Sara Greenslit is the author of As If a Bird Flew By Me, winner of the Ronald Sukenick/American Book Review Innovative Fiction Prize. She was interviewed by Rachel Levy in January 2012
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 synopsis 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.”
Celia Cracks Open a Door
She begins to think of herself as Celia, a newness to wear, to inhabit — because, surely, there is another person with her same birth name out there, in New England perhaps, where a segment of the family tree landed. But Celia? She cannot think of any family member with that title. The soft C of Celia and S of her real name overlap, and she is satisfied.
And so she begins to talk about herself in the third person: “This is Celia calling, leaving a message … Celia will see you later.”
She imagines the future, some other person speaking of her, and in that future, she would only exist in third person: “She called herself Celia …” As if by speaking in this point of view now, she is preparing herself to gently accept that she will become the past. (All the I’s in daily speech wearing her down, insulating her from unpredicted intimacies and blurrings — the geese returning, a lover’s eyelashes, cumulus giving way to stratus.)
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?
The nonfiction parts, the events of the Salem Witch Trials and the passages pulled from historical documents, are true — they are clearly nonfiction. The fictional aspect of the novel has to do with the characters of Celia and the cellist. I wanted to write about the Trials and my own family history, but I imagined the fictional characters of Celia and the cellist to do so. I see both of those characters as parts of myself, but they are more imagined, fictional characters than they are autobiographical representations of myself.
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.
We All Stem From the Fragments of Others
I could possibly be fading
Or have something more to gain
I’ve had my own share of me.
The moon at thick sliver —
Open your ears to it. The sound coming from the forest — Add up the hours of exhale. You have to sit still, lean a little in the right direction. Shut your eyes, think of nothing else.
stand charged with sundry acts of Witchcraft by them
Committed this day Contrary to the Laws of our Sov’r Lord & Lady
You cannot blame her for the verbs and nouns that spilled from others’ mouths. They weren’t invited, those phrases — the unexpected turn, levity evaporated. Spillage unleashed. Look what damage you’ve done.
How quickly the heart finds all the body’s corners. Deliverer, pulses everywhere.
Five children in 10 years, two dead husbands. She chose midwifery.
Housewife, deputy husband, consort, mother, mistress, neighbor, Christian.Relict: widow.
Pebbles and dust. Kick up the road, the voices rise. For years, tides and whispers, feathers and weather. Earful after earful, tongue after tongue. Choir — Look at the back of your hands — veins rising, freckles surfacing
Goldfinches find a sturdy branch.
did often hear my wife saye that Ann
pudeater would not Lett her alone
until she had killed her By her often pinching & Bruseing
of her Till her Earms & other parts of her Body Looked Black
The world is full of continuous conversations: Now is surrounded by Past, and both are encircled by Forever.
Was I the ivy reaching? I had lost my voice, lost it into the pebbles and dust of the road.
Embouchure: mouth of a river, mouth of a cannon, mouthpiece of a wind instrument, the shaping of the lips and tongue to that mouthpiece.
The North River, the smell of the salt marsh is inescapable. Does water ever leave her view?
my wife did affirm that itt was an pudeater that afflict her
& stood in the Belefe of itt as Long as she Lived
A woman overweight at 40 will live 7.1 years less than a thin one. A slim 40 year old man will live 6.4 years longer than a fat one.
“You can’t say I ever forgave them,” she’ll hear herself say, not knowing anymore what it meant to forgive. Can you take back forgiveness, nullify it? Was it ever forgiveness then, or what was it called instead?
Given enough time, what does one know?
A febrile stoop to pet the cat — it lingers and curls its tail. All thoughts slow: fur purr world: hand to animal.
This witch is your witch, this witch is my witch,
From California to the New York Island,
From the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters,
This witch was made for you and me.
Not remembering which key to sing in
that his Mother did severall tims in har siknis complain
of ann pudeatar of salim the wife of Jacob pudeatar
how she had beewiched har and that she did believe
she would kill har before she had dun
Wondering, wandering between causative and proscriptive.
An appeal, a submissive beckoning—a dog paw on the arm, unintended claw marks to the wrist
Fidgeting and leaning, we love, we love —
Quiet as I never was
Dream songs yet unread
I’m wondering if you might talk a bit about the writing above. Did your background in poetry influence your approach to novel writing?
