Author Q & A

Q. Why did you write Sparrow Migrations?
A. My own son, Owen, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in May 2010, about six months before I started writing it. He was four and a half at the time. Writing the novel was a way for me to process the emotions that accompanied his diagnosis.  Uncertainty and fear about our future ran high, since autism is a lifelong, largely unexplained condition that varies significantly by individual. By creating the character of my protagonist, 12-year-old Robby Palmer, I could project my hopes and prayers for our future as a family.

Q. Why did you begin the book with the “Miracle on the Hudson” plane crash?
A. I began considering writing (another) novel in October 2010, during National Novel Writing Month, held annually in November.  The character of Robby was my yeast, the genesis of it all. I also knew I wanted a hopeful story and a happy ending.  In the midst of this musing, the news brought another miraculous story – the rescue of the Chilean miners who had been trapped underground for more than two months. The day of the rescue, I was riveted to the news, cheering as each man was lifted to the surface. It was a powerful, feel-good story against long-shot odds.  I wanted something like that in my story, both for the emotional chord it would strike as well as the resonance readers would have with a real-life event.  The comparable event I came up with was the Miracle on the Hudson.

Q. How did the other two plot lines – Deborah and Christopher’s infertility struggle, Brett’s secret – come about?
A. As a reader, I really enjoy novels structured as what I call braided narratives – multiple story lines that intertwine. Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer is a favorite. Wiley Cash’s A Land More Kind than Home is another debut novel that uses this structure. That meant I needed two stories to intersect with Robby’s.

In my pre-writing research I employed what Chris Baty, the founder of National Novel Writing Month, calls the five-click rule. That is, you don’t go further than five clicks from your original search terms, to avoid getting bogged down in too much detail. Googling “Miracle on the Hudson” led me to the Wikipedia entry on the incident, which revealed that the accident was caused by birds striking the plane.

One of the hallmarks of autism is a preoccupation with very narrow interests. I decided Robby’s niche would be birds, specifically the Canada geese that caused the crash. Since most of the passengers were adults, Robby would also witness the crash, I decided, not survive it.

Now Robby needed a mentor to help him nurture his interest in birds. “Prestigious ornithology schools” went into Google. The top hit was Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology. Just like that, I had an ornithologist character who worked at Cornell—Christopher. He would be on the plane, with his wife, Deborah. I’ve long been interested about how people choose whether to become parents and the issue of infertility, so making that their conflict was easy. Second plot, check.

The third strand was the hardest. I wanted another younger character to balance Robby. I also wanted the media to play a role. As a former newspaper reporter I’m interested in the media, and it’s such a factor in how we witness events today. The character of Amanda came first – a teenager watching the crash coverage at home on TV. What could Amanda see that would cause conflict in her life? I played around with a couple scenarios before choosing to make Amanda see her mother, Brett.

Q. What was fun about writing the novel?

  • Seeing the three plot strands actually come together in the end.
  • Finishing the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Competition as a semifinalist – among the top 1 percent of the 5,000 novels entered.
  • Listening to the feedback from my beta readers  — more than two dozen people who took the task of reading very seriously and improved the novel by leaps and bounds.
  • Sprinkling echoes into each story line. For example, all the characters eat at a Chinese restaurant at least once. All the characters encounter the same snippets of crash coverage, either on the radio or TV or online. I did that to show no matter how different we seem, how steeped in our own particular problems we get, that people are all basically the same.

Q. What was hard about writing the novel?

  • Writing down some of my real fears for my own son, such as the scene in which Robby is bullied after school. It was one of the hardest to write. I also think it is one of the best.
  • Insuring that I was writing authentically about characters like Brett , the closeted lesbian, that I have no personal experience with, and places like Ithaca, NY – home to Cornell and a place I’ve never visited.

Q. What do you hope readers come away with?

A. My tag line to the story is “ordinary people transformed by an extraordinary event –and by each other.” Most of us feel we live regular lives – get up, go to work, go to school, make dinner, try to see a movie on the weekend, maybe. Then, wham, all of a sudden, a crisis erupts. It could be health-related, like my son’s diagnosis. It could be an affair. A divorce. A death.  A secret exposed. Whatever it is, it consumes us and frightens us, but ultimately, has the power to transform us. Through the crises of my characters, I want to show readers that they can emerge on the other side of whatever their personal problem is. Perhaps with scars, but wiser, stronger and better for it.

Q. Why did you decide to create the excerpted book, Plover Pilgrimage?
As I researched self-publishing, I learned that it’s really important to have more than one book so that once you’ve earned a reader, you can offer them something else right away. Plover Pilgrimage, which is excerpted from the novel, was my shortcut way of doing that. With its local setting here in northern Michigan and Glenn Wolff’s artwork on the cover, I hope it might expand my readership to people who wouldn’t ordinarily pick up a full-length novel.  Once they’ve read and enjoyed it, then, hopefully, they would be more receptive to reading the whole novel.  I also think that it works as a middle –grade book, something that parents and kids could read together.

Q. Can you share some authors and books you enjoy?
A. Too many to list. Here’s a few: Barbara Kingsolver, Audrey Niffenegger (Her Fearful Symmetry), Lisa Genova, Henning Mankell (Man from Beijing, Kurt Wallender mysteries), Ingrid Hill (Ursula, Under, set in the U.P), Carol Shields (Unless, many more), Emma Donoghue (Room), Myla Goldberg (Bee Season)

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