Jonathan Amid interviews Máire Fisher about her debut novel Birdseye.
Maire, congratulations on the publication of your debut novel. It’s a beautifully written and captivating story that takes the reader on such an emotionally engaging journey. As writer at large, how long has your novel been in the making? What has the response been from the general public and others who have read the novel?
Thanks so much, Jono. I hope I’ll be able to do justice to all of your questions! In some cases you might find that I can’t go beyond an “umm” and an “erm” and an “I don’t know” …
This poor novel has been quite some time in the making. It’s also been through quite a few changes along the way. I started it many years ago, not thinking much beyond liking the idea of setting a fairly dark novel in an innocuous seaside town. I had no idea who the characters would be, beyond the fact that my brother had mentioned meeting the mother of a friend of his. She was called Ma Bess, and I can remember thinking, what a great name for a character. I knew nothing else about her. Anyway, Ma Bess came striding on to the page and before I knew it she had a daughter who married a young man and proceeded to have a string of children, including two boys, Oliver and Oscar, the twins, and, of course, Bird.
I made quite good headway with the story – fleshing out Orville and Annie, exploring Ma Bess’s nature, liking her less and less as time went by. And then it hit me, like a sledge hammer. Something was going to happen to the twin boys. And it wasn’t going to be nice, or kind, or good. At this point there was a much older Bird in place and she was telling the story. (More about that later!) Anyway, thinking about ripping the boys out of the story stopped me in my tracks. Literally. I stopped writing and Birdseye (which wasn’t called that in those days) landed up in my drawer with another half-written novel, and I began work on something new.
In the meantime, though, Ma Bess had been brought very much to life and you can’t squash a character like her into silence. She cropped up again, or a version of her did, in a story I was asked to write for Twist, an anthology of stories based on tabloid headlines. But that wasn’t enough for her – she needed a larger stage. But by now I was pretty well immersed in this new novel, and liking that character too.
In 2009 tragedy struck, with two deaths very close to home, followed by another in 2010. Those pretty much stopped me in my writing tracks for a while.
In March 2011, at a writing retreat in Kleinmond, I can remember very clearly saying that if I didn’t finish just one first fright draft, one shitty first draft, of just one of the novels I had started, I was going to stop saying that I was writing a novel. And the story that was pressing on my heart was Birdseye. That week I put my head down and motored through 40 000 words or more. I faced into writing about the twins and seeing what would happen to them. As I scribbled, night after late night, I realised that the story had been there all along, waiting for me to let it happen. I continued working solidly, during which time Bird morphed considerably, in many and various ways, from an 82-year-old woman looking back over her life (I was in love with The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood and taken by the idea of stories nesting inside stories), to a 35-year-old woman writing to her editor and, finally, to a 16-year-old girl writing to her brothers. Her name changed too, from Mouse to Bird.
So, to get back to the first part of your question, in terms of focused writing, from when the meat of the real story made itself present, I’d say that the first draft of this novel took me two years to write, from March 2011 to May 2013, when I gave a draft to Fourie Botha at Umuzi. Fourie then sent me a reader’s report in July and I worked closely on that and sent him back a revised draft at the beginning of this year (2014) and he let me know that Umuzi had accepted Birdseye in February. I worked with the amazingly perspicacious Jenefer Shute and editing with her ended in May. All the while Jacques Kaiser had been preparing the beautiful cover, which just blew me away when I saw it.
The response from people who have read the novel thus far has been brilliant! What is particularly exciting is that Birdseye is appealing to a wide range of readers: from my sons and their friends in their twenties, to my father and mother-in-law in their eighties, to middle-aged men and women. I’m so happy about that – I love knowing that Birdseye is crossing all sorts of age boundaries.
The central narrative thrust sees Oliver and Oscar go missing after a day of fishing. How did you decide on their disappearance as a plot device, and how does their absence in Birdseye affect the members of the Little family?
As I mentioned earlier, the thought that Ollie and Oz were going to leave in some dreadful way, stopped me wanting to write any further into this story. I have two sons, I grew up in a family surrounded by boys, and here I was, proposing to make my two boy characters disappear. At one point I thought of rewriting completely, taking the boys right out of the story from the word go. If they didn’t exist, then nothing could happen to them.