It certainly did. I was no longer able to write short poems; my poems kept getting longer. But I was also unable to write a standard narrative as a fiction writer or even as an essayist. So I was trying to find a place that had a lot of voices and white space and inherent rhythm in it, but that also gave me the chance to write about the natural world, the internal landscape of emotions, and history. This chapter, “We All Stem From The Fragments Of Others,” includes a couple modern voices set in the left margin of the page. In the right margin there are excerpts of transcripts from the trials, presented in the original non-standard English spellings of the late 17th century. This chapter, more than any other, is a combination of all three modes of time — the past, the now, and the forever — which I’ve borrowed directly from Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera. I found that the only way I could create a piece of writing that could contain all three times was to create something lyric and fragmented, so the different fragments could call out to each other and speak to one another.
The structure of your book strikes me as so singular. It seems to stand within all three literary genres at once: fiction, poetry, and memoir. Did you use any other books as models for the construction of As If a Bird Flew By Me? Were there any other other books or writers that influenced you while you were composing this book?
You flatter me so crazily. There are a lot of books written about the time of the Salem Witch Trials that try to speak to the American fascination with what happened because it was so brutal and strange. Nobody could really come up with an answer. Was it a fungal poisoning? Was it a fear of American Indians? Was it starvation? Was it a battle for power? Ann Pudeator was a woman in her seventies with money, property, and a profession, so she was considered a great threat in such a small community — people wanted to get rid of her. When I was in grad school I was thinking a lot about the Trials and how to write about them, but I just wasn’t able to come up with a form. I tried to write in first person from Ann Pudeator’s perspective, but I found that task impossible. Eventually I discovered an approach that featured a twentieth-century character who imagines what Ann Pudeator was like. There are times in the book where a first-person voice speaks as if it were the voice of Ann’s ghost; but one can also read those passages as belonging to Celia who is only imagining that Ann is speaking. So there’s an ambiguity as to whether those first person passages are authentically Ann’s or wholly imagined by Celia. (For instance, there’s the chapter where the voice of Ann Pudeator gives a first-person account of a scene from her childhood in which a chicken is slaughtered.) Until I came across Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera and discovered a fragmented structure composed of narrative voices from both the past and present, I felt like the book was a puzzle — like I had all the pieces but was stumped on how to arrange them. Also helpful was the “Salem Witch Trials: Documentary Archive and Transcription Project.” I pulled all the documents having to do with Ann Pudeator and I read them, put them away, and then read them again. The petition included in the novel by which Ann attempts to overturn the testimonies spoken against her is the actual petition given by the historical Ann Pudeator; it comes straight from those transcripts. Parts of the book speak to that linear narrative, which I was able to glean from the historical documents (I knew, for example, that Ann Pudeator was accused, convicted, and then executed for witchcraft), but other parts of the book stray from that storyline and are more song-like in form and function.
Let’s talk about the chapter titled “Give Me A Broom,” excerpted below.
Give Me a Broom
WS Nevins, 19th century historian: the concept that witches fly on brooms may be traced to Ann Pudeator.
I. 16 year old witness, Ann Putnam:
that ann pudeatar: tould har that she flu by aman in the neight in to a hous
2. Witness, Samuel Pickworth:
I this deponant was coming along aslim street btween ann pudeaters hous and Captin higison hous. it being in the evening: and I this deponant saw awoman: neare Captin higisonn Cornar. the which I sopposed to be ann Pudeatar. and in a moment of time she pasid by me as swifte as if a burd flue by me and I saw said woman goo in to ann Pudeat [eat] ers hous
Nevins: “It was too bad that the woman credited with supernatural powers could not fly away from her cruel fate.”
There’s so much to talk about with respect to such a brief chapter. I feel immediately hooked by the promise of learning the origins of the witch-on-broomstick-myth, but my curiosity quickly shifts toward sorrow when I read through the damning testimonies given by Ann’s neighbors and the historian’s glib, insensitive commentary on those testimonies (“It was too bad that the woman credited with supernatural powers could not fly away from her cruel fate.”) The book contains many other terrifying and saddening moments related to the witch trials. My question is: What was it like reading through the Salem archives? How does one encounter and work with such horrifying subject material? Did it ever get to be too much?
While reading the historical documents pertaining to Ann’s trial, I felt pretty much devastated because I knew I was reading about an innocent woman in her seventies who was hanged (along with a bunch of other innocent people who were also accused of witchcraft). And the suffering was apparent in the documents as subtext. It was hard to take. It took me some time before I was able to deal with the material in a way that would give Ann’s life some shape and importance. It took hundreds of years before Ann’s name and the names of others were officially absolved from the charges made against them. I’ve never been to Salem. I did a lot of research with primary texts and I have a little collection of nonfiction books about the period and the fascination people have with it, but this whole project began with my father, who taught 10th-grade American history. He would teach the Salem Witch Trials and the big secret was — I don’t think he ever told his students this — he was related to Ann Pudeator. So he piqued my interest way back when I was a kid. Also I happen to have a lot of genealogy fanatics in my family, so they had done a lot of research for me ahead of time. When my family learned I was writing about the Trials, they gave me all the information I needed — the full family tree, several news articles and essays, etc.
