About the Book:
"In this masterful performance, Bryn Chancellor explores the loss around which an entire community has calcified with humanity and wisdom. Chancellor digs deep in these pages, unearthing broken hearts, secrets, betrayals, passion and—most impressively—grace. What a joy to find a book that is both propulsive and perfectly composed."—Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, author of The Nest
An award-winning writer makes her debut with this mesmerizing page-turner in the spirit of Everything I Never Told You and Olive Kitteridge.
Out for a hike one scorching afternoon in Sycamore, Arizona, a newcomer to town stumbles across what appear to be human remains embedded in the wall of a dry desert ravine. As news of the discovery makes its way around town, Sycamore’s longtime residents fear the bones may belong to Jess Winters, the teenage girl who disappeared suddenly some eighteen years earlier, an unsolved mystery that has soaked into the porous rock of the town and haunted it ever since. In the days it takes the authorities to make an identification, the residents rekindle stories, rumors, and recollections both painful and poignant as they revisit Jess’s troubled history. In resurrecting the past, the people of Sycamore will find clarity, unexpected possibility, and a way forward for their lives.
Skillfully interweaving multiple points of view, Bryn Chancellor knowingly maps the bloodlines of a community and the indelible characters at its heart—most notably Jess Winters, a thoughtful, promising adolescent poised on the threshold of adulthood. Evocative and atmospheric, Sycamore is a coming-of-age story, a mystery, and a moving exploration of the elemental forces that drive human nature—desire, loneliness, grief, love, forgiveness, and hope—as witnessed through the inhabitants of one small Arizona town.
Q&A with the author:
Is the town of Sycamore based on a real place? Why did you decide to set the novel in a fictional town?
While Sycamore is imaginary, it’s based on places in the region where I grew up: the small town of Sedona, Arizona, and the neighboring towns of Cottonwood and Clarkdale, where I attended junior high and high school. A fictionalized version allowed me the distance to rearrange and create features and timelines I needed.
I’ve lived in the American South now for about twelve years, and I haven’t yet been able to set any stories here. I’ve tried. Personally, I’m quite mesmerized by the landscape—leafy trees! rain!—but I can’t get inside it the way that I can with the territory that I moved around in for thirty-plus years. The landscape is a major feature of Sycamore, as it’s a major feature of the real place. The desert is weird, in the best of ways. When we went to visit recently, my husband commented it was like walking around Mars. A place of contradictions, both tough and fragile. A ferocious beauty.
As with much of my writing, I wanted to explore the lives of working people who are sometimes overlooked, both in literature and in life. My settings often are unexplored corners of small-town Arizona and unseen avenues of urban Phoenix—a West with which many people are unfamiliar, and one I hope to bring into focus as more than myth or stereotype, to show the complexities of the land and its people.
I’m often told, and I accept, that I write about ordinary people, though I do find myself questioning what we mean by ordinary and why that strikes us as notable. One of my favorite responses from a reader so far is that the book illuminated the poetry of the ordinary and prompted him to start writing poems in the mornings. That makes me unbearably happy. For me, the world would be far better off if we all started our mornings writing poems.
Which of the characters’ points of view came easiest to you? Which was the hardest?
Writing from Adam’s perspective was hands down the hardest. I resisted wrestling with his motivations, the harm he caused, his immaturity and selfishness. Of course, I had to. I had to know why he acted badly, how he had lived with it. I only could do it when I hit on the idea
of him writing to Dani. He became complex and sympathetic to me then, this aging father writing a letter to the adult daughter he’s lost because of his actions, grappling still with his mother’s abandonment, his career failures. That letter feels like the first time he’s been honest, both to her and to himself.
This may be surprising, but I wrote Jess’s chapters last. I think part of me resisted writing in the voice of a teenager, not to mention the logic of how to write from the perspective of someone
missing. I worried about clichés and inauthenticity—I don’t see this book at all as a “missing girl” story, and perhaps I was overly self-conscious about that trope. Initially I conveyed Jess only through her notebooks, messy entries and poems, but that narrow first-person felt flat, and I knew I needed to bring her more fully into the picture. So I pulled way back, perspective-wise, to an omniscient point of view, so I could see her first before seeing through her. For whatever reason, that opened up her story and character for me, as well as the two-timeline structure of the book.
