This interview originally posted on Book Mama Blog on August 29, 2017
1) Where the Sweet Bird Sings is my second novel. It’s “linked” to my debut,Root, Petal, Thorn. What’s a linked book, you ask? It’s not a sequel but it does have one or two characters in common. When you meet them on the page it will be like unexpectedly running into a friend from your book club while you’re on a beach vacation. A pleasant surprise! Each book adds richness to the other (and answers a few burning questions)…but they can be enjoyed in either order, or as a stand-alone read.
2) The initial premise behind Where the Sweet Bird Sings is admittedly sad. Emma and Noah Hazelton have recently lost their young son to a rare autosomal recessive genetic disease, called Canavan Disease. It’s one of the Ashkenazi Jewish Genetic Diseases, and is similar to Tay-Sachs. Both Emma and Noah carry one copy of the mutated gene, but are both are symptom free.
3) Because Canavan Disease is so rare, many couples don’t anticipate, or aren’t tested for a genetic predisposition. Such is the case for Emma and Noah. The book begins with Emma wondering how this disease appeared, seemingly from nowhere, to affect their child. She is compelled dig down to the roots of the condition, so to speak. So yes, there are some heartbreaking scenes…but the book is ultimately about hope and cobbling together a family from many places.
4) Meanwhile, buried deep in an old roll-top desk, Emma discovers an antique wedding photograph of her great-grandparents. Right away she realizes her extended family isn’t quite what she believed it to be. Then, when her brother claims he’s long believed he was adopted, Emma knows she has a few things she needs to figure out. All this drives her to spend hours at the Family History Library trying to puzzle through her genealogical puzzle.
5) The Family History Library is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) and was specifically created for ancestral research. The materials available for public consumption are mind-blowing. Ancestry has long been big business for the Mormon Church but these days it’s huge everywhere. What is one of the first things people look for when researching their ancestry? They want to know if they’re related to anyone famous, most specifically, royalty.
6) During my research I took a DNA test through the company 23andMe to authenticate the process. I didn’t discover anything too damning about my own genetic code, but here’s a secret. I am 3% Neanderthal. Don’t judge. And hand me that leg of mutton.
7) While reading the 23andMe educational materials, I learned tons about human migration across the globe. How can a dribble of spit reveal your country of origin? Here’s the simplified version: Mutations in the genetic code occurred naturally over thousands of years as people migrated. Since people didn’t go very far or very fast, those mutations are most common to certain geographical areas. The percentage of a specific mutation you have in your code, the more Northern European (or whatever) you are. Of course human migration is on super-speed now. People can go globe-trotting and find a mate on Tinder in hours. I’m not advocating this approach. I’m just saying it’s an option.
8) The title of the novel, Where the Sweet Bird Sings, is a nod to the concept offamily trees. So, where does the sweet bird sing? In a tree, of course. Actually, the title is a riff from a line in a Shakespearean sonnet, “Where Late the Sweet Bird Sang”. I think the cover art riffs on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Both fantastic literary references.
9) My main character, Emma, learns much about life at her beloved Grandpa Joe’s side. Many of the textural details of their relationship I stole from my own relationship with my Grandpa Ralph. The Butter Rum lifesavers, the hours of Solitaire he’d play at the kitchen table, the out of date mid-century modern home.
10) There is an intense hospital scene in the book. I spent a fair amount of time in the hospital having my entire large intestine removed (but that’s another story), so I felt I could write about the hospital experience authentically. Even still, I sent the manuscript on to my good friend, Talli, who is an Emergency Room nurse to get all of the details right. I named the nurse in the book after her, as a thank you.
11) I love to name a character or two after someone who helps me tremendously in the writing process. In Root, Petal, Thorn, Nathaniel is named after the son of one of my best readers. It’s the least expensive, and most lasting, way to say thank you.
12) I love to dress thematically for my book launch parties. I had a gorgeous “rose” dress for the launch of Root, Petal, Thorn. Now I’m on the hunt for a fabulous dress featuring a sweet bird singing. I may have to settle for a hat…
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