Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Sarah Bird

Sarah Bird is the author of eleven novels. Her latest, Last Dance on the Starlight Pier, is out this month from St. Martin’s Press. Set during the Great Depression, the novel focuses on one woman—and a nation—struggling to be reborn from the ashes.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Quite a bit, actually. My working title was The Cellophane Wedding since the book takes place in world of the dance marathons of the Great Depression and that was one of the events that promoters cooked up to draw crowds. Since so many couples couldn’t afford to start their lives together, weddings became rare enough that audiences would pay to see one.

And a cellophane wedding? Where the bride and all her many bridesmaids wore gowns made of transparent cellophane over their underwear? Well, that was a guaranteed sold-out house.

The cellophane wedding was just one of the fabulous research discoveries I made about the dance marathons and, though it didn’t become the title, it became a pivotal element.

In the end the actual title, Last Dance on the Starlight Pier, was a better choice because, in a very few words, it plunges the reader into the story of a young woman whose future is going to be decided during a dance marathon held beside the sea. The word “last” introduces the sense of urgency that animates my protagonist and her quest.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

My teenage self would adore this novel and the two that preceded it since they are what she loved most: historical fiction. I grew up reading the big, juicy epics that my mother devoured. Doorstops by the likes of Leon Uris, Mary Renault, and Taylor Caldwell. I think my earlier novels would have surprised the shy Catholic schoolgirl that I was since they are generally considered comic and can be fairly bawdy.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Beginnings are definitely harder for me. I generally know, or at least think I know, what the ending will be. But I’m typically not certain how the book should begin until I’ve written the whole thing. The ending is like a note on a pitch pipe. It tells me the emotional tenor I want to end on. My job is to find the right note to open with and all the ones that go in the middle so that the whole thing is ultimately in tune.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I’m sort of a Method writer. Like a Method actor, I have to become my protagonist, to understand her grief and joy, in short, her motivation, in order to tell her story. Some of my protagonists have included the only woman to serve with the Buffalo Soldiers, an Okinawan girl conscripted by the Japanese army during World War Two, a drug-addled caterer, and, most recently, a desperate nursing student/former vaudeville performer who enters a dance marathon. On the surface, my current life as a suburban mom would seem worlds apart from them. But, emotionally, I have inhabited each one and they are all me.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Though I’m deeply grateful for my acceptance as a “Texas Writer” to the point that I’ve been selected for the Texas Writers Hall of Fame, I’m not sure I deserve the title. I was a mostly finished product by the time I ever set foot in the Lone Star State. My early influences were about as strong as they come: large, Catholic, Democratic, military family composed of voracious readers. These influences set me on the path I was to follow in both life and in my writing.
Visit Sarah Bird's website.

--Marshal Zeringue