Former LampLighter editor finds footing as novelist
By David Royer
From a California olive grove to the mist-shrouded Blue Ridge Mountains to the muddy Mississippi Delta, writer Courtney Miller Santo has set down roots in some of the most fertile literary ground in the country.
When the journalist-turned-novelist landed in Memphis in 2005 after bouncing from her hometown on the West Coast to college in the East, she quickly settled with her husband and two children in the neighborhood that most felt like home.
“It was the most ‘Portland’ neighborhood that we could find,” the Oregon native said of her time in Cooper-Young, where she spent almost three years as editor of the LampLighter from October 2005 to July 2008.
Now Santo, who works as the creative writing program administrator at the University of Memphis, has dug deep into her family lore to find the backdrop for her first novel, The Roots of the Olive Tree, which is set for release nationwide Aug. 21.
It’s the story of 112-year-old family matriarch Anna Keller, who is attempting to become the world’s oldest woman, and her female relatives, who live together in a house on a Northern California farm. Santo patterned the characters after the women in her own family, including her 104-year-old great-grandmother Winnie.
Santo, who noted her grandmother still kayaks at age 80, said she wanted to craft a story that showed that women didn’t just die off sometime in middle age.
“I have all of these amazing women in my family,” she said. “I just knew I wanted to write a story about these women, and generations of women.”
She also joked that her work on a long-form novel might convince her husband — University of Memphis planning professor Charles Santo — to do more work around the house while she was in graduate school.
But The Roots of the Olive Tree almost didn’t see the light of day. Santo entered it in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award last year — she didn’t win, but when a literary agent read the text on Amazon’s website, she found herself with a book deal on the line with publisher William Morrow and a West Coast book tour to follow.
“It’s a little bit scary,” she said, then corrected herself. “It’s a lot scary.”
Wherever she’s lived, Santo has squirreled away a bit of her life there to seed future stories. After college at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va., and an intership at The Roanoke Times, Santo worked as a reporter for The Daily Progress in nearby Charlottesville.
Her short story Wind Gap, which appeared in the June issue of Memphis magazine and tells the story of what happens to a family 10 years after a horrific auto accident, was inspired by her drive over the foggy, winding Afton Mountain pass on Interstate 64 just west of Charlottesville. [As a reporter fresh out of college a few years ago, I covered several real wrecks on Afton Mountain, which had been the scene of a legendary 50-car pileup some years earlier.]
When she and her family left Virginia for Memphis, where her husband had accepted a teaching position, she was recruited by Cooper-Young neighbors to helm the LampLighter, a job that she said not only introduced her to new neighbors, but taught her to let her subjects tell their stories.
“At the time she became editor she brought a fresh voice and a fresh view to the LampLighter and really gave it a jumpstart of enthusiasm,” said Emily Bishop, former chairwoman of CYCA’s communications committee. “Even though she wasn’t from Cooper-Young, she embodied the spirit of Cooper-Young … She was a magnet. She had talent and she attracted other fresh, young talent.”
Santo has moved outside CY’s boundaries to a new home near North Parkway, but remains committed to Midtown and bullish about Memphis, which she said is gaining many of the lifestyle amenities she enjoyed in Portland, but at a much lower cost of living. She’s especially fond of Cooper-Young’s restaurant scene.
“Portland is one of the cities that has the things people say they want, and Memphis is getting it,” she said. “And it’s cheap.”
Next on Santo’s to-do list is developing her second novel; her book deal was for two.
“Nobody gets their dream,” she said, reflecting on her good fortune in a business that often leaves talented writers unrewarded. “Nobody gets what they actually wanted, to happen to them.”
Find out more about Courtney Miller Santo and The Roots of the Olive Tree at courtneysanto.com.