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Persistence, Belief and a Book with Wings: Rebecca Rasmussen on The Bird Sisters

If you've been following publishing on twitter at all in the past few weeks, you'll almost inevitably have heard of Rebecca Rasmussen's debut novel, The Bird Sisters. Often referred to as "the perfect book club book," the novel traces the lives of two sisters, Milly and Twiss, as they piece back together birds, people, and their own broken past. Inspired by the author's grandmother's journals, the novel is both contemporary and historical, and as restrained as it is fierce with emotion. And its official birthday is today, so we're very excited to have Rebecca herself here to talk about it. Happy birthday, Bird Sisters!

You must be absolutely out of your mind with excitement. How has the publication process been for you and how have the last few months been? A rollercoaster? Were there any surprises and/or pitfalls along the way?

You are absolutely right, Kathryn. I am completely out of my mind right now with excitement. This has been quite a ride and–wow!—that ride has lasted over a year and a half! I first learned that my book was accepted for publication in July of 2009. It’s now 2011, so I have been waiting for a while now to hold the book in my hands so to speak. When my boxes of books arrived from Random House the other day, I thought I would jump around and scream, but I was really calm. After I hauled the boxes upstairs, I sat on the couch and stared at them for a long while. We’re not supposed to say we’re proud of ourselves, or at least not too much, but that’s how I felt. Incredibly proud of my hard work in all its forms, from actually writing the book to promoting it to waiting for it to appear on my doorstep on a wind-riddled day in St. Louis. What a long journey this has been, and I am so grateful to all of my lovely friends—new and old—who have helped give this book wings. Without them, I would still be living in my writer cave.

Tell us about the book itself. How'd you get the idea for the novel, and how did you end up pitching it? And what advice would you have for emerging writers in the process of working on their first books?

I got the idea for the novel after reading my grandmother’s journals, which she left me when she passed away. For a long time, I couldn’t find the story in them because I was so attached to the material, which was often very sad. My grandmother lost both of her parents when she was a girl and most of her life was spent trying to get over that grave loss. Once I closed the journals, the story came to life for me—the voices of Milly and Twiss—and I wrote the first draft in about seven months. But oh did I revise! As soon as I finished the book, I sent it out to agents (probably prematurely). The book and I met with a lot of rejection and revisions before I found my lovely agent, Michelle Brower. My advice to new writers is to keep going even when you think you have nowhere else to go. Persistence was half the battle for me. And belief in my project and myself was the other half. It’s amazing what happens when you combine those two things. Also, make sure you hug yourself. And often!

Here at BtO, we've been talking a lot about the exponential growth of ebooks and in particular, the publish-to-Kindle phenomenon. What's your opinion on all this? And how do you feel about The Bird Sisters existing as a Kindle version?

I am happy about The Bird Sisters existing in its many forms, primarily because I hope that people will read it and enjoy it. Whether that happens on a Kindle, in a large print addition, or in the hardcover, I am ecstatic! My husband has the book on his Kindle and my parents hope to listen to the book in the car one day. Any format works for me, though of course I am concerned for all of my indie bookstore friends and hope that people will consider supporting their local stores, too.

Finally, standard BtO bonus question: What are you currently reading? And what are you currently learning?

I have been reading wonderful books lately. The first one I want to mention is Susan Henderson’s novel, Up From the Blue, which is a wonderful synthesis of what’s it’s like to be child in a highly dysfunctional family. It’s sad and beautiful and wonderfully written. I’ve also been reading Alan Heathcock’s story collection Volt, which does indeed electrify me somehow. Alan and I navigate on different ends of the spectrum: his stories are tough, gritty, and very Cormac McCarthy-esque. I love this collection because it breathes life into my imagination, and I only hope it gets the attention it deserves. Other wonderful books I’m reading are Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone, Melissa Senate’s The Love Goddess’ Cooking School, Kate Ledger’s Remedies, and Therese Fowler’s forthcoming novel Exposure. All are major nightly treats for me. As for learning, my daughter is always teaching me things. Last night, it was how to eat string cheese properly!


Thanks so much for coming to visit BtO, Rebecca! Congratulations on the publication of The Bird Sisters. It sounds like a real labor of love!
thank you so much for having me here! XOX

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