This interview first appeared in the Huffington Post on August 28, 2017
In Where the Sweet Bird Sings, Ella Joy Olsen immerses us in the life and history of Emma as she struggles to find her place and new purpose in the world after the death of her infant to a rare genetic disorder. In a beautiful twist, Olsen links readers to her first novel Root, Petal, Thorn in a way that will delight.
Having read both Root, Petal, Thorn and Where the Sweet Bird Sings, I must know—which one came first? How did you write them? How did you decide where one book ended and the other began?
Thank you for reading both! Yes, the two books are “linked” meaning they can be read in either order or individually. I hope that meeting one or two familiar characters out of context will be an interesting surprise for those who read both novels. To answer your question, Root, Petal, Thorn was first. It was done and nearly published before I started writing Where the Sweet Bird Sings.
In Sweet Bird, I wanted to write about genealogical research which leads to the discovery of a family secret, taking advantage of the enormous ancestry library managed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints here in Salt Lake City (though, you should know, this isn’t a religious story and my character isn’t a member of the church). As I started writing Sweet Bird I realized some of the threads I left loose in Root, Petal, Thornwere taut with family intrigue and decided to connect the two books.
Fun fact: In the past year I’ve visited many book clubs to discuss Root, Petal, Thorn and the question most readers ask (I won’t tell you the exact question because that would be a spoiler) is answered in Where the Sweet Bird Sings. It was a bit of a challenge to connect the two stories so neither would ruin the suspense of the other.
What does it take to heal from betrayal? What do you hope Where the Sweet Bird Singssays about this?
After her son dies from a rare genetic disease, Emma searches the branches of her family tree for an explanation. As she explores, she learns things about her mother, her brother, and her beloved Grandpa Joe that she didn’t expect. In the meantime, she feels betrayed by her own body and by her husband’s role in the genetic condition that will affect all of their biological children. Emma has much to learn about accepting circumstances as they exist rather than raging against the past…a life lesson we could all use from time to time.
What do you think draws people to study their genealogy? Have you traced your own?
One day, Emma spies a banner draped above the door of the Family History Library which reads: Discover Your Ancestors, Discover Yourself. It’s the sign that pulls her into the library and her own genealogical research and I believe it’s the reason most people go digging. They’re actually trying to discover more about themselves…how they fit into their family and the world. I have traced a bit of my own family history, initially to research this novel, but then I couldn’t help myself I had to learn more. So far I haven’t discovered any secrets as juicy Emma’s.
What’s next in store for you and your writing?
I’m switching gears. My first two books were a mix of contemporary and historical fiction based in Utah. My WIP is a straight historical fiction based in Gilded Age New York City and involves several scientific expeditions taken by The American Museum of Natural History in search of prehistoric man (Indiana Jones was based on one of these actual explorers).
The time frame is right after Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was published and the debate over the evolution of man from the great ape was fraught with scientific and religious controversy. Throw into the mix an upstart Irish scientist in love with a rich girl from New York society whose family financed one of the pivotal (and possibly fraudulent) expeditions...and you’ve got a whole bunch of conflict. I’m having great fun!
This interview originally posted on August 30, 2017 with Leslie Lindsay
A thoughtful and wholesome story about love, grief, hope, resilience, but also family history and genealogy. WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS (Kensington, August 29 2017) is Ella Joy Olsen’s second novel, and you’ll find a lovely little twist between the two titles, though they are intended as stand-alone reads.
Emma Hazelton and her husband are at a crossroads since the death of their darling—and much wanted child, Joey—died due to a rare genetic disease. Emma’s been trying to move on, but it’s just so hard. Meanwhile, Noah is ready for them to try again for another baby. It’s been a year, but…Emma agrees to help her mother sort through her recently-deceased grandfather’s belongings and she stumbles across a perplexing 1916 wedding photograph. WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS is told entirely in Emma’s POV, whereas Olsen’s first book, ROOT PETAL THORN was told by multiple narrators.
WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS is about family, deeply hidden and buried secrets, hope, and the interesting marriage of family history/ancestry with genealogy. I found the story–and mystery–richly told and interwoven with heartfelt emotion, authentic responses, and more.
So pull up a seat, grab your favorite beverage and join me and Ella in conversation about WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS.
