“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a sh*tty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” ANNE LAMOTT
BW: Thank you for that. I love books where setting plays such an important part. I wanted my fantastical story to be grounded in natural science, so I was able to base my settings on real habitats like the coast of Iceland and northern Europe, which have plenty of inherent drama. I also loved the way the beautifully bleak, airy world of Neversink contrasted with the woody domain of the owls. I set it in pre-human times because I wanted this to be the animals’ world entirely (and also so I could take a few liberties with geography). The myths and backstory came after all that other was in place. Obviously in using Norse and Inuit folklore I was going roughly by geography—and it doesn’t hurt that birds and animism are so important to those systems.
JB: You don’t see a whole lot of animal stories out there these days. What made you decide to write a book with birds as the main characters?
BW: Yeah, what happened to the great talking animal story, Jordan? I had no idea what sort of resistance I was inviting by venturing into this territory. But to answer your question, I was asked years ago, as a junior advertising copywriter, to come up with a mascot with a new brand of marshmallows that was to be called Puffins. The project never went anywhere, but years later when I stood before the auk exhibit at the aquarium in Baltimore, the idea of a puffin protagonist came back to me. And it just seemed to me the puffin was woefully unrepresented in children’s literature.
JB: There’s a kind of poetry to having a puffin, a hummingbird, and a walrus as your three main characters. This is one of the things that didn’t require any work during the editorial process—these three complement one another so well that it actually seems natural, even logical. Can you talk a bit about where these characters came from?
BW: Well, as you now know, the puffin came from marshmallows (which led to an inside joke in the scene where Lockley is on the Moors). I also wanted my book to have a character who loves books (or stories), since the importance of stories is such a key element. I happen to be a fan of the corpulent critic Harold Bloom, and given my Arctic setting, a walrus seemed to be the perfect embodiment of a larger-than-life, outspoken book lover. Egbert had to have a foil, though, and I love goofy, physical comedy. Picturing a walrus and a hummingbird together just made me laugh, so I bent over backwards to make it plausible for a vagrant hummingbird to be that far north, at least during the summer.
JB: There are some really complex ideas about systems of government in the relationship between the auks of Neversink and the owls of Tytonia. That is, the villains and the heroes are drawn more along political lines than traditional lines of good and evil. Was this always a part of your plan for Neversink? How did this element of the book develop?
BW: It sort of developed organically. The book all began with this idea of a puffin character. The fact that Atlantic puffins inhabit Iceland and the British Isles fed into my enthusiasm for Norse mythology, sagas, as well as Brit lit and humor. Then you have the fact that the collective noun for owls is a parliament, and puffins are sometimes called a colony, which again fit the setting.
That may seem a bit haphazard, but that’s okay. I never intended Neversink to be a satire of a particular form of government, like Animal Farm. Parliamentary government isn’t the villain—it’s Rozbell and his faction. It’s more about the circumstances that can lead to the abuse of power, and how even noble ideals like the desire for self-determination can be dangerous or self-destructive if clung to fanatically.
JB: Sam Nielson’s illustrations captured the feel of the characters and the world pretty wonderfully. What was your first reaction to seeing his sketch work?
BW: The one thing I feared with Neversink as far as illustrations was the characters being too humanized. You’ll see this style sometimes where the birds’ wings sort of morph into hands or the eyes get a little too big and forward-facing so they can convey more emotion. But Sam’s sketch work showed he was on the same page as me. The landscapes on his blog caught my eyes as well, because the environment is so important in Neversink. The finished art is even better than I had hoped. I love the cover, but I think I love the classical feel of the graphite illustrations inside even more.
JB: What was the hardest part of revising Neversink during the editorial process?
BW: The ripple effect that even small changes have on the structure. For instance, I wrote somewhere that it was a half-day’s flight from Tytonia to Neversink. One small fact, except that it led to a host of logistical problems when it came to the owls Rozbell and Astra going back and forth between to the two islands. A small thing, in a way, but simply shortening the distance wasn’t an option for many reasons. So I ended up having to create a whole new character in the 11th hour (the burrowing owl, Edmund), to keep the plot working. Oh, and also your deadlines.
JB: If you were a bird, what kind of bird would you be?
BW: A barn owl. They are quiet, like being up when most other creatures are asleep, and they like barns.
JB: What are you writing next?
BW: A girl named Mackenzie Brown who has a pet Hamadryas baboon named Higgins that ghostwrites mystery novels.
I’ve returned from a whirlwind of a weekend in Texas with a handful of kid lit industry professionals. (And ate some amazing handmade puffy tortillas drizzled with warm butter and honey. These are not them.)
A new challenge for picture book writers.
A foldout bird’s-eye view of Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge—rendered in an airy cut-paper composition that features scraps of test answer sheets and a New York City map—is a highlight of Ward’s (Pelly and Mr. Harrison Visit the Moon) story about a kindhearted, stocking-capped bird. When Blue mistakes an errant winter snowball that lands in her nest for an egg that’s lost its mother, she snaps into action. Toting her tiny white charge in a bright orange pail, Blue embarks on a months-long search high and low, uptown and downtown, canvassing her fellow birds. The trip yields treasures like carousel rides and hot dogs, but no mama for Egg, who starts to shrink once warmer weather rolls around. Happily, spring provides a sunny conclusion. Those familiar with New York will recognize skyline landmark buildings, the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, and other stops in this uplifting Big Apple adventure. And Ward offers a plethora of fun visual details—Bird posting “Lost Egg” signs; Bird and Egg seated in a box at the opera—along the way. Ages 3–5. Agent: Andrea Brown Literary Agency. (Feb.)