A Conversation with Sarah Bird, author of the novel The Flamenco Academy
How did you decide to take on the subject of Flamenco for a novel?
The one subject that I always knew I wanted to write about was an obsessive love
affair I had that began when I was 16 and fell in love at first sight with a
deliriously handsome young man and remained so until I was 23. For years I tried
to capture this experience on paper, but it always came out as a suburban
When I was 20 and living with Beloved, I walked in on him in bed with a friend.
Realizing that I had to put at least an ocean between us or I would never break
free, I went to Europe. So, dazed and heartbroken, I hitchhiked and Eurailed for
a year and a half. During that time I found a job as a tour guide in a botanical
garden owned by White Russian émigrés on Spains Costa Brava. One very late
night, very early morning, in a tiny club outside of Barcelona, I saw an
astonishing performance of what I would learn later was flamenco.
Flamenco was the first materialization Id witnessed that mirrored my tumultuous
inner landscape. Decades later, as I was struggling to make a novel convey the
experience of obsessive love, I recalled that night. The passion and intensity
of flamenco, its insistence upon revealing the unrevealable, fit the emotional
truth of the story I wanted to tell. I began a fumbling, stumbling study of
flamenco and quickly discovered how dauntingly vast and impenetrably arcane the
subject is. I live in Austin, Texas, not a hotbed of flamenco activity. I was
despairing of ever cracking the flamenco code when I learned that my alma mater,
the University of New Mexico, was becoming the academic center of flamenco! That
each summer the UNM flamenco program hosted a festival that drew every flamenco
star in the world. Submerging myself in classes and performances, I began to
understand a bit about this art that only truly reveals itself in the moment of
The University of New Mexicos vibrant flamenco scene was a gift from the
universe not only in terms of research but also in providing a setting for my
young protagonists. Exactly the same one where, thirty years earlier, Id
enacted my drama. Flamencos other great gift to me is that, as one of my
character puts it, Flamenco is OCD with a beat. Flamenco dancers, guitarists,
singers are obsessed and do become compulsive about their art.
Possibly best of all is that flamenco demands the same sort of transformation
that my obsessive love affair did. My heroine, Rae, goes through the flamenco
dance program in order to transform herself into someone that Tomás, the object
of her adoration, will fall in love with.
Was it exhilarating to write about a dance that is so symbolic of passion?
And what is it you were drawn to about this dance in particular?
Writing about flamenco was extremely intimidating. I chose flamenco thinking it
was the embodiment of wild, anarchic abandonment built on unstructured
improvisational outpourings and learned that el arte is as strictly
regimented as haiku. Every stomp of a foot, every strum of the guitar, must fall
precisely within a certain rhythmic pattern called el compás and that
there are probably fifty different styles or palos. The other daunting fact I
learned about flamenco is that it is an insiders art. Experts, aficionados, and
buffs abound and they all have very strict ideas about what is and is not
At the times when I could manage to stop worrying about those battalions of
experts and sort of channel the years of research, it was exhilarating to feel
that, perhaps, I was putting on the page a distillation of both of flamenco and
The Flamenco Academy is a departure from your other novels, most
recent of them the wonderful Yokota Officers Club, in that the others
were more comic in tone. What made you decide to make this one different and was
it hard to leave the humor behind?
There was never any choice about leaving humor behind. I love humor. I love
writing it, I love reading it, but a novel about obsessive love is not the place
for it. Humor is a distancing mechanism. Mostly a good one, it lets us detach
enough that we can talk about tragedy and taboos, fears and failings. But I
could not have distance or detachment in this novel. It was hard to leave humor
behind. So hard, in fact, that two years ago, when I was utterly stuck and
despairing, and too many other hard things were happening in my life, I took a
break and wrote a novel that had only one purpose: to cheer me up. If an idea or
a character or a line cheered me up, in it went. Im rewriting it now.
How much research did you have to do and where?
Colossal, titanic, gargantuan amounts. I did all the live stuff in New Mexico,
took classes, sat in on lectures, interviewed performers, watched the worlds
best dancers, singers, and guitarists. Fortunately, back home in Austin, the
library system is quite good and I had access to the University of Texass
system as well. So I was able to do all the parts that involved holing up in
carrels and filling out innumerable index cards in Austin.
