Friday, July 5, 2019

Summer of Tree Books: Rules for Visiting

Interspersed throughout Jessica Francis Kane’s new novel, Rules for Visiting, are lovely drawings of trees, like this one of the yew. The drawings are by Edward Carey and in the book, they represent “tree sheets” given by an elderly man to his daughter, as they try to decide which one to plant in memoriam when he’s gone. This may seem like a strange notion but the daughter, May Attaway, is a botanist by trade. She spends more time with plants than with people and over the course of the novel, she sets out on a journey to try to amend this.
I was fortunate to be able to chat with Jessica this week for a LitChat on Twitter. (You can read the transcript here.) We talked about her unique, initial inspiration for the novel. After the author Amanda Davis’s untimely passing in 2003, McSweeney’s set up a memorial page and as Jessica read the many comments from Davis’s many, many friends, she began to contemplate writing something about friendship—namely, exploring what it takes to be a good friend. And as novels tend to do, it became a stewpot of many other things as well. But that initial spark remains in the final product; the story is about May Attaway’s quest to reconnect with four friends from her past. Among the novel’s other ingredients: May’s ruminations about plants and trees, but also classic books and writers. May also notes the outpouring of messages for an author who has passed and tries to come to grips with a family tragedy and her life choices. And May has some thoughts about social media. The result is a touching novel about friendship, building families, and maintaining face-to-face connections despite the many ways we can interact more superficially on devices.

I have “known” Jessica Francis Kane for several years. I believe we first interacted online when I reached out regarding her story collection, This Close, which I loved. Recently, she was kind enough to read my novel Bellflower and offer a few words in support. Leading up to and through the publication of Rules for Visiting, Jessica has been busy touring and writing articles and personal essays, several of which I’ve read. And it seems to me that my experience of “knowing” her, and then reading a little about her personal journey through these essays, and then reading the novel—which, being a writer myself, I know to be an amalgam of conscious and subconscious aims—well, what can I say? My experience seems to represent some of what she was getting at with this novel: What constitutes true connection? How do we build our family and friend networks, and what does it take to nourish them so they continue to grow? 
I can hear you asking: WHAT ABOUT THE TREES? Yes, this book delivers on that too. The tree sheets are informative and make you think about the individualization between species (and humans, of course). Without giving away too much (because I really do think you should read this book), one of the most surprising aspects of this novel, for me, was the amount of emotion I felt for one particular tree, in one particular scene.
You may also be wondering, WHAT HAPPENED TO THE OVERSTORY? Reader, I had to deviate from my intended Summer of Tree Books schedule to read Rules for Visiting in time for our LitChat. But fear not! I am back into the larger tome (150ish pages now), and will have a full progress report next week, along with another tree poem. In the meantime, if you'd like to become Jessica Francis Kane's online friend, please find her on Twitter: Better yet, buy this accomplished, heartfelt novel.


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka