A Q&A with Love & Ordinary Creatures author Gwyn Hyman Rubio
Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book?
A: Fifteen years ago, the idea for this book materialized while my husband and I were traveling in Australia. We were eating lunch in a delicatessen at Airlie Beach, waiting for the pontoon that would take us to the Great Barrier Reef. Suddenly, a young Australian woman with long, tanned legs and tousled blond hair pedaled up and stopped in front of the deli window. A Sulphur-crested Cockatoo was perched on the handlebars of her bike. Dismounting, she walked over to the parrot and learned toward him with puckered lips. Simultaneously, he lengthened his neck and raised his beak. Much to my amazement, they kissed—after which she came inside to pick up her order. While she was gone, the cockatoo kept his eyes on her. Not once did he look away. Not once did he try to fly off, even though his legs, I noticed, were untethered. A few minutes later, food in hand, the young woman left the deli, the cockatoo fluttering his wings and squawking with delight as she approached. “Now, that’s a bird in love,” I said to my husband when the two of them cycled off.
Q: How did you deal with the the challenges of writing from a cockatoo’s point of view?
A: Caruso is a caged cockatoo, living in exile, which limits what he can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. Therefore, I had to invent ways to enlarge his world so that the novel would not become too claustrophobic. One of these ways was to give Caruso memories of his life before he was captured. Years ago, my husband and I traveled in Australia and became acquainted with the raucous birds there. Cockatoos thrive in the Australian bush, and I will never forget the day we watched huge clouds of them flying over us to land in the gum trees on the opposite bank of the Murray River. Having visited this beautiful, wild continent, I decided to make it Caruso’s birthplace. He would be able to recall his early years, thereby allowing me to use poetic license to write about birds and animals from areas of Australia and other places that he couldn’t possibly have seen. Furthermore, it prompted me to pick Ocracoke Island as the setting for the novel in that I would be able to compare and contrast the large island/continent of Australia with the tiny island of Ocracoke. Crab Cakes, the restaurant where Clarissa cooks, is directly behind their cozy cottage, which makes it possible, when she doesn’t take him to work with her, for Caruso to watch her through the sunroom windows as she cooks in the light-filled kitchen
In addition, I felt that including a second storyline would be a good idea because it would open Caruso’s universe even more. To that end, I created Theodore Pinter, who lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, and whose whole life has revolved around the woman he loved and lost, much as Caruso’s current life revolves around Clarissa. Using poetic license, I took liberties with much of the latest research that shows parrots have remarkable intellects, crave attention, tend to bond with one human in particular, experience and express jealousy, and have some understanding of language, in order to broaden Caruso’s life beyond his bars.
Q: What sort of special research did you do to write Love & Ordinary Creatures?
A: I read many nonfiction books about birds before I ever put pen to paper. David Attenborough’s The Life of Birds, based on the ten-part program of the same name that aired on PBS, was one of them. I loved the book so much that I ordered the series and watched all ten parts, taking meticulous notes throughout. After reading books about birds in general, I began to focus my attention on parrots, then specifically on cockatoos. Beyond reading, I spoke to parrot owners and several times to an older couple who had bred cockatoos. From them I heard a funny story. One of their favorite cockatoos would torment their dog daily. Mimicking the woman’s voice, he would call the dog to supper from his perch on the screen porch, and then laugh gleefully when the dog would come running, only to find the door locked and no one there to let him in. Over and over, the cockatoo would do this until the dog was ragged and out of breath.
One day, I went to a trade show where breeders of parrots sold their birds, but the whole experience was so demoralizing that I swore I would never go to another one again. Many of the bird owners with whom I’ve spoken also feel this same way: They think that parrots are exotic creatures, difficult to domesticate, and hence should not be caged. So they rescue parrots from intolerable conditions and give them the attention, love, and self-discipline they crave in order to thrive in captivity. For, having never lived in the wild, they would not survive if set free.
Originally, my novel was to take place in the twenty-first century; however, as I researched my subject, I realized that this timeframe would not work. Restrictions on the importation of exotic birds were tightened in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Soon thereafter, catching birds with nets in the wild became illegal. I wanted Caruso to be conflicted, to suffer from loss and longing. In order for him to have memories of his life in Australia, it was imperative that he be caught as a young chick in the wild. Also I wanted him to reach sexual maturity during his years with Clarissa, which, I felt, would illuminate his confused feelings toward her. This meant that he had to be at least four or five years old. For these reasons, I changed the timeline of the book to take place in the early 1990s.
