Where do you get your ideas?
My favorite all time answer to this question is from playwright Tom Stoppard: “If I knew I’d go there.”
Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes. From the time I was seven or so. I know that sounds crazy, but my mother revered writers, and I grew up thinking that writers were magical because they could create entire worlds. In fact, wanting to be a writer was so important to me that I was afraid to begin, because I was afraid to fail and lose my dream. I kept journals, wrote lots and lots of letters, and dabbled with poetry – all the things you can do that feel like writing, but aren’t actually writing. Finally I realized I just needed to find out if I could write and then either do it or put the dream to rest and move on. So I went to grad school at City College of New York. Tuition was cheap, so I took out student loans and bought myself two years of writing time. I entered grad school as a novelist and left as a playwright. And now I’m writing novels. Life takes such interesting turns.
What’s your writing regimen?
When I’m writing – whether it’s a book or a play or a musical or an opera – I write every day. When I’m between projects, or researching and imagining a new story, I can spend weeks and months reading and walking and taking notes and asking questions and developing characters and a storyline. I find the in-between times very, very uncomfortable. Living with uncertainty, wandering around in the middle of mental chaos is very challenging. I’m happiest when I’m writing.
When you write do you first have a story in mind and then the characters evolve to tell that story or do you create characters and the story comes from them?
I begin with the characters, with a strong sense of “voice.” I really hear my characters and learn a great deal about them by getting them talking. However, the story is evolving at the same time the characters are beginning to jell. Because what’s a character without a story? To me, story is paramount.
What authors do you love?
Virginia Woolf, Thornton Wilder, Balzac, E.B. White, Hillary Mantel, Tim Winton, Tony Kushner, Junot Diaz, Lawrence Weschler, Louis De Bernieres, Mary Doria Russell, Toni Morrison, Annie Dillard, Stanley Kunitz, Mary Oliver.
What was your inspiration for A Catalog of Birds?
A Catalog of Birds is full of so many things: a bit of my own family’s history, Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking work, Silent Spring, the apple research at the Cornell Agricultural station, ornithologists researching the impact of DDT on birds, field journals, bird artists, Seneca Lake itself, the deepest and most mysterious of the Finger Lakes, etc. Like most of my work, there is no single source of inspiration, but instead a myriad of sources that come together and coalesce in unexpected ways.
I’m haunted by the current epidemic of soldiers in severe distress and soldier suicide. I can’t help but see the connection between these current tragedies and the Vietnam war. I often think about my brothers’ military service and all that was visited on the soldiers of Vietnam who were seen as the enemy when they returned home. I’m also deeply aware that warfare is the largest polluter ever invented and that the chemicals devised for war soon find their way into civilian use.
A friend put a gorgeous memoir by Susan Brind Morrow, Of Wolves and Honey, into my hands at just the right moment. Morrow’s memoir is about a brother and a sister, and a tragic loss. It’s also about the history of Geneva, NY, Seneca Lake, Seneca Indians, spiritualists, fur-traders, and naturalists. I traveled to Geneva to do research and found a rich, rich setting for A Catalog of Birds. Ironically I grew up less than 60 miles from Seneca Lake and yet knew very little of the layers of history that were so close to home.
The bird artist who inspired Billy Flynn, one of my main characters, is Matt Adrian. Matt also titles his paintings. These titles are often laugh out loud funny, and just as often haunting and lyrical. Matt was kind enough to give me permission to quote his paintings and his titles in my book. Do visit Matt’s website to see his beautiful work.
One of the most beautifully designed books I’ve seen in the last decade and another inspiration is America’s Other Audubon by Joy Kiser. It chronicles the story of Genevieve Jones, her family, and the making of an extraordinary nineteenth century book, Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of the Birds of Ohio. Jones, an amateur naturalist/ artist and the daughter of a country doctor, visited the 1876 World’s Fair in Chicago where she saw Audubon’s paintings from Birds of America on display. She noticed that Audubon had neglected to include the birds’ nests and eggs in his work, so she decided to create a book illustrating what Audubon had left out. The story of the making of that book, Jones’ early death, her family’s quest to finish it in her honor, is remarkable in and of itself. Only ninety copies were produced, under nearly impossible circumstances, and only twenty copies remain today.
And, finally, the French modernist composer Olivier Messiaen, wrote a piano suite called A Catalogue of Birds, which gave me my title. Messiaen loved birds and bird song, and considered birds the symbol of sovereign liberty. He even married a woman named Loriol.
Alice Bliss the book grew out of “Alice Unwrapped,” a musical. What was the inspiration for the musical and how did it evolve into a book?
The musical was a commission, actually, and the creation of a new form in music theatre: the one-act, one-woman musical. At 30 minutes and almost entirely sung, we could really only dramatize one key moment in Alice’s life. And I realized that there was a much larger story to be told. Which is when I decided I wanted to write a book.
Alice Bliss chronicles the impact of the war on those left at home: children, partners, family members, the community. Do you have a connection to the world of which you write?
My father was a navigator/bombardier in World War II, flying missions into Germany from his air base just north of Paris. Both my brothers enlisted in the Air Force in 1966. So, while I don’t have a family member serving in the current war, my family has been deeply impacted by war. My father suffered from battle fatigue (what we would now call PTSD) following the war, a time he would never talk about directly. Nor would he talk about the experiences during the war that had so devastated him. The silence surrounding my father’s war experiences has probably been the single greatest mystery and inspiration in my life. I believe that my fascination with war grows out of my need to understand these experiences and to bear witness to this silent suffering.
What do you hope families experiencing a similar scenario take away from reading your book?
I hope they will feel that I am telling their story and doing justice to it. While writing the book I was simply immersed in the story, but now that I’m done I can step back and look at the larger picture. It strikes me that you can live in many parts of the US completely untouched and unaware of the wars we’ve been engaged in for the last 13 years. And there’s something about that fact that is terribly unsettling. I think there is an enormous amount of unexpressed grief surrounding these wars and that Alice Bliss, like good theatre, creates an emotional catalyst that allows us to feel that grief. And because the book is not “about” the war, but about a family and a town and growing up, the emotional impact sneaks up on you.