I’m wondering if we might now discuss the chapter excerpted below, titled “Migrations: Of Locks and Dams.” This is one of the many chapters that narrate the spectacular migrations of animals.
MigrationsOf Locks and Dams
In 1994–1995, a manatee became the most well-traveled of his species: Chessie, named after the Chesapeake Bay, swam from Florida all the way up the east coast, past the Statue of Liberty, to Rhode Island. By those in charge of such matters, his behavior was deemed in opposition to his survival, so he was captured, flown to Florida and released near the Kennedy Space Center. (Manatees tend to migrate farther north than they used to. Man-made thermal discharges into coastal waters extend the species’ range northward.) In 2001, Chessie was sighted again, photographed in a set of locks in Virginia, waiting for them to open so he could go south: “It was clear from the animal’s behavior that it had been through these or similar lock systems before,” said the photographer.
How she knew it was Chessie and not some other intrepid, wily manatee-adventurer was by the animal’s pattern of boat propeller scars: a distinctive long, gray mark on his back, with several small white spots apparent within the scar. “Since then,” said the photographer/biologist, “Chessie has also acquired tail mutilations as well, but these scars are not severe.”
How do you perceive the above chapter to be working with the Pudeator narrative?
I’m fascinated by animals that can travel long distances. For example, in another chapter, there’s a humpback whale that gets trapped in the California bay on its way to Alaska. In yet another there’s a Wisconsin wolf whose radio-collar seems to travel and then disappear into nothingness. When I think about the settling of America — how most families came over on a boat or a plane and spread out across the country — I think about how lot of those migrations were probably haphazard; a lot of us didn’t end up where we thought we would end up. I wanted to write about migration because I wanted to write about where we had attempted to be versus where we have actually ended up. That influences who we are. We are never completely detached from the dead in a way. The narrator in the book feels as if she were controlled by the past, as if the dead were steering her hand. Sometimes I feel that way, too. I had a recent death in the family, someone close to my age, a cousin, and it’s hard not to feel how his death has influenced my family. No matter what the members of my family are doing, they’re always thinking about him. I know that’s a little different from migration. I’m not a big believer in heaven and hell, but I do believe in the spirit of a person or the energy of a person—and I know this sounds a little crazy. The dead influence who we are and where we end up.
Your bio mentions that you work as a vet. Is there any cross-over between practicing veterinary medicine and writing? Do these two vocations ever compete for attention/time?
The field of medicine has changed how I see things. I’m more apt to see things as diseased or broken because that’s how I’ve been trained to see. If I see a dog running down the street, I don’t think he’s lame; I think he tore his cruciate. I do have an interest in medical language and I’ve been trying to incorporate scientific language into my poems for years. After I finished As If A Bird Flew By Me I worked on a manuscript that uses found medical texts, such as pathology reports, radiology reports — texts that have an absence of the first-person, where a person’s disease is described only from the outside. It’s a manuscript of erasure where certain words and terms are blocked out, and so certainly I used my medical knowledge to decide what I wanted to include in that manuscript. And I have an ability to understand those found medical texts because of my education. I want to emphasize the illicit nature of how the medical community treats people. It’s very alienating, and one can become a very lonely, almost abstract, object.
Is that medical-erasure manuscript your most recent project? Are you working on anything right now?
Well, that manuscript is currently in the process of being sent out to various places. I’m not working on anything right now. I’m kind of in that space of mulling.
One more question. How would you describe your aesthetic inclinations?
I’m finding it harder and harder to find a book that keeps my attention. I guess I’m a very demanding reader. I have a lot of interests, but recently I’ve found myself attracted to books written by visual artists. So lately I’ve been more attracted to the visual, and have been trying to figure out how to move in that direction with my own writing. I guess I describe my writing as a a lyric amalgamation of the natural world and the emotional world. I have called myself a collage artist. I consider your remark that As If A Bird Flew By Me can stand in each of the genres to be a great compliment. I’m also a collector, and most of my books are the result of passages of writing that I’ve written and collected over a span of years then arranged to become a coherent piece. I just got an iPhone and now, when I walk my dogs, I use it to take pictures. I’m not sure what the pictures mean yet, but I’m collecting them and have started to view them as a sort of journal. So I’ll see where that project goes.
Thank you for talking with me, Sara.