“Milly placed her hand on the girl’s curls. Their softness and the scattering of freckles at the girl’s neckline, the sudden camaraderie she felt with the mother, opened up something inside her that hadn’t been opened in a long time.”
~ from The Bird Sisters
We all experience those moments in life, when a simple gesture, or a glimpse of something familiar, stirs up memories, emotions, and reminders of a time when we sat at the crossroads, when choices made and actions taken determined who we became.
The Bird Sisters, Rebecca Rasmussen’s newly released debut novel, is a story about such a time for two sisters, Milly and Twiss. Set in Spring Green, Wisconsin, The Bird Sisters opens with a visit from a stranger and unfolds into a recollection of the summer of 1947, when Milly and Twiss discovered truths about their priest, their parents, and their cousin Bett. In her novel, Rebecca transports readers back and forth in time with ease, closing each chapter with an image that leaves the reader thinking and wanting more.
The Bird Sisters is a beautiful story that will connect with readers on so many levels. I’m honored to host Rebecca here, where she shares about the inspiration for her novel and talks about writing. At the end of the interview, leave a comment and you’ll be entered into a drawing for a copy of her novel (complete with an autographed book plate!). I’ll announce the winner on Tuesday, April 19th. Also, read more of Rebecca’s writing here and here. She’s an author to follow!
CC: Under “Behind the Story” on your website, you mention details from your family history that served as inspiration for The Bird Sisters. How much of that history informed your novel, and at what point in your writing process did your main characters, Twiss and Milly, take over?
RR: For several years after my grandmother passed away, I kept trying to figure out how to create a story that honored her based on the journals she kept over a forty-year period. There was a lot of unhappiness in her journals—to be frank—and a lot of wishing her childhood had been different. Both of her parents passed away within a year of each other when she was a teenager and she was constantly torn between making martyrs out of them and seeing them as real people capable of the very grave mistakes that each of them made. Once I took the pressure off of myself and let Milly and Twiss take their own breaths (mostly by putting away my grandmother’s journals), the story came to me very quickly, and I fell in love with the sisters; Twiss for her adventurous spirit, and Milly for her family-bound one.
The two sisters in the novel are different from my grandmother and her sister in that they cling to each other when the going gets rough, whereas my grandmother and sister invested in their new families and children. They invested in moving on. If there is a reckoning in the novel, it’s that while familial love can harm you, it can also save you. The older I get, the more I am tuned in to the sacrifices—large and small—that people make daily for the good of their husbands and wives, their children and grandchildren, and even the animals they love. I am drawn to the idea of sacrifice because it often goes against our instincts, and because it can be one of the most beautiful things in the world, and yet its consequences can be devastating to have to survive. The sacrifices Milly and Twiss make in the novel are part of why they have my love and always will.
CC: You are one of those authors who create a wonderful sense of place in a novel, sometimes shown in brief but powerful descriptions. Set in the real town of Spring Green, Wisconsin, I imagine many of the specifics in the story are real. So, I wonder, does the “enchanted purple meadow” truly exist? If it does, I want to go there and bask in the sun.
RR: I am deeply attached to Spring Green, Wisconsin, which is where my father has lived since I was a girl. My brother and I would go back and forth between his house and my mother’s, which was located in a small suburb of Chicago. For us, Wisconsin was magical. There we were able to swim in the river, cover ourselves in mud, and tromp through the woods. There we played with barn cats and snakes, lightning bugs and katydids. I’ve always preferred rural landscapes to urban ones. Wild over tame. It’s like the old bumper stickers from the 80s used to say: “Escape to Wisconsin.” As for the enchanted purple meadow, it exists in my imagination—it’s a place of love and magic, where life can change after opening one’s self up to those internal possibilities we alternately hope for and are afraid of throughout our lives. For me, without places like that purple meadow, story simply doesn’t exist.
CC: In your novel, which section was your favorite to write?
RR: I really loved writing about the priest who renounces his priesthood early on in the novel: Father Rice. Although his story isn’t rooted in fact, there is a little country chapel in the hills outside of Spring Green that I went to a few times as a girl. Instead of the incendiary language used by priests in other churches I had been to, this priest talked about fishing the river and farming the land in order to convey messages from the Bible. I remember one day he ended mass early because it was still cool and the fish were biting. He was the first priest I ever met whom I wasn’t afraid of and whom I understood had hopes and dreams like the rest of us. I loved writing about faith in an untraditional way, through a priest who questions his faith and almost loses everything. Almost.
CC: What are you reading these days?
RR: I have been reading wonderful books lately. The first one I want to mention is Susan Henderson’s novel, Up From the Blue, which is a wonderful synthesis of what’s it’s like to be child in a highly dysfunctional family. It’s sad and beautiful and wonderfully written. I’ve also been reading Alan Heathcock’s story collection Volt, which does indeed electrify me somehow. Alan and I navigate on different ends of the spectrum: his stories are tough, gritty, and very Cormac McCarthy-esque. I love this collection because it breathes life into my imagination, and I only hope it gets the attention it deserves. Other wonderful books I’m reading are Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone, Melissa Senate’s The Love Goddess’ Cooking School, Kate Ledger’s Remedies, and Therese Fowler’s forthcoming novel Exposure. All are major nightly treats for me.
CC: Do you have any advice for writers on the rise?
RR: Have faith in yourself and your work. If you don’t have it, no one else will. Also, be kind to yourself. When you face rejection, treat yourself to something small that you love. Send yourself flowers or chocolates or go find a little trinket. (My husband bought me a sweet little bird charm necklace.) Pick yourself up. Keep writing.
Rebecca Rasmussen is the author of the novel The Bird Sisters, released from Crown Publishers on April 12th, 2011. She lives in St. Louis with her husband and daughter and loves to bake pies. Visit Rebecca at http://www.thebirdsisters.com for more information.
Don’t forget to leave a comment to be entered into the giveaway!