Andi Buchanan: What was the inspiration for your book?
Gayle Brandeis: The original inspiration for the book was a dead baby bird I saw when I was six years old. It was the first dead thing I had ever seen up close, and it had a big impact upon me. I started writing a poem about it in 1996, which grew into a poem about all the dead birds I’ve come across or heard about in my lifetime. The poem started getting longer and stranger, and I realized it didn’t want to be a poem any more and it didn’t want to be about me anymore, but I wasn’t sure what it wanted to be. Around that time, I started noticing articles in the newspaper about the bird die-offs at the Salton Sea. I clipped them, knowing they’d be connected to the poem-thing somehow, but wasn’t sure how it would all fit together. Then I happened to catch a documentary on PBS called “The Women Outside” about women who had been tricked into prostitution on US military bases in Korea. Suddenly these two characters — Ava and Helen — materialized in my mind, and I knew that I had found the story I had been moving toward.
AB: Your main character is half-Korean and half-black, and she grapples with the feeling of not truly belonging to either culture. How did you, as a white author, write convincingly about being trapped between two cultures?
GB: When these characters first came to me, I was very scared. I knew nothing about Korean culture at the time, and felt like I didn’t have the right to write about characters so different from myself. I was worried that I’d be perceived as a cultural imperialist, somehow. I tried to tell the characters to go away, but they wouldn’t, so I took a deep breath and decided to start to research so I could begin to understand where they were coming from in a deeper way. With time, I began to realize that Ava is more like me than any other character I’ve written. I think many writers grow up feeling they are outsiders, they are observers, more than participants, in their world. I know I did as a kid-I was very quiet and shy, and often ill, and never quite felt like I belonged. Ava didn’t fully belong to either of the cultures of her birth, so she approached them as an outsider, which was a comfortable place for me to write from.
AB: The book is so full of interesting details — about birds, about Korean musical instruments and culture, about environmental and political issues. What kind of research did you do for the book, and how long did it take you to write it?
GB: I love research — almost as much as I love writing — and did a ton of it for the book. I did a lot of academic-type research in libraries and online, but I also did a lot of hands-on research (my favorite kind)–getting to know Korean food and music so I could take it under my skin, getting to know the heat and stink of the Salton Sea directly so I could understand Ava’s experience there. I like to incorporate research so it feels like lived experience rather than a theoretical exercise. The book took five years from start to finish (although my work in those five years was pretty sporadic; it took about two concentrated years, all told), and I alternated between research and writing throughout that time, swooping in and out between them.
AB: This book has been described as a mother-daughter story. Is that how you conceived it?
GB: I don’t know if that’s how I conceived it, but I do know that I can’t seem to help writing about mothers and daughters. The subject keeps coming up in my fiction. The mother-daughter connection is such a complicated and mysterious one, and I haven’t come close to figuring it out yet.
AB: Aside from the mother-daughter dynamic, the book also touches on death and rebirth, freedom and constraint, family secrets and shifting identity. Were all those themes explicit and planned before you started, or did they emerge and evolve through the process of writing the story?
GB: I would like to say it was all intelligently planned, but I had very little conscious control over what emerged as I wrote this book. One of my main imperatives as a writer is to get out of my own way so the story can flow through, and that definitely happened in the writing of this book. The characters were in charge, not me. I was often surprised by the subjects that decided to raise their heads. I think there is a deeper intelligence that we can kind of magically access when we let go of our expectations and our need for control.
AB: The Book of Dead Birds won the Bellwether Prize, an award given to encourage the writing and publication of literature that promotes social change. What do you think readers will take away from the book that can help them make a difference in their communities and in their lives?
GB: One of the characters has some regrets about not speaking up against injustice during a painful part of her life; I hope that my book will encourage people to speak up, to use their voices, when they see something that they feel should be changed. I hope it will awaken people to the plight of women on military bases around the world, and to the plight of the beleaguered Salton Sea. I hope that the book will inspire people to serve as caretakers for the environment, for life forms other than our own. I hope it will remind people about the importance of healing our relationship with the past so we can move forward into a clearer future. I hope it will remind people of the power of community and the importance of connecting with one another as we stumble through our lives.
AB: You’ve written poetry and essays on parenting; your first book was Fruit Flesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, a book of writing advice and exercises drawing on the metaphor of the fruitfulness of women’s bodies; and now this year’s The Book of Dead Birds, a novel. What is next for you?
GB: I am doing something I never expected I would do — I’m writing a memoir. I started writing it in a dream and when I woke up, I had whole chapters composed, ready to spill out. The memoir is focusing on a couple of years that had been very shadowy in my mind, so it feels good and freeing to shed light on them. I’m also revising a couple of novels–one I wrote 8 years ago, and one I wrote for National Novel Writing Month last November–and am taking tentative steps towards starting a new one. And every now and again a poem or short story will show up out of the blue and possess me for awhile. I’m just trying to stay open to whatever wants to come through.