Leslie Lindsay: Ella, it’s a great treat to have you back again this August. I so enjoyed ROOT, PETAL, THORN because…well, old houses, women, secrets, one hundred years. This new book, WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS is a bit of a related story, did the seed of inspiration grow from writing your first book? Can you talk about that, please?
Ella Joy Olsen: Thank you so much for having me again, Leslie. I’m a huge fan of your interviews! WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS is related to my debut in that it takes place in my hometown, Salt Lake City, Utah. I knew I had a few more words left to write about this place and there are several things unique to the city that I wanted to explore.
Genealogy has long been big business in SLC, due to the import that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints puts on the keeping, researching, and recording of connections between us and our ancestors. But lately genealogy has received a face-lift. There are television specials about long-lost ancestral ties to royalty and people are tracing their DNA and discovering ancestors in uncommon places. I wanted to explore this world-wide fascination, thus the seeds of inspiration were planted.
[Nerdy tid-bit from Leslie: My husband and I often have date-nights in which we binge-watch “Who Do You Think You Are,” and also “Finding Your Roots.”]
As I pondered storylines to incorporate this topic, I realized there were plenty of family secrets in ROOT, PETAL, THORN that I could more fully explore, and I could do it by leafing through the branches of a family tree.
L.L.: But you don’t have to have read ROOT, PETAL, THORN one in order to understand WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS, right?
Ella Joy Olsen: Right! The tie-in between the two books is a fun surprise but the books can be read independently or in either order. SWEET BIRD answers a few of the lingering questions presented in ROOT, PETAL, THORN. On the flip-side ROOT, PETAL, THORN fleshes out the stories of a couple of characters you meet in passing in WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS. It was a challenge to write but great fun to re-visit some of the beloved characters from my debut.
L.L.: And so the title…nowhere in the text, did WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS come into dialogue or a character’s thought—unless I missed it! Can you tell us how the title was selected? Was it your working title, or did it get changed in revisions, suggested through marketing…
Ella Joy Olsen: I’ve heard from several readers that they’re confused by the title. But I love it!
Here’s how it came about: Many of the secrets that my character confronts are hidden in the branches of her family tree. I wanted a title that spoke to a “family tree” and proposed many titles with the words branch, root, bough…but the marketing department felt that references to a “tree” wouldn’t sell a book. So, in one frantic weekend I searched poetry books and song lyrics for a subtle reference. WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS is a riff from a Shakespearean sonnet, “Where late the sweet birds sang…” When combined with the cover art, it also gives a nod to I KNOW WHERE THE CAGED BIRD SINGS by Maya Angelou. So, where does the sweet bird sing? In a family tree.
L.L.: I know we’ve talked about this before, but since it’s such a big part of both of your novels, and you are not Mormon, but the story takes place in Salt Lake City, Utah—but there’s definitely a Mormon connection. What might readers need to know?
Ella Joy Olsen: What might they need to know? That sounds like I might have a compelling reason to convert. I don’t because as you said, I’m not a believer. However, I do love my hometown. I think the history of the predominant religion is interesting to readers who don’t know much about the faith and might wonder at the cultish reputation it carries. I want my local readers to appreciate the balanced approach I took in discussing the church and the benefits and perceived oddities it brings to people living in Utah. The two books are not religious, but any work of fiction, set in a particular location, will pick up the flavor of the place.
L.L.: Likewise, the Family History Library you mention in WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS…oh! Wow. I’ve always been curious—the vast volumes it must contain, the search engines, etc. Can you walk us through the labyrinth of those records?
Ella Joy Olsen: The Family History Library is actually pretty easy to navigate and it’s incredibly well-staffed.Many retired couples choose to serve a Mormon Mission to Salt Lake City and work in the library, so they are eager to help. Much of the information available has already been digitized, and like I detail in WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS, there are speedy computers (utilizing a variety of search engines) available for all-comers.
If you live nowhere near Salt Lake City, the church’s ancestry website can be accessed from a computer near you. If you’re deeply interested in genealogy and planning to visit, I recommend anyone (and everyone) check out the actual library. In SWEET BIRD my character spends much time there. The story documents her search using the numerous of leather-bound volumes and other physical resources available.