Okay. So. I sat and explored the idea of cutting them out of the story. Should they go, or should they stay? I’m not exaggerating now when I say that everywhere I looked during that time, I saw pairs of everything. Anne Schuster was using the Mother Earth Tarot cards, not so much for their tarot meanings as for getting writing prompts from the pictures we saw in them. Every Tarot card I drew had two of something in it. I know this all sounds a bit shoo-wah, shoo-wah, where’s the mountain, but Ollie and Oz were sending me messages, loud and clear. They had come to life and they weren’t going to let me rest until their story had been told.
So by the time I'd mulled and moodled and written about this dilemma I knew the boys were there to stay. But only for a short while. After that they'd have to go and their departure was going to fracture the family I had created, irreparably. That's the thing about free writing. You can't, if you're going to be fair to your story, try to hem it in. I pushed myself into writing what happened, until all the details became clear. I put those boys on their bikes, let them cycle away and wrote what happened next. And, as you and I both know, they disappeared. They disappeared and no one knew the how, the where, or the why. The moment that happened, the story gained an awful clarity. Everything circled around that one event, was pulled into it, was affected by it.
Birdseye is filled to the brim with carefully drawn characters. Let’s start with Bird: what was it like narrating a tale of loss and grieving, but also the aftermath of traumatic happenings, from the perspective of the very young Bird? How did you go about sketching her character, how did she develop from your mind to the page, and where did her developing voice surprise you? How difficult was it to imagine the inner life of a young girl whose entire world is turned upside down, and who turns to reading and writing as a means of escape and expression?
There's something about a young voice that really appeals to me. I think it's the rushed, uncensored, unfiltered aspect of it, the innocence, the freshness. Bird’s developing voice surprised me with its insights into character. I loved her loyalty and devotion to her family, especially to her brothers. It was difficult, though, to imagine her inner life after the boys had disappeared. And by that I mean it was hard to feel her aching sense of loss, the sort that fills your chest when you realise something has gone and you don't know if you will ever be able to get it back again. That's what I felt as I was writing for her.
One of the aspects of her character that surprised me as I watched her come to life was how curious she was, how tenacious, how she needed to get to the bottom of things. It may sound strange to say this, but Bird has a streak of Ma Bess in her. When she decides to do something, she sticks with it. She’s dogged, she’s prepared to go further than many people would. Ma Bess is the same if you think about it, but in Bird this streak is a healthy one, not twisted by ambition and pride and frustration and sheer malice. What I like about this is that it makes for Bird being a believable character, less perfect.
As a little girl I read voraciously, whenever and wherever I could. (In junior school I got into trouble for ducking out of lessons that just felt interminably dull, especially when I was in the middle of a good book, and vanishing to the toilets to read.) So that part of Bird, the little girl who reads anything she can get her hands on, wasn't difficult to imagine. But the difference is, I never read to escape from a world, I read to escape into one. I was so glad to be able to give Bird two gifts: reading to offer her relief, writing to help her explore what was happening to her and try to make sense of it. When the boys are ripped away from her it is as if a huge chasm opens in front of her. And somehow she has to bridge it. She has to find a way back to her brothers and writing provides that for her.
As far as loss and grieving were concerned, I had a strong sense, as I wrote, that these two elements of the book deserved great respect. I didn’t consciously choose a ten-year time frame for Bird’s writing, but what was conscious was my decision not to let a resolution happen too quickly. The terrible sense of loss, of wishing things could be the way they used to be, of living in a land of “if only” or “we should have” – I felt that had to be shown. Alongside that life goes on, but there are questions in the background that won’t go away because they cannot be answered: “Could something different have been done?” “What if?” “Why didn’t I?” Desperately clutching on to hope, having that hope dashed every time a lead grows cold. And then, the slow settling of an acceptance that is never quite acceptance, of moving on that can never be a moving on, because here is nothing to accept and nothing to move on from. I didn’t want to devalue that. I wanted to show how loss works its way into the fabric of the every-day-to-dayness of life. It never goes away.
How is Birdseye different from your average coming-of-age story? How did Bird, in all her emerging beauty and grace, and fierce intelligence, come into being?
There are a few things that make Birdseye different from other coming-of-age stories.
Firstly, Bird is in the story from the time she’s five, and strongly present from the age of six, all the way through to just before her sixteenth birthday. As she grows out of childhood she tells the story of her family and here the novel is more family history than coming-of-age.
