Thursday, October 7, 2010

An Interview with Naseem Rakha, author of The Crying Tree

Please join me in welcoming Naseem Rakha, author of "The Crying Tree," to Lit and Life.  Naseem is an award-winning author and journalist whose stories have been heard on NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace Radio, Christian Science Monitor, and Living on Earth. She lives in Oregon with her husband, son, and many animals. When Naseem isn’t writing, she’s reading, knitting, hiking, gardening, or just watching the seasons roll in and out. The capacity to forgive the unforgivable has long intrigued Rakha. She has witnessed it in her work as a teacher and consultant for Native American tribes, as a mediator in the clean up of the nuclear site that created the Nagasaki bomb, and as a reporter covering state run executions.

1.Was there a particular incident that, more than any other, compelled you to write this book?
On the night of September 8th, 1996 I stood on the grounds of the Oregon State Penitentiary watching as a group of rowdy drunks counted down the final seconds of a man’s life. Inside the one hundred year old walls of the prison, a man was about to be executed. He was to be the first man to die at the hands of the state in more than thirty years, and these people, popping open bear cans, and throwing firecrackers, couldn’t have been happier.

I was reporter, and I was ashamed. Not because of these people, and not even because of what was happening at that moment inside the prison. But because as a reporter I knew I would fail to convey the gravity of that moment in my story the following morning. I simply didn’t have the elements for a good story. The condemned man would not take interviews. Neither would the victim’s families. All we had as journalists were scripted statements from prison administrators and state attorneys, and camera footage or descriptions of the props used during an execution. The room, the gurney, the box of tissues waiting inside the witness booth.

It was not, I knew, enough to convey the importance of this moment: its emotional impact, and the reverberations it would set off in so many lives. One day, I promised myself, I will tell the full story. Crime, punishment, the death penalty. It would be a story that looked at all points of view, the victims, their families, the attorneys, the condemned, and the men and women who must to do the job of killing the condemned.

The Crying Tree is that story. 

2. After writing the book and talking to all the people that you have about finding forgiveness in these horrible situations, do you feel like you have a good grasp of how people are able to forgive?  Do you think you would ever be able to find forgiveness in this kind of situation?   
In general, I have learned, people do not come to forgiveness quickly or easily. It is a struggle, a fight between ones heart and mind. Intellectually, people often know it would be good to forgive. That their lives would somehow be freer, less fraught with the agony that hate and the desire for vengeance exact. But the step from intellectual meandering to the heartfelt exhumation of hate, is a large and is usually preceded by a growing awareness that in this life there is nothing to be done about the past. Nothing can re-shape it, or change it. Nothing can give us back the things we have lost. And in this recognition, people come to understand that they have two choices: to continue to live a destructive life, focusing on loss and what they can do to avenge that loss; or, a constructive life that builds on the hope and beauty that still surrounds them.

These are the people we gravitate toward in a room. They walked through a fire, and came out more whole and more healed. They know who they are, and have a sense of serenity and purpose that draws people to them.

Would I have the presence of mind to forgive if someone I loved were murdered? Or not even that. Perhaps an unintentional death - a car accident, say, or a hunting accident? I would like to say yes. But I can not. I have never been touched by that fire, and so don’t know if I could withstand the flame. But I do know that I have learned a great deal from others as I researched The Crying Tree, and I continue to learn from my readers as they share their own stories of loss and recovery.

3. I read on your website and blog that you had met with a prison book club.  How did that come about? 

I was asked into the women’s prison by a woman who leads a book group there. I wrote a blog about it, and it can be found at: Since that meeting, I have also met with a group of men, all of them in prison for life, and most of whom had read The Crying Tree. A dog eared copy was making its way around the penitentiary, quietly handed from one man to another. “Read this,” they’d say to each other. “Then lets talk.”

The meeting in the men’s prison was arranged by a group called Partnership for Safety and Justice: One of the inmates had contacted the group asking if they could possibly ask me to come talk. The men wanted to know more about forgiveness - what brings people to it - and how do people go about forgiving themselves. It was emotional night. So many mistakes. So much pain. So much loss. These men will never leave the prison. Yet, here they were trying to figure out how they could possibly make life better for the people they once harmed, as well as find a way to accept themselves.