The library is not just for [church] members and if you visit there’s no pressure to convert (or even learn about the church). Believe me. While writing the book I visited many times and as far as I know I’m still not a member.
L.L.: How did you organize your writing—and the family history your characters were uncovering? It seems it could be mind-boggling.
Ella Joy Olsen: Like many writers, when it comes to organizing my work I’m a big believer in Scrivner. Right from the applicable part in my manuscript I could link to a source website to easily double-check facts on the fly. However, I will say that my copy editor did catch a few mistakes. Early in the story I’d detailed an obituary listing four deceased brothers. Amazingly one of those brothers was alive to answer a telephone call later in the story. I also had a character graduating with a medical degree when he was only seventeen. Thank goodness for copy editors!
L.L.: How was writing your second book different from your first? What do you think you did ‘right’ and what do you wish you could have done better?
Ella Joy Olsen: Writing WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS was very different from writing ROOT, PETAL, THORN in that I was writing with a deadline. I wrote every day for four months straight. My buttocks and fingers cramped but it gave me confidence that I can write under pressure. SWEET BIRD is also different in that it has one narrator (RPT has five).
WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS still required much research, especially regarding Canavan Disease (a rare Ashkenazi Genetic disorder), genealogical research techniques, brain injuries/medically induced comas, and DNA specifics (I even took a DNA test to be sure the process I described was authentic)…but I didn’t have to create five separate voices and story arcs, or braid the stories together.
What did I do right? I think I wrote a compelling story and I love how my debut and sophomore novels enhance one another, yet are entirely different stories. That was an interesting challenge!
What could I do better? [Since it’s] just days before the book publishes. I’m mired in pre-pub self-doubt so my off-the-cuff answer would be everything. I know from my writer friends this is a common emotion, so I’m taking comfort that I’m not alone in my fear.
L.L.: What was the last thing you Googled? It doesn’t have to be literary.
Ella Joy Olsen: The tragic protests in Charlottesville (and the craziness that exploded from the president in the aftermath). I read a term in a news article that referenced the ideology Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil). I’d never heard of it, so I looked it up. I had no idea how popular the sentiments were during the rise of the Nazi Party. In some ways it feels like we’re there again and it’s horrifying.
L.L.: Ella, it’s been a pleasure re-connecting! What’s one question I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Ella Joy Olsen: One question? Will you write another book based in Utah?
The answer: I don’t think so. I’m ready to explore the world in my next novels. Thank you so much for having me back and for reading WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS and ROOT, PETAL, THORN!
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…
This post originally appeared on the Tall Poppy Writers Blog on August 22, 2017
Today Ella answers some Poppy Questions to celebrate her latest release!
Talk about your book’s cover and/or title.
My latest is titled WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS. The story has much to do with genealogy, ancestry, and genetics. I felt like a title which referenced a “family tree” would be poetic and meaningful. I came up with lists of titles that included the word tree, or branch, or bough, or root. The publisher said that “tree” references wouldn’t sell a book. They also told me the title needed to be confirmed by Monday (this was a Friday) so I spent an intense weekend scouring poems and song lyrics to come up with something that would whisper “family tree”.
WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS is a riff on a line in one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, “where late the sweet birds sang” and it gives a nod to I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS by Maya Angelou. So where does the sweet bird sing? In a family tree, of course.
Has anyone ever thought a character you wrote was based on them?
In my debut ROOT, PETAL, THORN the modern day character, Ivy Baygren, adores her century old bungalow. It’s a real fixer-upper but she and her husband love the weight of the house, the history in the walls. Tragically, her husband is killed in an accident and Ivy is forced to continue fixing the house by herself. As she works, she finds clues from past occupants and discovers the stories of four other women who’ve lived in her home. Their stories help Ivy through her own grief.
Many people who read the book think Ivy is me (I do live in a century old bungalow that we’ve fixed up over the years). Here’s the biggest difference, Ivy’s husband is dead. When I decided I’d kill the husband to move the story forward, my own husband was horrified I would consider killing him!
What are you reading right now?
