Interview with Dawn Davis, author of 'The Tree of Life'

Dawn Davis is a writer living and working in Toronto, Canada. Before becoming a writer, Davis worked as a teacher after completing her education at York University and the University of Toronto.
The Tree of Life is Davis’s debut novel, and the first book in her Tower Room series.

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About the Book:

Title: The Tree of Life
Author: Dawn Davis
Publisher: Friesen Press
Pages: 304
Genre: Historical Fiction

Two accidental time travelers explore Canada in 1939 in THE TREE OF LIFE, the first installment in the Tower Room series by Dawn Davis.

As THE TREE OF LIFE opens, Charlotte Hansen and her friend, Henry Jacobs, are hanging out in the old mansion where Charlotte and Leo, her grandfather, live. Henry is there to practice the piano, and Charlotte is waiting for him to finish so that she can supervise his work on a massive school project researching the 1930s. When Leo leaves the house to pick up his friend Gwendolyn Fenton—whom Charlotte does not like—the two eleven-year-olds prepare tea and cookies for the grown-ups’ visit and then rush to the Tower Room. The room is located on the top floor of the mansion. Charlotte is not allowed in the room without permission; but she is headstrong and ignores the directive. After leaving the tray of tea and sweets on the tabletop, Charlotte pulls Henry underneath the table with her.

The children soon hear Gwendolyn telling Leo about a magical brooch from her childhood. Suddenly, a large hand grabs Charlotte, who clutches Henry tightly before the hand thrusts the pair into nothingness. After Charlotte regains consciousness, she and Henry meet the younger version of Gwendolyn, a spoiled force of nature determined to appropriate the brooch her late mother left her brother. The friends learn that they are still in Rose Park, the neighborhood they both call home, but the year is 1939.

As Charlotte and Henry realize that they have traveled backward to move forward, the purpose of their time travel is revealed: Charlotte is there to help Gwendolyn resolve the pain of her past. During the adventure, Henry advocates against the anti-Semitism and racism of that time, and Charlotte learns to look beyond her own desires to help a person in need.

The idea for THE TREE OF LIFE and the Tower Room series came to the author after she attended a centennial celebration at her daughters’ school. “What might happen,” Davis thought, “if two children lived their research instead of simply reading about it? This one step outside the restrictions of time became the foundation for the series.”

As in THE TREE OF LIFE, the next three books will highlight different time periods in Canadian history, with the one constant being the appearance of Charlotte and Henry. Although the children will appear in each book with different names and bodies, they will be easily recognizable as eternal soul mates, and the harbingers of love and connection for those who have stumbled and lost their way.

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Q: Welcome to The Writer's Life, Dawn.  Can you tell us how long you’ve been writing and how your journey led to writing your latest book, The Tree of Life?

A:  I have been writing most of my life. I kept a diary when I was young, later I wrote poems, plays, short stories, letters, comedy sketches, articles, reflections, and two detective novels. Writing has always been a way for me to try and understand my place in the world. The act itself can be frustrating, time consuming, a source of irritation at not finding the right words but near impossible to abandon. Writing was never my career. It was simply a weird necessity, a way of listening to my inner most thoughts.

The Tree of Life is my first published novel. The journey of writing it began by chance.  

In 1999 the public school my daughters attended had a centennial celebration. The classrooms were turned into decade rooms, full of clothes, pictures, news reports, books, music and other items appropriate to each decade in the twentieth century. The children were involved in collecting and researching the decade chosen for their classroom. I found this fascinating, a way to bring history to life that was interactive and fun!  In my mind I took it a step further and began to think what it might be like to travel back to a specific day or week in the decade being researched and live the life that was happening at the time. What would a typical classroom look like? What transportation existed? How much did food cost? What sort of entertainment was available?

Busy with my young children and my job I let this fantasy go only to find it returning many years later when I was out for a walk.  Suddenly I heard in my head two eleven-year-old children who were clamoring for my attention. They informed me they made the trip back in time, the journey I dreamed of making. And they needed to tell me all about it – they needed to explain why they were thrust back, what they learned, and how it changed them. Charlotte talked about shopping for clothes in the bargain basement at Eaton’s, delivering milk on the Simpson milk wagons for a nickel, learning the Lindy Hop, wearing a hateful dress to school because girls were not allowed to wear pants, riding the Peter De Witt streetcar and travelling to Centre Island on the ferry boat. Henry told me how much he enjoyed school in 1939, how he found a friend named Lukas who was just like him, how he loved carrying around a leather satchel, how he suddenly wasn’t allergic to anything the way he was in 1999, and how shocked he was to discover a deep vein of anti-Semitism that hurt not only him but Sarah, the woman who became a mentor for both Charlotte and Henry in the long ago Toronto of 1939, a city polarized and a country on the verge of war.

