Area author acclaimed for new work

by JENNIFER COHRON
Posted 6/12/18

ARLEY - Arley native Caleb Johnson left Alabama seven years ago to pursue a childhood dream of being an author.He will return on Thursday, June 14, to share his debut novel, ““Treeborne,” with …

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Area author acclaimed for new work

Posted

ARLEY - Arley native Caleb Johnson left Alabama seven years ago to pursue a childhood dream of being an author.

He will return on Thursday, June 14, to share his debut novel, ““Treeborne,” with the people who served as its inspiration.

“I wanted to give as honest an account of the place I grew up and the people I grew up among as I could, because I felt like those type of rural Southerners had not been given space for their voices to be heard in a long time,” said Johnson, 32.

He will be at the Arley Public Library at 6 p.m. for a book reading and signing that will also feature servings of homemade peach cobbler, a nod to the novel’s setting on an orchard on the outskirts of Elberta. 

Johnson is also planning to give back to his hometown by hosting The Smith Lake School, a free creative workshop for teenagers, June 25-29.

Prior to its June 5 release, “Treeborne” was listed in summer reading guides from Southern Living, The Bitter Southerner and Deep South Magazine.

The review from Publisher’s Weekly said Johnson uses “language rich as mulch” and “digs up corpses and upends trees to create a place laden with magic and memory.”

Though its roots are undeniably Southern, “Treeborne” was written after Johnson left the South to pursue a master’s degree from the University of Wyoming.

The move came after Johnson graduated from the University of Alabama and spent several years living around the state and working a variety of jobs, including as a newspaper reporter in Selma.

Initially, he hoped to follow in the footsteps of his UA professor and acclaimed Alabama author Rick Bragg by first earning a living as a journalist and eventually making the transition to books.

However, he soon realized that he wasn’t happy in the newspaper business because the stories he most wanted to pursue were of his own creation.

Though Johnson was homesick after moving to Wyoming in his mid-20s, he also became a more serious author while in the university’s two-year creative writing program.

After getting into graduate school, Johnson decided that it was time to stop writing short stories and pursue his true passion.

“From what I understood, if you wanted to be a fiction writer, you wrote short stories and got better at those. Then you got some published, and eventually an agent would want you and you could work on a longer book. When I got to graduate school, I decided I couldn’t waste time on short stories that I didn’t enjoy and that weren’t very good,” Johnson said.

He started writing “Treeborne” after relocating to Wyoming in 2011 and continued working on it after moving to Pennsylvania with his fiancée. 

His initial idea was for a historical novel about Hernando de Soto’s conquest of the South. He changed course after realizing that his interests were broader than the research such a project required.

“I was interested in the idea of heritage, whether it’s family heritage or heritage of the natural world and our stewardship of the land. I was definitely interested in this idea of change, the pull of the past and the present and moving forward into the future, how we resist it and how we succumb to it,” Johnson said. 

The characters that he crafted for “Treeborne” include a self-taught artist who seeks to preserve the town’s legacy, a female postmaster found dead in the orchard, a black orchardist who is also a gifted singer and a young girl who kidnaps her aunt and tears the wrong people apart.

Though parts of the story are fantastical, the voices of the characters ring true.

“I wanted to take the voices I grew up among and amplify them into what I think is their rightful place in American literature,” Johnson said.

“Treeborne” was published by Picador, an imprint of Macmillan Publishing. When a book tour across the South was being planned, Johnson insisted that Arley be included as one of the stops.

“I wanted to bring it home because I’m as proud of anyone of where I come from and I wouldn’t be where I am today without so many folks back home that encouraged and supported me. I wrote this book for a million different reasons but one reason was to make folks back home proud and hopefully bring some joy to them. This was my way to give back some of what they’ve given me,” Johnson said.

One of the lessons that Johnson hopes to teach students is the importance of writing about anything of interest to them.

“For a long time, I had this idea that there were some things worth writing about and some things that weren’t worthy, especially when it comes to fiction and literature. I want them to know at an early age that you can follow your interests and what’s meaningful to you and make literature out of any story if you hone your craft,” he said.