Canada Reads

Canada Reads contenders Keegan Connor Tracy and Michael Christie discuss the root of Greenwood

The author of Greenwood and the actor, director who will be championing the novel discuss the importance of Canadian land and our connection to it. The great Canadian book debate takes place March 27-30, 2023!

The great Canadian book debate takes place March 27-30, 2023.

Filmmaker and actor Keegan Connor Tracy will champion Greenwood by Michael Christie on Canada Reads 2023.

Greenwood is a novel which interconnects the fates of five people across time on a remote island off the coast of British Columbia. Structured like the rings of a tree, Jake Greenwood uncovers the root of her family's legacy and how it resonates still in 2038.

Tracy, who is an avid reader, was eager to champion Greenwood, a novel she describes at its heart as "a family tale."

The debates will be taking place March 27-30, 2023. They will be hosted by Ali Hassan and will be broadcast on CBC Radio OneCBC TVCBC GemCBC Listen and on CBC Books

The debates will take place live at 10:05 a.m. ET (that's an hour earlier than recent years). You can tune in live or catch a replay on the platform of your choice. You can see all the broadcast details here.

Christie and Tracy got together virtually to discuss Greenwood before the debates on March 27-30. Watch their conversation above, or read an excerpt below.

Keegan Connor Tracy: Hi, I'm Keegan Connor Tracy and I am so delighted to be part of Canada Reads, especially because I am championing this fabulous book Greenwood by Michael Christie.

Welcome Michael! 

Michael Christie: Hi Keegan, thanks for doing this. I'm excited.

KCT: Me too! So, I'll talk about why I chose to champion Greenwood. I mean, it was pretty easy, I was reading lots of beautiful books but there was just something about this book that for me really felt Canadian, because it really is a Canadian story. Not only because it goes from coast to coast and it and describes this beautiful country in just such a lush fashion with these beautiful descriptive paragraphs where you can really see these open plains, you can see these dense forests of the West Coast. I also chose it because it's a family story. It's about the ways in which if we cannot find a way to communicate with each other, our families can break down. We all have pieces of that within our families, but also the Canadian family. If we can't find a way to talk to each other, how are we going to move forward? How are we going to have a great relationship as a country? 

dark green forest with book title, author's name, a red seal, and white seal in front.

MC: Absolutely! I mean it's very much a book about the environment, but also family systems and the way that they interact with environmental systems. At its root, I'm going to use a lot of tree words here, the book is about interconnectedness. Our interconnectedness with one another, whether we're in families or we're not, and the interconnectedness with the natural world and the way that all these systems bleed together and become this whole that is a life.

KCT: Yes, or a family or a country, right? I think that the metaphor is just ripe for the picking. I've read The Secret Life of Trees and we're learning a lot about how trees communicate underground and I think the parallels that we can draw both as families and as countries are so viscerally there. It's for that reason that I really think that this is the book for all of Canada to read.

As a storyteller, when I am writing something or when I'm approaching a role either as an actor or as a director, there's this seed of the story. And so I wonder what the seed of this story was for you. What inspired it? 

MC: This novel in particular began with the notion of these particular characters. I just had some people that I was sort of obsessed with and I couldn't get them out of my head so I started writing around them. At a certain point I realized they were living in different time periods, which was a big moment and then I realized maybe these people actually belong to the same sort of family unit.

But it wasn't until I was cutting down a tree. When I wrote the book, I was living full time on Galiano Island and I was cutting down a tree to make way for a driveway we were putting in. My kids were there, my sons, who were very young at the time. It was a big moment. The kids were really excited and we were looking at the stump after and I saw this structure of the tree. We were counting the rings back and trying to determine how old the tree was and it just kind of struck me that this tree contained its own life story within itself. The most recent rings were the most recent years, and then it went all the way back to the very year that it began, which is the heartwood of the tree and I thought that would be an interesting way to structure a novel.

A book cover featuring a green image of a woman walking in a forest and a photo of a woman with blond hair and a jaunty hat smiling at the camera.
Actor, filmmaker and writer Keegan Connor Tracy is championing the novel Greenwood by Michael Christie. (CBC)

KCT: For me a lot of times, the people who become characters in things that I write, I call it stealing. I steal from life, I steal this scene from something, and then I build around it. Is that how you approach writing characters as well?

MC: Yeah. The character part of it is sort of the most spiritual part of writing in a way. I'm just kind of passing a metal detector over the world. I see people and I see things, learn things and then every once in a while there will be a beep. And it won't mean that this person is who I should write about but the beep means there's something down there that needs to be written towards – writing is almost like digging.

I've been fascinated by trees in general for a long time, but also the people who are obsessed with them. I'm a carpenter myself, so obviously the carpenter character in Greenwood shared many of my obsessions. But even at a deeper level, I think the emotional core of somebody who's living with loss, someone who is grieving, someone who's battling addiction, someone who is hiding a massive secret – these are the people that speak to me and these are the people that I like to write about. Choosing a character is a part of writing that's closest to love in a way. You want to write about someone that you love because you're going to spend a long time with them and that's generally how I guide myself. 

Choosing a character is part of writing that's closest to love in a way. You want to write about someone that you love.- Michael Christie

KCT: That just struck me right in the feels when you said that. 

This book came out pre-pandemic about four years ago. What's sort of changed from when you wrote it originally to the way that we might look at it now?

