The first time I met the Author Darren R Leo the crisp January sun had etched a path of pink sunlight across the snows of the White Mountains in New Hampshire.
The other writers in the lobby of Mountain View Grand Resort and Spa that morning whispered of Darren’s ability to convey the mystical and tragic, the beautiful and profound. As he crossed the lobby with a beaming smile, Darren greeted each person as a close friend as though he fully understood the fantastic moments hidden in the mundane.
Readers in the United States have called Darren’s new book THE TREES BENEATH US a powerful story that tells of “a troubled man and his transformation and ultimate redemption,” while others have said the book is a truly “humbling experience.”
Darren R Leo has hiked the Appalachian Trail—a truly herculean feat—and a national speaker who has traveled forty-nine states, and even though he’s currently working on a new non-fiction project and a new novel, I managed to catch up with him recently.
THE TREES BENEATH US has been classified as “eco-noir”. Can you explain a bit about that.
“The short answer is a very long walk. In 2010, struggling with the economic crash, the subsequent loss of my job, and still trying to cope with the death of my son the year prior, I went for a hike on the Appalachian Trail. Eight hundred miles later, I had the idea for a book and a new direction in life. While Trees and its narrator are fiction, much evolved out of my own challenges…
“While Trees began biographically, Finn (the protagonist) is not me. I didn’t know his story until I wrote it. I love that part of the process. I surprised myself when I wrote the ending. I don’t outline or story block. I don’t know what is going to happen. Many of my stories are about journeys, and the journey of the process is what tantalizes me.”
While the narrator of THE TREES BENEATH US sounds like it could be cynical and full of pain, there’s a voice speaking wisely about lessons learned. Your book isn’t only about pain and loss. It’s also about discovery.
“As I mentioned, a lot of the content is based on autobiographical events. I wrote a novel about coping with the death of a child. Every day, for nearly three years, I relived the death of my son. There were many times when I think it would have been easier to hook up an IV from me to the laptop and bleed onto my manuscript. That said, it was also healing. There is a scene late in the book when the protagonist is remembering making family home videos with his son. That is one of my most cherished moments with my son, and I’m happy now when I see it on the page.”
Did you have a difficult time deciding the title of your work?
“You have no idea! After, no exaggeration, about forty-seven different potential titles, and umpteen conversations with family, friends, and mentors, I had settled on “Trees and Other Remedies.” After I sold the MS, my publisher thought that sounded like a collection of short stories, so we went back to the well. My most favorite teacher ever, Jessica Anthony, gave me “The Trees Beneath Us.”
What is it about writing that compels you to keep doing it?
“I write to create. I like to build things…birdhouses, Adirondack chairs, good meals. I write for the same reasons. I want to put something out into the world that people will enjoy or find provocative. The conveyance part is the tougher question. There are common themes that run throughout my writing, even when I don’t want them to. I write about struggles and pain and grief. Even my theoretically happy stories have these themes. I like a good “hero wins the day and gets the girl” story, but there are lots of those. I write stories for those who struggle. We’re not alone in our challenges even if our social narrative suggests otherwise.”
Darren, some writers say they get up every morning at four and write. Others, however, write when the need fills them. What do you think about this?
“I definitely do not follow the “write every day” rule. I go weeks writing nothing more than a grocery list; although some of those are damn good grocery lists. I write when I think I have something to say, when I need to say something. I have a very intermittently posted blog. We’re taught about building platform and social media and whatnot. I find I write less and less for my blog because when I do, I’m taking that “need to say something” away from my fiction. My humble advice to all creators is find your personal muse and her quirks and honor them.
“My secondary advice is edit ruthlessly. A great mentor, Matt Bondurant, once told me to love my work less. I still have that taped to my office wall. I slash and burn my words without remorse.”
Talk a little bit about your writing process. Do you have any unusual writing habits?
“I have lots of tics and quirks. I need a near elimination of sensory input. No sound, nothing shiny to catch my eye, no interruptions. I like it to be just me wrestling with me. I’ve seen our mutual friend, Craig Childs, write beneath a disco ball in a night club, and he’s writing about wandering on a glacier in South America. I wish I could do that, but I can’t. It took me a long time to learn that we all have our process. I accept mine. So, alone, in the dark, it is the muse and me going at it.”
How do you think literature impacts your everyday life?
“I read incessantly. As a trained writer and critical reader, I spend a lot of time reading things and thinking, ‘I wish I’d written this,’ or ‘This is how I’d fix this.’ Both are valuable to my own craft. When I’m delighted though is when I’m just absorbed in the narrative. I’m no longer fan or critic. I’m just enjoying…
“I love Edward Abbey, Barbara Kingsolver, Thomas McGuane, Wallace Stegner, and especially Annie Dillard. That group will probably suggest what I aspire to write. In addition, I think Hemingway was a genius, I read The Odyssey every year, Saul Bellow wrote masterpieces of craft, and Faulkner is overrated.
“If you liked Wild by Cheryl Strayed or Into the Wild by Krakauer, or anything where a person seeks solace and healing in nature, then my book is up your alley. If you like being immersed in nature, read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Dillard.”
Where can readers find more of your work, Darren?
“I published a novella some years back called Keeping Score; a short, heroic journey. It is out of print, but I think Amazon sells copies for exorbitant sums. My short fiction has been published in The Atticus Review, Crack the Spine, The Blue Lake Review, and many other literary journals.”
Darren R. Leo is a writer, wanderer, speaker, and teacher. He likes the oxford comma, Annie Dillard, good beer, getting lost, and the beauty of the world around us. After a successful and award winning career in the hotel industry that included executive positions with some of the world’s leading hospitality companies, he went for a very long walk on the Appalachian Trail.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), and a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU. He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can also follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 390,000+ followers