Another aspect of Bird’s life and story is that when the boys go missing, she has to face the world and all its sadness earlier than she should have to. She’s only six when she takes on a very adult responsibility – writing to Oz and Ollie to fill them in on all that is happening in her family’s life. She turns herself into the family scribe and she becomes the eyes and ears and beating heart of the family, telling everyone’s stories, including her own. She’s not just a recorder, though; she chooses what’s worthy of being written about, and says what she thinks of everyone’s lives and their stories. Her perspective changes as she grows older. As she tells Ollie and Oz about her parents and siblings and grandmother she emerges and grows. I like the sense of her taking shape, changing shape as she grows older.
Bird’s real coming of age happens as she’s about to turn sixteen. The focus of the story shifts at this point, concentrating far more on her (and Ma Bess) and less on the other members of the family. But at the same time as this happens, the story shifts gears, becomes darker and more intense.
The boys disappear very early in the story, and so sorrow and loss are always present. As is a shadow of lingering mystery. Where are they? What has happened to them? Answers arrive towards the end of the book, mysteries are solved, things unravel before they can be tied up. All the events that have been leading up to a final resolution come together to make awful sense.
So there you have it: coming-of-age is an important aspect of the story, but it merges with these other aspects of story to form a hybrid, cross-genre sort of book.
Birdseye is a coming-of-age story (Young Adult, some might say) in as much as it doesn’t allow any easy answers, but it does show the development of a character who finds the strength to manage all that life throws at her. We only ever see things through her eyes and there’s no adult perspective apart from those which she allows us to gain access to. As Bird becomes a teenager, she thinks like a teenager, one who is faced with difficult stuff. She’s impulsive, she makes teenage decisions, teenage mistakes, and has to face the consequences. (Evan Sparks springs to mind here … and other episodes in the book.) She experiences so many things for the first time – the painful, aching intensity of first love, seeing her parents in a new light, having to face the truth of an adult world and the decisions adults make. She has to make sense of it all.
There are no pat answers which sort everything out. Bird doesn’t get a conventionally happy ending, but Birdseye does end on a note of optimism. As long as she has that, I’m happy for her. She retains that lightness that has carried her throughout the story, and that is the best and most satisfying ending I can hope for. I know that Bird can carry on, she’ll face into each new day as it arrives. Older, less innocent, but still Bird, still irrepressible, still able to fly. Hopefully, any teenager reading Birdseye, or anyone who can remember what it was like to be a teenager, can relate to this.
Annie and Oliver are interesting characters in their own right, both as parents of Bird and her five siblings and as individuals. Who inspired them? To what extent did they take shape in relation to their children, and to the looming, sinister figure of Ma Bess?
Who inspired Annie and Oliver? Well, you know how they say you should write about what you know? In Birdseye it was often a case of writing what I didn’t know. (Cue J icon …) I’m one of a family of four; Annie and Orville were both single children. Bird lives most of her life in a house with three sisters; I had only brothers. My grandparents lived overseas and we met them only once when I was growing up; Ma Bess rules the roost and Bird knows her grandmother only too well.
The only point of similarity was, I suppose, creating Annie and Orville’s relationship – where two people adored each other as my parents did. I had my parents as role models for that relationship. I grew up in a home where my parents held hands, touched each other, kissed each other, walked together, talked to each other. So I had that as a reference point. But even there I veered away from what I knew: my parents’ love included us all. I never had the feeling, as Bird does, that her parents loved their kids but loved each other more.
Annie takes shape in relation to Ma Bess, more than Orville does. Poor Annie. I always had the feeling that she was pot-bound, that her roots could never take proper hold. Ma Bess has done too good a job on her. And then, when the boys vanish, the outside world becomes uncontrollable. I think Annie would have loved to have broken free (or maybe she only thinks she would have), but circumstances tie her to her mother and she never can. Orville is a healthier character – if that’s the right word – but only to an extent. I don’t see him as being weak in and of himself, but where Annie is concerned, he is. He sees himself as her hero, her shield, her protector, especially after the boys vanish and this isn’t necessarily the best role to play in a relationship. But it’s what Orville feels he has to do for Annie, from the word go, and as life gets harder he has to save her from more of it.
How do they take shape in relation to their children? Well, we have only Bird’s word for this. She shows us how they are bemused by Alice’s brilliance and her absolute competence, how they worry about Angela surrendering herself so completely to Andy and his family, how they struggle to control Anthea. And, of course, we see how they are shaped by Ollie and Oz, how the loss of their two boys dims their brightness.
The three Little daughters are all fascinating characters in their own right, and allow you to engage with various issues. Why three daughters, and how did you go about giving each of them a distinctive, credible voice? Is Birdseye a feminist text, subtle as those threads may be? Here I’m thinking of Bird’s exceptionally strong voice and also specifically of the novel’s powerful ending.
