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!