Sheltering: Rowan Hisayo Buchanan on Relationship Dynamics and Mental Health
The Author of Starling Days Talks to Maris Kreizman
On this episode of Sheltering, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan talks to Maris Kreizman about her new novel, Starling Days. Starling Days opens with the protagonist, Mina, on George Washington Bridge looking down into the water. A police car pulls up… she tries to say she wasn’t considering suicide, but to no avail: the police take her in and won’t let her leave until her husband comes to get her, setting in motion the rest of the novel as the couple tries to navigate the fall-out of a single moment. In her conversation with Maris, Rowan reflects on having to feel grounded in a place as a non-negotiable aspect of her writing, as well as “having to come to terms with who we’re stuck with” in quarantine. Please purchase Starling Days online from your local bookstore or through Bookshop.
From the episode:
Maris Kreizman: Welcome to Sheltering. We have our first overseas guest today. Rowan, I am so delighted you’re here. Please introduce yourself and tell us where you are, how you’re doing, that kind of stuff.
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: My name is Rowan Hisayo Buchanan. I’m the author of the novel Harmless Like You and the novel Starling Days, which is out just now. I’m at my desk. Actually, I’m at a phone that’s on a stack of books that are piled up equal to my face level, balancing on my mug of tea. I’m doing okay. Like all of us, there’s a lot of anxiety, but I know I’m very lucky that I have my health and I have food, so, soldiering on.
Maris: Soldiering on, yeah. Something that’s been expressed many times, even now in this series, is we can still take these smaller seeming sadnesses and still own them. It’s not a contest to who’s suffering the most. I’m glad that we can do this. So, your book came out, Starling Days—
Rowan: It’s coming out tomorrow, April 7. That may be the past when people are watching this.
Maris: Yes, it might be, but pretty immediate. It’s already out though in the UK, is that true?
Rowan: Yes, it is already out in the UK. It came out in the UK this summer.
Maris: Oh, wonderful. Tell us a bit about Starling Days.
Rowan: It begins on George Washington Bridge. It’s nighttime. Mina is alone looking down in the river when the police drive up, and they assume that she’s about to jump, and they tell her, sorry, you can’t go home. And she’s like, I’ll just leave. And they’re like no, get in the car, and they won’t let her go home until her husband comes and picks her up and takes responsibility for her and what’s going to happen next. The rest of the book is in some ways just the fallout of that. Mina’s trying to figure out what’s going on with her brain. Is it medical? She discovers that she has polycystic ovary syndrome. Is it the fact that, although she’s always known she’s bisexual, she’s never been with a woman, and then she meets this woman and maybe that’s going to solve it. And as a classicist, she’s also looking to myths and stories about women and why they do or do not survive. Meanwhile her husband, Oscar, is just trying to figure out A) what on earth has happened to his wife and B) how he’s supposed to trade this off with his business and his desire—he works for his father—his desire to impress his father and be a worthy son, and how can he balance that with making sure his wife’s okay? The book deals with all of that conflict.
Maris: The push and pull of that. What a very strange time to be reading this book, when most of the people I know who have spouses are literally stuck in place with them. They move to London early on in the book, in the hopes that perhaps a change in scenery is maybe what would be required, and it’s like yeah, that’s a great fantasy.
Rowan: I know, moving anywhere seems impossible right now. I think any novelist at the moment is going to have moments where they go, ah, what am I doing? Is this relevant at all? To me, mental health and how we manage our relationships and how our personalities affect and shape the lives of those around us does still feel important to me.
Maris: More than ever, don’t you think? In the book, of course, there’s a reason why the husband is so focused on his wife’s every move, but it’s a funny time to be thinking about the dynamics of relationships and what makes a person happy, and what makes a person not happy.
Rowan: One of the things I always think about is the fact that who you choose to spend your life with, even just according to economist people, it will have this huge effect on your life, your financial life and your emotional life, and that’s quite a serious endeavor. I think right now as we are very aware of the people who we have chosen to spend this time with, whether that be a romantic partner or a parent or a child, I think that comes home very deeply.
Maris: Absolutely. Tell me about the writing the book. It begins in New York City, but then it takes place in London of course. And you’re in Scotland now. Tell me where you’ve been. You’ve been promoting your book throughout the UK?
Rowan: I grew up in the UK. I was born in London, and it’s a city that’s been very important to me and I know quite well. But I have American family, maybe you can hear it in the voice, and I lived in America for quite some years, including in New York, which is actually where my mother’s immigrant family settled. Her mom is Japanese and her dad is Chinese, and they met in New York and settled there. So London and New York have always been these huge cities and center points in my life. I’m probably not unique; they’re important to a lot of people.
But my dad lives in Scotland now, and for various family reasons, when it became clear that we might have to be taking care of each other, it felt right to be with family at this time. So, that’s why I’m in those places. In terms of as a writer, I think for me because I do imagine my plots and my characters and I don’t write auto-fiction, being really, really grounded in place is important to me. There a scene in the flower market in the novel—Oscar and Mina go to this flower market, and it’s supposed to be this invigorating day out. To write that scene, I know it might sound odd, I went back and back and back, and I took phone recordings of the sounds and the sellers, because I really needed to feel grounded in place to write and imagine.
Maris: That’s great. And you did at least start some book promotion—
Rowan: Oh, yes. I got distracted. When the book came out in the UK, I was able to do some events here, which is wonderful. I did one event in America just before all of this happened.