But primarily the children were interested in telling me a story about a brooch that had been missing for 60 years and how they were instrumental in recovering it and transforming not only the life of Gwendolyn MacFarlane but their own lives as well.

Charlotte and Henry assured me that every good deed we do, even if that deed is for someone we don’t like, has the possibility of growing and changing many lives far into the future.

This journey will continue with three more books in The Tower Room series. And it all began with a centennial celebration.   

Q: How did you choose your title and was it your first choice?

A:  My first choice for this book was: I’ll Be Seeing You from the song of the same name, published in 1939, music by Sammy Fain and lyrics by Irving Kahal.

My second choice for this book was:  Songs of Childhood, Robert Schumann’s 13 pieces for piano (Kinderszenen).  These songs are referenced throughout the book and played by both Henry and Charlie MacFarlane.

My third choice for the book was:  The Millennium Project because it begins in 1999 and is a transformative experience for the two children.

My editor at Friesen Press made the final choice for me:  The Tree of Life – Book One of the Tower Room Series. 

I like all the titles but this last one is the most appropriate.  

Q: We all know that publishers can’t do all of the publicity and that some lies on the author.  What has your publisher done so far to publicize the book and what have you done?

A: My publisher set up the Webbly page – and sent me a lot of material to consider for promoting the book myself. I didn’t have a Facebook page but I do now and it is linked to the Weebly page.  Also Friesen got me two reviews from Clarion and Kirkus.  The reviews are on the Weebly page with excerpts on Amazon. Friesen also referred me to Charlie Barrett, a publicist in L.A.

I will be setting up a Twitter page so I can comment on the progress of the next book in this series and answer any questions that readers might have.

Q: Open to a random page in your book.  Can you tell us what is happening?

A: page 151:  the children have arrived at the MacFarlane summer home on Centre Island.  On their way to the house they see the “No Jews Allowed” signs posted on trees and on the grass and devise a plan to remove the signs once it gets dark. Gwendolyn MacFarlane is not keen to do this but she agrees to consider the suggestion – since she is most familiar with the Island she is asked to draw a map so the scouts will know the location of every sign. Charlotte’s job is to find a suitable place to dump the signs where they cannot be found. This is the first time since arriving in Toronto, 1939, that Henry steps forward with a plan of his own and Charlotte is pleased that he has grown a spine.

Q: Do you plan subsequent books?

A: Yes. My plan is to write three more books documenting the travels of Charlotte’s family. The next will tell the story of Charlotte’s grandfather Leo’s first trip, the next will follow Charlotte’s great-aunt Dilys Frank’s travels and the last will explain the magic alive in the Tower Room, and the peculiar black and white photographs that adorn the walls by showcasing Gus Frank’s first adventure.  Charlotte and Henry will be present in each story, inhabiting different bodies but easily recognizable.  If we have lived before, which Charlotte and Henry certainly have, then we return again and again with the people we love.

After that I would like to return to Charlotte and Henry, and what happens to them after the conclusion of The Tree of Life. 

Q: What is the one thing you learned about your book AFTER it was published?

A: Writing the book is the real adventure and when I first saw it in print I realized I was looking at the map of a very long trip I had taken.

Q: What is your most favorite time of the day or night to write?

A: My favorite time to write is in the morning when I feel the freshest.

Q: What is usually better – the book or the movie?

A: I often think the book is better but there are movies that have come close:  Gone with the Wind, Sophie’s Choice, The Life of Pi, Slaughter House Five, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Auntie Mame.  These movies have captured the essence and spirit of the writing and told the story without changing the details.

Q:  You’re about to write your next book.  What did you learn from your previous book to help you write your next book?

A: I have learned the following:

I will not go back and endlessly correct the first draft until the entire draft is done. I have learned that inspiration comes as I move forward.

Research is important but I do not need to use everything I find.

I will do a lot of thinking and have an overview and outline in mind before I begin.

I will write as much as I want and as freely as I want the first time round but when I start the second draft and every draft thereafter I will keep in mind that less is always more. I will try to make every word count.

Q: Finally, what’s your best tip you can give to writers who want to be published?

A: It is extremely difficult to get a publisher to read your book if you are unknown (like me).  If you are young and have lots of time, try to find a publisher. If you don’t want to wait, my advice is to self-publish.  Friesen Press was wonderful to me. There are many sites available on the computer to help you raise money to self-publish and there are many different self-publishing packages.
Q: Thank you for your interview, Dawn.  Do you have any final words?

A: Thank you!

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