Let’s talk about your new novel. My first impulse is to start with a broad and perhaps deceptively straightforward question, like, What is As If a Bird Flew By Me about? and I want to start there because it’s a question that seems to have an infinite number of answers when applied to this book. For example, As If a Bird Flew By Me is about the Salem Witch Trials, the historical and genealogical history of the Pudeator/Greenslit family, and the biography of one Ann Pudeator, in particular, who was executed for being a witch in Salem Massachusetts. Not much of Ann Pudeator’s biography exists outside of documentation related to the Trials, and so the novel is also about the difficulty of the biographer’s project. It’s about music: the experience of a lapsed cellist relearning her instrument, the musical limits of prose. It’s about the the depth and breadth of identity in terms of personal experience, biological inheritance, and familial history. It’s about the spectacular migrations of wild animals, traversed geographies, the music and movement of the natural world… I’ll stop there, but I could keep going and my response would continue to grow messier, more unwieldy and all-encompassing. I’m wondering if, as the writer, you hold a much neater, uncomplicated perception of what this book is about. What is As If a Bird Flew by Me About? How do you answer that question?
I wanted to write a story about migration and where we come from. When I look at my own family who came over on the Mayflower from England, I see how they got entangled in the Salem Witch Trials. And I come from a place of complication that resulted from those trials. I was trying to find a way to write about three modes of time at once and I came across some music by the Chinese composer Tan Dun. His Ghost Opera combines three layers of time: the past, the now, and the forever. So, in my novel, the past is represented by the character of Ann Pudeator; the present is represented by the character of the 21st century cellist; and the forever is represented by the figures of the migrating birds. So, the central questions for me were: Where do we come from? And how does the world—especially the natural world—affect who we are?
Questions of genre and form necessitate equally open-ended answers with respect to this book. The synopses on the jacket cover describes the book as a “hybrid of fiction and nonfiction” and your author bio mentions your training in poetry. To prompt a discussion of genre, I’d like to excerpt a passage from the chapter titled “Celia Cracks Open A Door.”
It’s easy to see why this book might be called nonfiction; it includes at its end a varied list of source material, ranging from the Salem Witch Trial Archives to articles on zoology, from pop song lyrics to the Book of Genesis. But the passage you just read makes me think that this book also toys with memoir. The protagonist calls herself “Celia” because the soft C of Celia and S of her real name sound the same. At this point I’m thinking: is the S of Celia’s real name the S of the author’s name? At another moment in the text, Celia traces her genealogy and discovers that her family name changed from “Greenslade” to “Greenslit,” which is, in fact, the author’s last name. Do you consider this book to be autobiographical? And do you view the tension between fiction and autobiography as an important one? A productive one?
In other places, like in the chapter excerpted below, (titled “We All Stem From The Fragments Of Others,”) the prose seems to draw more heavily on poetic modes. The voice of the narrator turns more lyric and fragmented.
Interview with sara Greenslit
Interview with sara Greenslit