University of Memphis Magazine
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Fall 12 Features


A New Tiger in Town
A Fresh Start
Lambuth, One Year Later
Bouncing Back
Sparks of Wisdom

Photos Capture Glamorous Career
Natural Woman Turned Healer
Writer’s Roots of Success Run Deep

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Writer’s Roots of Success Run Deep

By Greg Russell

Author Courtney Santo’s first novel, Roots of the Olive Tree, was just published in five countries. Santo is creative writing program administrator in the Department of English at the University of Memphis.
Author Courtney Santo’s first novel, Roots of the Olive Tree, was just published in five countries. Santo is creative writing program instructor in the Department of English at the University of Memphis.

Courtney Miller Santo might just be the most humble writer you will ever meet.

"I am just an average person," says Santo (MFA ’11), the creative writing program instructor in the Department of English at the University of Memphis. "Average, and maybe a little bit lucky."

She may have trouble saying that after this summer: Santo’s debut novel,Roots of the Olive Tree, inked by a major book publisher in the six-figure range, was released Aug. 21 in the United States, Poland, Turkey, Germany and Denmark. Her name has recently been splashed across Memphis largest daily, The Commercial Appeal, as well as Memphismagazine after she also won that magazine’s short story contest this past spring. A major book tour is planned in conjunction with the release of the book.

Roots of the Olive Tree follows the lives of intergenerational women, including the 112-year-old matriarch in a family of olive growers in northern California. All seems quite normal in the family until a geneticist begins studying the longevity pattern of the women. Drama ensues.

"They have the ability to live to an old age without many of the problems associated with aging," says Santo. "A geneticist is brought in and while studying them and their longevity, begins discovering family secrets."

The book is described by the publisher as: "Ignites explosive emotions that these women have kept buried and uncovers revelations that will shake them all to their roots."

Santo’s success was almost of the overnight variety, somewhat of a "storybook" tale in itself. While many authors labor in relative obscurity for years, even decades, Santo’s manuscript caught the attention of an agent with the Janklow & Nesbit Associates literary agency shortly after she entered it in Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award competition in 2011, a contest she didn’t win but was a semifinalist. Just a year later, William Morrow, a subsidiary of HarperCollins, is releasing it to a worldwide audience.

"Every morning I have to pinch myself to make sure I am not dreaming," says Santo, who grew up in Portland, Ore. "It was a lifelong dream of mine to get a book published. I just didn’t think it would happen so fast. It takes some authors a very long time to get their first novel published.

"It just took putting myself out there and a little bit of good luck. My success, I think it shows that anyone can do it."

Santo says much of her inspiration comes from her 104-year-old great grandmother who "still plays the piano and lives a very active life."

"She has lived to an old age with very few problems," Santo says, much like the 112-year-old matriarch in her novel. She says writers Alice Munro and John Steinbeck also serve as inspiration.

Santo, who earned a journalism degree at Washington and Lee University, worked newspaper jobs in Richmond and Roanoke, Va., before coming to Memphis in 2005 with her husband Charlie who had taken a job as an associate professor in city and regional planning at the University. While raising two children, she "wrote" stories in her head.

"That’s how I do it," she told Memphis magazine. "I craft the story and can play it back like a tape recorder. Then when I have five minutes, I sit down and bang out a paragraph."

Santo entered "Wind Gap" in the magazine’s annual short-story fiction contest last year and won first place. The magazine published the work in its June 2012 edition.

Santo also teaches courses in the U of M’s acclaimed creative writing department that has featured such former professors as current New York Times best-selling author Rebecca Skloot. Students may want to take note that Santo’s thesis, written while a U of M creative writing student herself, became the basis for her just-released novel.

"I love working with my students," says Santo. "The most exciting part of it, there is no shortage of good, unique stories coming from them.

"In creative writing, a large part of it is finding the most appropriate way to tell a story. When you put words on paper, they are not always perfect. It comes down to having the ability to revise. During revision, that is where real writers are made."

Santo is currently working on a second novel as part of her book contract with Morrow. It is a sure bet there will be nothing "average" about it.

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Last Updated: 9/5/12