One thing I love about writing is that it gives me such power to create, such freedom to imagine. I was the only girl in a family of four. I had two older brothers and one younger. I never had sisters, and often wished that I had. What better way to give yourself girl siblings than to imagine them and then to put them into a large family? (An aside here: Bird is often angry with Ma Bess because of the way she wields her power and manipulates situations. As a writer, I honestly think I was too. I create this wonderful family and then Ma Bess tries her level best to destroy it! So instead of being a Band of Sisters, Angela, Alice, Anthea and Bird land up living very separate lives. What writer wouldn’t be angry to see her creation dissolve? Ma Bess has a great deal to answer for!)
As to their voices: as I mentioned earlier, this novel was much longer than it is now. I had created fully adult lives for Bird’s sisters. Anthea was phoning Bird at all hours of the night, Alice had almost given up on finding love, and Angela’s marriage was in a bad way. So I had done a great deal of writing into the three sisters. One of the things I do to discover character – to mine it really – is use a biography datasheet. But I don’t answer questions with a one-word answer or a phrase. (You may have picked this up about me by now …) What I do is take a question – eg “How do you feel about where you live?” – and then I imagine that my character is sitting opposite me, answering. I free-write her answer, and one thought leads to another and another and before I know it I’ve written for pages on one question. Chances are I’ll never use that material, but it’s incredibly useful, because after my character has spoken to me for a while (about the colour of the walls in her bedroom, or what she is most afraid of), I know how she talks, what she sounds like. I have a strong sense of what she would do, given certain circumstances.
So, I may have never had sisters, or for that matter daughters, but by the time I had written Angela, Anthea and Alice I had come as close to having them as I could.
A feminist text? I’m not sure. All I know is that as Angela developed (or, to be honest, didn’t) I grew more and more horrified for her. One of the words I have never used in my marriage is “let”. I can’t bear the thought of asking my husband for permission to do something. I’m very happy to ask him if something suits him, to change a plan if needs be, but the thought of asking him if I “may” is abhorrent. By the end of Birdseye, Angela is well on her way to becoming that sort of wife. I also wrote so much of Andy that fell away, where he treated her as a sweet but slightly stupid child, the sort who needs a big bright boy like him to answer her questions for her.
So yes, I like the idea of women having their own minds, and I suppose that makes Birdseye a feminist text, although it was never a conscious aim.
Alice, of course, is a feminist through and through. She’s also a pure and shining intellect. I love her for her ability to get on with things she wants to. And Anthea? Well, she’d have taken over the whole story, given half a chance. When I was writing I was aware that the other two sisters needed more airtime. But Anthea just isn’t the sort of character who’s happy to give that.
Bird, and the rest of the Little family, find a formidable antagonist in the form of Ma Bess, who rules over Marchbanks with tremendous authority, yet also has more than her fair share of damaging secrets to keep. Much is made in the metaphorical language of the novel of the “cold heart” and “iciness” of Ma Bess. Who inspired this conflicted old woman? What makes her a sympathetic character, and more than just the easy antagonist?
Ma Bess. Now there’s a character.
Half of me wants to say that I don’t know exactly where she came from, and that half would be right, because she grew into who she was as I wrote her. And then there’s the other half who knows how she evolved, when I heard that name mentioned, when I heard all sorts of childhood stories about a distant family member who was very wealthy and autocratic and tried very hard to make the world bend to her will, when I came up against a complete and utter narcissist who used denial like a weapon (very successfully I might add).
Ma Bess also went through a few changes. At first, when I wrote her, she was enormously large. It was as if she consumed everything in her path. It was her ever-increasing weight that kept her at home and sequestered upstairs. But that made her, as you say, too easy an antagonist. I batted the question of her size back and forth with Jenefer Shute, my editor, and some of my friendly readers, and the more I did so, the more I felt her cutting her way out of those voluminous black dresses and becoming thinner and thinner. Until she emerged as the beautiful, ice cold, blade-thin woman we see in the book.
I suppose we’ve all come across the sort of people who feel that their position gives them power, and they use that power in the worst possible way, to squash people, to demean them, to manipulate them. So although Ma Bess became thinner and bonier, the weight of her power was still there, crushing everyone who lived under her. Her body might have been honed to sharp-pointedness, but her presence remained large and dark and brooding.
Just for interest’s sake, here’s what Bird wrote about her when Ma was large.
