5 from 35: Author Q & A with Emily Strelow
Emily Strelow, 40, published her debut THE WILD BIRDS from Rare Bird this year.
Read more about THE WILD BIRDS here.
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How long did it take you to write your first (published) book, start to finish?
It took me over 12 years to complete my manuscript! I finished my MFA at 26 and just after wrote a long short story that editors at literary journals liked but that was too long to publish. Two editors requested I make it shorter and resubmit. But no matter how hard I tried, the “short” story of forty some pages just kept getting longer and longer. Finally, it was my dear mother who asked gently if perhaps it was meant to be a novel. She was completely right. Thanks, Mom! After that, it was ten years of writing in short, intense, bursts between field seasons as an avian biological field tech, or jotting down things in my tent after 12 hour days in the field. So, I suppose I was in my mid 20’s when I started writing The Wild Birds, but the book pubbed just 11 days after I turned 40.
What kind of work did you do to earn money while writing your first book?
Money? What is money? Sigh.
I have never been a particularly money-oriented person. Of course, I make ends meet. For almost a decade I split my time teaching writing and doing avian field biology. I would teach a quarter at the community college in my home base of Portland, Oregon then take off for the grasslands of northern Mexico to do telemetry on sparrows, or whatever other conservation project struck my fancy. Ironically, it wasn’t until I had my first child that I was able to be settled enough in one spot to put all the pieces of the novel together and weave the stories into a complete manuscript. One doesn’t immediately equate new motherhood with finally finishing that novel project, but that was the case for me. I slowed down and found time for both writing and reading. Pro tip: breastfeeding and audiobooks are a match made in heaven.
For me, apart from the science, there emerged a mystical component to doing field work—things happened while away from society and observing the natural world that often felt connected in a larger way to the human spirit. Animal visits, coincidences, weather pheonomenon, and other natural connections started complicating my idea of what it meant to be alive. I found myself weaving a narrative about human inter-connectivity while out in the field, completely away from people. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of perspective, but that distance from people made me more able to see how we work, and how connected we are as humans to the ecosystems we live in (whether we like to admit it or not).
Did you ever want to quit? If yes, what kept you going? If no, what kept you going?
I absolutely did want to quit many times. My dedication page in my book is a love letter to all the wonderful, supportive people who buoyed me kept me going. But I’ll say this: it was also the doubters who helped push me to finish. One male writer “friend” of mine laid into me hard on a phone call after I sent him a writing sample, telling me I should absolutely quit writing, that I was no good and would never be any good. I was in tears after the call. But you know what? It lit a fire. I made sure to prove that dude wrong.
What are you reading right now?
I am reading six books besides my research books for my work in progress (yes, I’m one of those people).
There There by Tommy Orange
Unbroken Threads by Jennifer Klepper
Florida by Lauren Groff
A Different Kind of Fire by Suanne Schafer
Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Fast Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones