Best Eat Bird: In Conversation with Bird Eat Bird Author Katrina Best
Can you imagine walking in on someone using a public toilet and speaking to them for over a page of dialogue and then congratulating yourself on your politesse while disparaging the intruded-upon? Can you imagine thinking a date successful when your companion is texting and flirting with the waitress the entire time? Katrina Best does, in Bird Eat Bird (Insomniac Press, 2010), a collection of comedic and insightful short stories that won the Canada/Caribbean section of the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book. She will travel to the Sydney Writers Festival in Australia where the overall winner will be announced on May 21st. She is originally from the U.K. and now lives in Montreal.
AH: There are so many arresting images in Bird Eat Bird, from Maureen making up her face entirely with red lip-stick in “Red”, to a Pelican eating a Pigeon while on-lookers lunch in “Lunch Hour”. Do your stories begin more often with an image, or with a plot moment?
KB: What triggers me to first attempt a story varies, but the two stories you mention were definitely both primarily inspired by an image. In "Red" I started (and, in fact, ended up closing the story) with a false red fingernail dropping from someone's finger and falling onto the street. It triggered a sort of stream of consciousness first person present tense rant by the protagonist / narrator Maureen who witnesses it fall, and from there became an opportunity to play with the device of unreliable narrator. The story "Lunch Hour" (which most obviously gives the book its title) was based on an odd little news story about a pelican eating a pigeon in a London park from October 2006 which was accompanied by an amazing photo - http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared... - and that picture was definitely the primary inspiration for writing the story. I thought it captured an incredible "calm before the storm" moment where the pigeon appears to be perfectly happy to be sitting in the pelican's bill. So that was my starting point and the rest is an imagining of the next twenty minutes or so as the human onlookers gather to watch as a bird slowly eats another bird.
AH: Much of the drama in Bird Eat Bird comes from knowledge. This sounds very abstract, and I will try to narrow it down. What I mean is, in "Red" the reader knows only gradually that Maureen (the protagonist) is mentally ill; in "Tall Food" we know that Rob is not enjoying the date, whereas Ellie does not (poor thing); in "At Sea", we know that Carol is in danger boogie-boarding in the riptide, long before she does. Can you talk about the distribution of knowledge and the types of decisions you had to make in pacing and timing for the stories in relation to who gets to know what and when?
KB: I do think timing is a tricky business, whether you're telling a joke or writing a short story! Certainly in "Red" I was making a conscious decision to play with the device of using an unreliable narrator, although there isn't a specific point in the story where I wanted the reader to realize Maureen's viewpoint is perhaps not what it first seemed. As long as the realization dawns after the first page, the story (which is probably the most experimental in the collection) hopefully works. And the pacing was also very important because we're following the character over the course of a single day during which time her medication is steadily wearing off. But writing that story definitely felt like a delicate balancing act at times, and I knew I was taking a risk in exploring such subjects as political correctness, disability and mental illness, as well as the way perceptions can change (individual, societal and those of the reader) while also attempting to make it funny (though not just funny, hopefully!). In "At Sea" I was mostly working to balance the present day action with the exposition / backstory as told through Carol's ruminations, and also to create a sense of foreboding, again both for the reader and the protagonist. Carol's internal dialogue eventually falls away and she's forced into the present, where the reader has been all along. So I guess it's natural that the reader is always one step ahead of the central character in that one, though I've had readers tell me they read it with great trepidation as they were convinced something terrible was going to happen to the children. I guess "Tall Food" falls somewhere between - Ellie is not as far gone as Maureen, but she's also not your typical 32-year-old woman. I'm glad you felt sorry for her as she's meant to evoke some sympathy if not pity, but I also wanted it to become clear that, on this particular date at least, her naïvité and lack of wit ironically ends up saving her. She inadvertently turns off (and thus thwarts the selfishly motivated plans of) her date, thereby preventing herself from having to waste another second on a guy who is, frankly, a bit of an asshole.
AH: One of the tensions that you must balance in BEB is pity and humour. From paragraph to paragraph in "Tall Food", one feels sorry for Ellie and then laughs at her. The pay off is that the reader is really roped in and implicated in the story, but the danger is either falling in to pathos or losing believability by treating the characters inhumanely. Can you talk about holding back obliterating an easy target like Maureen, and what the gains are in exercising such restraint? Also, I think that in doing this, you keep the stories out of the realm of satire and more in the realm of comedy. Does this distinction ring true for you and can you comment on it?
