Deborah Reed is a marvel. It's always exciting when an arc pops in the mail for me to read and blurb, and I devoured The Days When Birds Come Back, so of course, I wanted Deborah on my blog. She's also the author Olivay, Things We Set on Fire, and Carry Yourself Back to Me. She has also authored two popular thrillers under the pen name Audrey Braun. I'm thrilled to have her here. And now, some of the raves the book is already racking up:
"A character-driven narrative that focuses on the grief her two protagonists suffer. It's a sad tale in which grief almost becomes overwhelming but in which the reader is saved by Reed's lyrical and elegant prose and a sense of redemption at the end." —The Oregonian
"Reed is skilled at unraveling their stories gradually, and is particularly adept at both drawing parallels between June and Jameson and depicting how the two help each other through their pain....An emotionally satisfying novel about the lingering effects of trauma and how people deal with guilt." —Publishers Weekly
I always think there is a why now moment, a haunting of the writer, that produces a book. What was yours?
For me it was a major life change that led to living on the coast of Oregon, a place of immense beauty and fierce destruction, or impending destruction, as it were, living in a tsunami zone on top of the Cascadia subduction zone. It was all of this, as well as a casual conversation between a new
neighbor and me.
neighbor and me.
I was recently divorced, my kids grown, and I found myself living alone for the first time since my teens. Incredibly secluded and with open stretches of time, my past bubbled up to fill the void—the people, places, and things that had shaped my life, some good, some too terrible to speak of, but all influential, and I began to understand how I’d arrived at this moment in time of total isolation, penetrated by grief.
One day my neighbor mentioned that the house I was living in had been fully renovated by an extraordinary man of particular talent and integrity, a man with whom she'd become friends. In an instant I felt a story in my bones. Hard to explain how that works, like a spell coming on, the senses spark and tingle and the work simply begins. I didn't ask any more details; I just sat down and started writing a story about the true north of home and the struggle of rebuilding one's life in the midst of loss and tragedy.
What was it like writing this novel? Did you find it different than writing your other novels, and if so, in what way? (I always feel that I am starting from scratch, that I have learned nothing…)
To be honest, it was hell. I experienced one of the worst health crises of my life right in the middle of the work. I spent nearly a year feeling incapacitated most days by migraines of all kinds and vertigo and nausea, and yet I would drag myself to the computer and try to squeeze in at least an hour if I could. It felt like exorcising demons--the pain and disorientation constantly needing to be cast out. At one point I was literally trying to manage a way to write while the left side of my vision disappeared in the middle of working. All the words on the screen suddenly read diagonally through my right eye, and only in fragments was I able to decipher a word here and there. And yet, I was telling myself that perhaps if I turned my head sideways and closed that left eye I could see clearly enough to get some writing done. I could not, of course, and recalling it now I don’t have any idea how I got through.
However, I did find a strength I didn't know I had, and managed to unearth things that had been haunting me for most of my life. I figured out a way to let them go, and a catharsis took over and the illness disappeared. But the middle. The middle was horrific. The experience as a whole resulted in this book.
From the perspective of a writer, I know exactly what you mean about starting from scratch. This is my sixth novel and every time I feel once again as if I am lost at sea. I feel foolish and fake and baffled as to why anyone would trust me to do this again. And yet, here we are. I suspect this is a healthy dose of humility keeping things in check. I hope so. I no longer fight against it, whatever it is.
I wish this was not so, but loss always transforms us—as it does your characters. But there is always a choice. We can choose to be brave and transform, or we can succumb to the pain. Do you think there is a dividing line between the people who can and the people who cannot? And why?
I think this is quite true, how very often we do have a choice to transform and must consciously make a decision to break through to the other side. But there is also the option of taking refuge in one’s pain, because the idea of shedding it for the unknown can, over time, become more terrifying than to live each day with the pain one has gotten used to. I also believe there are people who are convinced that they actually have transformed, and they wear this transformation like a badge, which feels an awful lot to those around them like the lady protesting too much. In the case of my novel, Sarah Anne appears to be the one who understands how to move on and transform her life into something more stable, more so than June or Jameson seem able to, but there is a large part of her who is hiding behind her foster child, doing all the right things for a child who needs her, but perhaps not for all the right reasons. She is blind to what it is doing to her marriage, to what it is doing to the very foundation of her life. June and Jameson come across as more flawed than Sarah Anne, but to me, they are more honest and even honorable to their loss by allowing the darkness to run its course, until they can find a way to reach the other side. I think many people make the mistake of not processing the worst kind of pain, and try instead to outrun it. You can’t outrun grief. Those seven stages are the real deal, and more powerful than any of us would like to believe.
I cried at the ending, and without giving anything away, I wanted to ask—did you always know this was the ending, or did it take you by surprise?
I'm glad to hear you were so moved. Thank you. No, I didn't know the ending until about a month before I finished it. And, as with every ending I've ever written, I knew it was right and final only after I wrote it down. It’s a wonderful feeling, coming upon an ending in the same way the reader comes upon it. You write to see what will happen, and finally you turn to the last page, and there it is. You sit for a moment after that last word, thinking about these people you’ve come to know and love, wishing them well, and then you say goodbye in the same way the reader closes the book.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Honestly, the state of the world we’re living in. My grown children’s futures, and if those futures will allow them to have children of their own. I am in a state of constant concern about healthcare, women’s rights, peace and goodwill toward other nations. I am finding it increasingly more difficult to write when everything feels petty by comparison to nuclear war and a totalitarian regime. Are you sorry you asked this question?
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
How are you dealing with your obsession? The answer: Aside from phone calls and signatures directed toward making a change? Winging it, much like I did when I had to write but couldn’t see or sit up straight. Keeping a close awareness of the natural beauty all around me at the coast. Reading. Acknowledging the love of my family and friends. Continuing to search for hope.