I have an interesting reading project right now. My book club selected THE PLAGUE, a classic by Albert Camus, as light summer reading (ha). It’s killing me (pun intended). But to add to the misery (pun intended), I decided to read a second book about the plague and this one is so much better. I’m reading YEAR OF WONDERS by Geraldine Brooks. I met her at the Historical Novel Society conference in June. I was star-struck! She’s so friendly and incredibly smart! Her books are well-researched and captivating. I’ve also read MARCH and PEOPLE OF THE BOOK written by Ms. Brooks (I won’t read another work by Camus, by the way).
Do you have any phobias?
I don’t have any specific phobias, per se, but I am a very superstitious person. If I say something out loud, or even think about something that worries me, I immediately try to knock on wood. If there’s no wood at the ready, I get a little desperate. I’ve mitigated this concern in my car (which obviously has no wood) by hanging a lucky four-leaf clover on the rearview mirror which I can touch at the first disturbing thought. On the regular, I fret about the safety of my children and imagine all sorts of random accidents befalling them. FYI, I knocked on my desk immediately after typing that last sentence.
What’s your next big thing?
Of course there’s always a next book! Aside from that, I was recently asked to teach a Continuing Education course on writing historical fiction at my alma mater, The University of Utah. I’ve made it through my first semester and I have a full class scheduled for the next. The biggest challenge is figuring out how to fill two hours each week without being boring, or repetitive, or sounding like I have no idea what I’m talking about.
Sharing Your Book Blog
This interview originally posted on the Sharing Your Book Blog on August 28, 2017
by Jill Hannah Anderson
Some Q & A with Ella~
Tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you started writing.
Hi my name is Ella and I’m a reader. That’s how I started writing. I started reading at age four and I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in the middle of at least one book (usually more). After my youngest kiddo started first-grade and full-time work loomed in the near future, I suddenly had this desire to write. My husband was amenable to the delay in gainful employment, so I blindly and blissfully started. I had no idea what I was doing or what to expect from the process. I’m not gonna lie, sometimes I long for those halcyon days.
What are some things you enjoy when not writing?
Reading. Did I already say that? I also love to travel, and plan travel, and dream about traveling. I like to hike with my dogs. I enjoy dinner and drinks al fresco with my husband (and friends). These days I like spending time with my three teens more than they like spending time with me.
Is anything in your book based on real life experiences?
I think most authors draw textural detail and truth from their real lives, even if they write science fiction or fantasy. In WHERE THE SWEET BIRD SINGS, my main character, Emma Hazelton, has a close relationship with her Grandpa Joe. To write many of their scenes, I drew heavily on my relationship with my grandpa, Ralph Reese. Like Emma’s grandpa, mine played hours of Solitaire while on-call. My grandpa was on call for the Union Pacific Railroad and Emma’s was an OB/GYN, but the click of playing cards against the kitchen table was the same. My grandpa was also a smoker who told me daily about the dangers of his addiction. Like my character Grandpa Joe, my grandpa hid the smell with Butter Rum Lifesavers.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been toying with a historical fiction set in Gilded Age New York City. During those prosperous years the American Museum of Natural History was at the forefront of scientific discovery, sending expeditions all around the world in search of unknown truths. The character Indiana Jones was actually based on one such museum employee. I wanted to spend some time in this age of optimism and discovery, but as I was researching I learned that in the quest for naming rights or fame, and especially because of religious conviction, some of the discoveries were forged, changing the course of scientific understanding for decades. Ah, conflict…the basis for a good story.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I recently started teaching a Continuing Education class at the University of Utah called Remaking the Past (how to write historical fiction). I’m teaching how to find primary and secondary sources, about researching just enough to give the story an authentic and historical feel, but not so much that you’re tempted to dump everything you know onto the page. We’re discussing story question, character arc, and dialogue. But in the end, the one thing an aspiring writer must do is write. There’s nothing to analyze, to edit, to fix…unless words are on the page. You can’t tell if your dialogue is clunky until you write a scene or two and read it out loud.
Is there anything you’d like to say to your readers and fans?
Thank you for reading my work. I’m still amazed that people actually lay eyes on my words. Thank you for contacting me to tell me about scenes that have moved you. And thank you for leaving reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. Reviews mean so much to the author.
To connect with Ella on social media:
Although this looks like a blog, it is actually a series of interviews featured on other sites. For blog and articles written by me...click directly on the BLOG tab. Regardless...Happy Reading!