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Crystal Salt
  • Writer's pictureCristina Deutsch

About my novel "The Crocodile Tree". Interview with myself. Part I.

I’ve been thinking that I should start writing something about the novel, given that it is already in print and can be pre-ordered on the website of Eikon publishing house. The hardest choice was deciding what was more important to write about: how did I come up with the idea for The Crocodile Tree? About the "creative process" itself? About the characters? I received various questions on Facebook, by email, and by chat. And it occurred to me that the best solution would be, at least in this first phase, to put them together and answer them as I would in a (so-called) self-interview.

As there are many questions (and as I love talking a lot) I will divide it into sequels, one question in each post. If you like the idea and if you have other questions, I'm waiting for you with messages in the comments/ on Facebook/ by email, whatever suits you is fine with me.

Question number 1 (multiple voices, face to face with the author): What would be "The Crocodile Tree?".

Translation of the question in journalistic language: How did you choose the title «The Crocodile Tree» for your novel?

Answer to question number 1 (official answer): The title came as a creative impulse during the writing process. I wanted to evoke a strong and unexpected image that would surprise readers and pique their curiosity. Also, the idea of crocodiles refers to learning life's lessons the hard way and adapting to the environment, which fits the theme of the novel perfectly.

Unofficial answer to the first question: One night, some years ago, I think it was around 2012 if my memory doesn’t play tricks with me (but I'm too lazy to take out the manuscript now to check...) I dreamed of this bald guy picking on me: "Listen, when are you going to start writing?" "Writing what exactly, who the hell are you, can't you see I'm sleeping?!" "What do you mean what to write? Write about me!" "And who are you, guy?" I snapped at him. "What do you mean? I'm Bebe. Bebe Boian. And make sure that you don't change the title. It's "The Crocodile Tree", do you understand? And it should remain exactly like this!". I forgot about him for a few days, but the man was a pestle. I kept wracking my brain to figure out where I knew him from, but I had no idea who he was, he didn't even vaguely resemble anyone. In short, until I asked him something else, he got out of there. I kind of take my dreams seriously. Therefore, willy-nilly, I let the other things to do aside and took up with "The Crocodile Tree". To be honest, at first, I had no idea what the title was, I didn't know what it represented, and I think I only found out when the novel started to take shape. It's obviously a metaphor that I could explain very well in a moving image—and that was one of the things that got me, that there are no moving image book covers: that crocodile that you see on the cover was supposed to clatter the fangs every now and then. The tree crown should have been waving when the wind blew, and the scenery behind it should have been constantly changing. But the story of the cover itself is another matter, I will return to it in due course. We can all be, at some point, ravenous crocodiles or shredded victims, lying within our personal tree. It happens (it's true, rarely, we even have all three possibilities at the same time). The crocodiles are moving, clattering their teeth, oozing with their paws through the sap of the tree, up, as high as they can, they want to get out of there and grab your legs. And yet, at the same time, the poor crocodile is pushed down, lower and lower, its tail is stuck in the ground like a root, it wants to get out, and it claps its jaws in despair, but someone from above is pushing it mercilessly. It's just a matter of perspective, isn't it?

I illustrate with a quote and, if you have comments/suggestions/questions, I'm waiting for you in the comments/ email/ facebook, where you want and where you can.

Excerpt from the novel The Crocodile Tree:

