Alissa Lukara is the author of the novel Secrets of the Trees, set in Latvia. Her memoir, Riding Grace: A Triumph of the Soul (Silver Light Publications), was called by the Midwest Book Review “a transcendental story about the immeasurable powers of redemption and compassion.”
Alissa Lukara has been a professional writer and writing coach for more than thirty years and founded Transformational Writers. She teaches workshops and speaks on writing as a transformational journey. She is also co-author of NightDancin’ (Ballantine Books).
She grew up near Cleveland, Ohio, and has lived in Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City. She now makes her home in Ashland.
Ed Battistella: Your book Secrets of the Trees struck me as an engaging hero’s quest combined with recent history. How did the book come about?
Alissa Lukara: After completing a memoir, I knew I wanted next to write a novel. One day I was hiking in Lithia Park when a young boy ran up to me, asked me if my name was Nikkie and if I was lost in the woods. Nikkie had carved her name into a tree, he said, and he was looking for her with his father and sister. They had made a game of it, the boy’s father explained. I went along with the fantasy and that encounter sparked the idea for the novel with a main character named Nikkie, who had been lost in a forest as a child once and now had also lost her way in her life. The first scenes I wrote were set in a forest in Oregon.
But a year into the writing of the book, scenes set in Latvia emerged. As long as I had written, I had known I would one day write a novel that included Latvia’s recent history and my own family’s history. Their life in Latvia, their uprooting during WWII and their own hero’s quest to escape the Soviet takeover had shaped my life and perspectives on the world growing up. It was then I knew Secrets of the Trees would be that book about Latvia. And while the novel is set in 2003, my family’s life and quest were fictionalized as part of the backstory.
EB: Tell us about the protagonist Nikkie, who is a dancer with visions. How did you conceive of her?
AL: The day after my encounter with the boy in the park, I did a free write asking Nikkie to tell me about herself and a spontaneous piece emerged about her that started with her whirling and dancing. It ended up with her pretending to be lost in the forest with her brother.
Then when I was a couple years into writing the novel, her visions in Latvia started to appear in scenes of the book. At that moment, I knew the main action of this novel about Nikkie’s hero’s quest would take place in Latvia and include pieces of my family’s history. I made her ancestry Latvian, like mine. I knew her transformational journey to re-inspire herself as a dancer and solve the mystery of her vision would now also involve an exploration of her Latvian roots and a deepening of her recognition of the divine in all creation, most notably nature and trees, a concept central to Latvian spirituality, and to the Latvian goddesses Māra and Laima, who guide her.
EB: And Nikkie has a twin, Tom. Why a twin?
AL: After the boy asked me if I was Nikkie, I continued my hikes in the same park to think about the novel. I carried a notebook and pen to jot down ideas. Several days in a row, I saw twins of various ages. It happened so often, I commented to a friend that there must be a twin convention in town. Then, I realized that Nikkie had a brother who was a fraternal twin.
Some years into the writing, I also discovered that twins had run in my maternal family. One great grandmother had been a fraternal twin whose brother drowned when he was a teenager. She had also given birth to fraternal twins, who had died as toddlers from a flu.
EB: What is your connection to Latvia, Latvians spirituality, and Latvian history?
AL: I am a first generation American with several generations of Latvian ancestry. My parents and grandparents and other members of my maternal family escaped Latvia in 1944 during WWII when the Soviets took it over. They walked across Latvia, were refugees and lived in a Displaced Persons camp in Würzburg, Bavaria, Germany for five years before emigrating to the U.S. Some remaining family members were arrested and sent to Siberia, where most died. I still have relatives in Latvia who lived through the Soviet Occupation and remain there now that it is free. This family history has struck a deep chord throughout my life. Growing up, I was active in the Latvian culture and community in Cleveland, Ohio, learning to speak, read and write Latvian, speaking it at home, attending Latvian events and camps. Since the Soviet Union was trying to destroy the culture in Latvia itself, many Latvian parents, mine included, taught their children that it was up to the Latvian diaspora to carry forth the culture so it would not die. I participated in Latvian Song and Dance festivals in the U.S., Canada and Latvia, and as a young adult was part of the Latvian community in New York City. A few years ago, I became a dual citizen.
