Author Interview: Heather Newton (Under the Mercy Trees)

Under the Mercy Trees is one of the best debut novels ever by any author in the world of literary excellence. Heather Newton, the debutante author has recently won 2011 Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award for her Under the Mercy Trees- a novel that directly strikes the strings of your heart with its heartwarming storyline of past and present. Heather Newton gives us a pleasant interview on her debut novel, her characters, themes, settings and her message for readers and aspiring writers.


How do you want to describe your journey as a novelist so far with your novel “Under the Mercy Trees”?

From beginning to end, Under the Mercy Trees took me ten years to complete. In that time I became a better writer (practice makes better, if not perfect!) and learned the value of perseverance. It has been a delight to see the novel in the hands of readers and to hear how people have been touched by this story that danced around in my head for so long.

Give us a brief plot description of your debut novel “Under the Mercy Trees”. How far do you relate the plot of the book to real life?

Under the Mercy Trees is the story of Martin Owenby, who is forced to return home to rural western North Carolina when his older brother Leon goes missing from the family home place. When he goes back, Martin’s family and old friends help him come to terms with past regrets that have weighed him down for decades. The idea of the brother’s disappearance came from an incident in my husband’s family, when an uncle disappeared and the family never got closure on his death. Against that background I created characters and a story of my own.

What are the main themes that have been followed throughout the course of the novel?

Under the Mercy Trees explores the themes that most interest me as a writer–human regret and the hope of second chances.

How did you develop the character of your main protagonist Martin Owenby?

I decided to create Martin as a gay man in part because I wanted to write about unrequited love, which is one of the most powerful sources of tension in fiction. Martin’s sexual orientation makes it impossible for him and his childhood sweetheart, Liza, to be together romantically. His personality came to me the way all my characters come to me–visually, almost like I’m watching a movie or play. I translate what I see into words on the page.

How did you come up with the idea of setting your novel in rural North Carolina?

I have lived in western North Carolina since 1992 and I and my husband both have family roots in rural North Carolina (eastern and western NC). Having lived here for so long, I hear the voices of mountain people in my mind when I feel a new story forming.

What message do you have for aspiring writers, especially females, on how to balance family life with the life of a professional writer?

For years I tried to compartmentalize all the demanding parts of my life–my work as an attorney, my writing life, my responsibilities as a wife and mother. Somewhere along the way I learned that life is less stressful if I just let all the parts bleed into each other. I learned to write with my child there in the room playing, I began representing other writers in my law practice, and most importantly I decided to tell everybody I knew that I was a writer. Calling myself a writer allowed me to place value on the writing. There are still times when I have to put the writing on hold to take care of family, but I always know I’ll return to it because I have declared it to be a priority.

You must have been inspired by some novelist(s) all through your life to follow your passion for writing. Can you please mention the novelists reading whom you were inspired to write novels?

The author who taught me the fun and discipline of writing was my mother, young adult novelist Suzanne Newton. As a child, in addition to my mother’s own books, my favorites included The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Blue Willow by Doris Gates. As an adult, I re-read all of Jane Austen’s novels almost every year. Other writers I love: Jill McCorkle, Tommy Hays, Roddy Doyle, Ursula Le Guin, Tom Perrotta, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jennifer Egan, Tom Franklin, Barbara Kingsolver, and Alexander McCall Smith.

What message do you want to convey to your readers?

What I tried to give my characters in Under the Mercy Trees was the hope that their lives could change–not in any dramatic way but as a subtle turning. I wish the same for my readers in their real lives.

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