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Midwestern Gothic staffer Ariel Everitt talked with author Emily Strelow about her book The Wild Birds, her experiences as a naturalist, different types of love, & more.
Ariel Everitt: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Emily Strelow: I moved to the Midwest two years ago from Oregon where I was born and raised, but my Mom and Dad are originally from Michigan and Wisconsin, respectively. I have spent many summers visiting midwestern relatives and lakes and have always had an affection for the midwestern landscape and people. My husband Andrew grew up in Ann Arbor and now finds himself back in his hometown to finish the last year of his Masters in Landscape Architecture and Masters in Ecology at University of Michigan. So far, I’m really loving life in Ann Arbor. Shoveling all that snow in the winter not only helps keep a person warm, but kind of makes you feel like a badass.
AE: Your new novel The Wild Birds follows the lives of a mother, daughter, and lighthouse worker in the Northwest United States, and has been described as a sort of love song not only to nature, but also to the region. What do you take with you into your writing from the regions you visit, whether intentional or unintentional? What has stuck with you about the Northwest, and what has stuck with you from the Midwest?
ES: I was born and raised in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Starting out in the south of the valley I slowly roamed north. I came into the world in Eugene, then after a few years my family moved to Salem, then I moved to Portland for college where I also lived as an adult. Both my children were born in Portland. So when I first started writing The Wild Birds some 10+ years ago, that region was most strong in my mind in terms of its architecture of people, culture, and landscape. The main narrative of my debut is dominated by two characters, a young mother Alice and her daughter Lily living on a filbert farm in rural Willamette Valley. Salem has many hazelnut orchards in the vicinity and I used to go visit them as a teenager looking to be alone with her thoughts. The solace that I took in walking country roads and hanging out in picturesque graveyards, writing moody teenaged poetry about life and death made its way into the book. I’ve always loved the idea of a country goth, so I manifested one on the page.
The novel took me over ten years to finish, and during that time I lived in many different bioregions. I worked as an avian field biologist in differnt rural parts of the West including seven states, all four North American deserts, several mountain ranges, the coast, and rainforest. I observed these varied cultures of the West and wove them together in the novel as I moved from place to place for work. My plotting of the book was organic in the sense that I was writing and incorporating elements of my experience of the surrounding places and people. It was almost a way for me to process the various forms of life around me, by fictionalizing them and placing them in my novel in one way or another.
So while there isn’t anything about the midwest in my first novel, it’s bound to make its way into one of my next projects. In the midwest’s absence of mountains or ocean and the largesse that accompanies those bold geographical features, I find myself looking closer at little things, really getting into the subtlety of glacial topographies like kettles, and reveling in the intensity with which spring spreads across the landscape. The four seasons have really impacted my life in a positive way. There is always a sense of revelation when you move through that point marking a new season.
In the future, I expect I will find myself writing something mysterious or dark and brooding that takes a look at the understory of both the midwestern landscape and people. I’m a huge fan of Jim Harrison’s work and have always admired his ability to make prose that explores the beauty of a natural setting while also plumbing the depths of the human condition.
AE: Many characters in The Wild Birds, like Lily, her mother Alice, and her friends, speak with a particular authenticity that really reflects the casual conversations and mannerisms of real people from rural areas. Do you have any advice on how to create great dialogue that feels so real and still does so much work to develop characters and push the story forward?
ES: My first bit of advice is just to listen. Listen to the nuances of greetings between both strangers and family. Listen to the funny little phrases from your region. Put them in your tool kit to use later. I’m just finishing John Byne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies and I think his use of dialogue is unparalleled and brilliant. There are so many lovely Irish turns of phrase, so much humor, and yet it never feels labored or staid. Each conversation is furthering the plot.
Any writer worth their salt knows that dialogue is not simply taken directly from life. That would be dull on the page. I had a favorite writing teacher (who coincidentally is a midwesterner herself) that told me “dialogue is conversation’s greatest hits.” Dialogue should do something, progress the reader’s understanding of the conflict. So I suppose my advice would be to listen and use those moments of dialect, but make sure they are taking the reader deeper into the story.
