Interview With Author Terry Tempest Williams
When Women Were Birds
Greetings. Here are my responses to your evocative questions.
atsGf/Bonnie Simon: Terry, I love your poetic style of writing. What influences helped you develop it?
Terry Tempest Williams: I think style is like voice, it grows organically from the truth of one’s own life experience. I don’t think in terms of chapters, per se. I think in terms of stories. It is the story itself that creates an inherent structure. With this book, “When Women Were Birds,” it is a story about how my mother left me her journals andall her journals were blank. There are twelve blank pages that follow this revelation in the book. That is not a style, but the physical truth. I wanted the reader to feel that same kind of shock that I did. What follows are 54 meditation, variations on voice, that honor my mother’s age and the age I was when I finally could tell this story. What influenced this “poetic style of writing” you ask, I think it is rises from the poetry of our lives, “My mother left me her journals and all her journals were blank.”
atsGf/Bonnie Simon: Are there particular styles, authors or poets that you are fond of?
Terry Tempest Williams: Certainly and many: I am deeply in debt to the Transcendentalists from Thoreau to Emerson to Margaret Fuller and that time period in American letters including Hawthorne, Melville, Walt Whitman, and of course, Emily Dickinson. Virginia Woolf showed me the import and beauty of internal dialogue and thepower of working with language as a continuum stream of consciousness. The Waves is a strong ongoing influence.
Hemingway influenced me as did Steinbeck for their pragmatic style of storytelling, nothing wasted. Willa Cather for the beauty of her descriptions of landscape and those who live inside it. Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic” from “Sand County Almanac” reads as scripture. Rachel Carson and Edward Abbey for their ferocity and love. Louise Erdrich for her imagination. Simon Ortiz for his poetic wisdom of the Desert. Stegner for his longevity and commitment to the American West.
Helene Cixous has challenged me to “write out of the body” and Clarice Lispector shows me what that might look like on the page, “I now know what I want to stand still in the middle of the sea.” Carole Maso for her experimentation of form; Anne Carson for her embodied prose and intelligence; Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, and Muriel Rukeyser for their voices that demand clarity of soul. Gary Snyder and W.S. Merwin for their poetic consciousness toward the Earth. Wendell Berry forhis sense of justice. All things John Berger.
Carl Hiaasen for his wicked humor and sharp-edged critique of American culture. Zadie Smith for the power of her essays. And Richard Brautigan will always touch my heart with “Trout Fishing in America.”
The entire Peterson Field Guide Series from birds to stars to wildflowers and animal tracks to rocks, minerals, and shells. Stop me!
atsGf/Bonnie Simon: To me, this book is a memoir about voice. It’s a lovely recounting of the evolution one woman takes from silence to a voice loud and confident enough to publish books. I find it interesting that it all starts with your mother and grandmother, and that makes me wonder what this book has been to you.
Terry Tempest Williams: I am not certain that this evolution of voice is a journey “from silence to a voice loud and confident” but rather a path of unfolding sensibilities and what it means to speak from one’s authentic center where I believe we find our true authority. This evolves over time. What is “voice” but an articulation of one’s place in the world,what we see, how we feel, the questions we hold and the stands we take.
My mother and grandmother have been powerful mentors for me in terms of women of great presence. They were women of spiritual depth and integrity, they were wicked in their humor and wise in their perspectives. Both are dead, but their spirits remain vibrant forces in my life. So you ask what this book has been for me – It has been an ongoing, sustained conversation with them over time, a spiral of thoughts shared over twenty-five years. I wrote REFUGE as a daughter and granddaughter. I wrote WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS as a woman.
atsGf/Bonnie Simon : How did you see it as you were writing it?
Terry Tempest Williams: I saw it as the story I have kept tucked deeply in the soles of my feet, hidden and protected, for decades. My mother left me her journals and all her journals were blank. I was barely thirty years old. The shock of finding all her journals empty was not a luxury I could afford to think about so sharp and ragged was my grief. My mother’s empty journals became paper tombstones. I simply gathered them up, took them home and began writing in them unceremoniously. It wasn’t until I turned 54, the age my mother was when she died that I was able to go back and revisit the question, “Why?” And so, WHEN WOMEN WERE BIRDS began a dialogue on the page with this mystery.
atsGf/Bonnie Simon: Did the theme evolve?
Terry Tempest Williams: I think there are multiple themes that evolved through both memory and the exploration of experience. The book is not only a book about voice but a book about silence, the silence that nurtures us that gives rise to voice and the silences that render us mute. One is liberating, the other, self-censorship or oppression.
To hold silence and to be silenced are two very different experiences. And so another theme emerges, that of light and shadow. When we share our voice, who benefits? When we withhold, who benefits? And what are the consequences and costs of both?
We find our voice, we lose our voice, we retrieve it, honor it, and hopefully, learn how to share it with others and stand in the center of our power. Translation is a theme. Fear and courage are a theme. Love, of course, is an integral weaving throughout this book. I keep thinking of Adrienne Rich’s “dream of a common language.” What might that language look like, sound like, feel like?
atsGf/Bonnie Simon: Please forgive the personal nature of this question. Was this a difficult book to write? Was the mining of memories painful? How did you approach the accounting of so many incidents in your life and did it change the way you see yourself? Did putting it on paper separate these events from you, as if they are now part of someone else’s life?
Terry Tempest Williams: What great questions. All the books I write are difficult, if they weren’t then I would not be interested. A book is a discovery, uncovering of the unknown, otherwise, why write if we already know the outcome? I write out of my questions. And my questions take me on as an apprentice to various lines of inquiry. As Helene Cixous says in her very challenging book, “Three Steps Up the Ladder of Writing,” that as writers we must spend time in the tutelage of “The School of the Dead; The School of Dreams; and The School of Roots.”
To go back into the terrain of memory to uncover the depth of emotion required to write an honest book is never easy, but it can be exhilarating. And writing “When Women Were Birds” was an arduous process, but an exhilarating one, as well. Why? Because I had to go back and really look at the places in my life where my voice was influenced, where I found my voice and where I lost it.
I am not the hero of this book, much is revealed that I am not proud of, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I’ve also taken risks and so, the other side of these revelations is awareness which leads to transformation and joy. I loved writing this book because it allowed me to chart the trajectory of my own voice as a woman, a conservationist, and writer. I loved imagining what my mother might have meant by leaving me her blank journals. I was able to play on the page in ways I have not been able to do in previous books because of the subject matter: writing an autobiography of voice.
My mother gave me a great gift, the gift of mystery, not a mystery to be solved, but something mysterious to be explored.
Catch Bonnie’s Review of When Women Were Birds
Disclaimer: The publisher, Macmillion, kindly provided a complementary copy of When Women Were Birds. All opinions are 100% Bonnie Simon’s.