Layne Maheu Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Layne Maheu
Photo: Chris Smith

Layne Maheu

An interview with Layne Maheu

Awk Talk: Questions and Answers with Layne Maheu

How did you come up with the title Song of the Crow?
It’s hard to imagine a Crow’s voice as particularly musical, or all that pretty. But I suppose the crows themselves react favorably to their own calls. I chose the word ‘song’ for the irony, from our perspective, and also for how it would fit within the crow’s point of view. The narrator of the story is a crow.

Originally I had entitled the book Songs Long Gone. I imagine that crow’s might have provincial variations in their calls, and perhaps individual calls that they use to establish themselves. In the narrative, their homes, or aeries, are called ‘songscapes.’ And since there’s a flood that wipes everything out, well, the songs go with it.

Then, when the story was picked up by Unbridled Books, Fred Ramey, my editor there, thought that the title should show the unique perspective of the narrator, and so did I. So we kept ‘Song’ and added ‘Crow.’

What is your book about?
It’s an ancient, ancient story, and most likely one of the first stories you’ve ever heard, back in childhood. It’s the story of Noah’s Ark. But this time, it’s the story of The Flood told by a bird—-by a crow. And the crow doesn’t enter the ark two by two, in a nice, orderly procession as is usually the case.

No.

The crow learns of Noah only as the woods come crashing down all around him, to become building material for the ship. Ever leery of this strange destructive mammal, our Protagonist Crow resists boarding for as long as possible. Until he has to sneak aboard, in the last moment, outside of Noah’s law.

(Follow up question) Oh, hmmm. So, why a crow?
When the Ark hits Mount Ararat, Noah sends out two different kinds of birds to find land. Everyone knows about the dove and the olive branch. But what about the first bird he sends out—-the raven? (Crows and ravens, though not the same, are close enough cousins). Ancient sailors, such as the Vikings, actually used ravens to navigate their ships, before the invention of the compass. In the Flood Myth, the raven sent out by Noah doesn’t come back. Why? What happened to him out there in the Flood? This is his story.

The reason I chose the crow, though, over the raven, to tell the Noah story, was that I found them vastly easier to find, and also because, in some parts of the country, they breed in collective groups. Siblings from recent nest-times help out with the rearing of the latest batch. So, they live in busy families—-these most intelligent and human of all birds.

Also, in urban and suburban areas, the growth of human populations has a similar impact on crow populations. Their numbers increase. We share a convergent evolution with these birds.

Are you religious?
No, though when coincidence seems too overwhelming to be random, I may for a moment feel awed by omen and superstition. I know a lot of people like that, even if they’re not specifically religious and tend toward agnosticism or atheism. What’s out there? Beyond us? Especially in the extreme moments? Is some thing or force driving the universe or at least our own individual paths? Why go down this road? And not that one? When, by doing so, we miss a sure head-on with a semi-truck, and the truck plows into someone else? Why me? Why not me? Why them? I think, when reading the Noah myth, even as children, our nature automatically assumes that you and I are safe aboard the ark, and everyone else is out there bobbing around in the Flood.

Why did you write this book?
One of my imaginary selves has always been a biologist. Perhaps in a former lifetime, I was a nineteenth century naturalist. The closest I’d ever come to realizing that fantasy, though, is by bird watching.

Quickly I found that merely seeing and identifying bird species was only a part of it. I was interested in bird behavior. So, I looked over the bookstore shelves and right away found two excellent books on crows and the crow family. From the very beginning, it seems, crows and their kindred species have inspired people to fantastic legends and insight, and for good reason they’re considered the most intelligent of birds.

In the early Hebrew flood myth, the raven (of the crow family) disregards his mission to find land in order to gorge on corpses. He breaks Noah’s marshal law and makes love on the ark, not only to his own mate, but to other species’ mates. Then, when he’s discovered, he accuses Noah of lusting after his own mate. The raven is this complete entrepreneur, outside of Noah’s agenda, strange and heady, from a myth thousands of years old, predating the Bible. I thought he was an oddly contemporary character as well. He was still fresh, speaking to us with his fresh voice from across the ages.

Why did you tell the Flood story?
The end of the world—it’s an old story, as old as the oldest profession, and infinitely more interesting. Isn’t there always impending doom? The complete collapse of the economy? Katrina will come crashing over jour roofs, again. Our enemies are flying to us in droves on the next plane over? Is it a matter of too much media? Or, are our fears well grounded. What era in history has not heralded its own end-times?

Then, a few years ago, two scientists came out with a book that claims to prove The Flood is a geological event that happened 7,000 years ago. The Mediterranean was poised 300 feet above the Black Sea basin, then a fresh water lake. With a force 200 times that of Niagara Falls, the sea waters crashed down upon the lake and within three months, brought it up to sea level. The flood drove the cities of humankind constantly upland and caused a diaspora of flood myths across Asia and Europe.

There’s also a sort of historical precedent for choosing my particular narrator to tell The Flood.

Not only does Noah send the raven out to find land in the Biblical flood, in the Northwest Native American flood myth, it’s the raven that discovers human beings on the beach as the waters recede. Here, the raven is none other than the creator of the world, who teaches people how to live. It’s just a fantastic coincidence, or confluence, that on either side of the world, the raven figures heavily in the telling of their respective floods. As I was researching my protagonist, I thought I should somehow patent it, that at sometime, somewhere, someone would eventually unearth this story of the dark bird and the flood and tell it, if I didn’t first. At the time, it seemed obvious and inevitable.

How do you know so much about crows?
I read a few books.

What I find particularly interesting about crows is what we don’t know, or what can never be known.