MC: I mean, certainly the environmental situation has gotten more dire. The heat dome, particularly in B.C., happened after this book which was a really sobering moment for everybody. I was on Galiano Island at the time and going to see mussels and injured tidal life that had boiled in their shells from the heat and died. This is not normal weather activity and that really hit home for me ⁠— not that I wasn't worried before. So certainly the climate crisis is only developing and is and is gonna continue to degrade the ecological systems. But also post-pandemic, I have been thinking a lot about our interconnectedness and our reliance on one another and that's a big metaphor in this book. All this science around how trees communicate with one another, through fungal networks, through the ground. Scientists are speculating now that 70% of all plants, not just trees, do some form of this interrelatedness which is completely mind blowing to me.

I think the pandemic really hit home on our interrelatedness with one another, both in terms of infecting each other, but then also in terms of caring for one another and how important our communities are and how important our relationships are. I feel like the book's resonance has only deepened overtime.

KCT: How much of this did you expect was going to become a cautionary tale about the environment? I think that can throw some people off if they think you're going to be preaching about the environment, which is really not what this book is about, it's very gently living there under the surface. Was that intentional? How much of that was a part of you in your writing what is ultimately a family tale?

MC: Yeah! The thing that brings me back to fiction over and over again is its ability to take an idea and just look at it from all different sides without really signing off on any one particular perspective. And so I wanted this book to be an environmental novel because that's what I've been thinking about lately. I was thinking a lot about ecology and trees and things aren't going very well. But at the same time the odds of a 550-page literary novel being picked up by a climate change denier and then them having their mind changed by my incredible story is pretty much zero, so I think what you can do as an artist, and this goes for all artistic fields, is that you can deepen our understanding and complicate our understanding of a particular subject.

LISTEN | Ryan B. Patrick speaks to Michael Christie on The Next Chapter:

Ryan B. Patrick interviews Michael Christie about his 2023 Canada Reads contender, Greenwood.

I really wanted the book to not frame the environmental activists as these shining knights of hope, and then anybody who's ever cut down a tree is evil. I really wanted to highlight our interdependence with trees and human beings interconnectedness with the natural world.

KCT: Yes, I think what it does is beg the question. It gives you something that is entertaining and that begs the question to look at your own family structure. You can extrapolate from what's happening in the book to the relationships that you have in your own life and I think that's one of its core strengths. 

MC: I think for me at least, the very basic, fundamental purpose of a lot of art is to just say: everybody's trying their best with the tools that they have and hopefully this book suggests that about the Greenwood family as well. 

KCT: Speaking of which, I'm fascinated by this notion, Greenwood sort of has this quantum physics vibe to it about how all of time exists at once. 

MC: I'm definitely no physicist, so please accept my disclaimer here, but I was thinking a lot about time and trees put us in mind of a greater timescale than our own lives, which I think is a wonderful thing that trees do for us. I was at the ROM [Royal Ontario Museum] with my sons and we were looking at a giant cross section of a tree and we were looking back and it shows "the printing press invented" halfway through the tree trunk and this thing's life dwarfs human experience.

Not to get too metaphysical here, but the older I get, the more I have these weird feelings that your entire life is almost happening all at the same time in a way, and that time isn't as simple as we may think it is. I have no explanation for any of this stuff, but I think the best art can reveal time in ways that normal experience really doesn't day-to-day. So I loved that I could write a book that was presenting all these time periods happening at the same time in the same instant and looking at the resonance that developed between all of these people.

KCT: One of the things that I think we should be lamenting as we are just opening our eyes to the clear cutting of old growth forests, something about which I don't know a lot, but this book draws me to understand better. You know, I signed the thing, somebody sends it to me on Instagram and I put it out of my channels and it's so easy to feel like, "Well, I'm done with that or the government is doing something, but are they?" And what magnificence is there that we are not looking at? And perhaps when you see what you just described, that cross section of a huge old growth tree, we can come to understand time differently, understand how small we are in the grand scheme of it.

LISTEN | Elamin Abdelmahmoud speaks with Keegan Connor Tracy:

The countdown to Canada Reads continues! Actor and filmmaker Keegan Connor Tracy shares why Greenwood by Michael Christie is her pick for the great Canadian book debate.

MC: There's a phrase in B.C.: worth more standing. These trees are worth more standing than being brought down and turned into some kind of product. We need to protect these spaces and honour these spaces almost like churches. They should not be touched, exploited or destroyed in any way. I'm a firm believer in the importance of protecting these spaces because of their spiritual significance and because of their importance to our story on this planet.

KCT: You even make the allusion to that early in the book about the arboreal cathedral. That you literally called it a cathedral and I think when we think of it as a sacred space we think differently about it. 

MC: Yeah, I'm a non-religious guy. But I think art gets us closer to these larger feelings than anything else and I sort of have almost like a spiritual connection with reading and with stories that I love. In our search for meaning and in our search for connection, what better place than to turn to nature? There's scientific studies that prove that time spent in nature is massively positive for our mental health and certainly I was aware that I wanted to tell a story that would get at some pretty fundamental emotional stuff. The story of the Greenwood family is the story of the settler colonial destruction of this land that we're living on. But it's also the story of this particular family and their struggles and the unique challenges they're facing.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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