Today at school they were comparing dreams, and I couldn't tell anyone mine. Where Ma Bess is being put into a big pot with a fire burning under it. Boiling her down into a chunky stew with grease bubbling on the surface. She has to be chopped up, because she’s so big that only bits of her fit in at a time. So there are three teams going. One chopping, one stirring her bits in the big black pot, and one ladling her into the enamel plates that people hold out. They go off to one side and dig in and lick their lips and say “Mmmm, she's delicious”, but I can't say, I can never tell them, she shouldn't be eaten because she's evil, and if you eat her, her evil will be in you. That's the nightmare, the not being able to warn people, but the bits where they're chopping her up are lovely, and those are the bits of the dream I wish would last.
What makes her a sympathetic character, and more than just the easy antagonist? That’s an interesting question. One I thought about a great deal. Part of me wanted to portray her as being pure evil, born without a heart, happy to feed off other people. But if I did this, it meant not having to make the effort to get to know more about her. So, as Orville says, we have to try to understand her, even if we don’t want to excuse her or condone her behaviour. I didn’t want to try to find mitigating circumstances for her current-day behaviour. I couldn’t do that … But what I could do was go back into her past and look at what her upbringing might have been like. And when I did that, I saw Ma Bess as a child, one who could well have been starved of physical contact with her parents, brought up by nannies and other nursery staff. Writing into her in that way was grudging, I have to admit, but I was glad I did so. It allows a small chink in her armour, makes her less of the stereotypical baddie, and yes, less of an easy antagonist.
Talk about being shaped in relation to another character, no one escapes being influenced by her! Ma Bess tries to shape everyone, and everything, when you think about it. That’s how she sees herself. That’s why she doesn’t like the children, especially those noisy, rambunctious boys. Annie and Orville don’t discipline their children properly.
They don’t fit into the shapes that Ma Bess thinks they belong in.
I could go on – Ma Bess the ultimate narcissist, not to mention the ultimate narcissistic mother. Ma Bess the sociopath whose sphere of influence is limited to the house she lives in. Should we feel pity or compassion for the sociopath who is incapable of being anything other than what she is? Should we be grateful that she is confined to Marchbanks and doesn’t carry her special brand of poison further into the world? Ma Bess is Bird’s monster, the evil at home as opposed to the evil that lurks beyond the doorstep. There’s miles more to discuss with a character like Ma Bess.
The political background of the novel very cleverly creeps ever closer as Bird’s consciousness takes in the larger, objective world around her. How deliberate was the decision to move from 1984 to 1995, and to let the politics of the time remain rather peripheral to Bird’s inner world, which is painted with terrific verve and attention to detail?
Part of reason the action happens at this time was, as I mentioned earlier, that Bird’s age changed as the novel was written. When she was an older woman, she was looking back on her life from 2005 or so. However, the main action still happened when she was about sixteen, and in terms of that timeline she turned sixteen in 1995. When I decided to make her much younger, I could have moved the time frame up and made the novel more contemporary, but I liked the period I had chosen for the main story to happening in, with South Africa edging ever closer to freedom. Freedom is an important theme in Birdseye, as is power. In many ways Ma Bess runs her own little dictatorship and Bird struggles against her rule.
As far as the actual politics of the time was concerned, I had to maintain a delicate balance between the events of Bird’s inner world and what was happening outside Marchbanks. Events had to take place against a political background but not in it. The story happens in a far more confined and intimate space. And so, confined to that space, what political events could impinge on Bird’s life? What would interest a girl of seven, of eleven, of thirteen, of fifteen? What would strike her as being unjust? How would the eight-year-old Bird feel about the way Thelma is treated by Ma Bess? And what about the fact that Thelma can only go home to see her children every year? What could Bird learn about Mandela, and how could I pull him into the story without being too heavy-handed and overt?
Thelma’s situation speaks for itself. Given more freedom and more power, Thelma would have been able to tell Ma Bess to take her decent salary and shove it. But she can’t. She’s tied to Ma Bess because she relies on that money. And Ma Bess isn’t stupid. She knows that by paying Thelma well, she has a far better hold on her than if she pays her the going wage. If she did that there’d be a hundred “Madams” eager to snap Thelma up.
Bird’s parents are concerned about the state of the country; if asked, they probably would call themselves liberal. Like so many people, they recognise injustice, but they certainly aren’t going to put their lives on the line for the struggle. I wanted to show Bird becoming aware of what was happening, first at home and then in her country. That’s where the nuns at St Agatha’s came in so useful. They’re politically aware, they want their students to open their eyes to injustice and become responsible, aware citizens.
