How perfect is it that a former military brat would find herself stringing together words as a novelist/screenwriter/magazine writer? Sarah Bird had been supporting herself entirely from her writing since 1980 having published six mid-list literary novels, one mystery, and five romance novels. This woman likes variety! Bird lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and eighteen-year-old son who is about to enter graduate school. Her latest release How Perfect is That will be released this summer. I hope you enjoy reading about this witty and entertaining author.
Moe: Looking back, did you choose the writing profession or did the profession choose you?
Sarah Bird: I believe it chose me in this way: Growing up, I was pathologically shy, deeply introverted and driven to make things. I loved creating little worlds. When my Air Force family was stationed in Japan, I made a tiny Japanese village with cotton for snow on the thatched roofs of the little huts that I made out of broom straw. I found that recreating my favorite books by, say, painting horrible little watercolors of Heidi’s grandfather’s home in the Alps, allowed me to extend the experience of being transported by those books. I once recruited my five brothers and sisters to re-enact “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Sadly, my older brother got perhaps too carried away being Simon Legree; there was whipping involved. In any case, introversion and a drive to escape into worlds I created predisposed me to the writing life.
Moe: When did you ‘know’ you were a writer?
Sarah Bird: Since I grew up in an Air Force family, frequently stationed on overseas bases, I had even less exposure to writers than most children. All the career options I was exposed to growing involved uniforms and missile silos.
The idea of being a writer never crossed my mind until I discovered a form so, hmmm, “approachable,” that it occurred to me that human beings might be producing it rather than the gods who wrote the books I loved. This form was the photo-romance. I discovered the photo-romance when I was an au pair in France. Ostensibly, I was in France learning French. Actually, I was fleeing a very bad love affair. In any case, I was a 20-year-old nitwit and the only person whose French was worse than mine was the three-month-old bebe I was taking care of. So I started buying photo-romances in a shy person’s way of learning to speak a language.
When I returned home, I sought out a comparable market in the United States and discovered true confession magazines. Pulp fiction: True Love, True Confession, Modern Love. I believe they have disappeared from the face of the earth. There could be no more ignominious way to begin, yet this was mine, and it fit my timid temperament in a way that no MFA program could have. These publications allowed me to learn how to tell a story in a voice that was not my own, to sink deeply into a character and her world, but, most importantly, since these “confessions” were all anonymous, they allowed me to simply learn how to fill up pages with no thought whatsoever that they would ever be associated with me.
Moe: What inspires you?
Sarah Bird: I am inspired by books I love and by worlds I want to capture and put into books such as the sub-cultures surrounding off-beat rodeos; the hothouse community of flamenco dance and guitar in New Mexico; the nomadic world of the military brat growing up in the Far East.
Moe: Every writer has a method to their writing. On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Sarah Bird: Get up. Drink way too much tea. Spend far too much time on our mediocre local newspaper. Work too many crossword puzzles. Walk my dogs. Answer email. When I seriously stop and think about my day I can never quite pinpoint the moments when I actually write. I always seem to be taking the trash out or driving to my son’s school to bring him the homework he forgot or trying to decide what color to paint the trim. Just now, tallying up all the books I have published, I had a moment of wondering if I’d made the whole thing up.
Moe: How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read?
Sarah Bird: The shortest amount of time it’s ever taken me to write a book was four months. The longest was fifteen years.
Moe: Do you write right through or do you revise as you go along?
Sarah Bird: I try to get as much down as I can without censoring myself too much, then I go back and revise. Sometimes a lot. I wrote essentially five completely different versions of my last novel, “The Flamenco Academy.” It took me that many attempts to get the form, the tone, and the setting right. Excruciating.
Moe: When you sit down to write is any thought given to the genre or type of readers?
Sarah Bird: I find it very inhibiting to think of an actual human reading what I write. While writing “Flamenco,” I had to put readers farther out of my mind than usual since this was my first book that contained no humor whatsoever and I knew that some readers would be disappointed. And they were.
As far as genre, I write mid-list literary novels. Fortunately, almost the only convention in this genre is that the work has to clearly not be genre. I am familiar with genre conventions. The vast majority of writers support themselves by teaching. I always knew that I was not capable of sustaining the level of introversion that teaching requires. Instead, I supported myself during the early years of my career by writing romance novels. Like pulp fiction, they were wonderful for learning the mechanics of writing. Since this wasn’t the form I aspired to, they served as a sort of out of town tryout where I could fill up pages without torturing myself about every word.
Moe: When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Sarah Bird: I didn’t really understand plotting until I spent nine years working as a screenwriter. Writing in film is a group enterprise. Probably too much so. But it requires outlines and presentations, so I was forced to know every tick of a story before I told it. This flattens the work to a degree. With luck, talented actors then go in and reinflate it. Still I prefer to allow novels to unfold as they will, to take the shape they are meant to take without my intervention. The characters guide me through the story. Once I know who they are, they tell me very decisively what they would and would not do. Generally, it helps me not to know how a book will end as that keeps me from tipping my hand.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book?
