I’ve been looking forward to telling you all about Kurt Kirchmeier’s recent middle-grade novel, The Absence of Sparrows (a Junior Library Guild Selection), for a couple of weeks now. It’s been described as Stranger Things meets Alfred Hitchcock. So all you fans of the hit Netflix series and the Master of Suspense: settle in and read all about the book, the author, and how the novel came to be. (For a chance to win a copy of the book, leave a comment.)
In the small town of Griever’s Mill, eleven-year-old Ben Cameron is expecting to finish off his summer of relaxing and bird-watching without a hitch. But everything goes wrong when dark clouds roll in.
Old Man Crandall is the first to change–human one minute and a glass statue the next. Soon it’s happening across the world. Dark clouds fill the sky and, at random, people are turned into frozen versions of themselves. There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and no one knows how to stop it.
With his mom on the verge of a breakdown, and his brother intent on following the dubious plans put forth by a nameless voice on the radio, Ben must hold out hope that his town’s missing sparrows will return with everyone’s souls before the glass plague takes them away forever.
Kurt Kirchmeier lives and writes in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and has a soft spot for contemporary fantasy and dark coming-of-age stories. His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines including Shimmer, Space & Time, Weird Tales, Tesseracts 15, and elsewhere. When he isn’t reading or working on his next middle grade novel, he can often be found outside, connecting with nature and photographing birds. Visit Kurt on Twitter at https://twitter.com/saskwriter or at his website www.kurtkirchmeier.net.
What was the inspiration behind The Absence of Sparrows?
The idea for this story sprang from a dream I had of my own father turning to obsidian. I explored the concept first in a piece of short fiction, which was published in a speculative fiction magazine in Ireland back in 2009. I thought that would be the end of it, but the two brothers from that story wouldn’t leave me alone, and kept on pestering me until finally I decided I needed to give them a larger stage. Books like Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon and Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury inspired me to make it a coming-of-age story.
Are you a birder like your character or did you become one for the novel?
I am indeed a bird-lover like my main character, Ben. I got into birding and bird photography maybe two or three years before I started to write this book, and some of my own experiences with certain species—bohemian waxwings, notably—are mirrored in the story. All of the species represented in the book are species that appear here in Saskatchewan. There were others I wanted to include, but since the bird insights are used to help Ben glean truths about the human condition as well, I couldn’t always make it work. I still wish I’d found a place for an owl!
I love the title The Absence of Sparrows. What was the inspiration behind it?
In the book, the main character comes up with a theory about why his neighborhood sparrows are missing and what their absence might mean for him and his family, so that’s part of the inspiration. The title also has a dual meaning in that birds are often seen as being symbolic of freedom, and the loss of freedom and control is very much central to the story.
What would you like readers to come away with after reading the novel?
First and foremost, I would hope they would come away thinking that what they just read was thrilling and cool, and that birds might be more interesting than they previously imagined. It’s also my hope that this book will resonate with kids who, for whatever reason, have had their childhoods cut short and who might be feeling lonely or isolated in their situation. Lastly, I’d like readers to come away wanting to think and talk about some of the challenges Ben faces in the book, like having to stand against his own brother, and weighing the fate of his own family against the fate of the community at large. These would be hard things for anyone to deal with, let alone an eleven-year-old boy.
Readers have called The Absence of Sparrows a page-turner. Do you have any tips on how to write that type of suspense that keeps readers engaged?
I think the unpredictable nature of the glass plague kind of lends itself to suspense, but I guess the important thing is for the stakes to be real and present so that momentum can build and be sustained. Lively pacing goes a long way, too. I try to omit unnecessary description and exposition wherever I can so the narrative never becomes “dense.” Huge blocks of unbroken text can slow readers down and cause their minds to wander. There’s no suspense in a wandering mind.
What are you working on now?
I just recently finished working on an upper MG novel that’s sort of a mix of adventure fantasy and post-apocalyptic road story, featuring dual protagonists (one boy, one girl), parallel storylines, and a twist on dragons. I’m also working on another MG novel about two boys who are obsessed with comic books and superheroes, and who are trying to solve a local mystery that might offer clues about a larger mystery going on in the world. This one has an environmental twist, and has been a lot of fun to write so far.
Thanks so much, Kurt, for this great interview!
For a chance to win a copy of The Absence of Sparrows, leave a comment. I’ll choose a winner at random on Sunday afternoon at 3 PM, and announce a winner shortly after. (U.S. Only, please.)