The first thing that struck me about Book of Birds was its narrator's voice. Elly takes the reader by the hand and pulls them, without apology, down the path of those few turbulent months in her life. She speaks with the clear, no-nonsense tone of a young girl, calling the shots as she sees them and making the sort of observations most adults either forget or miss. L.M. Bryski seats herself so confidently in Elly's mind that we forget that Elly, herself, did not write it down for us. As children often do, Ellie makes remarks that are equal parts harsh and humorous, and the humor serves to carry the reader through darker scenes with a perfect balance. Those dark scenes are not written to shock or to disgust, they are simply told plain-faced, presented as they are, because Elly will not shirk from the truth of the telling.
Elly is not the only remarkable character in the novel, by far: there was not a single character who I felt was one-dimensional or flat. Every single person has a purpose in the story, and that purpose is woven in with traits and events that give them depth: from the school groundskeeper to the strange, outcast old lady who Elly meets outside after church one Sunday morning. While I was able to predict the "who-done-it" aspect of the story, it did not detract from how much I enjoyed reading it, or the tension which the author strung taut through the entire novel. This is a debut which I would happily read again and again: it deserves a place on the shelf with coming-of-age classics such as Where The Red Fern Grows and The Giver.
You say in your author bio that the inspiration for this came in part from a Marx Brothers movie. Can you tell me a little about how that grew into Book of Birds?
I tend to look at stories as person, place, and inciting event. I had already toyed with the idea of Elly, a newly orphaned teenager, in my head. As well, the environment of a post-war prairie town is dear to my heart, being a backdrop for my own family’s history. I was missing the third leg of the stool, though, to kick-start Book of Birds into action. It wasn’t until I’d come across the Marx Brothers and specifically, Lydia the Tattoo Lady (coincidentally encountered in different conversations), that the story started to live. While happily humming the Lydia song after a fun conversation, I came across a vintage photograph of a priest blessing a travelling circus train. Bingo. I had my incident that stirred the story pot. A travelling circus comes to town. How would each character react within this new environment and its possibilities? What consequences would come of it? I started writing. And Book of Birds flowed out, in order, chapter by chapter, until it was done.
The book is a fantastic vehicle for metaphor… I enjoyed the way Elly kept such a careful mental ledger of different types of people and their behaviors, as though it were its own type of bird-watching. Where did the idea of the titular field guide come from?
I love books. Always have. And photographs and drawings. Love a mix of words and pictures that explain facts. Growing up, I had several favourite books to look through: Encyclopedia Britannica to pick out what pedigree cat, dog, horse or dinosaur I would some day own, encyclopedia volumes on Pompeii and the Arctic, Disney volumes on the history of Walt’s cartoon empire, and a field guide to Eastern North American birds. When thinking of Elly, the vastness of an empty, lonely prairie field kept popping to mind. But was the field really empty? Birds were always in the field, if you just knew how to look for them. A field guide to looking for birds became a field guide for Elly to help her look at life.
There are a lot of difficult scenes in this book. How did you prepare for writing them, both practically and emotionally?
I didn’t prepare for the emotional scenes. I just let my fingers go and typed them out. It was mostly not a problem as I was able to float above it. There was one notable exception. Just as I was writing the scene when Elly gets in a fight with Connie and hauls Connie out of a hotly contested school seat, I got into a tiff with a friend. It was a new friendship, and the first time we’d had a difference of opinion. I was surprised at the parallel emotion of anger in myself and in the character I was writing about. That taught me to be aware of what state of being was coming to life on my pages and to keep an eye that it didn’t bleed into my own life if it was a negative emotion. Doesn’t always work. Sometimes, I still have to catch myself.
I enjoyed the fact that Book of Birds takes place in the past … but how much different do you think it would be, had it been set in the present?
Communication tools would have been quite different. The mix of face-to-face interaction with texting would have given a different flare to how Elly integrated with her school environment and peers. Underneath it, the emotions would have remained the same. The feeling of isolation, of not being accepted, may have been amplified with the obvious exclusion from the cyber-friendships around her. As well, Elly’s access to books to read would have been very different, having a greater choice, with competing interests of television and internet. The town would be vastly different: either larger, with more integration with the world around it or a ghost town with abandoned buildings and weed-choked roads. The circus, itself, would likely have skipped the town, focusing instead on the big cities. It would have been a very different book.
Are any characters inspired by people you know?
Each character is his or her own creature. There isn’t a template for any one of them. Characters come to life in my head as individuals. In retrospect, I can say this or that quality comes from so-and-so, but there is no close match with others that I know.
You do an amazing job with Elly’s narrative voice. So many of her observations about being her age ring true, especially the passage about kids hearing more than adults think, and only wanting to understand. Is there anything in particular you had to do to keep yourself in the mindset of a young girl?
I love thinking of stories like plays. I love having conversations in my head between different characters, and I love acting as a different character in the soft and safe ‘sit-and-think’ parts of my life. It was easy to get into the mindset of each character, including Elly, as my mind is an ongoing stage for them each to walk across and have their moment speaking.
What is your favorite YA book?
There’s a mix. Narnia comes immediately to mind, followed by both Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy and other books in her series. Anne of Green Gables is another series that I avidly read, then had the pleasure of watching in later years. For wonderful weirdness, the Wizard of Oz series by L. Frank Baum, written in the early 1900s, has always captured my imagination. To round it out, Beatrix Potter. Bunnies. Always bunnies.
Any idea what’s next for you? Or are you just going to enjoy a little downtime after all this hard work?
No down time. Never for a writer. If you’re not actually writing, you’re either reading or thinking of something to write. Or you’re editing. The dreaded yet oh-so-necessary editing. I’m currently editing my uncle’s memoirs. I just finished a story that I did as a fun, self-imposed writing exercise. It’s not up to my usual standards so I might chop it up and salvage bits and pieces as short stories for another time. As well, Blood Chill, another of my manuscripts is coming back to me from development editing. I expect there will be a lot of work to do on that book. Another story is coming to the forefront in my brain. It’s set in a fantasy world and revolves around the making of a pocket watch similar to the famous supercomplication watch. There is a magical twist, however. I’m still fleshing the plot out. As always, I keep on with the day job.
Until next Wednesday, friends & fellow readers!