KB: Hmmm... Well, I will certainly try to comment on it! I don't think comedy and satire are mutually exclusive and I'd be flattered if someone were to describe my writing as either "funny" or "satirical" (or both)! But I think maybe I know what you mean with regards to the character of Maureen - it was very important to me that she comes across as a fully developed and credible, three dimensional human being, albeit one who is at first slightly "off" and later, clearly mentally ill. And while it was not my primary objective to try and write satire, there is definitely meant to be a bit of social commentary (if not criticism!) lurking in the background, which I'm happy to say some reviewers have picked up (and commented favourably) on. I think I maybe touched on the balance between pity and humour in the previous answer, at least with regards to "Tall Food" - while Ellie's naïvité and lack of wit are supposed to engender sympathy and even pity early on, these qualities end up preventing the possibility of her getting any more deeply involved with a guy who is, on the one hand, a fairly regular kind of guy with a certain amount of wit and humour, but who also reveals himself (to the reader, and because of how Ellie is) to be something of a predatory jerk and certainly not suitable for Ellie. At least, that was the intention! So while at first Ellie's reactions are often laughable (and yes, I'm meaning for the reader to both laugh at her and with her) there is supposed to be a progression through the narrative as Rob's attempted jokes continually fall flat. After a while Ellie stops being so funny (as in laughable) too. I've always been interested in the subjective nature of comedy - most of us have met people with no discernible sense of humour (something I personally find very disconcerting and something that's also often cited as the first sign of madness - certainly I think it tends to indicate some kind of personality disorder such as narcissism) but I don't believe I've ever encountered someone who admits to having no sense of humour. And in fact, if they did, it probably wouldn't be true. With "Red" it was a very different challenge as the story is written in the first person (rather than third person limited) and also in the present tense. So I had to completely let go and really inhabit the character and become Maureen in order to create the feeling of a fast-paced, breathless rant. Then later, when taking it beyond the first draft, I had to exercise more conscious control than in any other story. So far, the feedback I've had on "Red" has been very positive, with everyone seeming to "get" the story and enjoy it, so hopefully it means I got the balance right there.
AH: In some of the stories in Bird Eat Bird, particularly "At Sea" I could see potential for extending into a novel. Do you see yourself primarily as a short story writer? Does the novel appeal to you? Who are some of your favourite writers? Who are you reading lately?
KB: You're not the first person to suggest "At Sea" could be expanded into a novel so I guess I should give it some serious thought! I agree that it's the most likely candidate from the book and not just because it's the longest story, but I'm not sure I'd know how to best approach adapting it into a longer narrative. As to what kind of writer I think of myself as, I only started seriously writing fiction a few years ago after my two kids were born, and I was quite surprised to find myself so drawn to the short story because since my early teens I've primarily read and enjoyed novels. In all honesty, I think part of the appeal was due to my decreased attention span - with two children under five, I was so sleep deprived and always battling so many distractions I found it was taking months to read a whole novel, whereas a short story could still be finished in a day or two. Anyway, I have come to love short stories, both as a reader and a writer, and it's been great to see so many short story collections on major awards lists of late. Then recently I learned that this has been declared the Year Of the Short Story: http://yoss2011.com/. But yes, I would definitely like to attempt a novel too. I guess I'm working my way up to it as my current project is a novella, so falls right in between the two categories. My favourite writers include (but are definitely not limited to!): Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Evelyn Waugh, George Saunders, Muriel Spark, David Sedaris, Dorothy Parker, Anton Chekhov, Helen Simpson, Alan Hollinghurst, and Alice Munro. At the moment I am working my way through the various books by the other 2011 Commonwealth Writers' Prize regional winners (in both the best first book and best book categories, at least the ones available in Canada!) and hope to have read them all before we gather in Sydney next month. After that I look forward to tackling my ever-growing To Read ASAP pile, which includes several much lauded Canadian 2010 titles (novels and short story collections!) such as: "Annabel" by Kathleen Winter, "The Sky Is Falling" by Caroline Adderson, "Light Lifting" by Alexander MacLeod and "This Cake Is For the Party" by Sarah Selecky.
AH: Can you talk about any surprising reactions to BEB? Were there things that you expected people to get that they didn't get? Were there interpretations that surprised you?