If you stand outside my house in the morning, just before and well after sunrise, you’ll see the crows, not one, not two, but by the hundreds, all flying in the same direction, in loose lines. What are they doing?
Not one or two groups of a hundred, but forty-five minutes later, the loose groups are still flying, all going in the same direction. Where are they going?
They’re like commuters, like the cars below. Going somewhere, that’s for sure. I mean, somewhere. The crows, collectively, in a social way, are going somewhere. Every morning, in the winter, always the same, by the hundreds and hundreds.

Then, as the day ends—same thing, going the other way, crows by the hundreds, groups and groups of hundreds. Now, the roost island is still an hour-and-some-walk away from my house. I say walk because I walked about halfway there once. By the car it’s about fifteen minutes, if you count all the stop lights. If you were to go to Marsh Island, a kind of a boggy burial ground for old ships and boats turned into a nature walk by the arboretum, where the roost meets every night, you’ll see crows estimated to be in the tens of thousands. The echo-y din of the crows, as they fly overhead, is ominous and drowns out the steady commuter traffic of the four-lane bridge that leads from the city and out over the lake.

What are the crows doing, meeting there in the bare winter trees?

Is it merely an information center for the next day’s foraging?

It seems more fantastic and necessary than that. Crows seem overwhelmingly social, demonstrated, in part, by the roost. To me, social behavior requires a kind of intelligence and nuanced ability to communicate. It is a phenomenal sight, every morning, in the sky above my neighborhood. And how many of my neighbors are aware of it? Not many, I’m afraid.

It is my belief that crows know more about us than the average person knows about them.

We do after all provide for their environment and a good deal of their foodstuff. They know, for instance, what day garbage day is.

Moreover, watching crows is not like watching a lot of other non-mammalian creatures, such as other birds or fish, where their experience seems very remote from our own. No, when watching crows, it’s as if there’s more going on in that bird than is known. But surely, something is going on in there, in the Cranium of the Crow. But what?


You make your living as a carpenter. How did you start writing?
In high school.

I thought the girls might like me better if they saw me reading all by myself at lunchtime, especially near this one girl’s locker. It didn’t work. So I wrote about it.

How long have you lived in Seattle?
Since 1989. I first came to Seattle in the early Spring of ’86.

I’d been stewing in the college town where I graduated. One day, while trying to figure things out, I walked out onto the end of a dock, and these barnacle-covered whales came puffing by in the sea. You could hear the vapor hissing from their spout holes. That did it. I ran the rest of the way up the dock. I said, I’m following you. I’d been thinking I might need to go somewhere. But now I was sure.

So I thumbed my way from Santa Barbara up to Seattle, to look for a job on a boat to Alaska. I thought I might chop off fish heads for a summer and make enough money to buy a car. But I was early enough in the springtime that some fishermen and fisherwomen convinced me that I should get a job on a boat that actually goes after the fish and pulls them from the sea. Sounded good. I did that for seven summers. I’d spend the springs in Seattle, getting the boats ready for a season of salmon fishing up north. Then in the fall, I’d come back with a pocket full of change and I always had a good time. Seattle was an obvious choice for me as a place to live. Same with a lot of my fishing buddies. I love the skies here, that low, blustery overcast, swooping by, city-lit, overhead. It’s definitely a part of me, or I’m a part of it, something like that.

What kind of carpentry do you do?
Whatever comes along. It always seems to change. Foundation work, work on roofs, and everything in between. Commercial work, mostly concrete, elevator cores, I used to do that. Interior office spaces, worked on a crew that remodeled those. Presently I’m working two jobs—remodeling a home that over looks the Sound and refurbishing apartments in the valley.

Here’s an interesting bit, to me anyway:

A few years back, I’d done some work on an old building, The Kress, which was mostly empty warehouse space. We turned it into a bunch of ‘mixed use’ spaces. One of them had a storefront and was picked up by a used bookseller. I saw them hauling in their boxes and boxes of merchandise just as our job was winding down. At the time, I was spending my evenings and weekends in the endless endless revision process of my Crow story. I had an agent, but no publisher or anything like that. And I said to myself, Someday, they’re going to sell my book here.

Recently I revisited the store, and the store owner remembered me when I’d worked there. We talked books etc., and she said, wonderful. She’d be happy to sell my book. I looked around and inspected the plaster walls I helped to refinish and paint, the passageway I’d cut between the two rooms, the doors I’d hung, the tile floor I’d put down, and now it was a bookstore, a space I’d helped to create, that would sell my first book. That was doubly satisfying.

What has the experience of publishing your first book been like?
You send out short stories, then parts of a novel, hoping to get them published. (Crow wasn’t my first book-length work). Years go by, decades. You wrap your guts up into some newsprint and send them out. Every once in a while, the guts come back to you with a little jolt, or a wiggle still in them, before the nerves give out. A rejection, but not a full rejection!

You think, God, what’s wrong with me? (Perhaps better not to know, but just persist).

Then, you find people who really believe in what you’re doing. Jeff, my agent—we went over and over that Crow story till finally neither of us could look at it anymore. Then he sent it to editorial assistants and they looked at it. The effort was fantastic. Then Fred, my editor, got a hold of it, and somehow, through the 20,000 extra puffy passages that later were cut, he saw the story through to its present shape.

I once took a short story class in college, and one of the assignments was to compare two stories. Our professor told us to read and read those two stores, to know those stories so well that you know them better than the author did. That really struck a chord with me—that you could infuse yourself with a work to that extent, that it became new and somehow your own, by virtue of a different understanding. I felt like that was the type of care the story was receiving. It was deeply satisfying and something I should hope every writer would one day experience.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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