"He stirred with his hand through the photos on the bed and immediately found what he was looking for, it seemed like it had been there from the beginning only he hadn't seen it, maybe because he remembered it completely differently. It was not square, but round, cut out by a not very skilled hand and then glued on a yellowed, thin cardboard. He was tempted, however, to wonder why it had not attracted his attention; but he had learned from experience that we see things in front of our eyes with the greatest difficulty. He gathered everything, put the box back, carefully, and took his loot with him into the kitchen. There, on the well-washed plastic tablecloth, things were much clearer. He rested his head in his hands wondering, rhetorically, how that idiot of Modreanu had come to accuse him of falsifying the schedule. Okay, he didn't even quite understand what the moron meant by that. He admitted that he was messy, he had just been told by his grandfather so many times, and he often lost that page, he slipped it, no one knows how, behind some books, or it ended up between the pages of a notebook. He even once found it hidden under the carpet - and that after a week of searching. If it had been after him, he wouldn't have even gone to confront Modreanu for this stuff - his initial excitement, and agitation, after they had talked on the phone, had really been genuine; but now, just the mere fact that he needed to leave the house for such a thing made him indisposed. He had allowed himself to mock his grandfather, that was what bothered him the most, that he hadn't had a ravaging response at that moment. Really, Flax's ears indeed... when he was younger, he had struggled for days to invent a system to make them stay in place, he had stuck them with large pieces of scotch tape, stolen from a drawer but despite the care with which he had worked, the result was really not up to expectations. The scotch had stuck to the hair in places, losing its strength, and after only twenty minutes, not even half an hour, the grip would begin to loosen, leaving the ears arched into the bizarre shape of tiny croissants. At one point he had even considered cutting them, but he hadn't decided which would have been better, with the large tailor's scissors, the nail scissors, or his grandfather's razor blade. He wouldn't cut them completely, he would just adjust them like this, on the edges, to give them a shape... But he was afraid of the pain, he couldn't get over that, he even pinched them with his nails from their edges to see what it would have been like and, even so, the tears had welled into his eyes... In the last year, however, he had changed his tune; he had asked his grandfather to take him to the barber and have his hair cut short, by the book. The curly mane, like a poodle's fur, looked really good now, and some teachers ran their hand over his head, murmuring: "Well done, student, that's how I want you!". It was regular; therefore, the ears should have been too. Two cabbage leaves hanging by the head. “Dumbo! Yo, Dumbo!", his colleagues shouted, "you, long-eared!" – and to this guy Flax had promptly replied with "long-eared is your father!". He had taken it on the chin and ended with a chipped tooth but, in his opinion, it had been well worth the investment. And the boy in the photo, who looked about his age, somewhere around 11-12, had the same ears. Yes, even the girl, but she was privileged, from under the thick tails, she emerged one alone, with the delicacy of a clam. And yet, at the very beginning of the year, those ears had helped him get his revenge. The history lesson. With that bony, bespectacled teacher forever dressed only in brown. Flax wasn't exactly her favorite, but close – he had a good memory and seemed to like history. He was able to tell the lesson slowly, with his eyes closed, concentrating, he was forced, by his way of being, to imagine all those battles, and how the king sat on the throne, how he mounted the horse, and so on. You could see that he was tasting the story itself, chewing it well, and serving it to the teacher. But the lesson of the Holocaust was the worst thing on earth. Certainly, worse than the Holocaust itself, Flax had told himself. At least, in there, he wouldn't have been alone. After the teacher had finished calling out the presence and had already listened to three students (and Flax had managed to get away this time), giggles had already begun to creep in which, especially in the last benches, gradually turned into hysterical neighs released seemingly by chance, especially when she was busy writing on the blackboard, showing her back to the students. Luckily, he was in the first row, practically those who could see him in the face were few - more specifically the two girls sitting on the side and the teacher. Flax's face looked exactly like in a commercial for pressure cookers. He couldn't see this thing, but he knew very well that he was blushing, and he kept wondering how much, and that made him even redder, he was sweaty, boiling inside and out. He tried to calm down, to stop thinking, but the tips of his ears were already in flames.Only 50 minutes! 50 minutes pass quickly. What is 50 minutes? And if you calculated well, there was actually only about half an hour left. And it wasn't even a physics class. You couldn't compare history class to physics class, and that aspect calmed him down a bit - there was no doubt about it, nothing on earth could be more horrifying than physics class. Or had he forgotten how he had pretended to faint when the teacher had invited him to the blackboard to solve that problem? Anyway, he had taken an F, because he hadn't recovered in time. "Come on, Flax, you'll learn your lesson until next time and you'll see that you'll feel better...", the teacher had told him, stroking his head tenderly, and he'd looked up with a grateful puppy face. He had been given a break, some time to think that maybe there would never be a next time. He glanced furtively at the clock and realized, to his astonishment, that his entire mental journey had lasted no more than four minutes. "What's up Flax, are we bored?", he heard the teacher. He pretended that he didn't hear anything, or maybe the question wasn't even addressed to him... "Come on, student Flax, let's hear from thee what do you think about the Holocaust... Or are you not present?". Flax rose to his feet, with extremely slow movements, as if trying to give her enough time to change his mind. But it seemed that he was indeed the lucky winner, the teacher was standing there staring at him, waiting. "I'm here, teacher," he said in an absolutely pitiful voice, and the whole class laughed. He was present, how the hell could he not be at such an event? If required, he could have been present there with his whole family, living and dead, of course. "Tell me, Flax, don’t you happen to be Jewish?", asked the professor with a perplexed face. He had a feeling of rising and falling, successively, like on a roller coaster. His blood, all his available blood, was concentrated in his cheekbones and especially in the tips of his ears which had turned scarlet. From somewhere, from the back of the class (again) a roar of laughter was heard: "Well, Flax, we'll take you by the ears and into the oven with you!". A copious belching ensued that seemed, at least at first glance, collective. Even those girls on the side were laughing with their hands over their mouths. The teacher tried to make order by tapping the edge of the ruler on the chair, but it was useless. Blood ran from his ears to his arms and legs, and by the time he had gripped the wood and metal back of the chair, he was actually calm. Calculated and calm. He had hit his enemy right in the face, driving one of the chair legs over his teeth. He had fallen, full of blood, with his arms outstretched, as if begging for mercy: “He is mad, he is mad! Flax!!! I didn't do anything to him! It was a joke! It was a joke!". Flax would have hit him once more, with thirst, but he had to settle for a foot in the ribs, He was left without a chair, it had been taken from him. The teacher examined the wounded boy, as if he had fallen on the battlefield of who knows what forgotten battle, and concluded dryly: "We have to call the Ambulance, he broke his head!". Then, without emotion: "Student Matei, when you are going to injure yourself again, I would ask you not to do it in my class. Did we understand each other?!". Anyway, a big mess had come out, with the teachers' board and all the trimmings, and Modreanu had thought that the most ethical solution was to expel both of them and that's it, he somehow washed his hands. He had told Matei, not very severely, that "if he had beat you, it means you deserved it" and advised him not to complain too much. He hadn't said anything to Flax, not that he felt sorry for him or anything, he just didn't know what to say, he had looked in his pedagogy textbook for a solution, but he hadn't found similar issues. If he were to be honest, he would have preferred the situation to have been exactly the opposite: if Matei had cracked Flax's head, yes, it really would have been a thing. He would have accused Flax of disrupting the classes, even of racial hatred – why not? – and would have kicked him out in a blink of an eye. But there was also that fellow, Boian, who couldn't get out of his sight. “Flax? Flax who? A... the student. Do you mean Rex?” and he shouted at him that there is no Rex, what did he think, that this is an animal shelter or a school?! And besides, look at the proof, he didn't even know his own students, what better proof he wanted than this that he wasn’t really integrated into the working team? Boian shrugged indifferently: Flax-Flex-Rex, what does he care?".(Cristina Deutsch. Arborele de crocodile/ The Crocodile Tree. Eikon Publishing House, 2023, p 582-585, the translation of this excerpt is mine).

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