:: Interview with Gayle Brandeis

By Dominique McCafferty, Librarian

Gayle Brandeis’s novel, The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), received Barbara Kingsolver's 2002 Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change. Kingsolver called her novel “Lyrical, imaginative, beautifully crafted, and deeply intelligent.” Toni Morrison said, "The Book of Dead Birds has an edgy beauty that enhances perfectly the seriousness of its contents." She is also the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperSanFrancisco), which was selected by the American Bookseller’s Association as a notable book in May 2002. A beautiful collection of poetry, Dictionary Poems (Pudding House Publications), was released in 2003.

Gayle’s essays, poems and short stories, which have appeared in numerous publications, including Literary Mama, Salon, and McSweeney’s, explore motherhood, relationships, and the sacredness of the senses. She lives in Riverside, CA with her husband, Matt McGunigle, and their two children, Arin and Hannah. Visit Gayle's website at www.gaylebrandeis.com.

DM: I consider Fruitflesh one of the very best writing books ever. I truly think it should be required reading for anyone who writes or is considering writing. Library customers have responded enthusiastically when I've recommended it to them. I'm sure veteran writers could also benefit from your book.

GB: Thank you so much for these kind words! I don't think Fruitflesh has found a huge readership at this point, but the readers who have found it have been so incredibly enthusiastic and wonderful. It makes my heart sing when I hear that the book has helped people--men as well as women--find their voices and break through creative blocks and see the world and themselves in a new way. I couldn't ask for anything more as an author.

I recently received a lovely letter from Carolyn See, a writer I deeply admire; she has her own writing book out, the fabulous Making a Literary Life, along with her stellar novels. It blew my mind to hear how much she loved the book. I am still so tickled that I occasionally get to rub elbows with writers whose work I adore.

Another fun thing--people have created their own workshops and retreats based on Fruitflesh, which makes me very happy. It's nice to know that the book has a life of its own, that it doesn't need me any more. I love the thought of people stumbling upon it and finding a way to unlock their juiciest creativity and then helping others do the same. I have been inspired by so many writers along the way and hope I can provide a similar spark.

DM: Tell our readers how you were inspired to write The Book of Dead Birds?

GB: In 1996, I started to write a poem about a dead bird I saw when I was six years old. It was a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest--it had no feathers yet; it's eyes had never opened. I had never seen anything dead before, and it had a huge impact upon me. I created a ritual to memorialize the bird--I felt this strong need to honor the bird's life, to make sense of the bird's death. It was a moment that had stayed with me over the years, and I finally felt compelled to write about it. The poem turned into a chronicle of all the dead birds I had seen in my life, including our pet finches who had pecked their babies to death--my only pet bird experience, since we later found out I was allergic to feathers. The poem kept getting longer and stranger and at some point I realized it didn't want to be a poem any more, and it definitely didn't want to be about my own experience any more, but I had no idea what it wanted to be, so I set it aside. It was around this time that articles about the Salton Sea bird die offs began to appear in the local paper. I clipped the articles and put them in my notebook, thinking I could tie the situation--which ended up being the worst bird die-off in American history--into my poem-hybrid project, although I wasn't sure how I'd be able to do that yet. Then, one day, I randomly happened to see a documentary on PBS called The Women Outside, about women who had been forced into prostitution on US Military bases in Korea. The characters of Ava and Helen were suddenly right there in the room with me--they materialized vivid and whole. I knew at that moment that Helen had been a prostitute, that her daughter Ava had a habit of killing Helen's pet birds, that she had to travel to the Salton Sea to help with the bird rescue effort and try to make amends. It was clear that this was what I'd been working toward, been waiting for, but I froze. I felt I had no right to write about people whose ethnicities were so different from my own. I didn't want to appropriate someone else's culture, didn't want to appear to be a cultural imperialist. I tried to keep the characters at arm's length, to tell them to disappear back into the ether, to tell them I couldn't write about them, but they wouldn't go away. They were persistent and insistent and at some point I realized I needed to start doing intensive research so I could write about them with as much knowledge as possible.

At first, I wrote Ava from the third person, because the first person felt too close. In the third person, I could just observe her, which felt safer than claiming to be her. The book wasn't coalescing, though--it felt flat and uninspired. I was ready to throw it away several times, until two things happened: first, a dead crow appeared on my patio, which seemed like a sign to keep going. Then, I came down with a case of strep throat, and had a high fever which led to fever dreams in which I became Ava--a very intense experience. When the fever broke, I realized that she needed to tell the story in her own voice. When I started writing in the first person, the novel really came to life for me.

Shortly before the book came out, a photographer and feature writer from the Press Enterprise came to do a story about me and the novel. The writer was my friend Donna Kennedy, who grew up at the Salton Sea—she was actually Miss Salton Sea as a teenager! The photographer looked for a place to take the picture as I spoke with Donna. She decided that the bench on our front porch would be a good place, and she came up to me and asked if I had a broom--there was a dead bird there on the bench. My heart skipped a beat. I went to look, and it turned out to be a baby bird, just like the one I saw when I was six years old. I created a ritual around this bird, too, with my daughter this time, and felt my whole life swooping around into a very big circle. The whole process of writing the book was full of such magic and synchronicity, and took me to places I never thought I would visit.

DM: In 2002, The Book of Dead Birds won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction. Would you talk about the impact this award has had on your writing life?

GB: Barbara Kingsolver is such an inspiration for me--she has long been a model for how to weave together art and social responsibility. To have been given her blessing through this award is almost more than I can wrap my mind around. I am so deeply grateful. I also feel a real responsibility to continue to do good work in the world through my words.

I found out I won the award while I was on my book tour for Fruitflesh. I was in San Francisco; I had the day to myself before my event that evening, so I went to see a movie, Y Tu Mama Tambien. I turned my cell phone off in the theater. When the movie, which I loved, was over, I realized I was right across the street from the HarperSanFrancisco offices, so I decided to drop in and say hello to my editor. As I waited for her in the reception area, I turned on my cell phone, and it rang immediately. It was my husband. He sounded frantic. He asked me if I had listened to my messages; I told him I hadn't. "You better listen to your messages and call me right back," he said. I got very nervous. I thought something had happened to one of my parents and he didn't know how to tell me. I pushed the voice mail button, my heart pounding. Then the message came on: "This is Barbara Kingsolver and I have some very good news for you..." I started bawling immediately. My editor came out and saw me crying and asked what was wrong. I told her "I just won the Bellwether Prize" and then she started crying, too. It was a very teary day. I called Barbara Kingsolver back after I got back to my hotel room, and we had an amazing conversation. She was so easy to talk to. When I found out that Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston had been the other Bellwether judges, I was even more blown away. I admire both of them so much, and to know that they held my work in their hands, much less read it, much less chose it, was almost too much to comprehend. My heart bursts thinking about it still.

This interview took place via e-mail in summer 2004. To read the complete interview, see the May/June 2005 issue of Public Libraries.

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