convincing, both from teachers' viewpoints and students'. The youngsters and their relationships below the radar of adult intervention are heart-breaking in their potential for both good and evil. I was rooting for Jeremy! I also appreciated the quiet goodness of many of the adults, which I found more moving than any one superhero could have been.
Bad things happen, in the book and in life, and the Ready Room is something we all need. You'll have to read the book to understand what it is and why!
This book annoyed me because it didn't make its mind up which sort of book it was. The title annoyed me until I read the author's explanation for it (which you don't read unless you get past the title). The fairy annoyed me - maybe it was just the word 'fairy' that seemed childish - and yet, the faery folk of legend aren't childish at all. All my criticisms disappeared against the inescapable fact that I keep thinking about this book. It's as important as We Need To Talk About Kevin and Micka in showing us something about youngsters today. We need to talk about Philip.