Sarah Bird: I consider research the great reward of the writing life. It is a rabbit hole I tend to go too far down and spend too much time in. The kind of research varies for each book. The book I set in the world of off-beat rodeos began as the thesis I did for a degree in photo-journalism. Photography is a magic way to research. With a camera in front of my face, I could disappear into whatever world I was exploring. Plus the photos were fabulous visual notes and sending prints to subjects I wanted to interview further was a great way to make friends. My last novel was the most fascinating to research. Flamenco in New Mexico has a mesmerizing history that combines the Gypsies thousand-year exile from India; the Moorish Conquest of Spain; the conquistadors in the New World; and lots of substance abuse. My current book, How Perfect Is That, involved a different sort of research as it is set in Austin’s high and low society.
Moe: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Sarah Bird: Early on in my career, I saw that I was the type of person who might latch onto “obstacles” if I allowed that to happen. That I could easily obsess about not having the exact right sort of paper or validation from the outside world. So, I committed to writing no matter what the circumstances, to not believing in writer’s block. If I didn’t have a desk, I wrote in bed on a legal pad. If I didn’t have time, I lived ultra-cheap so I could exist on a half-time job. This was great training as it now enables me to completely ignore my incredibly messy house and just about anything else that would interfere with writing.
Moe: Can you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
Sarah Bird: As far as the business goes, as far as making a living as a writer, the one thing that has sustained me is range. I’ve always done any type of writing that paid the bills: magazine, film, true confessions, romance novels, agency publications. All this writing for hire kept me alive so I could do what I loved most which was novels.
Don’t go out to lunch. I find going out to lunch to be deadly to productivity as it pulls me out of the interior world I have to inhabit to write.
As for the question beginning writers have about agents, here is my recommendation: If you are writing a novel, find one that is similar to yours, call the publisher and ask who edited that book. Then send that person a snappy one-page letter mentioning how much you esteem the published book, what yours is about, and why you believe the editor will be interested in it.
Moe: What is your latest release about?
Sarah Bird: I wrote How Perfect Is That to cheer myself up, to make myself laugh. I wrote most of this book in 2003 when I was in despair over what was happening in our country. I needed a way to think about the war; about the stolen election; about toxic, Gilded Age levels of opulence and obliviousness. And I needed to do it without wanting to drink Drano. As always, humor, seemed to be the way out.
During a conversation with a friend who couldn’t afford to get a Pap smear, my need to understand collided with a need to laugh. She was the fifth highly educated friend I’d spoken with in as many weeks who had either just lost a job or had a job with such crappy insurance that basic health care was out of the question. Tired of simply wringing my hands, I suggest that she should move back into the co-op boarding house where we both had lived when we were students at the University of Texas. Why, with the money she saved she’d have enough for that elusive Pap smear in no time!
The absurdity of that prospect–moving back into your old college boarding house–tickled us both and, suddenly, laughing seemed like a lot more fun than hand-wringing and railing and wailing. So, rather than futilely obsess about the fate of America, I created a character who was every bit as oblivious, greedy, and short-sighted as those who had delivered us to our current fate. In an attempt to keep hope alive, I also made this scoundrel redeemable. We’ll see if the same holds true for America.
Moe: What kind of books do you like to read?
Sarah Bird: I adore great novels with comedic elements and seek them out constantly. Some of the early favorites that formed me as a writer are Confederacy of Dunces, Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood, Ladies Man by Richard Price, all the novels of Charles Portiss (Dog of the South, Norwood, True Grit, Masters of Atlantis, Gringos), and most of Thomas Berger’s, particularly Little Big Man. I love every book that Nick Hornby and Tom Perrotta have ever written.
Moe: When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
Sarah Bird: Drift through big box stores with a tankard of Diet Coke in my shopping cart. I find Costco to be particularly soothing.
Moe: New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Sarah Bird: In the year 2008, it’s almost presumptuous of old school writers to tell young writers anything. The landscape has changed so fundamentally that I am always asking young writers now how they do it. How much of a factor is blogging? How do writers make a living anymore with so many giving it away online? With newspapers imploding, how do readers find out about new writers or new books by old writers?
Moe: If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
Sarah Bird: Psychotic. I say that only half in jest. Temperamentally, I’m really only suited to be sitting alone in a room for ten hours a day making up lies.
Moe: What is your favorite word?
Sarah Bird: Is there a more perfect word than onomatopoeia? I’m sure I’m not alone in cherishing onomatopoeia as my first “big” word. I remember experiencing this tiny blip of power when I learned, when I “owned” this word. It made me avaricious for other words that were both euphonious and impressive. I was quite the little nerd.
My interview with Sarah Bird was first posted on 4/1/2008 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.