Harbiton, and specifically Marchbanks, effectively ground the action of the novel. Why did you decide on a harbour town, and how does Marchbanks become a character in its own right in the novel? Are you a fan of writers such as Henry James and Jane Austen and novels such as Mansfield Park, where setting is of absolute importance to the novel’s thematics?
I’m not such a fan of Henry James’s novels; I love Jane Austen. And yes, I like the way setting relates to theme and character in Jane Austen’s novels. Village life, the English countryside, stately homes, vicarages, farms, the pump rooms in Bath, the odd flit to a London house: these form the backdrops to her stories, and each setting reflects the social rank of the characters in the story, indicators of status and wealth and taste (or in the vulgar, the lack of it, no matter how much wealth they might possess).
But somehow, Jane Austen never seems to get too carried away by lyrical description. I often get the feeling that she’s more concerned with the relationships between people; and that setting, right down to the English weather and its convenient showers of rain, plays into this.
I live in Fish Hoek, surrounded by mountains and the sea. I drive along Main Road and Boyes Drive, I wait for the whales to arrive in the bay every year. I walk on Fish Hoek beach. I sailed with my husband before we came home to Cape Town to start a family. So chances are, there’s going to be some sea and sand and mountains in my story. I wanted a place where the mountains rise up behind a harbour town, but I didn’t want to set the story somewhere specific like Kalk Bay, Fish Hoek or Simon’s Town. Each of those places has such a distinct personality, and if they were named then that personality would seep into the story and demand to be recognised.
Your question homes in on what’s most important as far as setting is concerned for me: Marchbanks. Whenever I imagine Marchbanks I see a triangle inside it. Ma Bess sits at the pinnacle, her family spread out below her, and at the base of the triangle are Thelma and Koos and the grounds of the house outside. The house is Ma Bess’s domain. She wants to make sure it reflects her status and wealth. It’s financed mainly by her and run according to her rules. And yet … the kingdom is divided. Ma Bess does her best to control what happens below, but she cannot. Marchbanks relaxes away from her eagle eye. Downstairs the carpets are worn, the furniture is shabby and the rules are less stringent. Bird’s room is untidy, the kitchen is Thelma’s territory. Small boys shout, people laugh, Ma Bess is given a name that is kept secret from her.
So yes, Marchbanks is a character in its own right, but it’s a pretty schizophrenic one … nicely indicative of a jumble of norms and cultures.
Relationships between parents, parents and children, and between siblings themselves, are a crucial component of this novel. Did you draw on your own relationship with your husband and two sons in order to write so convincingly about the Littles?
I love looking at family dynamics, seeing how relationships work on different levels. I reckon there’s no such thing as a functional family, some are just less dysfunctional than others. As to whether I drew on my own relationship with my sons – I suppose I did, in a way, but once again more in terms of what I didn’t have in my life rather than what I did. I have two sons and I grew up with three brothers, so really my experience of relationships between parents and children and siblings themselves was based very much on how I saw men and boys interacting with one another. (Sorry about all the repletion here, but each question calls on different aspects of my experience as a writer.) One thing I learned very quickly as a new mother is that boys, especially when they are little, are very, very direct. Well, mine were. What I saw was what I got and what I got a lot of was noise, action, more noise and more action. (There’s a very good reason for “boys” rhyming with “noise”.) I was one of those mothers who never sat down when moms and toddlers met for tea, because my children were always on the go. But in order to write about the Littles, I had to look elsewhere – to families with daughters – and then I had to let my imagination do its best.
This is one of those “I’m not sure” answers. Maybe what I drew on was all that my imagination has gathered and stored: my many friends and their families, the carefully crafted relationships that appear in great novels, watching how good movies draw you into the relationships between characters on the screen and wondering how the director, the scriptwriter and editor worked together to convey so much in a single glance, a single word.
It is hard to think of a more fitting title than Birdseye – it works so perfectly on a variety of levels. Did the title feature from the very beginning, or did it emerge at some point during the writing process?
