We’re thrilled to be back with part two of our interview between Marybeth Whalen and Ella Joy Olsen today. If you missed part one you can read it here.
Marybeth: Adam’s death is a crushing loss to Ivy. Is there an image or motif in the book that you would say symbolizes or especially communicates the impact of that loss? Did you intend that when you began the story or did it emerge?
Ella: This is a tricky question for me. While the enormity of Ivy’s sorrow at the sudden loss of her husband is justified, I consider Root, Petal, Thorn more a book about healing and moving beyond her overwhelming grief. So while she’s crushed, she doesn’t stay there for the whole of the novel.
Motif…let’s see…working on their fixer-upper bungalow together is a shared passion for Ivy and Adam. But after his death she can’t bear to continue remodeling without him by her side. However, she knows she must be strong for her two children, and that means finishing up and putting away the tools.
While getting her house in order, Ivy begins to uncover a variety clues from past occupants, from buried wine bottles to a half-finished embroidery sampler. It seems her home has a tale to tell. As she learns the stories of four other women who called her house a home, their stories of love and loss help Ivy accept she can go on without Adam. She’ll always remember him, but despite loss, she will survive. So I guess the motif of this sentiment is the home, itself. It’s a place with a deep past. One full of sorrow and joy.
Marybeth: Which came first for you– the house and all its history or the main character and all her pain?
Ella: This is an easy one. The house and history! I live in a hundred year old bungalow and throughout the years my husband and I have spent crazy time and money fixing it up, making it ours. While we worked we would find amazing things past owners had (purposefully or inadvertently) left behind. I won’t list them all here, but many of our discoveries made it into the novel.
Though I’ve researched, I’ll never know exactly who walked across my same wood floors or looked out the same windows, but I love to imagine. So, when my youngest started school full-time, I decided to put pen to paper and write about the characters who’d taken up residence in my mind. And Root, Petal, Thorn was born.
With that said, I started this novel shortly after my sister died in a boating accident (she was overcome by Carbon Monoxide while swimming). Ivy’s story absolutely reflects my personal grieving process.
Marybeth: You’ve said that you drew inspiration from your own neighborhood. My neighborhood was also a huge inspiration for my novel. Can you give us some specific ways your neighborhood inspired you?
Ella: Of course! Root, Petal, Thorn is set in Sugar House, a community originally founded by Brigham Young (the prophet of the LDS church) to grow sugar beets and process them into refined sugar. Though the sugar was a failed experiment, the business center and neighborhood endured, so my neighborhood is one of the oldest in the valley. I love the history of my town, so it was a treat to research facts from all different time periods. I studied old photos, fact-checked my narrative, and read a bunch of non-fiction books.
I also drew from the current day awesomeness of my neighborhood. There is a sense of community in Sugar House. People are out on their porches, they ride their bikes to the local grocery, the library is over-run with children, and enormous trees canopy every street. It’s a great place to live.
Marybeth: You present a balanced portrayal of Salt Lake City, acknowledging its Mormon roots but showing that there is more to the place than that. Was that your intent or did it just happen?
Ella: The novel is based in my hometown, and for better or worse, the LDS faith is a part of our state’s past and present. To write an accurate novel based in Salt Lake City, the story must be touched by the church. Not to mention, my own ancestry is tightly entwined with church history and Mormon migration west. With that said, I’m not Mormon. I consider the history of the state and the modern-day believers an asset to my community, so it was very easy to write a balanced portrayal. The tone of the novel was likely organic. I had no religious agenda when I began.
Marybeth: One of your characters has bipolar disorder. How much research did you have to do? How did you put yourself in her shoes and write her from a place of total empathy?
Ella: Oh, I’m glad you feel Lainey was written from a place of empathy! Lainey was the last historic character I wrote. I could see her in my mind, and I knew I wanted her challenges to be more internal rather than foist upon her by world events (like several of the other historic characters). Initially, she was in an abusive relationship, but I found I was spending too much time with her awful husband. I’ve had several bouts of depression, personally, and just those weeks when I felt I’d never be happy again, made me want to write an account of invisible internal struggle.
Also, I have a sister-in-law who’s dealt with bipolar for most of her adult life and I’ve witnessed the effects. She was incredibly kind to share some of her trials. Along with her first-person account, I read a couple of memoirs for a broader perspective. Lainey was the hardest character to write, but many have said she’s their favorite.
Marybeth: And most of all have you ever renovated a home? If so how is it similar to creating a novel??
Ella: As I mentioned above, I live in a historic home. Historic is a lovely word for: this place was lived in for one hundred long years. Any dwelling that stands for a century has felt some serious wear and tear, so I have without question, done my fair share of renovating.
Some changes were huge: plumbing, new kitchen. Some small: paint, new flooring. But each required removing layers of “improvements” made by past occupants, you see, our home isn’t your typical old-granny home where one person lived in it, collecting gorgeous patina year by year. It was a home loved across the decades, and a home that’s loved, is a home that’s continually changed. In our case, someone tore out all of our old woodwork (including the floor boards), dug out the basement, lowered the ceilings, ripped out the hearth and replaced it with Pepto-Bismol pink tile. To get to the lovely bones of the house, our renovation process was like stripping away layers of time and trend.
In this way, I’d say editing a novel is like remodeling. You start with a rough draft and peel back the layers of drivel you’ve just written to get to the core of the thing, the truth of the story. After you glimpse it, you realize there’s potential, but it’s pretty shabby. You take a hammer to it, some sandpaper, and fresh paint. It’s a long and difficult process. Some of the changes you make you’ll have to rip out again and not everyone will like the paint color you choose. But someday, maybe years later, you’ll be ready to invite friends over for dinner.
In this beautifully written and powerful debut novel, Ella Joy Olsen traces the stories of five fascinating women who inhabit the same historic home over the course of a century—braided stories of love, heartbreak and courage connect the women, even across generations.
Ivy Baygren has two great loves in her life: her husband, Adam, and the bungalow they buy together in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Salt Lake City, Utah. From the moment she and Adam lay eyes on the home, Ivy is captivated by its quaint details—the old porch swing, ornate tiles, and especially an heirloom rose bush bursting with snowy white blossoms. Called the Emmeline Rose for the home’s original owner, it seems yet another sign that this place will be Ivy’s happily-ever-after…Until her dreams are shattered by Adam’s unexpected death.
Striving to be strong for her two children, Ivy decides to tackle the home-improvement projects she and Adam once planned. Day by day, as she attempts to rebuild her house and her resolve, she uncovers clues about previous inhabitants, from a half-embroidered sampler to buried wine bottles. And as Ivy learns about the women who came before her—the young Mormon torn between her heart and anti-polygamist beliefs, the Greek immigrant during World War II, a troubled single mother in the 1960s—she begins to uncover the lessons of her own journey. For every story has its sadness, but there is also the possibility of blooming again, even stronger and more resilient than before…