We asked Bird Bones’ author, Michelle Jӓger, a few questions about the book, her writing process, and the kinds of books she loves to read.
Q. Tell us about Bird Bones. How would you describe it to someone who hasn’t read it yet?
I usually say I think it’s a psychological drama and set on the Yorke Peninsula and then I get stuck. I don’t know why. I think I would just show them the wonderful blurb someone, not mentioning any names, wrote.
Q. The story is set in various part of South Australia and Victoria. You particularly bring the Yorke Peninsula alive, so much so that at times it feels like the setting is a character and certainly adds to the mood of the story. Was this your intention?
When I was a child, we went to Corny Point to stay at an old farmhouse that my dad’s friend owned. Mum and Dad worked a lot – Mum was a shift worker in a nursing home and Dad had a variety of different of jobs, though I think at the time it was mainly working on building sites – and money was a bit tight, so these holidays were very precious. The landscape was just so peaceful and beautiful and seemed so far removed from whatever was going on at school that it felt like another world.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression about my childhood, though. We were incredibly lucky as my grandparents in England paid for us to visit a couple of times and we stayed with them in the village in which they lived, Martham, which in some ways offered a similar refuge. For when we stayed in Corny Point, the isolation it presented felt like a haven. However, you could also sense that it could become threatening if you were there with the wrong person or in a certain frame of mind. I chose this setting because of this but also because I just loved the place and wanted to revisit it in my mind and in person, which I did with family and friends while I was writing. It was only then that I visited Dhilba Guuranda–Innes National Park, which features in the novel. My parents never took us – I think they were just too exhausted.
Q. Vera is such an interesting character. She’s complex, often unlikable, obstinate, difficult and obtuse. She regularly makes bad decisions. And yet we are drawn to her and can feel empathy with her. Ultimately we like her, despite her flaws. She speaks to our dark intentions and voices our frustrations. How do you see Vera, and what do you want readers to know about her?
This is an interesting question. I’ve had some people who after reading the manuscript said they disliked Vera intensely, she was just awful, but also that they kept reading (or sometimes not). Others who say they really identified and sympathised with her. I think I don’t want to say too much about her as I understand and identify with both responses and want people to make up their own minds.
Q. Much of the focus in Bird Bones is on the relationship between Vera and Gary. It’s a beautiful, if unconventional, friendship between two people who seem to be kindred spirits, which makes the pain when they drift apart so raw. It’s like they have lost more than a friend; they have lost part of who they are. But you explore this idea of friendship in other ways in Bird Bones, too. Was an exploration for friendship important to you as you wrote?
I don’t know if it was friendship specifically or connection that I was interested in and the loneliness or isolation that can come when we don’t have someone or something we connect with, who we are comfortable with and can share things with – whether that’s interests, thoughts, problems, conversation, fears, experiences. I’ve been reading Sayaka Murata’s new short story collection, Life Ceremonies, and she explores connection in such interesting and unexpected ways. I highly recommend!
I was also interested in the betrayal that is felt when we feel that we had a deep connection with someone and then they do something that we perceive as disrupting it or makes us question what we know about them and understand about ourselves.
Q. What were the other themes you wanted to explore in Bird Bones? Why were they important to you?
How power dynamics can shift depending on the context. The vulnerability of children and how what happens when someone is young can impact them throughout their life and what role personality might play in how that develops. How you can be close to someone but never get the full picture or story and how when a relationship ends or is fractured sometimes you can be denied resolution or closure because you can never fill those gaps either because the other person involved won’t allow it or death may deny you the opportunity. I guess I was interested in how someone might move on from that experience.
I think those ideas/themes were important to me because I’m curious about why people behave in certain ways or what drives them to do something.
Q. Writing a novel is a long process with sometimes few rewards! Can you tell us a little about how you write, and why you write?
Sometimes I write because it’s fun to make things up, create something. I also write for my mental health as trying to untangle things on the page helps. However, I’ve found I also need to take breaks from writing for the very same reason. I’ve recognised that it’s not always useful to focus so intensely on what’s going on in my head. During a particularly difficult period, I found writing very hard and actually began to hate it, so I stopped. Things have settled and I’ve begun working on smaller pieces and I’m slowly returning to a bigger piece which is a complete mess, but I’ve had space to reflect on it so hopefully that helps.
How do I write? Messily, secretively. In fits and starts. Some days I write and it’s awful and I look at what’s there and think, well that’s a load of crap. But a wise and talented friend and writer, Rebekah Clarkson, told me, forgive yourself every day. At the time she was referring to doing a PhD, but that advice has been invaluable to my approach with writing and sitting down to do it.
When I say secretively, I mean I tend not to show anyone a piece until I feel I’ve got the draft or idea that I’m exploring worked out, and then I get feedback. I find I get stuck or confused if another voice comes in too early. Though that’s not always the case. If it’s longer, I might take another approach to keep me going. I’m incredibly lucky to have a supportive and generous network of writers and readers to ask for that feedback when I need it.
Q. Do you have a favourite book/author? What is it, and why is it your favourite?
This is a hard question as I don’t have a single favourite book or author and can think of many that I consider favourites and have returned to again and again. I think we’re so lucky as there are so many amazing writers out there, past and emerging. Some of my favourite authors and books that I can think of are Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Patricia Highsmith, Yoko Ogawa, Tove Jannsson, and Michael Ende. The Lord of the Rings was a favourite growing up and still is. I have very fond memories of my granny reading it to me.
There are some books that I have immediately loved from the first page – recently Ozamu Dazai’s No Longer Human and The Setting Sun, which were recommended by an incredibly thoughtful person – while there are others that I have initially reluctantly read as I couldn’t immediately connect with the style or voice or character and then been so grateful that I persevered.
For instance, I struggled with Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin because I intensely disliked the main character, Eva – both her voice and who she was. I was reading it for a work book club and when we came into work each day we initially all talked about how we couldn’t stand her and were finding it difficult to keep reading. And then as we kept reading the conversations changed. Suddenly we were discussing motherhood and ideas around ‘bad’ children and mothers, nature vs nurture, gun laws, sociopaths and which character we sympathised/identified with most and why.
I’ve read that book so many times now and I get something new from it each time and I see things differently depending on what is going on with me or what experiences I have had since last reading it. And now I adore Eva as a character – she’s complex and contradictory, intelligent, snarky, obnoxious, stubborn, selfish and self-reflective – terribly flawed and believable. I try to remember my first experience of reading that novel when I begin a book that doesn’t grab me straight away. I tell myself, give it a chance or you might miss out on something special and illuminating.
Why do I like these books and authors? For all sorts of different reasons – they resonate in some way or challenge me, make me see something differently, make me laugh or cry or get excited or angry, tell me something about myself, or reveal a new world or perspective.