Full disclosure: Author Sandy Stark-McGinnis, author of the grippingly beautiful MG debut, EXTRAORDINARY BIRDS, and I share four things in common: 1. an agent (the incredible Patricia Nelson, of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency); 2. an all-encompassing love for the iconic TV sitcom, The Golden Girls; 3. a penchant for cowboy boots (don’t judge); and, above all, 4. genuine friendship. Sandy and I “met” on Twitter last year and have been enjoying a back-and-forth flurry of messages—of support, encouragement, or just to vent—ever since. Today, I have the honor of interviewing Sandy, whose novel flies free from Bloomsbury on April 30. Enjoy!
MR: First off, Sandy, I need you to know how much I loved EXTRAORDINARY BIRDS. It gripped me from page one, and never let me go. I was also deeply moved by your main character, December—a truly remarkable heroine. Can you tell me a little about her, and what led you to tell her story?
SSM: December is a bundle of contradictions—that’s why I love her. She’s strong and knows how to survive, but is vulnerable and carries a lot of sorrow in her heart.
I had two inspirations that led me to write her story. One was students I’ve had through the years, and the other was a newspaper article that reported an incident where a mother, in a methamphetamine rage, physically attacked her young daughter. With December I wanted to explore how a child could endure an event like that. Where would she find the strength to keep going and find a better place, a place of healing?
MR: Obviously, birds are a major theme in your novel. December is obsessed with birds and flying, is fostered by a caring taxidermist named Eleanor, and keeps a journal/biography called Bird Girl: An Extraordinary Tale. What is it about the subject of birds that captures your heart and imagination?
SSM: Well, I thought birds and flight were perfect metaphors to use to explore how December deals with her past. And, I’ve always wanted to try and write a realistic story about a child who believes she/he can fly.
MR: Along these lines, December has an encyclopedic knowledge of birds, with facts and figures flying off every page. What kind of research did you have to do to make December’s interest in the subject authentic?
SSM: My researched focused on specific birds. December uses her knowledge of them to navigate her way through the world. So, the hard/fun part was exploring specific birds and their behaviors, and using them to parallel December’s own interactions with people and/or situations in which she found herself.
MR: December is a foster child who has suffered extensive trauma and physical abuse in her young life. You handle this topic with great sensitivity and care. What was your approach to understanding the subject of abuse, as well as December’s mindset as a foster child? Was extensive research involved?
SSM: To get inside December’s head and heart, I focused on how she dealt with her own tragedy. I started from there and then spent a lot of time trying to find her voice and cadence, her perspective of the world based on her past experiences. Once I knew what motivated her, it was easier to capture her inner-life and how she responded to events that happened to her. When I had specific questions about foster care, I found someone who worked in the California system who generously took the time to answer any questions I had. Most of the inquiries had to do with making sure December’s experience was authentic.
MR: At school, December develops a strong friendship with Cheryllynn, a spunky transgender girl who stands up for December when she is bullied. December has never had a real friend before, and she has a hard time letting Cheryllynn into her heart. Can you tell us a bit about Cheryllynn, and her role in December’s story?
SSM: Cheryllynn is a heroine too. She, like December, is vulnerable and strong, but she’s more grounded than December. I think because she has roots—a home, a mom who is there for her—she’s able to navigate who she is and her own conflicts with honesty and a trust that December has to learn is possible.
MR: I know you’re a fifth grade teacher, as well as a mom to two young children. How do you balance work, parenting, and writing? What does your writing routine look like?
SSM: The only quiet time in my house is in the morning. I wake up at four o’clock—five o’clock on weekends—and write. I’m a morning person so it works well for me. Thirteen years as a competitive swimmer—getting up for practice before school every day of my high school years—trained me to have the discipline I needed to keep a consistent schedule.
MR: Can you tell us about your path to publication? Was it a straight shot or a long and winding road?
SSM: It was definitely long and winding. From the time I started writing Extraordinary Birds to when Patricia Nelson made an offer of representation was about five years (And in those five years, I sent out around fifty queries and revised many times.) Then, Patricia and I took another year and a half for revision before Allison Moore at Bloomsbury made an offer.
MR: And finally, I know you’re a huge Golden Girls fan. Who’s your favorite character, and why? Do you have a favorite episode?
SSM: Ugh. This is hard, but I think my favorite is Rose. She’s the character who always surprised me, and made me laugh the most. And, she was a storyteller! I don’t have a favorite episode, but anytime Rose started to tell a story about living in St. Olaf…Well, just hilarious!
MR: Thanks for chatting today, Sandy. It was a pleasure to have you on Mixed-Up Files!
SANDY STARK-McGINNIS is a debut author and award-winning poet whose work has appeared in Quercus Review, In the Grove, and Penumbra. She holds an MA in creative writing from San Francisco State University. Sandy lives with her husband and children in California, where she teaches fifth grade. You can find Sandy at her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.