The Story Behind The Story:
I grew up in Spring Green, Wisconsin, but I also grew up in Northfield, Illinois—sadly, when I was a baby, my parents divorced. Because my life was split between the two places, I never really felt that either belonged to me and I still don’t today. I suppose that’s why in my fiction, I pay very close attention to place; I’m constantly searching for a way to make home feel like home. My stories tend to come out of the swollen look of a river, or an iced over fishing hole, or a bird on a winter branch.
The idea for The Bird Sisters came out of two things: my curiosity about my grandmother and her family history, and my devotion to finding the answer to the ongoing question in my life: what does it mean to be home? For Milly and Twiss, I extended the question a little bit further: what does it mean to stay there?
My grandmother Kathryn—Kit, she liked to be called—lost both of her parents when she was seventeen, her mother by way of Scarlett Fever (although the people who knew her best said she died of a broken heart) and her father by way of a broken leg and then a fatal blood clot. Her father, my great grandfather, was a wonderfully talented golfer who gave lessons to wealthy members of whatever golf course he was working at. Unfortunately, my great grandfather turned out to be a wonderfully talented philanderer, too.
Those are the facts; what interests me is what came between them.
My grandmother lived her life with questions about her parents that she couldn’t bring herself to ask. “They were the best parents ever,” she’d say one day, but then another she’d say, “I don’t know if they really were.” She carried a loneliness around inside of her that she couldn’t bear to share with anyone because talking about what had happened made her more and more uncertain about whether or not she was loved. My grandmother had a sister named Virginia, whom she wrote a card to a few times a year and visited even less frequently. I’ve always wondered what might have happened if she and Virginia had been able to hold onto each other when everything else was slipping away from them. I’ve always wondered if my grandmother might have then found happiness in her life.
Milly and Twiss are my gift to her, my proof of love. The book is a gift to myself, proof that I have a home in the hills of Spring Green, in the green of the rivergrass and the brown of the fields beyond. Writing the book, which I completed during my tenure in the MFA Program at the University of Massachusetts, has taught me that home doesn’t always translate to four sturdy white walls. The Bird Sisters is my first novel.