I left feeling humbled, and sad, and hopeful all in one.

Going into prisons has given me the opportunity to learn about compassion, and how if I can feel it within those walls, I surely have a duty to express it outside those walls as well.

 4. I see that you're reading "The Book Thief" right now and that you have a wonderful list of favorites on your website.  I've spoken to some authors who say they can't read while they're writing or it clutters their minds with other writer's styles and ideas.  Did you find that you were able to read while you were writing the book? 

Actually, I finished the Book Thief quite a while ago. Wonderful book told from a wonderful point of view: the angel of death. Now I am reading Waiting for Columbus, by Thomas Trofimuk. Waiting was recently chosen, as was The Crying Tree, for the United Kingdom’s most influential book group, kind of the Oprah of the UK. It is a great read.

I find, however, that when I am in the midst of writing, I have no time to read. It’s simply impossible. When deep in writing, there is only writing. It is a kind of disease. Right now I am coming off of a major book tour and so have had time to pick up others’ works and have their voices in my mind. In the coming weeks, though, I expect this to change, and all these great books I have on my shelves will simply have to wait until I come back up for air.

5.  I know some authors work by a very structured schedule and others write as the muse strikes; some let them take the story take them where it will, while others have a clear outline they work from.  Can you please tell me readers a little about how you work when you're writing?

I do not create a detailed outline. Instead I create building blocks. First chapter, last chapter, mid-crisis chapter. These are like buoys, places to aim for. After I have a first draft I create a detailed outline of what I have written to see if it works, where I am redundant, what needs moving around, or just simply put to death.

Most of my writing takes place in the morning. I wake early, write, exercise, then, once I have my son off to school, write some more.

6.  Can you tell us about your work space?
I work where ever I am. If I am in the car waiting for my son to get out of school, that is my workspace. Coffee shops are good too. As is my kitchen counter, my dining room table, my living room chair. I like to have music on - and choose music that will elicit specific moods. I create playlists for the books I am working on. I listen to these playlists a lot. While writing, while driving, while cooking. They trigger scene and emotion. They stimulate words.

 7.  Are you working on another book?

8.  Do you have any guilty pleasures?
Not a one.

 9.  What has been your reaction to all of the accolades you've received for this book, including being chosen as a Target Breakout book?

First, it always amazes me when people say they have read my book. I understand what an honor that is. There are literally hundreds of thousands of books to choose from, and of course, millions of other ways to occupy ones time. So that when people say they have read my book, then take time to write me or even comment on amazon or other review sites, I know and appreciate what a gift that is.

Knowing that, I have to fight a fear reaction - can I write a book that is equal to The Crying Tree? I think I can, and am, in fact working on that now.

10.  You've done so many things in your career.  Now that you're a publisher novelist, do you feel that you're more of a reporter still or do you find yourself wanting to write more books?

I want to write stories. If some of those stories are non fiction, that is fine. My goal is to tell stories that get people to think and to feel things they may never had other wise.

Thanks so much for taking the time to share with us!


  1. I love author interviews - these are fantastic questions, and I love the insight. I can't wait to read this one.

  2. What an awful story about the crowd outside the Oregon Penitentiary. It sounds like things haven't changed much since the days of public hangings! And how poignant about the meeting in the men's prison. Wonderful interview!

  3. I like the interview very much. Thanks for this post.

  4. What a great interview! I admire her reasons for writing the book and have to admit that I am really looking forward to getting the chance to read it.

  5. I have a copy of this book but haven't read it yet. Your interview with her makes me want to push it up the reading list.

    I think reading in groups is a beneficial act. Even in prison, the act of reading is an important one. Some of these inmates have never experienced a world outside of their own. Reading gives them that chance.

  6. Thanks! for sharing the interview.

  7. Excellent interview. What an interesting topic for a book! Even in every day life, it can be hard to forgive the very minor trespasses against us. It sounds like a very important book.

  8. Great post's inspired me to get my copy of this book off my shelf soon and read it!

  9. Thanks for the interview with some interesting questions that give an insight into Naseem Rakha's reason for writing about this subject as a novel and what she reads herself. I so want to make time to read this book.

  10. I really enjoyed this interview as I just took this book off my shelf and hope to read it by year's end....thanks Lisa.