City of Trees is a collection of environmental essays by Sophie Cunningham, deeply analysing our relationship with the natural world, our effect on it, and the importance of seeing the forest for the trees. The books explore themes of life and death through analysing different relationships - working through the loss of her fathers, through the eyes of a mountain lion in Griffith national park, through the isolation of Ranee, the first elephant in Australia, and the status of the iconic Eucalyptus as an international invasive species.
We asked Sophie a few questions about inspiration, identity and processes that went into City of Trees.
What inspired your own love of trees?
I have always loved spending time in the bush, but it wasn’t until I spent most of my time in cities in my later adult life that I started to realise how much trees transformed a landscape and how much I (and we) needed them.
What was the transition between publisher and editor to writer like?
I have continued to be reasonably active in the world of publishing and editing — perhaps as a way of avoiding making the transition complete? And it’s nice to know that I’ve built up a body of industry knowledge and still use that. I can still imagine working again as a publisher. But I can’t imagine not writing. Juggling the two way of engaging with words can create an odd tension at times, but I enjoy it. In a practical sense, I think working in the industry when I was younger made it easier for me to deal with some of the ways in which being a writer can drive you a bit crazy!
What role do you believe author’s can play in addressing climate change?
I’m passionately concerned about climate change. Sometimes I worry that writing about these issues is a flaky way of rising to the challenge created by such profound environmental change. Challenge that includes the increasingly contested political landscape. But I also think I can be more effective as a communicator than as an activist in this area and that my books — especially City of Trees — give me a platform to address these issues publicly. I have made a concerted effort to educate myself so that when I do talk more broadly— that is outside the framework of my literary work — I know what I’m talking about. I also find that writing gives me a way of taking readers on an emotional journey, rather than just laying an info dump on them.
Did you find environment affected your writing? Where do you write best?
To be honest I write best in small spaces, when I’m not travelling or otherwise distracting myself. I like those spaces to have nice light and a bit of a view. I work at home sitting in a chair that gets alot of sun, under a banana palm; or in my office, which gets morning sun and overlooks a courtyard at the Abbotsford Convent. The courtyard has a very lovely Plane tree.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
These aren’t things you plan for, and from a distance I think you’d say that I’ve written about very different things — sex! buddhism! cyclones! Cities! trees! — but it’s now obvious to me that the non-fiction Melbourne, Warning and City of Trees have strong connections and are all concerned with environmental issues ,as well as the ways in which we tell stories and structure narrative. And to be honest, my next novel, This Devastating Fever, shares those thematic concerns, despite being set in England (and Ceylon) a hundred years ago.