Beth Hoffman Interviews Rebecca Rasmussen
Beth Hoffman, author of the New York Times bestseller Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, talks about her experience of reading The Bird Sisters and interviews Rebecca Rasmussen.
Beth Hoffman: Every now and then a book falls into my hands that moves me to the point where I stop everything I’m doing and devour the pages. The voice is always the first hook, then the characters and prose, and finally the story. To find such a book is exciting, and when I opened The Bird Sisters and began to read, I knew I was in for a wonderful experience. Rendered with a delicate but assured hand, this is a poignant and bittersweet tale that explores the joys and wounds of familial love and the shocking pain of betrayal. Rebecca Rasmussen has crafted a unique, beautiful debut novel, and I’m delighted to chat with her about The Bird Sisters. Rebecca, the sense of place in your novel is lovely and fully actualized. What was the reason you chose the rural setting of Spring Green, Wisconsin? Rebecca Rasmussen:
I am deeply attached to Spring Green, Wisconsin, which is where my father has lived since I was a girl. My brother and I would go back and forth between his house and my mother’s, which was located in a small suburb of Chicago. For us, Wisconsin was magical. There we were able to swim in the river, cover ourselves in mud, and tromp through the woods. There we played with barn cats and snakes, lightning bugs and katydids. I’ve always preferred rural landscapes to urban ones. Wild over tame. It’s like the old bumper stickers from the ’80s used to say: ESCAPE TO WISCONSIN.
Hoffman: Milly and Twiss are such unique, singular characters, have you known anyone like them? Rasmussen: My older brother and I are a lot like them. My brother is a great adventurer like Twiss, and I am more cautious like Milly. When we were kids, my brother was the one who’d set off on all-day adventures in the woods, and I would straggle along behind him hoping not to get caught up in the tangle of pricker bushes behind our house. As we’ve grown older, we’ve grown a bit more moderate. He can sit still for a whole hour now, and I don’t jump on his back when I sense danger nearby. We love each other the way Milly and Twiss do. I can’t bear for him to be sad, and he can’t bear it for me.
Hoffman: I took away from your story a certain symbolism of the damaged birds. What do they represent to you? 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 have always loved birds on a literal and metaphorical level, and like most children I was deeply fascinated with their ability to come and to go whenever they pleased. In the novel, the older Milly and Twiss have spent their lives nursing birds back to health, mostly because an ordinary starling struck their car at a fateful moment when they were young. On that day, the sisters no longer possessed the power to change their futures and so they took this little bird back to their leaning farmhouse, hoping it would recover from its injuries and take flight for them.
Hoffman: If you had to pick only one scene as your favorite, what would it be, and why? Rasmussen: One of the most wonderful things about small farming towns to me is when the townspeople gather together to celebrate something: a marriage, a graduation, or even the end of the summer in some places. Town fairs are especially magical to me. I love to think about spun sugar, apples in barrels, and pies sitting on checkered tablecloths. Put a town fair in a historical setting; add a little bit of quack medicine in the form of bathtub elixirs, a propeller plane, and a goat named Hoo-Hoo; and there you have it: the climax of the novel and also my favorite scene.
Hoffman: A debut novel is, for many writers, their heart and soul; we open a vein and give so much to our firstborn. What did it feel like to finally complete your story? Rasmussen: I was alone when I typed the last words, and it was very late at night. A part of me wanted to wake my husband and my daughter, to open a bottle of champagne, and to celebrate with the people I loved most in the world. What I ended up doing was taking a walk to the waterfall and millpond up the road. I remember the way the moon looked in the sky. I remember the sound of falling water. I remember the call of an owl high up in a tree. I remember the lightness of my heart, my feet. If giving birth to my daughter was the first great accomplishment of my life, finishing my book was the second.
Rasmussen's debut novel begins like a typical coming-of-age story, but reveals itself to be a singular portrayal of familial sacrifice and loss. As elderly women, sisters Twiss and Milly live alone in the house where they grew up in Spring Green, Wis. They spend their days tending to injured birds and roaming their land, lost in memories. For Milly, there is the constant reminder of what could have been. Twiss spent her childhood happily trailing behind their golf-pro father, but Milly dreamed about a family and children that never happened. There was hope for a young Milly, until an accident strips their father of his golfing abilities and sets in motion a series of events that rips apart the already unstable family. Dad retreats to the barn, and mom bemoans her choice to marry for love, leaving behind her wealthy family; a cousin who was thought to be a friend becomes an unexpected rival; and the sisters are left with only each other. As young women, and as old ones, they learn that their relationship is rewarding, but not without consequence. Achingly authentic and almost completely character driven, the story of the sisters depicts the endlessly binding ties of family. (Apr.)
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