The title definitely emerged. In her earlier incarnation, Bird was called Mouse, as I’ve mentioned before, and the working title of the novel was Mouse’s Tale. Her name changed because of something that happened in the story. The scene where this happened was a pretty chilling one. It fell away when I was working on a new draft of the story (I wish I could say why, but I’m trying my very best not to include any spoilers in this Q&A), but as I was writing it, it became very important that her name was Bird. And after that, I couldn’t bring her back to being a Mouse. Bird suited her so much better. Even before she became Bird, so much of the imagery connected to her was slight and swooping, so her new name fitted her beautifully. Not to mention this rather bizarre coincidence: her real name is Amelia, so how fitting that she became Bird, even though the reason for this happening had nothing to do with her being named after a famous aviatrix. So once I had a bird of magpie nature, who wrote and gathered stories and made it her job to see and record everything, the name Birdseye fell perfectly into place, like a gift.
Writing comes to be a form of record-keeping, memorialisation, but also an active antidote to forgetting, for Bird. This is a broad question, granted, but what does writing mean to you? What does it allow you to do in your own life, and which writers do you enjoy reading as a fellow writer?
I started writing fiction just over ten years ago when I joined one of Anne Schuster’s writing classes. I couldn’t believe how her technique tapped into my writing, set all sorts of story free. I only wish I’d joined her writing groups earlier.
I can’t begin to tell you what writing means to me. I free-write. I’m no good at sitting at a computer and typing the story on the screen. This is probably because I’m a terrible typist and my work is always spattered with mistakes. I wish I could type like a demon. Maybe if I could, I’d experience the same sensation that I do when I sit down with pen and paper and a good prompt and start writing – following that first thought and seeing where it will lead me.
I’m lucky on two counts here: one, I can write really fast; and two, I can still read my handwriting even when it’s a rushed scrawl. There’s something about that connection of speed and following the story, my pen rushing to keep up with it, that is truly magical, and I mean this most sincerely. So for me writing means magic and surprise and excitement and seeing where I’ll land up when I get to the end of a writing session. It means the joy of going to bed thinking about what’s happening in a story and where it might go next and then sitting down and seeing problems solve themselves as I write. I know I’m making it sound terribly easy, and sometimes it isn’t. But often it is, and when the story inside comes on to the page and characters run wild and amok and free and fiercely sad or madly happy, I couldn’t be happier.
I wish I could write all day, but I can’t. There are bills to be paid and other people’s stories to attend to. This is also an exciting process, but it’s very demanding, so I have to force myself to take a complete break from it – get away from my desk and away from the house, to a coffee shop or off to The Grail where I can devote time to writing without worrying too much about my editing work.
Normally, I tend to read contemporary fiction. I also like speculative fiction and YA. I enjoy men and women writers equally. I read a lot of South African fiction and think we are blessed by wonderful writers who are telling amazing stories. I just wish I could keep up with them all. Away from home? I’ve already mentioned Margret Atwood, and then there’s the early Barbara Kingsolvers, Ian Mc Ewan … my list goes on and on! Suffice to say that I can’t go to sleep unless I’ve read for a while and that my bedside table is in constant danger of bookslide.
Apart from the books I mention later, in my book club basket for this month are Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer, Ghana Must Go byTaiye Selasi and Beyond Black byHilary Mantel.
The prose in Birdseye is beautifully weighted and so light of touch. What was the actual writing process like for you? Any threads that didn’t make the final cut, in a novel where more than one form or genre of writing is captured? How difficult was it to make the transition to a different kind of novel in the final third, where the writing is certainly darker and more urgent? Were you influenced at all by novels such as The Lovely Bones, Changeling and Atonement, all featuring missing young children as central to the plot, and all characterised by adults wracked with grief?
I’ve already mentioned quite a bit about the writing process in previous questions, so I won’t go into more detail here. And I’ve said how much I wrote that fell away. The main thing to repeat here is that I’m glad (in a weird, warped way as only a writer can be when she decides to abandon a good half of her story) that I wrote all I did and equally glad that I sliced so much of it away.
As to the darker side of the story, I’ve spoken about that too, and what made it dark. What I haven’t yet said is that as the mother of two boys, writing about children disappearing was devastating, not to mention what I then had to subject Bird to. All I could do was put my head down and write through it. It was hectic, that writing, and at times a very dark undercurrent dragged me through parts of the story. It became my duty to help Bird make it through to the end, and to let her discover every part of the truth she was seeking.
But even in those darkest parts, it’s Bird who keeps the story floating. She has a lightness of spirit, of voice. I wish for her sake that I could have kept everything light and easy, but that takes me back to what I said earlier on. Once Oz and Ollie disappeared, I knew that this was going to be a tough write.
