November 16, 2005

3 Questions with Gayle Brandeis

I promised you Gayle Brandeis, winner of the 2002 Bellweather Prize, and by GUM, I finally got enough of my crap together to actually give her to you. Read this interview for the dead bird story (I got the shivers), then read the The Book of Dead Birds for the rich language and compelling characters. If you liked Snow Falling on Cedars or Prodigal Summer, then trust me, this story of a young woman trying to come to terms with her mother's dark past while searching for her own identity is your book.

JJ: You linked on your blog to "everyone has a dead bird story." What's yours, though? Not Ava Sing Lo's. Yours.

GB: My dead bird story (and I have a few, but this is the defining dead bird story for me; *the* dead bird story) is actually what led me to write The Book of Dead Birds. When I was walking home from school one day with my friend Sonja, we came upon a dead baby bird. I had never seen anything dead before—I was six years old—and it stopped me in my tracks. The bird was newly hatched; it had no feathers yet. Its skin was translucent. Its eyes had never opened. I felt like I had to do something to honor its short life. I was too squeamish to consider touching it, burying it, but I dragged Sonja to my house, and we created a little ritual around the bird. I had a diorama from Chinatown in Chicago that I had begged my parents to buy for me—two yellow birds under glass. I dragged it out of my cabinet, and put it on my desk. Sonja and I stared at the fake birds with real feathers and talked about all the things the bird didn't get to do—it didn't get to fly; it didn't get to build a nest, didn't get to lay an egg. It didn't get to see the world. I remember saying "Now is the time when we cry", and we wailed and sobbed for the poor little bird. It was very cathartic.

That moment stayed with me over the years. I started to write a poem about it in 1996, but the poem kept getting longer and stranger, and eventually it turned into a novel that had nothing to do with me. When the book was about to come out, a reporter and photographer from the local paper came to my house to do a story about me. The photographer, who had been scouting out places to take a picture, asked if I had a broom. She said she wanted to take a picture of me on the bench on my front porch, but there was a dead bird on it. I ran outside--there, on the bench, was a dead baby bird, just like the one I found when I was six years old, the one that launched the poem that launched the novel. Talk about your full circles. It still gives me chills, thinking about it.

JJ: I think, quite frankly, that you are amazing. How do you balance writing and teaching and motherhood/marriage and still have time to process oxygen into carbon dioxide for the plants?

GB: You are so sweet, Joshilyn (not to mention amazing, yourself!)

*... here the interview stopped briefly so Gayle and I could hug and shriek "You're pretty," and "No, YOU!" Back and forth at each other...eventually I started listening again. I do that sometimes.*

I don't feel amazing at all—I just do what I do. And sometimes I don't feel like I'm balancing things very well—I've added a lot to my plate (especially this year, when I've become more busy as an activist) and it can get a little overwhelming. But it's all stuff I love, and I'm very grateful to be writing, to be teaching, to be sharing my life with the people I love, and using my voice to try to make the world a better place. I let a lot of insignificant things go—I let the laundry pile up, let the cobwebs accumulate in the corners. We get take out burritos more often than I'd like to admit (the rice, bean and cheese ones at Tina's, with extra onions and cilantro, are the best.) I get a little self-conscious about the clutter sometimes, but I know where my priorities are, and housework is nowhere near the top of the list.

JJ: You wrote a book of writing advice and exercises called Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, and you teach writing, as I said, AND quite a few writers hang out at this blog. So. What's one bit of advice you want to offer them as they pursue this maddening and delightful craft?

GB: My favorite bit of advice is this: stay open. Keep your senses open—as writers, we so often live in our heads, but when we drop down into our senses and remember to take in the sights and smells and sounds and tastes and textures of the world, it gives us so much more juicy stuff to write about. It makes our writing really come to life. Keep your mind open—you never know where the next story will come from, and you should be ready for it. Inspiration often strikes from unexpected places. Be open to change—don't get too attached to any of your words; be prepared to slash them all, to start from scratch if need be (but at the same time, of course, be sure to stay true to your own personal vision and voice.) Read widely, live deeply, and dive into your work unafraid.

Posted by joshilyn at November 16, 2005 12:33 PM

Wow - the dead bird story is definitely a shivery one!

Posted by: DebR at November 16, 2005 3:52 PM

God`s in Alabama,so far,so good,cant wait for #2

Posted by: Jasper W Russell at November 17, 2005 1:25 PM