Learn more about Among Animals 2 contributor Robyn Ryle and her story, “How to Identify Birds in the Wild” in this Q&A …
Q: What inspired you to write this story?
A: Every year, a group of graduate students working with the Smithsonian arrives in my tiny town in southern Indiana to count the birds at Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge. Big Oaks is a “globally important bird area” because of its population of the state-endangered Henslow’s sparrow and other migratory birds. My neighbor rents her house out to the students, and it’s right across the street. Because I don’t teach in the summer, I’m home pretty much all day. I hear them get up early in the morning to start their count. I see them come home in the late afternoon. I wondered what that was like, spending your summer sharing a house in a small town and counting birds. That’s where the story started.
Q: What was your writing/research process?
A: I already had an early draft of the story when I took a master naturalist class at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge. The very first class was on bird-watching, so I had a lot of diagrams and terminology for identifying birds which found their way into the story. The line about birds always being smaller than you think comes from that class, too. As far as the writing process, this story was originally called “Bird People.” And then “People of the Bird.” In neither incarnation was it a particularly good story. Then over the summer, I read a blog post by Kathy Fish about segmented structure in flash fiction. “I’ll give that a try,” I thought. I really liked the way Leesa Cross-Smith used segmentation in her story, “What the Fireworks Are For.” There’s something very liberating about segmenting a story. Cutting it up into bits. There’s a kind of freedom there. The words need to say more and less. When I segmented this story, the images sharpened. The pieces of the narrative were already there. The scenes were laid out. Segmenting somehow allowed me to both fill them in and empty them out. It became a very different story.
Q: What are some of the parallels you see between the birders and the birds?
A: Both the birders and the birds are migratory. The graduate students settle down in Madison for the summer, and then by fall they’re gone. They’ve been doing it pretty much ever since I’ve lived in this house, so it’s become a way of marking the seasons for us — “It must be summer because the bird people are here.” I like that idea, that there’s a seamlessness to the way you use nature and the activities of people to mark time in a specific place. I think there’s also a parallel in not really being sure why you’re doing what you’re doing. I won’t say the birders are acting instinctively, but I’m not sure they have any more sense of their own motivations than the birds do.
Q: Which writers inspire you the most?
A: Wendell Berry for his exquisite sense of the conjunction between people, places and the natural world. Elizabeth Strout, who can do things with her writing that are just beyond magical. Kathy Fish, for her mastery of the short form. Leesa Cross-Smith with the amazing physicality and detail of her writing.
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your story?
A: Some memory of what it’s like to be young and in love with the wrong person. The way that being in love can so erode your sense of who you are and sometimes it takes years to sift back through the pieces. You never return to the person you were before, and that’s okay. If you look at something long enough, even a failed relationship, you can see what’s beautiful there. You can take that with you.
Q: Who’s the woman in the tight T-shirt with flabby arms?
A: That’s me, watching Rose and Manuel from across the street. That’s an older version of me reaching out to the younger version, but they can’t much communicate with each other. Rose has only the vaguest sense that there might be something good happening inside that house across the street with the red couch and the TV on. She can’t see past the exquisite pain of what she feels for Manuel.