Susannah Terrell French: Environmental Lawyer & Award-Winning Author
Nicki Richesin, The Children’s Book Review
Published: September 6, 2013
The Children’s Book Review is delighted to welcome Susannah Terrell French to our tree house today. She is an environmental lawyer and the award-winning author of Operation Redwood, a high adventure novel about four determined children who take on big business to save a redwood forest. Her book also provides conservation lessons about the importance of preserving our natural habitats. We’re grateful to Susannah for telling us a bit about her writing influences, struggles with the timber industry, and the inspiration behind Operation Redwood.
Nicki Richesin: Although your award-winning novel Operation Redwood is fiction, it was inspired by the battle over the Headwaters Forest in northern California, which was the last large stand of old-growth redwoods in private hands. Could you please tell our readers the most surprising facts you learned while conducting extensive research to write your book?
Susannah Terrell French: While the battle over the Headwaters Forest appears in Operation Redwood mostly in the Author’s Note, it’s a fascinating story. I think the most surprising element was the secrecy and scheming involved in the takeover of what had been a relatively small local company by a huge corporate power, starting with a flyover of the land to evaluate the rich, hidden timber resources. The takeover was capitalism at its rawest, with ancient redwoods reduced to widgets in an economic calculus.
NR: As an environmental attorney, you were shocked to discover that the timber industry argued that cutting down redwoods along streams was actually good for salmon and other wildlife because the redwood trees were sucking up all their water. What other sort of absurd claims did you have to fight while working as a lawyer?
STF: Well, I think that one takes the cake! It’s a classic distortion of a “fact”—that redwood trees need a lot of water—to bolster a self-serving, counterintuitive, and wrong conclusion: that destroying the redwood forest is actually good for the creatures that inhabit it. In fact, the role of fog and redwoods in keeping water in the forest ecosystem has been studied by scientists at U. C. Berkeley for years. The issue of how news about environmental issues is conveyed, particularly to kids, is one that I thought about a lot when writing Operation Redwood, particularly in the interactions between Julian, the main character, and his grandmother, a newspaper reporter.
NR: I love how Operation Redwood conveys that standing up and fighting for what you believe can be scary, but it’s usually worth the risk. Who were your heroes/heroines when you were a kid?
STF: I was a little obsessed with Helen Keller who, of course, had great courage in presenting her beliefs and overcoming expectations.
NR: What are your favorite coming-of-age novels?
STF: When I was coming of age myself, I loved the classics: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Catcher in the Rye, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. As an older reader, I’ve loved many books that could be considered, at least in part, “coming of age” novels, for example, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. I recently finished Julie Orringer’s compelling novel, The Invisible Bridge, which is in some ways a classic coming-of-age story set in Europe just before and during World War II. For younger readers, Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl is a lovely story about a young woman coming into her voice and powers.
NR: What’s the best question one of your young readers has posed to you?
STF: “How can Julian see the stars at night through the branches of the redwood forest?” I loved this question because it was clear the boy had become so involved in the book that he’d begun to imagine the world through Julian’s eyes. Also, this is a question I’d in fact considered as I wrote Operation Redwood. I’d ultimately decided that a sufficient clearing could exist over the tree house for Julian to see the stars.
NR: If you could be reincarnated as a literary character, who would it be and why?
STF: Anybody in Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber. I’d love to see the world of 18th century China first hand.
NR: Could you please tell us a bit about your new novel set in San Francisco you’ve been working on?
STF: I’m working on and thinking about two different books, one for kids and an adult novel. The children’s book has a monkey. That’s probably all I can say right now.
NR: I appreciated that Operation Redwood tackles real issues rather than a fantasy dilemma. Julian is forced to overcome his frustration and anger with his uncle’s greed to find a way to fight back. Is it important to you as an author to write about realistic problems with which ordinary people grapple?
STF: Operation Redwood was inspired by the great interest in environmental issues I saw in my own children and their classmates. I wanted to tap into that, but I wasn’t interested in writing a preachy tract. I suppose that can be the challenge. Fantasy can be wonderful and true it its own way, but there are also many fascinating stories in the real world. Kids should know all kinds of stories.
NR: Which authors made the greatest impact on you when you were a young girl growing up in Maryland?
STF: So many! Lloyd Alexander, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, E. L. Konigsburg, Jean Craighead George, Susan Cooper, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, E. Nesbit, Arthur Ransome, L.M. Montgomery, Louisa May Alcott, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Madeleine L’Engle.
NR: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
STF: I once heard Isabelle Allende talk about writing. She said, “Be clear.”
Add this book to your collection: Operation Redwood
For more information on Susannah Terrell, visit: operationredwood.com
Nicki Richesin is a freelance writer and editor based in San Francisco. She writes personal essays and pieces on lifestyle, parenting, and pop culture for Sunset, DuJour, 7×7, Daily Candy, and The Huffington Post. She is also the author and editor of The May Queen, Because I Love Her, What I Would Tell Her, and Crush. You can find her online at http://www.nickirichesin.com