Q&A with The Bird Sisters Author Rebecca Rasmussen
Random House: Bird Sisters is told from the point of view of two elderly sisters looking back on a particular summer from their youth. What inspired you to write the novel in this way?
Rebecca Rasmussen: The novel began for me with lines I happened upon in an Emily Dickinson poem: "These are the days when Birds come back/A very few -- a Bird or two -- /To take a backward look." I fell in love with the idea of taking "a backward look" at the lives of two sisters who still live in their childhood home together and yet did not dream of this as their fate. I am a writer who is deeply interested in how and why people end up where they are, so looking back at a summer when things could have gone one way but went another seemed the most natural storytelling approach for me.
RH: The Bird Sisters is such a lovely, unusual story. How did you come up with the plot, and how long did it take you to write this novel?
RR: The story of The Bird Sisters belongs to my grandmother Kathryn. Until I was twenty-one, I knew very little about her childhood, even though I'd spent a lot of time with her (I even lived with her at one point). I knew her father was an extremely talented golfer and her mother was the most beautiful woman in the world, and that my grandmother thought I looked like her. I knew my grandmother fell asleep midway through television shows -- that she was getting old. It wasn't until after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, went through the treatments, and went into remission that I found out more about her family history.
She and my mother moved to Colorado, where I was living at the time, waiting out those last precious months before I went to graduate school. My mother worked a lot. My grandmother and I didn''t. Every morning, we'd go to breakfast together, and it was over our first cups of mountain coffee together that questions started popping into my mind and answers started flowing from her lips. She told me the story of her parents, their heartbreaks and their joys, as if I were a friend instead of her granddaughter. She told me both of them passed away within a year of each other when she was a teenager. She told me their secrets and said she'd spent her whole life trying to recover from them. She cried.
Afterward, she showed me a picture of them at a county fair when they were very young. My great-grandfather and great-grandmother were standing under a cardboard moon, looking at each other with a kind of uncontained love that was rare for photographs of that time. I kept measuring their expressions against the story my grandmother had told me. I kept wondering: Where did that love go?
A few months later, I went off to graduate school. A month after that, my grandmother fell down in a parking lot and discovered, after many tests, that she had a brain tumor. After she passed away, my mother sent me her journals, which we never even knew she'd kept. Once I found my way out of missing her terribly and into wanting to honor her, the first draft of The Bird Sisters took me about eight months to write. But oh the revisions that followed! The heartbreaks. The joys.