Rowan: At the American Writers Museum in Chicago, which is wonderful. If we all ever get a chance to go to museums again, I really recommend it. It’s beautiful, and it’s this new institution that’s really learning-based, and they change all their exhibits all the time. Great place! But obviously my tour got cancelled, which on a personal level makes me very sad, but I do believe it is the right thing that I not be going around.
Maris: It is still such a shame because, one of the things I’ve been realizing in these talks is that writing is so solitary, and the one time you’re supposed to be able to greet the public, as it were, would be when the book is actually published.
Rowan: Yeah. It’s sort of odd to think about it alone. It feels like, I don’t know—I have a dog, and it’s almost like I just sent my dog out into the city without me. Who will take care of you? I spent so long raising you and creating you! (I didn’t create my dog. My dog’s mom created my dog.)
Maris: I get it, though. How is your dog doing?
Rowan: She’s great. I really hope the sound of her chewing her chew that I gave her so that she would be quiet during this call is not coming through, because she’s under my desk right now.
Maris: I can’t hear it, but then again it would be no problem if we could. We are pro dog!
Rowan: Viewers, if you hear a strong gnawing, it’s not me, it’s a small animal.
Maris: Have you been spending a lot of time with your family? Have you been reading, watching TV? How are you working, passing the time?
Rowan: I have been seeing my family. Because I’m a writer and largely I have been able to do most of my work from home, and I’ve been doing some online teaching, so that’s great. I’ve been having, I admit, a hard time reading, so I have been very slowly reading this book [Breasts and Eggs by Meiko Kawakami]—I had it ready—which is very strange and interesting. It’s about two sisters, and one of them is trying to become a writer in Tokyo, and the other one is a single mom who works at a bar and who thinks she’s going to be able to fix all her problems by getting these breast implants, the best possible breast implants, and she’s come to Tokyo to do it, and that’s where the story starts. The other thing I’m doing, and it’s not even really reading the straightforward way, I read Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel a while ago, it’s such a beautiful, great book, and I’ve just been opening it to random pages to reread paragraphs, because in a time when I didn’t really know how to talk about being a writer, he does it so well.
Maris: That’s a really great idea. Not even going into a book with the need to feel like you have to read a certain section, just actually whatever makes you happy.
Rowan: We’ve also been watching trashy British TV, like The Peep Show, which is a show from the early 2000s, which is great.
Maris: Good good good. And what have you been eating?
Rowan: Well, I have been alternatively trying to cook for six people. Given that I normally cook for one to two people, this means that they turn out better and worse. I’m also quite disturbed to realize that at the beginning of isolation, I had a full jar of cashew butter and a full jar of almond butter, unbearably millennial I know, and I have finished both of them somehow during my snack time, which, oh well, I guess it’s protein.
Maris: It’s protein! It’s good for you. I don’t know that much about the virus in Scotland right now. What’s it like there?
Rowan: I think right now it’s not as much up in the area that I’m in. When I came here it was before the stay at home order, but we knew that we’d been in London so we self-isolated for the necessary amount of time, and we’re still not really going out. We only go out to the grocery store essentially. I actually probably know as much as anybody Googling.
Maris: We’re just scrolling through Twitter waiting for the next bomb.
Rowan: I was in New York for some time and I have a lot of friends who are in New York, and I’ve been talking to them, and I keep reading about New York and going, this is really scary, and they keep saying yes, but we haven’t seen it, so it’s just this thing that exists on the news and that you feel and are scared by. But they’re just waiting, essentially, which I think is quite anxiety inducing for everyone.
Maris: It’s like a really specific version of horror. The invisible villain may or may not strike.
Rowan: How are you doing?
Maris: I am hesitant to go outside, but that’s okay because I have plenty of books and plenty of television. But I haven’t felt this feeling in New York City since 9/11. And it’s the same levels of racism. Already the negative fallout is affecting people I know and love, whether it’s economically, or—. It’s just tragic. But I’m so happy to talk about books, so that at least helps. I don’t want to spoil anything, but you do have a little note at the end of the book, and I’m wondering if you wanted to say anything to anyone who’s having a hard time right now.
Rowan: I think first of all I would say that there isn’t one right way to process this moment. I’ve heard of people saying they have anxiety and that their anxiety is actually soothed by this moment because it’s what they’ve been preparing for this whole time. But I also know people who have anxiety who are like, oh my god, this is so much worse, this has escalated my anxiety, I didn’t want to be proved right. There is so much going on, and there is a mix of practical things that may be happening, if you feel that your work is imperiled, or your future is imperiled—those are real practical concerns and maybe working alongside your mental health. It’s okay to be upset by those as well as by more intangibles. I can’t take this myself, someone else said this, I’m not sure I remember who—you can’t win the pandemic. You can’t be the best at being in a pandemic. If you need to take a break, if you need to pause, if you need to cry—I cried yesterday. Don’t be angry at yourself because that just makes it worse. I’ve said that and now I’m like, but if you are angry at yourself, don’t be angry at yourself for being angry at yourself! Basically, be as kind to yourself as you’re able to. Which I know isn’t much, but it’s all I can give right now.
Maris: No, it’s great. Thank you so much, Rowan.
Rowan: Thank you for having me.
Maris: I hope I’ll get to see you in the states sometime sooner rather than later.
Rowan: I hope so too, and I am looking forward to watching all your future shows from my tiny room.