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Author Talk: June 2008

June 2008

Lawyer-turned-novelist Christina Meldrum's debut work, MADAPPLE, combines elements of science and faith in a rich and provocative tale about a young woman who is torn from her isolated existence upon the unexpected death of her mother.

In this interview, Meldrum discusses how the idea for this book sprung from her interest in the dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural, and explains the unusual circumstances under which her protagonist, Aslaug, was created. She also elaborates on the story's themes of confinement, shares her thoughts on the strengths and limitations of language, and names some of the "smart mysteries" to which she looked for inspiration.

Question: MADAPPLE is part literary mystery, part botanical thesis. How did you decide to combine these elements? What came first, the plot or the plants?
Christina Meldrum: The skeleton of the plot came first and necessitated Aslaug being isolated from modern society. That Aslaug and her mother would live off the land and that Aslaug would see the world through the lens of plants seemed fitting at first, if not essential. But it slowly became absolutely essential. The more I learned about plants, the more plants began to shape the plot. In the end, the plants and the plot became indistinguishable for me. And now? I can't imagine the story absent the botany.
Q: MADAPPLE combines other unusual elements as well. Norse and Celtic mythology, early Christianity, Greco-Roman mystery religions and various sects of Judaism are interspersed with references to scientific concepts such as quantum particles, parallel universes and dark matter. And all of this in a who-done-it. Why?
CM: I love to read books that are entertaining but also intellectually provocative --- and I hoped to write this kind of book. I was inspired by smart mysteries like Umberto Ecco's THE NAME OF THE ROSE, Donna Taart's A SECRET HISTORY and David Guterson's SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS. These books have page-turning plots, but they also are rich on a more cerebral level. I hope I accomplished this, too, even on a small scale.
Q: When did you begin writing MADAPPLE?
CM: I began writing MADAPPLE while working as a litigator. I would rise at five each morning to write for an hour before work. I remember sitting at my desk in my tiny apartment in San Francisco, my computer providing the only light. I remember that part-dream state in which Aslaug, the protagonist of MADAPPLE, was birthed: a state that seemed a bridge between the natural world and the supernatural, where my rational mind and my unconscious merged. And I remember the strange sensation of leaving that in-between world to go to my law office, where the world became wholly rational. And I would wonder while I wrote briefs and interviewed witnesses and prepared for depositions and reviewed copious amounts of documents: why does that part-dream state seem more real than this?
Q: Why do you think that part-dream state did seem more real?
CM: I had majored in religion at college. And I had come to believe the dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural --- between science and religion --- was a human construct. Rationality alone seemed limited in its ability to capture the world.
Q: Did the idea for MADAPPLE grow out of this belief?
CM: Yes, the belief that rationality alone is limited in its ability to capture the world was the catalyst for my writing of MADAPPLE. As Aslaug, the sixteen-year-old protagonist of MADAPPLE says, "Science describes the world, it doesn't explain it: it can describe the universe's formation, but it can't explain why such an event would have occurred, how something can come from nothing. That's the miracle."
Yet, religion absent science --- absent rationality --- also seemed deficient: if God exists, would not nature be a means by which to understand God? The more I researched the natural world in my writing of MADAPPLE, the more convinced of this I became. Plants, which are so central to MADAPPLE's plot, are truly amazing. The more I learned, the more I understood Einstein's belief that genuine religiosity lies not in blind faith but in a "striving after rational knowledge." My hope in writing MADAPPLE is that I have somehow captured that in-between space where religion and science meet.
Q: Speaking of rationality, are the legal scenes in MADAPPLE realistic?
CM: I wanted the scenes to be accurate from a legal perspective, and for the most part I'd say they are realistic. Although I am an attorney, I have not practiced criminal law. I hired an expert named Dan Smulow to review the legal scenes for me --- and he was invaluable. I did take some literary license. For instance, Aslaug's testimony is broken into sections and dispersed throughout the text. In real life, her testimony would be unified. But overall, the legal scenes proceeded as they may have in real life.
Q: Confinement seems to be a theme in MADAPPLE. Aslaug is confined physically, both when in Harstwell and when in Bethan. She is trapped in a body that no longer is hers alone. She is limited in what she has access to intellectually, first by her mother and then by Susanne. She discusses how language is confining --- how it can confine one's thinking. And all of this while the threat of imprisonment looms throughout her trial.
CM: Confinement is a theme, in many iterations. I wanted to use Aslaug's physical confinement --- in Hartswell and later in Bethan --- as a springboard to consider other types of confinement: emotional, social, intellectual. I wanted to explore ways in which we humans are confined: how in our attempt to understand the world, we often simplify it, and thereby distort it. We create categories, based on what we know or have felt or believe is socially acceptable, and we divide the world into these categories. But the real world is way messier. It doesn't fit well into categories. I wanted to write about the mess. I wanted to write about what seeps out.
Q: Can you give some examples of these categories to which you refer?
CM: Science versus religion. Christian versus pagan. Platonic love versus sexual love. Plants versus drugs. Medicine versus intoxicant. Guilt versus innocence. Myth versus truth.
Q: Aslaug's voice is quite poetic. She almost seems from another time. Why did you write her voice this way?
CM: Like the categories above, I believe language, too, can oversimplify reality. At one point, Aslaug's mother Maren says to her: "Words are like the physical objects around us that appear to be continuous and whole, but are in fact composed of particles too small for the eye to see, for the brain to imagine. Words oversimplify reality. Break open a word, and it's like breaking a mold. The contents seep free, become something new." I believe poetry is one way of "breaking the mold." In other words, I believe poetic language can at times capture a reality that words alone cannot. I wanted the freedom to write Aslaug's voice as separate from any time period --- and I was able to do this because of her social isolation. Aslaug was not confined by the language of the time because she was unfamiliar with that language. The lens through which she understood the world, and therefore described the world, was hued by her knowledge of plants and mythology.
Q: Is there another MADAPPLE in the works?
CM: There's another book, but it's unrelated to MADAPPLE. I'm researching and writing the second book now. Knopf plans to publish it as well. I have not given the book a title yet, though. More to follow!