A Bird on Water Street is the debut novel of author illustrator Elizabeth O. Dulemba, a frequent contributor to the SCBWI Bulletin and the Illustrator Coordinator for Southern Breeze, Board Member for the Georgia Center for the Book, and Visiting Associate Professor in the Hollins University MFA in Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating program.
Set during the 1980s, the book chronicles the 8th grade year of Jack Hicks, who lives in Coppertown. The small mining town sits at the southern tip of the Appalachian mountains in a denuded area known as the Copper Basin. There is a not a tree, a bug or a bird that lives in the area, and Jack, who does not want to be a miner like his father and grandfather before him, aims to change things. The Mixed Up Files was happy to catch up with Elizabeth and discuss her debut novel.
1) The completely devastated environment that these characters live in is rather bleak, not only are there no trees or birds, but there, the threat of death from working in the mines is ever-present. Yet you managed to show these characters also enjoying their lives through telling of tales and music. How did you manage to balance a sober story with the vitality of some of the characters?
First, thank you for having me on The Mixed Up Files. I’ve been a follower for a long time, so it’s an honor to be a guest!
The balance of the sobering environment versus the strong sense of community came from real life. My husband and I lived near Copperhill (called Coppertown in the book) for several years and we experienced the juxtapositions of the area first-hand. Nothing in the area was simply black or white, all good or all bad – it depended on your point of view. I loved swimming in these gray areas as I wrote. I wanted the reader to judge how they felt about the situation for themselves.
I also believe we make the best of where we land in this world. If you don’t know any different, how can you label your situation unique or unusual? Life goes on no matter where you live.
2) You have so many authentic details of life in Appalachia from the claw hammer banjo playing, to eating boiled peanuts, to music Fridays. You and your husband lived in Appalachia, yet you have painted a portrait of life decades ago in the past. How did you research what it was like to live in the Copper Basin during the 1980s?
I’ve always been drawn to the mountains ever since I was a kid. I went to camp on Lookout Mountain every summer and was rocked to sleep each night by cicada song. Later, I hiked, camped, and picked blackberries all over the North Georgia Mountains fancying myself a wilderness woman. I was even a hang-glider pilot after college (in my thrill-seeker phase) and hiked, rock-climbed, and rafted my way through the southern Appalachians. So I’ve been experiencing these wonderful mountain nuances for most of my life.
For experiences outside my own, I interviewed tons of locals, miners and people who grew up in the Copper Basin. Most of the scenes in A BIRD ON WATER STREET have a thread of truth in them from the stories people shared.
3) Your names of your characters say so much about what is going on. You have characters with the last name Rust, Slaughter and Chase. Even the creek is called Brawling Town. C’mon, this can’t be a coincidence? Tell us a little bit about how you came up with some of the wonderful names in the novel.
There were indeed reasons for the names I chose, although perhaps not what you would think. Most of them are real names and were fabulous on their own! My goal was to honor the people I already knew who were embedded in the story-behind-the-story in some way.
For instance, when we lived in the mountains, we lived on a feeder creek for “Fighting Town Creek” – so named because of American Indians who used to play a Lacrosse-like sport nearby. It became “Brawling Town Creek” in the book. “Chase” is for Richard Chase who was a story catcher and gathered Jack Tales into an anthology that’s been a big part of my life. (It’s why my main character is named “Jack.”) “Slaughter” is the real name of our neighbors there (one a famous writer who helped me in the early days of my career). And “Rust” is a family name – one that stood for large industry around the same time period. (I also liked the idea of rust being associated with metal – a sign of corrosion – even though copper doesn’t rust.)
So while they all do indeed have strong, symbolic meanings to me, they were not necessarily chosen for allusion purposes.
4) I loved all of the references to the 1980s—the kids watch the Dukes of Hazzard, drink fifty cent RC Colas and Moon Pies. How much of this came from your own childhood and how much was research?
I loved the Dukes of Hazzard when I was a kid – I admit! And at that camp I mentioned… RC Colas and MoonPies were a big deal. Moon Pie was also a client of mine in my graphic design days before I became a writer/illustrator full-time. One of my favorite stories is when Jack steps on a copperhead while picking blackberries. When I read that scene at events, people think I made it up, but that was my story – I stepped on a copperhead in Devil’s Den. Really! Jack and I are also very much alike in our love and regard for nature. He feels it thrumming through him – like he’s connected to it. For him, trees truly are holy, as is the diversity of life within nature. That is definitely from my own childhood!
5) There are difficult moments in the book, including accidents, death, a child with disabilities borne from an alcoholic mothers as well as mention of teen pregnancy and marijuana cultivation. You definitely don’t show the world through rose-colored glasses, but you also show lots of hope. What line did you have to walk in terms of showing the world that you had researched.
I made sure everything in the story is experienced through Jack’s eyes, with his limited scope and experience. He doesn’t understand the world yet – not completely. He’s learning about these controversial topics for the first time and isn’t jumping to snap opinions like we, as adults, might.
It’s part of why I love writing for this age group – character is still being formed at this age. The reader can’t assume that a character will be or do one thing or another, because even that character doesn’t know. There is no default behavior in place, like there is so often with adults. There’s still room for change and awareness.
In A BIRD ON WATER STREET, controversial things occur off-screen, in Jack’s periphery, as things often do in life. Just as no man is an island, no story stands alone. Story arcs from other characters’ experiences intersect Jack’s. But by keeping the point of view limited to him, I was able to present them in a more innocent way.
I also tried hard not to impress my views upon the reader. I’m sure my biases snuck through, but I tried to be nonjudgmental.
6) What was the best thing you learned from the process of writing a Bird on Water Street?
I learned that I am indeed a writer. I was always an artist – an illustrator. That skill was identified at a young age. And even though I was always illustrating the stories that filled my head, I didn’t know that I could write – not really. It’s thrilling to be able to finally share my stories with confidence.
But the best part of writing A BIRD ON WATER STREET has been the people, the support I’ve received from fellow writers as well as the locals who have shared their stories and histories with me since the book came out. I can’t tell you what an honor it is to know that I’ve responsibly relayed a community’s history in a way that makes them proud.
Thank you again for having me on!