As to being influenced by other novels, I’m not sure. I certainly loved Atonement and found the premise of The Lovely Bones a fascinating one. I haven’t read Changeling (but it’s on my list now). I’ve read so many other books too, though, that deal with the loss of innocence, finding the truth, living with loss, being shaped by grief. So I think it’s more a case of Birdseye tapping into those large universal themes: our need to anchor ourselves when grief turns the world upside down, to explore how loss insinuates itself into life, to make sense of the inexplicable and the unacceptable by writing into it to find the truth. And even then (I’m thinking Atonement here, more so than Birdseye) the truth can be elusive, tricky and possibly unreliable if the narrator is unreliable.
Birdseye is evocative in its imagery, and many passages see descriptions of wings, angels, feathers, and so forth. I thought this worked a treat. How challenging was it for you to write in a lyrical way without your descriptions becoming tedious and repetitive?
I’ve already mentioned that Bird is so light of soul that the imagery connected to her can’t help but be light too. As much as I have to work at setting, I find imagery happens as I write, so it’s not a deliberate or conscious process. I’m lucky that Bird became Bird – there’s so much imagery that can come into play, and that can be played around with – far more so than Mouse, who was too dull and beige for the voice that emerged once the story really got moving. (Funnily enough, Mouse suited the character when she was an older woman, in her thirties, who had grown timid and introverted and reclusive.) In places I overdid it, as always happens with early draft writing, but I was lucky – it’s much easier to tone things down than have to add them in to serve the demands of a recurring image. The best way, for me, of making sure that an image wasn’t too ornate or overworked was to read my writing aloud. I swear by this. The best way to check for … everything! And, of course, it helps to have a judicious editor who says something like, “‘I see what you’re aiming for here, but can you try it a different way?”
Humour is central to so much of this serious novel. Are you one to see the lighter side of things? Any Irish influences that made their way on to the page?
I think I do – see the lighter side of things. I try to live for what this moment, this now, has to offer. That doesn’t mean that I don’t stress about things, or worry, but I like to try to get the best out of a situation. I suppose you could say I’m a glass-half-full sort of person. But! (These answers are so complicated!) I want to give the whole picture here. That doesn’t mean to say that I think sorrow should be minimised or packed away without being properly felt and acknowledged and worked through. To do that is to rob life of what is important.
At times my humour can be pretty dark, finding something to laugh about so that I don’t cry. I also like humour that’s self-deprecating. I think that’s pretty Irish. I love clever jokes and am fortunate enough to remember the punchline most of the time. Good training from my youth – if I wanted to tell a joke when my brothers and I were kids I had to get it right or I’d be banned from telling it.
Birdseye is about disillusionment and the loss of innocence, but is also celebratory of individuals’ capacity to extract their own forms of truth from life’s various mysteries. How important is being curious and questioning to you in your daily life? Which mystery, personal or otherwise, fascinates you, or has fascinated you through the years?
Oh, wow, Jono. That’s a big question. The truth has always been incredibly important to me. Uncovering it, discovering what’s hiding behind the curtain, or under the bed, or swept under the carpet. The truth makes us vulnerable, but it also keeps us pretty straightforward, which is the way I like to be (most of the time!). I don’t know that there is one particular mystery that fascinates me, but I can tell you that I love reading crime novels and mysteries and following good detective series. True Detective and Durham County are two of my favourite series. A recent favourite was Luther. Thinking about it more deeply, I suppose for me the big mystery is human nature – why we do the things we do, what motivates us, what holds us back … That’s what drives so much writing too. Discovering the truth of what a character wants, watching them as they make their way towards it, seeing what they are prepared to do to get what they want.
What are you reading at the moment, and what can we expect from you in the near future in writing?
At the moment I’m reading two rather strange books. The one is Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight by ME Thomas, a sadly empty and scary read, and The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industryby Ron Jonson, which I’ve just started. A bit late when you think about it, for exploring and understanding Ma Bess, but really interesting. They were both book club picks this month.
My own writing? Well, remember I mentioned that I started writing another book when the thought of Oz and Ollie was too much to handle? That book had a minor character in it and I decided to let his sister go and visit him. He’s in a home of sorts for young people who don’t fit into society all that well. Bad move as far as finishing the novel languishing in my drawer was concerned, because this young boy and his problems and the way they impact on his family have taken over the story. It’s early days yet, but it looks as if it’s heading in interesting directions. The other story’s going to have to wait, I’m afraid. And all I can say about that is, blame it on the free-writing …