As Canadian author Michael Christie wraps up a telephone interview about his well-received second novel, “Greenwood,” he mentions an exhausting, 18-hour flight to Australia facing him in just a few hours.
That long trip is part of Christie’s international tour in support of “Greenwood,” which will stop in Seattle on March 9 at Elliott Bay Book Company. But there’s an unsettling twist to the Australian adventure ahead. The nation-continent has lost more than 72,000 square miles of terrain to hellish bushfires since last June, a mass destruction of animals and their habitats, including forests.
“Greenwood” is all about living among and within the few remaining, doomed forests of Earth in a grim near future crushed by environmental collapse.
“I’ve been invited to every book festival in Australia on this trip,” says Christie, 43. “Obviously they’re thinking about trees after the fires. It’s sad this trip is so timely.”
Trees are part of Christie’s thoughts and daily reality. He, his wife and their two young sons split time between Victoria and sparsely populated Galiano Island, one of the Southern Gulf Islands near Vancouver, B.C. The son of a blue-collar family of carpenters from Thunder Bay, Ontario, Christie built the Galiano house himself from native trees cleared to make space for a home.
It was while removing a Douglas fir that the idea for “Greenwood” came to him.
“I’d been thinking for a while about a number of characters whose lives are connected in different ways to forests, trees and wood,” Christie says. “When I looked at the stump of a tree I’d just cleared, I realized the growth rings inside are a narrative — that a tree records its own life history in its very structure. I thought, ‘What a great way to structure a novel.’”
The result was “Greenwood,” with its nested rings of stories that begin in the year 2038 and lead readers back by degrees, all the way to 1908. Along the way, we meet generations of a chaotic family — the Greenwoods — with few actual blood ties to one another. Within their ranks are all kinds of heroes and villains creating and/or wading through layers of deception, secrets and intergenerational conflicts.
The book is a sprawling affair that Christie manages to keep both congruent and ultimately illuminating by paying close, but not constricting, attention to legacies that characters often know nothing about. One character’s misdeed in 1934 could very well reverberate for another Greenwood in 2008. Christie keeps these invisible strings just taut enough to keep the action logical, without sacrificing imagination.
The moral anchor of the book is Jacinda “Jake” Greenwood, who works as a lowly guide for entitled ecotourists paying top dollar to visit one of the world’s few remaining old-growth forests, this one on an island off British Columbia. Jake, a botanist whose services are deemed unnecessary in a time of rampant dust storms and global loss of trees to fungi and infestation, keeps her head down. She risks unemployment for speaking up about signs of blight in the few trees she shows off to wealthy, selfie-mad visitors every day.
“Greenwood” was released in Canada last year and was immediately longlisted for various honors. The book follows Christie’s literary debut, the 2011 collection “The Beggar’s Garden,” and his highly praised semiautobiographical novel, 2015’s “If I Fall, If I Die.”
The latter was inspired by Christie’s years as a professional skateboarder, which launched his too-early autonomy from a literate, creative, but stiflingly agoraphobic mother. Christie wrote heartbreakingly about his personal experiences with his mother and his own children in a beautiful 2015 piece in The New York Times.
Asked if his two sons, ages 6 and 10, think their dad is awesome because of the skateboarding years, Christie underscores a theme from “Greenwood” regarding how younger generations usually refute, through their own choices, the legacies of their parents.
“My boys are not in the least interested in skateboarding,” he says. “Even when I try to show them a move at the playground. They never think of me as a cool dad. I can live with that.”
“Greenwood” by Michael Christie, Hogarth, 528 pp., $28
Christie will discuss “Greenwood” at 7 p.m. on Monday, March 9, at Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; 206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com