Max Ludington Reflects on His Second Novel, THORN TREE

When Max Ludington’s first novel, Tiger in a Trance, was published in 2003, he had some explaining to do.

The very gritty coming-of-age story is set amid the Grateful Dead touring scene, of which Max had been a part. Years later, after having left that in his past with no regrets, he decided it was good material to use.

"It was this extremely vivid portion of my life, and there was a lot of strife; strife in it for me too, because I ended up having a real drug problem."

By the time Max went to his parents, Nick and Cass Ludington, with the book, it had already been sold and edited.

"I had to break the news to my dad that even though the main character looked a lot like me and his life looked a lot like mine, it’s heavily fictionalized; heavily," ” Max said in a zoom interview from his apartment in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. There was more. “"I had to break it to my dad that the character that actually is based on him is dead."”

“"He really rolled with it,"” he added with a laugh.

Twenty years later - during which Max wrote, taught writing, including more than a decade at Pratt, and played poker professionally to supplement his income — his second novel, Thorn Tree, will be released on April 16. He will talk about the book at the Palisades Free Library on April 27 at 4 p.m.

Set in Los Angeles in 2017, the book is centered on Daniel, a recently retired schoolteacher in his late 60s who, as a young man, had been a famous sculptor. A kind of dual timeline flashes back to the story of how he created the giant work of art that ignited his fame before flaming out. Now Daniel resides in the guest house on a property owned by a movie star in her 20s, who lives with her six-year-old son and her father in the main house up the hill.

"The story basically hinges upon how Daniel’s early life ends up giving him a new lens through which to see the things that happened to him when he was young."

Thorn Tree came to Max in a dream—more or less. It wasn't one of the most intense or important dreams he’d had. He wasn’t even himself in it. But he’d been fallow for a while as a writer and was looking for his next idea. And this dream stuck even though nothing of note happened, except that the father’s face and demeanor freaked Max out.

“His face ended up ingrained in my head when I woke up, and that was it,” Max said. “And I had something of a realization that there may not even be much to it, but it feels like it contains a whole world, a whole lifetime. You could keep going back to it and learning new things about it.”

Most of us can’t go back to a dream.

“"But I was like, ‘I'm a novelist and I can imagine my way back into the world of that dream and see what happens.’ And that's what I did."”

But whereas portions of Max’ life were recognizable in Tiger in a Trance which was named a Notable Book of The Times — any resemblance in Thorn Tree is less obvious.

"There's a section that flashes back to him creating this big sculpture, this thing he made that ended up launching his artistic career, such as it was, which I do believe is as close as the book comes to having me in it," Max continued. "Not because I'm so much like Daniel, but because I know what it's like to spend years working on something and not knowing, and not perhaps even really caring, whether anyone was ever going to see it or appreciate it. But making it for its own sake, which is what he's doing."