Interview With Sara Greenslit

After reading Sara Greenslit's wonderful book As If A Bird Flew By Me, my students conducted an interview with Sara about writing, witches, and whales. Thanks Sara! Thanks students! And be sure to check out Sara's earlier novel, The Blue Of Her Body. This lyrical novel first led me to Sara's work.
Sarah's bio:

My novel, As If a Bird Flew By Me, was recently published by FC2 for winning the 2009 Sukenick/ABR Innovative Fiction Award. My first novel, The Blue of Her Body, won the 2006 Starcherone Innovative Fiction Award. I earned an MFA in poetry from Penn State University and have been awarded grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and from the Barbara Deming Foundation/Money for Women. I work as a small animal veterinarian in Madison, WI. 

First of all, thanks so much all of you for taking the time to so carefully consider my book! You flatter me. Really, I am honored!

I hope, below, I answer some of your questions to help you get inside the book a little more. And here, I was interviewed by my press' intern, that may illuminate some threads too. 


Your interest in biology and career as a vet are apparent in As If a Bird Flew By Me. Does this passion always work its way into your writing? How do you balance your work life and time set aside to write? What kind of background led you to this point where you do both?

SG: My biology training certainly has influenced my vocabulary, like of anatomy, ornithology. Interests within the zoological studies. The more you read or study, the more exacting your language becomes, its own diction. And your training shapes your "eye", too, right? Fourth year of vet school is largely learning how to touch/examine patients, how to talk to clients, and how to slow down and pay attention. This learning never ends really. After training as an veterinary acupuncturist in 2011, animals "feel" differently than they did before: pulses, ear warmth, foot pad softness, tongue color. I want to train to do vet chiro too: and imagine the subtleties one's hands should be able to differentiate after this! And how could this not affect how one sees everything? Use all your senses.

I luckily work part-time, so I have large chunks of time to mull, read, and hopefully write. I have been in a 3 year lull of not writing and am trying to not panic. Some say one should write even when you can't. I can't and haven't. So I read instead, walk my dogs. I watch a lot of documentaries. 

I loved animals and books concurrently, since I was little. So I got a BA in biology, and took a writing course each semester as a treat, to balance out my science load. Then I decided I wasn't ready to go to vet school at 22, and wanted to be a better writer first. After my MFA, I had a copywriting job for 5 years, but the cubicle was killing me. I kept looking at the vet school requirements. I took a few classes, talked to the admissions office, and crossed my fingers. Vet school was hellish, exhausting. But then you come out and you're a vet. I feel lucky.

Why did you choose to write about the migrations of Humphrey the whale? How does it tie into the rest of the story?

SG: Way before I became internet-news obsessed, I heard about Humphrey some regular way, newspaper, perhaps, 15 years ago. His case got me thinking about the way (human) immigrants migrate and how we and the animals sometimes get off track, lose our way.  The animal sections are also tied to the "Forever" time, shaped around the form from the musical piece Ghost Opera's: Now, Past and Forever. 

What do you wish to convey by putting together migrations next to the story of the cellist and the descendent of a Salem witch? Is it a story of returning to your roots, or those of your ancestors? Or are they completely separate?

SG: It's related to the structure of Ghost Opera (see above). I was also interested where I came from, literally in soil and person. Landscape shapes us like our families, don't you think?

On page 14-15, you have a list of legacies that family members leave behind; which description fits you or which would you like to fit you?

SG: I hope I am in the family that writes names on the pictures! I am the quiet type… I have a couple of books, so this is a great whisper out into the universe, I suppose. But these are small whispers, so who knows what lasts?

Did you translate any of your writing from the musical piece Ghost Opera? (Movements versus chapters) Why did you want to add it?

SG: I thought about Ghost Opera for a long time, how I could translate it into a written piece. I listened to the cd, read the liner notes, read the composer's bio. I was struck by how the layers of time overlap, and how we think Past is Past, but in fact, it layers with us Now. This second, in fact. 

How much did the writing of sections and sentences interlace with rhythm? Were they lyrical?

SG: I grew up playing the cello, for about 20 years until carpal tunnel said, Stop. Then I studied poetry, got my MFA. So the roots of lyricism are in both. I wanted to make a song on the page. 

Beginning on page 108, seemingly unrelated pieces start to conglomerate. How did you decide to order of the pieces? 

SG: I was aiming to combine music with nature, to dig a little deeper, to see where we come from. I don't' know if it worked! Going deeper, back to our roots, I guess. 

Which character, if any, do you identify with?  How do you incorporate this into the rest of your writing?

SG: I am the cellist, I am Celia, I am the birds (my wish). You start with your life's template and then extrapolate to fit a story, or a hope of a story. 

How much of your work is inspired by real events in your life? Why did you choose to use your own last name?

SG: Some writers are good making up completely new worlds, writing about lives that do not look like their own. I fail at this. I take notes from where I live. As a starting place. 

I have a hard timing working solely in one genre. I had for at least 10 years wanted to write about my relative killed in Salem, but I couldn't figure out a way until I came across Ghost Opera. I used my last name because it's important to know where you come from, what history laid out for your family, how that changed the present, most likely.

Can you share a bit about how you got your work published?  What was the process?How much control did the editor have over your work, and are you satisfied with the final product? 

SG: I got my first poem published in grad school in the Beloit Poetry Journal. I think a teacher or a friend recommend I try them. It's all random, in a way. What poems you write, you send, you get published. 

To get my novels published, I sent my manuscript out to contests because they were strange, non-linear projects, i.e. books large presses couldn't make money on. I didn't care. Just holding your book in your hands! I cannot explain the deep joy this blooms. 

The books had to be nearly perfect/done before they were sent to contests. You don't get to change much after you get picked up. Small edits, yes. But they are on deadline, and they want finished works. I have been very happy with both presses I have been so lucky to work with, Starcherone and FC2. 

If you had the option to shift from an independent publisher to corporate would you? Why or why not?

SG: I would not. I love the independent spirit of small presses. You count to them. They know you, they love you and your work. There's nothing like this.

Why would you choose a paper printing over electronic publication? 

SG: I am glad my books can be downloaded as e-books. But this cannot replace the actual physicality of reading, holding the book, smelling the fresh paper pages, how the light hits the white and black. I always feel more comfortable in the world when I know I have a book in my bag.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

SG: Oh my! Ok, let's see: read, of course. Be patient. It took many rejections to get poems picked up, and then my books. Many! Right now I am looking for a home for my first poetry collection, and I am on rejection number 30. Don't take these rejections personally: just do your research (web helps a lot), and pick the places that fit your work. Buy others' books, see where they publish. Make writer friends, ask them to read your work. Carry a notebook with you everywhere. Go to art and science museums, go to gardens. Hike. Nap and then write down what your dream-brain was thinking. And again: read read read.