My mother was active in the Chicago Latvian community for decades, studied Latvian politics and arts, was part of a Latvian literary group, talked to me often – always in Latvian – about Latvian current events and culture. I was fortunate to travel to Latvia with her three times before she died last year and gain her insights there. Through her connections, I met not only my family there but her friends including many well-known Latvians in the arts and culture. In researching Secrets of the Trees, I realized that much of what was important to me in fact had its roots in my Latvian heritage: my love of the arts and nature, spirituality that sees the divine in nature, poetry, dance, music, a longing for freedom, my resilience.
EB: What should readers understand about Latvia?
AL: Latvia is a country most people know little about. Yet its culture is rich. It’s been said that every Latvian is a poet, and a Latvian without a song is a Latvian without a soul. I love that and can so relate.
Too often, our world seems to value only the accomplishments of the superpowers while ignoring or discounting what smaller countries have to teach us. The novel offers a look at what Latvians have to share globally through the filter of what has most touched me about it. They value and support the arts. For instance, they have managed to create and preserve their cultural identity and identification as a singing nation despite living through centuries of oppression and serfdom.
During Glasnost and Atmoda, Latvians’ conscious decision to stage a nonviolent Singing Revolution led to the dissolution of fifty years of Soviet Oppression. They continue to hold a Latvian song and dance festival every five years, as they have since 1873, that is on the UNESCO Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity list. It involves mass choir and dance events of forty thousand plus participants (fifteen thousand singers, fifteen thousand dancers) from a country with a population of two million. Numerous Latvian classical music and opera stars grace the top opera houses and symphony halls in the world and the country’s choirs repeatedly win gold medals in world competitions. Latvians, even those who live in the city, also maintain a deep soul connection to and respect for nature, the land and its forests.
EB: Can you tell our readers a bit more about the title—Secrets of the Trees?
AL: From the first pages I wrote, scenes were set in forests, and the trees became like characters themselves. And when the visions in Latvian forests appeared to Nikkie, their role stood out even more. The forests draw Nikkie, are central to solving the mystery behind the recurring visions, hence the title, which came to me spontaneously a few years ago.
Also interwoven in the novel and inspiring the title are the ways Latvia’s forests play a key role in its collective history and culture, in Latvian’s day to day lives and specifically in the lives of my novel’s characters. Forests still cover 42 percent of Latvia. Trees are key images in many of Latvia’s folk songs and folklore. Over the centuries that Latvia was oppressed by one nation after another, Latvians in peril escaped and hid in the country’s dense forests. During WWII, resistance fighters, known as the Forest Brothers, lived and operated out of the woods. But over the years Latvians have also gone to the forest to find solace. My grandmother, like many Latvians, learned to give her pain to the trees and ask them to heal her. When Latvians were not free to speak out in real life, they could speak out to the trees and rocks and plants of the woods. Several Latvian deities are associated with trees. There are even lists of sacred trees to visit in Latvia.
EB: What are you working on currently? Will there be a sequel?
AL: I’ve been getting the word out about Secrets of the Trees and taking a much-needed break. But I am planning to start a new writing project soon. I might write a screenplay of the novel. I have always envisioned it as a film and have had several other people tell me they see it that way as well. Also, the first draft of Secrets of the Trees included several chapters of Nikkie in Egypt that I cut out but am now considering turning into a sequel. At present, though, I’m being called simply to do some free writing to explore what wants to be expressed in what is a whole new chapter of my life. I am excited to see what comes from that.
EB: Thanks for talking with us.
AL: You’re welcome, Ed. I’m grateful for the opportunity.