Q: What is your writing process like?
A: I like to write every day. My rule is: four pages or four hours, whatever comes first. Nevertheless, if the words are flowing easily and the characters are speaking clearly to me, I can work for nine or ten hours straight. I write the first draft of my novels on yellow-lined legal pads in pencil because the tactile sensation of pencil against paper slows me down and nurtures the creative process; however, I alternate between pencil and computer as I compose. I wear my creative hat when I’m writing in longhand, my critical hat when I’m typing on the computer. I try to complete four or five handwritten pages before I stop for the day. The day after, I type and edit these pages on the computer. Then, ready to be creative again, I pick up my pencil and pad. If I wear both hats, the creative and the critical, at once, I can become blocked, so I avoid this way of working. My first draft is written on a sofa upstairs in our bedroom; my second is typed at my desk in my study downstairs.
As I grow older, I’m less driven than I once was. Writing is a lonely, solitary profession, and before I die, I’d like to spend more time with real people than I do with my imaginary friends. I have written and shelved so many books that I find it harder and harder to spend years on a work of fiction, only to shelve it later. Writing is a tough profession, made tougher by the merger of independent houses into corporations that value only the bottom line and the opinions of the bean counters. Hopefully smaller, independent presses like Ashland Creek Press will become more and more visible over time and be able to fill the void (which the big corporate houses have created) with well-written, imaginative, risky books, valued not for their huge sales potential but for their literary quality.
Q: There is an underlying environmental message in your novel. Was this deliberate on your part?
A: Everything in life is political. So the politics of any book—I feel—will surface naturally. I want my political views to grow organically from the characters in my novels and not to be imposed by me. Should readers empathize with my characters, they might be more open to ideas quite different from their own, or, at least, be more motivated to examine the pros and cons of their own ideas.
Q: Caruso is on a spiritual journey in the book. Can you elaborate on this?
A: I am a spiritual person, not a religious one, yet the instant I finished reading the classic The Dairy of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos, I knew how my novel would end. At his greatest moment of suffering, Caruso would turn to the Great Mother and ask Her to help him, and grace would be his. The miraculous power of love would give him the courage to bear his suffering and would save him.
Q: The Woodsman’s Daughter is a total departure from Icy Sparks. Now you’ve written Love & Ordinary Creatures, which, in many ways, is quite unlike your other two books. Why are your books so different from one another? Doesn’t this diversity of theme, tone, and subject confuse your readership’s expectations?
A: I become bored very easily and hate to repeat myself. In some ways, this trait of mine does make it confusing for my readers, but the thought of writing a sequel to Icy Sparks, which many readers asked of me, was never an option. I had to let Icy go when the book came out and suffered from a bad case of empty-nest syndrome afterward. But as soon as I recovered, I was ready to move on to something else—something totally different—because I didn’t want to bring Icy back home and then have to let her go a second time.
Instead, I wrote The Woodsman’s Daughter, a historical novel, which is loosely based on my great-grandmother’s life. It’s a long—somewhat dark—book, and the process of writing it was both wonderful and grueling. After it was published, I decided to return to humor but wasn’t feeling very funny at the time. And so the novel that followed—written in a rush to meet a deadline—was a mess and not in the least bit humorous. Hating it, I shelved it, then took a long hiatus from writing, which I sorely needed.
Soon thereafter, I decided to write Love & Ordinary Creatures, which I’d been thinking about for years. In tone and humor, it is much like Icy Sparks, but in other ways it is quite dissimilar. From the outset, I wanted to write the narrative from a cockatoo’s point of view and knew that this would be challenging. Readers, I feared, might find the voice off-putting, and I wasn’t certain that I’d be able to sustain it, but, in order for me and the reader to get inside Caruso’s head, I felt that it was necessary for him to tell his story. I hadn’t worked long on the novel before Caruso took over completely and filled me with his words. Oh, he was both delightful and annoying, and I adored him, and I’ll probably suffer a slight depression, as I did with Icy, when I have to let him go.
Right now, I’m trying my hand at essays—a collection about food and art. My father was a writer who ate only to live. Neither food nor the creative process gave him much pleasure. He blocked after his first novel was published to critical and commercial success and didn’t write another word before his death nine years later. Did his inability to enjoy food somehow foreshadow the writer’s block that would engulf him later? Did his relationship with food have anything to do with his inability to derive pleasure from the creative process? Did genetics limit his capacity to enjoy life, or was this behavior learned from his parents? These are some of the ideas I’m exploring—ideas certainly not present in my other books.