Last week, I wrote about the origins of my apple novel, Harvesting the Sky. I covered my resistance to putting plants in my fiction, how I developed a main character who was a composite of plant people I knew, and why I decided to set the story in Paris. The next step I needed to decide was the novel’s botany, what plant my main character, Andre, would be discovering.
A Fascination With a Fruit I Can’t Eat
As an adult, I’ve never been able to eat apples. While I know they’re good for me and certain cultivars like ‘Honeycrisp’ and ‘Red Delicious’ are tasty as heck, I have trouble digesting them. I get an instant stomach ache. My abdomen feels like it’s been tied in a knot. I’ve tried to overcome this by eating apples with cheese, eating apples after a protein-based dinner, etc. but I always end up in sharp pain.
It may be that apples have too much raw fiber for my body, I’m not sure. Regardless, because of this, I’ve always been fascinated with people who can grab an apple and happily munch away. The idea that this portable, hardy fruit keeps a long time on a counter until you’re ready for it seems so pure and beautiful. The facts of how healthy they are is amazing. And Biblically speaking, apples play a huge role in the creation story. All this tumbled around my mind. I started thinking about what if I could not only eat apples easily, but what if they could give me an exagerrated boost to my immune system?
The History of Apples
The history of apples is long and interesting as well. Grown mostly for cider in the 19th Century, most varieties of apples weren’t sweet. They weren’t appealing to eat until breeders started grafting and growing cultivars specifically for culinary pleasure. That’s when they exploded in popularity. Michael Pollan wrote a great chapter on this in his book, The Botany of Desire.
What’s even more interesting is the earliest apples grew in Kazakhstan. I won’t go into too many details, but scientists genetically mapped out various cultivars and traced the earliest trees to the Alatau Mountains in Kazakhstan. In fact, the only forest of apple trees in the world grows there. A professor named Aimak Dzangaliev mapped and recorded many of the trees. And unfortunately, development has destroyed much of the forest. Still, there are a few groups working to protect this amazing area of the world.
Because there are hundreds of varieties of apples in this Kazakh forest, I started thinking about plant mutations. Plants naturally cross-pollinate to form new plants all the time. And in the Kazakh forests, it’s happened in spades. So, because I was thinking about how I can’t eat apples and how apples are incredibly healthy for you, I began wondering what would happen if a naturally mutated tree occurred that could seriously boost the immune system. Someone, maybe a plant explorer, would discover it, and afterward Western botanists would discover it too. The plant I wanted Andre to discover was a medicinal apple.
Plant lovers are always in search of that “special” plant. They crave the unknown plant, the rare plant few others have, the plant that only grows under certain conditions. It’s an addiction, this quest to attain the unusual. We plant geeks are fascinated by all the mutations, natural and bred. We want the blueberry that actually produces pink berries (Vaccinium ‘Pink Lemonade’). We want the hydrangea with purple leaves (Hydrangea aspera ‘Plum Passion’). I could easily name a hundred even rarer examples. And so, it also occurred to me this medicinal apple would be extra valuable and extra interesting if it were an unusual color. And as far as I know, no one has discovered a truly white apple yet.
Where to Begin
So because I wanted Andre’s life to change because of a white, medicinal apple, I knew the story had to begin at the point when the apple came into his life. Of course, that had to be in Kazakhstan. Also, I decided that rather than sending him solely as a representative of his university, he’d have to have some monetary incentive in attaining it. And so, I decided he’d be beholden to a pharmaceutical company in Paris. Because I knew he’d need even more conflict than a corporation breathing down his neck, I created a mysterious villain. These ideas launched the first chapter and story arc. You can read the novel’s summary here.
Next week, I’ll post an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Harvesting the Sky.
Check out the exciting news about Harvesting the Sky and 2021!
Photo by Aaron Burden
When I look back on the origins of Harvesting the Sky, my novel about a unique apple, I can’t believe how long it took me to discover something that was an obvious fit. But at the time, I couldn’t see it.
For years, I resisted the idea of writing fiction about plants. By day, I worked as a gardener, designing and maintaining clients’ gardens and at night, I wrote gardening articles for fun. During graduate school at Goddard College, I’d written a thesis novel about an ethics professor with a dark twist. Though I liked the idea, the science fiction aspect felt daunting. I didn’t read sci-fi that much and I couldn’t resolve the issue of how preventing future events might affect the present. So, I bumbled around for months, feeling empty and like I didn’t have a fictional story to tell.
A Secret Conservatory of Dangerous Plants
Still, there was one scene in that novel that haunted me. It involved my character breaking into a conservatory to obtain a thorny plant he could drug himself with. It was a powerful moment in the story and one I loved. It was dark and creepy and cool. I had reveled in describing the alluring yet deadly plant that he was about to experiment with. I delighted in putting him in painful distress with it. There wasn’t a more compelling point in the book.
Mixing That Dangerous Allure With my Passion
Finally, I realized I could take the anguish from the sci-fi book professor and mold it into a new character more in line with my current life – a professor of horticulture. I imagined him as a young rugged guy who felt softly about plants but ardent about his cause. That he was physically strong and sharply intelligent yet vulnerable and cowardly when it came to his past deepened his soul for me even more.
So I tried reworking the thesis story with this new character. It clicked. Harvesting the Sky was born. Once I put difficult emotions into him, the story buzzed. I woke up artistically. My mind started rolling. I came up with a detailed profile. He was a composite of botanists and growers and sellers I’d known in the horticulture industry. It was easy to shape him because I knew him. I’d known him for years.
I named him Andre Damazy. The first name was a French name, the last name, Polish. He would be the one ethnicity I was, Polish, with the one ethnicity I wish I was (French). I knew what being Polish meant from my own background; I knew some of what being French meant after having lived and worked in Paris. And the last piece I knew he had to be?
Paris as the Adventure World
American. When I worked in Paris, I felt like a fish out of water yet also felt comfortable among the people. It was an incredibly influential time in my life to work in a French office. I grew and changed. I’d been mentally stuck in my job, getting physically heavier and more sluggish and more corporate. When I was in Paris, I realized how the French lived and wanted to live that way. Not as a sedentary slave to a company I didn’t believe in but as a moving, thinking, creative being who enjoyed life. So when I examined Andre, I didn’t see him as French and I didn’t see him as a Pole, I saw him as an ex-pat American with these cultural backgrounds. And, like me, he would experience a life change in Paris.
A Main Character, a Setting, and a Plot
Now that I had a main character and a setting, I needed a plot. Though I drew some on the thesis novel, much came from my own life. I was well familiar with plant explorers, both current ones and historic ones in the UK and Europe. In fact, one day, I read about a local plant explorer who, while in the mountains of China, had to split a package of ramen noodles among several people in his expedition because food rations were so low. I was impressed by how much they suffered to discover new plants. It seemed intense. I wanted my protagonist to be in the same intense place at some point in the book. But I still had a fundamental question: if he were a plant explorer, what plant would he be seeking?
That’s the topic I’ll address next week, and where the speculative aspect comes into Harvesting the Sky.
Update (Dec, 2020): To check out the exciting news on Harvesting the Sky‘s publication, click here.