Emily Strelow on the Figurative Language of Birds
The Author of The Wild Birds in Conversation with Galit Gottlieb on the New Books Network
An orphaned young woman disguises herself as a boy in order to escape the dangers of being alone in 1870’s San Francisco. A group of castoffs destroy the bird population of the Farallon Island by stealing and selling their eggs. A young woman raped in the 1980’s struggles to raise her daughter on her own while her unattached best friend becomes a field researcher for the government, counting and monitoring bird populations across the west. The daughter runs away to seek her own path and learns something about her mother, and a wanderer escapes his privileged life to seek his destiny. Everything in this novel is connected to wild birds, the geography of the west, and friendship. And the characters are all tied together by a rare collection of bird eggs.
Emily Strelow was born and raised in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, has lived all over the West, and is back living in Portland. For the last decade she’s combined teaching writing with doing seasonal avian field biology with her husband. While doing field jobs, she’s camped and written in remote areas of the desert, mountains and by the ocean. She is a mother to two boys, a naturalist, a writer, and cultivator of sourdough cultures with which she loves baking. The Wild Birds (Rare Bird Books, 2018), her first novel, was a finalist for the Foreword Indies Award for Best Fiction and for the Lambda Literary Award for Bisexual Fiction. It is now available in all formats, and a second book is in the works.
Galit Gottlieb: How did you come to write this beautiful novel?
Emily Strelow: I was an avian field biologist, basically a field technician, I’d work for a project collecting bird data for ten years. My partner and I would go from state to state and be part of the project. We worked for the US Government, Fish and Wildlife, for non-governmental observations, and we also worked as contractors for private companies: whenever they do surveying for a solar field or wind farms they need biologists to go in there and collect the data on what’s nesting.
GG: Every chapter has a different aspect of birds in it.
ES: Well, I’m a birder, I love birds, I spend a lot of my free time with my partner and my children, birding. And so it is just a part of my breathing: it’s what I do and who I am, and so I incorporated them as though they were characters. I find the figurative language of birds is potent. The blind herrier returns many times over, in various iterations, and that was a sense of structuring the book too.
GG: There is a strong sense of place in this book.
ES: Yes. It’s about a band of outsiders, they’re all outsiders in the book. They are searching for a place that feels right. And some of them are very rooted, and others unroot themselves and go looking, like the wanderer. But the sense of place came from my own experience in these ecosystems—I have a great love for the west, not for cowboys and all that, but for the different types of topography that we have is so vast. You can travel from one climate to another and be in a whole new world, and I had lived in that my whole life and wanted that to be alive as another character in the book, the place.
G.P. Gottlieb is the author of the Whipped and Sipped Mystery Series and a prolific baker of healthful breads and pastries. Please contact her through her website if you wish to recommend an author (of a beautifully-written new novel) to interview, to listen to her previous podcast interviews, to read her mystery book reviews, or to check out some of her awesome recipes.