I don’t know if any characters were easy for me—I tend to pull out my hair more often than not—but I did have fun writing Rose and Iris, those short, voice-driven monologues. I’m also quite partial to Esther, who carries a lot of the book’s humor and who, in some ways, I see as my funnier, more outspoken alter ego. But I love all of my characters, even when they’re not at their best—maybe even more then.
Did you sketch out the entire plot before you started writing? If not, did you have a sense of what was going to happen in the end?
When I started, I had no clue what had happened to Jess. I had to solve my own mystery. I didn’t know her, or any of these characters, much at all. I knew I didn’t want to solve her disappearance with tricks or surprises or even a crime—or at least the possibility that it
wasn’t a crime. I thought about never answering the question of what happened. In the end, I gave readers the truth, but the characters will never know exactly what happened.
Part of the joy of writing for me is figuring it all out, that thrilling sense of surprise and discovery as you get to know your characters and place and what happens next and next and next.
Even with a book with so many components, I didn’t really outline, just tried to feel my way through, unlock the answers as I learned more about the characters and the place. During early
drafts, I pinned all the characters’ names to a bulletin board and kept notes on a large whiteboard as I plugged away.
Ultimately, I had to stop worrying about what it was going to be—stories? a novel in stories? an unfinishable disaster?—and just get down the story in my head. I wrote the first (messy)
draft quickly, which is unusual for me. The heavy lifting came in revision, about seven drafts total. Revision is where I figure out what I’m really trying to do.
Who are your biggest literary influences?
As is the case for many writers, I was a reader long before I tried to make my own stories. My mom likes to tell how I surprised her by reading a note aloud when I was around three or four years old. Startled, she said, “I didn’t know you could read,” and I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Yeah.” In some ways, that’s how reading still feels to me: like something I have always known how to do. Yet it also stands out as one of the saving graces of my life, the act to which
I have turned again and again to find solace, to escape, to expand and enrich my mind. What a wonder a book is: through the art of language, we are transported to worlds that we would otherwise never know. Reading is simultaneously the most ordinary and the most wildly magic habit of my life.
It’s hard for me to narrow down specific writers because there are so many I admire and I’m constantly reading and discovering more. More broadly, I tend to favor fiction, both novels and short stories, but I am also a fan of poetry, narrative nonfiction, graphic narratives, and film. A good story often has many qualities, but I am most drawn to those that have deeply complex, original characters in whom I am absolutely invested. I want to feel something at the end, to recognize a change, to glimpse some aspect of the human condition. If I’m weeping at 3 a.m. when I finally close the cover, success! I like dark humor, mesmerizing language, and experimental voices. I’m also a sucker for a story with secrets. We’re always holding our breaths a little as we wait to find out how or if the truth will be revealed, or we see how a secret weighs on a character and shapes their actions; I especially love when the reader
is privy to the truth and we see connections the characters don’t. Jane Eyre and Frankenstein, two old favorites, come to mind, but I also was mesmerized by J. Courtney Sullivan’s recent Saints for All Occasions, a beautiful family drama in which an old secret ripples across a lifetime.
What’s your favorite piece of advice that you give to your creative writing students?
I like to say, “Come on, break my heart.” Meaning: when it starts to get hard, keep going. Dig deep. Don’t hold back. Make every part count.
The more I teach, the more I find myself stripping down to basics, starting with observation. We practice how to notice. To really pay attention, to look and look again. I want them to wonder about others, to marvel at what they don’t know. Sometimes I think when we activate our writing eyes, it’s like when Neo finally sees the Matrix: stories and details everywhere.
I also remind students that as writers, the one true thing we can control is the writing. The work on the page. All you can do is write your best version on your terms. I tell them to hold on to that process, as messy and hard as it is, because that’s what will sustain them.
Sycamore is on sale now in trade paperback. Order your copy here today!