AE: Your descriptive talents shine through brightly in your settings in The Wild Birds, which contain numerous dynamic living things — from trees slowly overtaken by fungus to a blind bird hunting in the fields. Do you think your talent for outdoors settings is influenced by your work as a naturalist? What can a non-scientist who admires your lively prose do to write setting a bit more like a naturalist?
ES: Absolutely, I am influenced by my time in the field. I’m an avid birder, mycology nerd, and naturalist, so at this point I couldn’t stop noticing the natural world even if I tried. Observing the natural world has become ingrained. Once you have that lens it’s hard to shift your seeing backward. When I go to a place, the events of the natural world—the plants, animals, weather, soil, fungus and insects—all make their way into my experience of that place. In fact, I often find myself more tuned into the landscape than its people.
But landscape shapes people, whether they clock it or not. I have found that the people of a region often mirror the natural idiosynchrocies in their character. For instance, in Michigan, most everyone has a relationship with snow, the return of frog song and birds in spring, the changing leaves, the first fireflies of summer, and thunder storms. People can talk about these natural features of their living landscape in line for groceries, or waiting to see the dentist, and it is acknowledged, often celebrated, as part of the shared midwestern experience.
In terms of how my experiences as a naturalist tie into my descriptions in The Wild Birds, my lifelong love for hunting wild mushrooms played a big part. Not to give away any spoilers, but the presence of a chanterelle patch in the book plays an important role in uniting the narratives beyond the antique egg collection. I don’t think anyone needs to be a scientist or have credentials to observe and record the magnificence of the natural world. As writers, learning the names of things is great and can help a lot in establishing place. Each unique region or biome has its own set of features, so identifying those and braiding them into the story helps set your reader firmly down in the terra of your choosing. Beyond naming things, observing the way different species interact with one another and their landscape is always a good way of establishing the natural world in your writing. Just as someone who prefers to write about city life would describe the way the city hums during the day or night, describing the way the natural community interacts within itself helps bring a landscape alive on the page.
AE: Later in The Wild Birds, we get a taste of Alice’s past, and how she came to have her daughter, Lily. Alice’s relationship with her adolescent best friend Sal perfectly laid bare some personal and emotional roadblocks against which LGBT people have to push just to get a relationship off the ground. Can you tell me a little bit about how you constructed Alice and Sal’s relationship, how you plotted it, and how you hope it speaks to your audience?
ES: I hope their relationship brings hope to my readers. As I was writing I wanted there to be different kinds of love stories represented in the book, not just heteronormative love. Sal and Alice spoke to me and had different iterations of love and friendship in my mind over the years, but in the way that characters come alive and speak for themselves in a writer’s mind, it became clear at some point that the women were destined for love.
I grew up in Oregon in the 90’s, where several explicitly anti-gay ballot measures made it to the ballot. In 1992 in Oregon Ballot Measure 9 was put to vote, supported by a conservative group call Oregon Citizen’s Alliance. They had passed anti-gay regulation in the past with Measure 8, but Measure 9 was their largest and most hateful campaign. The measure would have amended the Oregon constitution to recognize “homosexuality, pedophilia, sadism and masochism as abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse.” It would also prevent any “special rights” for homosexuals and bisexuals.
That same year in Salem, Oregon, where I was in school at the time, there were two murders of gay individuals because of a surge of racist and homophobic activity in the area, believed to be inspired by Measure 9. This affected me deeply and it was one of my first early moments of activism, going out and canvassing and talking to people in the community about why the measure needed to be defeated. It was narrowly defeated, with only 56% voting no. I’ll never forget how much of a wake up call that was for me. I saw with young eyes how much hatred existed in the world for LGBT people and I vowed to be part of the change.
It wasn’t until years later when I was part of a strong gay activist community in Seattle that I began to self-identify as bisexual. Even then I felt very tentative and afraid of labeling myself for fear of backlash. Writing The Wild Birds became for me a way of processing all the hatred I had experienced growing up and flushing it from my psyche. So when I say that I hope the story brings hope to people, I hope they experience the narrative with tolerance and appreciation for all the different kinds of love that exist in the world and see that even the largest obstacles can be overcome.
