Kathy Taylor is a writer and musician and a retired professor of Spanish who has lived in Mexico, Nicaragua, Ireland, Curaçao and Germany and has written songs in Spanish, Portuguese, German and Papiamentu (a Caribbean Creole language), as well as in English. She lives off the grid with her husband, Peter, in the mountains of Colorado, where she is currently working on a novel that takes place in Germany.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Kathy Taylor: I have always loved trees. I grew up in a Quaker community west of Philadelphia that had many acres full of a wide variety of trees as well as a great diversity of human residents and visitors.
My childhood there instilled in me a deep respect for the natural world as well as for the rich palette of human communities, their languages and cultures. In my career as a professor of Spanish I spent time living and working in Latin America as well as with immigrant communities in the U.S. “Trees and Other Witnesses” is a collection of short stories that take place in different settings in Mexico, Nicaragua and the U.S.
Each story features a tree that has a central role in the cultural and geographical setting as well as the metaphorical structure of the story. As a child I had special relationships with individual trees and the memory of that inspired me to write these stories.
SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
Taylor: This excerpt is the seventh of thirteen stories in my book “Trees and Other Witnesses.” “Tree of the Little Hands” takes place in a fictitious remote mountain village in Mexico. It is based on my experiences in a few such villages as well as a kind of mythic imagination that centers around the power of stories.
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The stories we tell about ourselves help to create the smaller circles that we inhabit as well as our visions of the world beyond and its unknowable future. I chose this story as an example of how a tree can connect ancient Mesoamerican healing traditions to contemporary cultural practices.
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write?
Taylor: During my teaching career as a professor of Spanish, I taught many courses in language, literature, and creative writing. My writing has been influenced by all of that.
I also had the privilege to take groups of students to Mexico and Nicaragua for a semester of study and immersion in the language and cultures there. I was moved by our experiences and what we learned about the lives of others. The things I saw and the stories I heard were always woven into an imaginative narrative that reflected the realities that people lived.
My stories are based on many things I witnessed and heard and others that I imagined. The “real” sometimes challenged the imagined for suspension of disbelief.
SunLit: Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
Taylor: Yes! That has been true for all my writing. For this book, once the basic setting and theme for each story was established, I did a lot of research to ground it in authentic cultural and ecological contexts.
The narrative grew with the tree, rooted in real cultures and experiences, but growing freely in the writing process. One story in the collection (“Mirage”) was inspired by a brief article I saw in a Mexican newspaper about a small group of Mexicans found dead in the desert after trying to cross the border into the U.S.
It was a cold and impersonal paragraph, so I was inspired to imagine a backstory to “bring to life” those anonymous people. As I wrote, I fell in love with my characters and wanted to save them. But the end was already written! I cried as the writing took me where I didn’t want it to go.
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
Taylor: I wrote many of the stories from 2001-2004, always too busy with other things to finish the project. A few of the stories were published in journals along the way. After retiring, I wrote some more stories, including one based in the Arkansas Valley of Colorado, where I now live.
When I went back to some of the first ones I had written, I was surprised at their autonomy as finished stories. They were each their own world that resisted more than superficial editing.
The challenge for me is always finding the courage to start a new story and trust the process. I have to get out of my own way and give the writing the space and fertile ground it needs. There is no clear map or elaborate scaffolding. It is a raw idea, sometimes even a fast-flowing river that I need to jump into and go with.
Then I research as needed and the writing creates its own poetry. I seem to have to relearn to trust that every time!
SunLit: Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?
Taylor: Some have responded to the poetic storytelling language of the writing — usually liking it but also wondering about the “truth” of the stories.
“Trees and Other Witnesses”
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Once early on I took one of the stories to a writers’ workshop. The teacher challenged a few of the “exaggerations” in my story. I responded that those things were real, and I had witnessed them as such in Mexico. “But they are not believable,” he countered.
Precisely. That is Mexico. The adage that truth can be stranger than fiction is often a way of life in many cultures. A 2,000-year-old tree with a girth that 20 people holding hands cannot reach around is what it is, while extensive grinding poverty in a land so rich in natural resources is difficult to understand.
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Taylor: Well, first I write in my head most of the time, wherever I am, often while hiking. I like to put words on paper whenever I have a chance, so I often carry around a small journal for the current project. I write notes in it, whatever comes to me, and always in pencil. There is something about writing in pencil that allows a sense of freedom to write without a commitment to permanence. It is a process.
When things start to take shape, I sit down at my laptop, often over breakfast. Sometimes I find myself still at the kitchen table three hours later. I eventually move to a desk in our upstairs loft. I have been known to pull over to the side of the road when something comes to me while driving.
Now that I am retired, there are fewer external barriers to my writing. I am currently immersed in a novel that rarely leaves me alone, so I am writing in my dreams, when I wake up in the morning, in the middle of the night, or during a conversation.
The characters have now all moved into my house, and it gets crowded at times. I am also a musician, a singer-songwriter, so my head is also always full of music. It’s a crazy, wonderful life and I wouldn’t trade it for anything!
SunLit: You seem to write a lot about other cultures and languages. Why is that?
Taylor: I have always been fascinated by the diversity of languages and cultures in the world. It is not an attraction to what some might call the exotic nature of difference, but almost the opposite.
I find inspiration in the lives and stories of others that is based on what connects us. The obvious differences shine a light on things that we take for granted in our own lives, to help us see what is behind our assumptions. I have lived in a variety of countries and languages and my life has been greatly enriched and expanded by those experiences.
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Taylor: I am in the editing phase of a novel called “The Birthing House.”
This is a novel about writing. It is the story of a woman’s journey of healing and discovery through her writing. The narrative of the novel weaves together explorations of heart, mind, and body, richly textured with memories, dreams, layers of history, language, and philosophy.
Two timelines alternate, 20 years apart. After a recent miscarriage, Clare Muller arrives in the fairytale town of Marburg, Germany, with her husband and 6-year-old son. She faces the adventures and challenges of living in a different language and culture and eventually a new pregnancy.
Twenty years later she and her husband return, both as mid-career professors, following the sudden death of Clare’s beloved father. They live in a house that had once belonged to a midwife and had been the birthing house for many in the surrounding area. As the house releases the years of stories embedded in its walls, it becomes a haven for Clare and a catalyst for her writing. Her grief fades, her world expands, and a new book is born.