KB: So far the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, both from readers and reviewers, for which I'm very grateful. To date I've only received one negative review, which appeared in a fairly small online publication so I didn't find out about it for quite a while. When I did finally read it, I was at first a little taken aback by how much he seemed to dislike - and dismiss - the stories, but it quickly became clear that it was simply not his cup of tea; he didn't "get" the book at all, or what I was trying to do, especially in terms of the humour, which is of course totally valid - it's such a subjective thing. A lot of people have taken the time to give very specific feedback by naming their favourite story or stories in the book, which I love. It's been interesting - and gratifying! - for me to note that every one of the six stories has now been named as somebody's favourite. Of all the stories, "Tall Food" is probably the one which has received the most "mixed" reactions from readers and reviewers, I think because for some, the character of Ellie comes across as so naïve and lacking in self-awareness that she stretches credulity. But I guess it's not the case for everyone because quite a few have singled it out as their favourite story. I'm always happy and appreciative when someone takes the time to read my book, and if they find it even mildly entertaining (let alone enlightening) then I'm thrilled.
AH: You live in Montreal. Can you comment on living in a bilingual city and how hearing more than one language spoken creates an inspiring backdrop or texture? Can you speak about your expatriate experience and what kind of impact that had on your writing life?
KB: I came to Montreal via Vancouver and oddly enough, often felt more like an alien on the west coast than I do here. I'm not entirely sure why, although when we first relocated to Montreal ten years ago I remember noting how many similarities (aside from the language) there were between Quebecers and Brits (not all positive either but I did feel instantly at home!). I do understand and speak French (though I'm not totally fluent) so I can get by in either language, though more often than not, when I speak French to someone the response comes back in English, even if their English is worse than my French. There is a lot of perversity in this province for sure. Being part of a minority group has been a new and interesting experience, but there's a very supportive and talented artistic community here in the Anglophone sector of Montreal. I certainly think the mixture of cultures makes for a vibrant and interesting city, but the politics and insularity of this province can cause a lot of frustration and even anger - healthy for a writer, probably, but bad for the blood pressure! The fact that I'm an expatriate and dual national undoubtedly informs and affects my writing and the experience of being an immigrant is definitely one of the subjects I like to explore.
AH: Can you talk about the themes in Bird Eat Bird? One that comes to mind is loneliness, whether within a relationship or in looking for one, whether acknowledged or unacknowledged. Are there themes that you are continually drawn to, that you think you will deal with in different ways in upcoming work? Are there things you didn't get to that you are hoping to get to in your next collection/ book?
KB: I find it interesting that you pull out loneliness as a theme. I agree that it comes up a lot in these stories, although I'm not sure I was consciously setting out to explore it as a theme in and of itself. As previously mentioned, one of my recurring topics is the immigrant experience, and the feelings of alienation and disconnect that go along with being some kind of an "outsider" whether it's due to literally being an immigrant, or because a character is perceived as different in some way by those around them who make up the "normal" majority in society. Loneliness is absolutely a part of all that. I've always been fascinated by the minutiae of life, and by the quirks and foibles that all humans share and I've long been drawn to observational humour. And as well as using humour in my storytelling, I'm also interested in the subject of comedy itself and its essential, mysterious, necessarily subjective nature that can be at once divisive and unifying.
Those of you who read my first installment will remember I asked several writers their favourite and least favourite book to film adaptation; here is Best's response:
I'm definitely wary and often disappointed by film adaptations of books I've read and loved, though there are some exceptions. I think "The English Patient" is a good example of a great movie adaptation because it changed so many elements in the book and yet somehow stayed true to the novel's spirit. For some reason Jane Austen novels seem to lend themselves quite well to film adaptation, whether as classic period films like "Emma" "Sense and Sensibility" and "Pride and Prejudice" or as looser, contemporary adaptations such as "Clueless". I think the most common problems with adapting novels - especially sweeping epic ones - is that there are often too many storylines to cope with in a 2-hour-or-under movie, and so the screenwriter must make difficult choices about which storylines and characters to cut out, while ensuring that the novel's heart - its central story - remains intact. Also, central characters in novels are often quite passive and/or internal, which doesn't necessarily make for a compelling screen protagonist, especially if you're trying not to rely on voice-over narration. Two film adaptations that I liked about as much as the books were both based on Nick Hornby novels: "High Fidelity" (which I thought worked well even though it transposed the very British setting and English characters into the U.S./Americans) and "About A Boy" (in which Hugh Grant showed his bad side to good effect). Actually, I've been pondering this subject a lot lately as I myself am currently adapting a book for the screen (with Jon Paul Fiorentino -- we are co-writing the screenplay "Stripmalling" based on his novel). We've been lucky enough to receive development funding for two script phases and are having a lot of fun, but I can confirm that it's not an easy task.
Click here to give a listen to Best reading Lunch Hour from Bird Eat Bird: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...