AE: How did you settle upon the structure you gave the novel, and the order of the chapters? Do you think there are any other arrangements that would have worked as well?
ES: I kind of touched on this a bit earlier in the interview, but the development of the plot happened over time as I lived in different areas of the West, so it was born of my own migrations. The timeline expanded as I researched the history of different places I was spending time for work in the field. I used the Oregon Historical Society and California Historical Society for a lot of the primary sources used in the historical sections. I’ve always had an interest in novels told in nonlinear time so I knew from the outset I wanted a nonlinear plot. When I decided on the alternating chapters format it was because that is the kind of book and narrative that I most enjoy reading. I’m a huge fan of puzzles, both literary and of the game variety. I also thought a reader might be able to read a single chapter at a time before bed, and still the story would eventually lock into place.
I enjoy the challenge of braiding timelines and stories together in my mind to create a whole, and I hope that my readers also enjoy that process. There is so much in the book about the interconnectivity of all life forms on the planet, and the alternating chapters speak to that kind of sweeping, broad connectivity. As far as whether there is a better order for the chapters, that’s something I can’t think about now that the book is out there or it would probably drive me to distraction.
AE: What advice would you give a writer who would like to write dynamic, evolving character relationships like yours?
ES: In line with the “listen” advice for the question about dialogue, I’d have to say “watch.” Watch the people around you—your family, friends, co-workers, baristas, doctors, bartenders, strangers, etc. Watch the way they come together and fall apart and learn from their paths and methods. Look below the surface but try not to make assumptions about people’s internal worlds. Instead, look for clues in behavior and speech that point to what lies beneath the surface. I always assume there is a veritable coral reef, a rich tapestry of emotions, below the surface of any person I meet. But like any coral reef, all you can see is waves and vague color forms from the surface. Bringing two characters into discovery of one another’s “reefs,” their discovery of what lurks below the surface, will bring that character relationship to life.
AE: Do you have any advice for people trying to balance writing with another passion (like science), or writing with making a living?
ES: As a mother of two young boys, 2 and 5, balance is something I’m still desperately, flailingly, trying to find. I think my other passions all find their way into my writing and that’s not something I need to change or balance. But time? Time by myself? Time by myself with the energy to write? That is something I struggle to bring into balance. If you, dear reader, can give me advice on that one maybe I can get my next book written before another ten years are up.
AE: Where do you prefer to write and where gives you the most inspiration? Is there anywhere you can’t write?
ES: I love to write in quiet places. I wrote part of The Wild Birds out in wilderness in the bed of my truck, by a campfire, in tents by the light of a headlamp. I also wrote part of it in an urban Portland writing studio overlooking the train tracks surrounded by storage warehouses. The uniting factor in these places was simply quiet. And coffee and tea. Lots and lots of coffee, herbal teas, and La Croix depending on where I’m at in the day. I could probably get a sponsorship from La Croix at this point. And I recommend coming up with new outlandish flavor ideas if you ever get a case of writer’s block.
Oddly, and counter to the stereotype, I simply cannot focus and write in coffee shops. Too many noises and too much action. I am easily distracted, not unlike a small dog. But I’ll admit they are a wonderful place to eavesdrop if you are stuck on piece of dialogue.
AE: What’s next for you?
ES: I’m working on a project that I’m absolutely loving right now, but like so many others, struggle to find time. The novel takes place on three different continents and deals with issues of climate change, immigration, the loss of natural monuments, the defunding of female reproductive medical care, the roadblocks wildlife face as their territories shrink, the legalization of weed, and the magic of the unknown. You know, just tackling the light stuff. But I feel compelled to write about these pressing political and scientific issues because it weighs heavily on so many people’s minds right now, including my own, in our country and beyond. Writing is how I process the trauma and joy of life on earth. Some people say Ride or Die, but I prefer Write or Die.
Emily Strelow was born and raised in Oregon’s Willamette Valley but has lived all over the West and now, the Midwest. For the last decade she combined teaching writing with doing seasonal avian field biology with her husband. While doing field jobs she camped and wrote in remote areas in the desert, mountains and by the ocean. She is a mother to two boys, a naturalist, and writer. She lives in Ann Arbor, MI. The Wild Birds is her first novel.