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Brad Kessler Uses Myth to Weave Tale of Loss

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Birds in Fall

Birds in Fall

by Brad Kessler

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An exclusive Authorlink interview with Brad Kessler

Author of Birds in Fall (Scribner, 2006)

by Ellen Birkett Morris

October, 2006

Author Brad Kessler described books as tombstones marking what the author was going through in that time of his or her life. If his latest book, Birds in Fall (Scribner), was a literal tombstone it would be made of finely carved marble with images of birds and the sea crowned by the image of a kingfisher.

“I wrote the book during a time when there was a lot of grief in my life,” said Kessler.

In his story, Kessler weaves a tale of loss and redemption centering on a plane crash off the coast of Nova Scotia. It tells the story of the family and loved ones who gather after there to remember the dead, including that of Ana Gathreaux, an ornithologist who is mourning her late husband Russell. The myth of the halcyon, a sea bird which lays its eggs on the beach in the middle of winter, is present throughout the story.

Kessler has a BA in literature from Wesleyan University in Connecticut and an MFA from The New School. He teaches in the low-residency MFA program offered by Antioch University in Los Angeles.

“It was Nabokov who said ‘All literature is fairy tales.’

 

 

—Kessler

He began his writing career as a journalist covering topics as diverse as gardening and entertainment. He later worked on the Rabbit Ears series, retelling folktales including Tom Thumb and John Henry. The stories were distributed in book, audio and video formats with scores and narration provided by well known actors and musicians.

 

“It was Nabokov who said ‘All literature is fairy tales.’ Writing the children’s stories was an interesting way of learning my way into fiction from ancient storytelling,” said Kessler.

The fictional plane crash was based on Swissair Flight 111, which crashed on September 2, 1998, killing all 229 passengers. Kessler had a friend who died in the crash and was haunted by the process that followed the crash. Families gathered at Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia, at the site of the crash. Many knew their loved ones had died but had to wait for confirmation as remains and personal belongings were found. During this period, people from various countries who lost family members interacted with locals who hosted the families and worked on the recovery effort.

"The first person, past tense used in the first chapter raises the expectation that the reader will see those characters again."

 

 

—Kessler

The juxtaposition of rural and international culture was also present in Kessler’s first novel, Lick Creek (Scribner), which explored the relationship between Russian immigrant, who works as a lineman in rural West Virginia, and a local girl, who lives in a nearby holler. The story is set in the late 1920 and is a “meditation on rural electrification.”

 

Birds in Fall begins with the plane crash told with eerie detachment by Russell. Kessler used details from the Swissair crash and his own imaginings, fueled by a fear of flying, to craft the scene.

“I hear lots of people react strongly to that first chapter because it’s set on a plane as its going down, said Kessler. “But its what happens afterwards that’s important.” For him, writing the crash scene served to liberate him from his phobia.

“The first person, past tense used in the first chapter raises the expectation that the reader will see those characters again. It poses the question ‘Have they ever left?’” said Kessler.

  The story is riven with details about the passions of the victims from the study of birds to music, both passions shared by Kessler. A self describe “amateur birder” Kessler plays both the violin and guitar.

 

“One of the great pleasures of writing the book was getting to see the research collection of migratory birds housed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York,” noted Kessler.

He began the book before September 11, 2001 and ended up putting the book aside for a year. When he picked it back he found a number of alarming coincidences, including having the character Ana visit the twin towers to collect the corpses of bird that flew into the building.

"Don’t send out anything that you are not 100 percent sure of. It is not going to be easy and will take a long time.."

 

 

—Kessler

All told, Kessler wrote the book over a period of three years. Scribner, which had purchased his first book, had right of first refusal on Birds in Fall and purchased the book.

 

Kessler worked through his agent, Betsey Lerner of Dunow, Carlson and Lerner Literary Agency. His editor was Nan Graham. He was impressed by Graham’s ability to hone in on the parts of the book that needed work and offer up solutions.

He noted that he sent his first novel to agents although it still needed work. “I was impatient and wanted it out in the world. This time I was determined to send in a polished manuscript.” He drew upon the help of six readers, his agent, and fellow writers, to make sure the book was in top shape.

“Don’t send out anything that you are not 100 percent sure of. It is not going to be easy and will take a long time. We are all so drunk with these stories of success, being chosen by Oprah or hitting the New York Times bestseller list. There are so many people writing and so many MFA programs that it is hard to get noticed. There has to be a reason to do it besides the glory,” advised Kessler.

"I loose interest if I know what’s going

 

 

to happen next. If I know

then the reader will know . . ."

—Kessler

Kessler said that reading poetry while writing helps keep him interested in the rhythm of language. He noted that teaching in an MFA program has helped him better articulate for himself writing as a craft.

 

He works for several hours each day in the morning or early evening and eschews outlines in favor of getting lost in the plot and finding his way to the next step.

“I loose interest if I know what’s going to happen next. If I know then the reader will know and the result may be leaden,” observed Kessler.

Currently he is working on both a novel and a nonfiction book about raising goats and making goat cheese.

“The Goat Diaries will be a narrative that meshes mythology and natural history with personal stories,” said Kessler.

 

Brad Kessler is the author of Birds in Fall, Lick Creek, and The Woodcutter’s Christmas, as well as several award-winning children’s books. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Nation, The Kenyon Review, The New York Times Magazine and Bomb.

About Regular Contributor

 

 

Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.

 

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