Ive been asked repeatedly if I went to Spain. No, modern-day Spain would not
have helped unless I could have visited in a time machine. The parts of the
novel that are set in Spain take place from, roughly, 1920 until the end of the
Spanish Civil War. Though, if I did have that time machine, I would return to
the Golden Age of Flamenco, around the turn of the last century when flamenco
flowered in the cafes cantantes, the singing cafes, of Andalusia. That period
entrances me. Maybe its the gaslight.
In your acknowledgments, you not only thank your teachers in flamenco, but
also the astonishing guitarists who elucidated and inspired you. How?
Once I decided to attend the flamenco festival and take classes, I knew I would
need something to keep my then-13 year-old son, Gabriel, occupied. Hed been
studying guitar, so I signed him up for a beginning flamenco class. In the most
amazing and necessary of coincidences, his teacher turned out to be an old
friend of mine from high school, John Truitt, who generously allowed me to audit
his class. I already knew that John is a lovely human but quickly discovered
that he is a brilliant musician and, possibly, the best teacher Ive ever
witnessed. He electrified and elucidated me and the entire class.
In long conversations, John shared the history of flamenco in New Mexico and
helped me understand how a guitarist and dancer work together. Best of all, he
taught Gabriel the rhythm structures so that later, back in Austin, he could
break them down for his old ma.
Some of the other guitarists I mentioned shared both technical information and
stories from their own lives about romances with fiery Gypsy dancers and the
intricate hierarchy of the flamenco world.
As there was with The Yokota Officers Club, are there always
autobiographical elements in your fiction?
Yes, though I would say that The Flamenco Academy is both my most
autobiographical book and the least. The most in the sense that I reveal the
utter irrationality and humiliating self-annihilation of my obsessive love
affair. The least in that none of the particulars of the story correspond to my
own other than that they both took place in New Mexico and, like Rae, my
protagonist, I ate a lot of chile cheeseburgers at the Frontier Restaurant!
Actually, answering this reminds me of another autobiographical link. Like most
people, I have a semi-mythological relationship to the place where I came of
age. In my case, it was along a fairly funky strip of Route 66. So, it was great
fun for me to mythologize some of the landmarks of my teen years, the Aztec
Motel, De Anza coffee shop, Pup and Taco drive-through, my high school just a
few blocks off the main drag, Frontier Restaurant, the divey motels that were
the sites of many a teen bacchanal.
In the opening of the book, you mention that Flamenco has 10 Commandments.
The first being to give the truth and the second to do it en compás,
or in time. Can you reveal any of the others?
Hah! I am and always will be an outsider in that world. In flamenco, you have to
do the thing to truly understand the thing. So, ultimately, each artist
discovers different commandments. Some applying only to him or her.
Do you recommend that mere mortals try it? Or just go and observe? And what
happens at the big Festival in Albuquerue each year?
Yes, yes, yes! I wrote an article for Oprahs magazine about being a
fumble-footed, middle-aged matron trying to get my flamenco groove on. The
beginners class was filled with professional dancers, owners of dance studios,
teachers, so it was hardly the beginning I needed.
Because of the interest the article generated, the festival has added a true
beginners class which, I hear, is an uproarious amount of fun. One thing I can
testify to, however, ten days of flamenco hand twirls and my Carpal Tunnel was
cured! Praise Jesus!
After this, do you know what you might write about next or is it too soon?
Im working on my cheer-up novel, Weightless, right now. It grew out of
knowing so many womenhighly-educated, ambitious, brightwho had either just
lost their jobs or had jobs with health insurance that was so bad, they couldnt
afford to get a Pap smear. It sounds facetious, but an entire political
philosophy is revealed here.
So, I created a character whod been brought low by divorce, (from a husband who
bears an uncanny resemblance to W.), by the pop of the Internet bubble, and by
losing her moral compass. And then I make her move back into her college co-op
boarding house. Its a riches to rice cakes story.
A Conversation with Sarah Bird, author of the novel The Yokota Officers Club
Q. What is your novel about?
A. The Yokota Officers Club is about how hard military life is on
families. My protagonist, Bernie Root, sees this for herself after her
first year of college. She visits her Air Force family stationed on Okinawa and
notices how much theyve disintegrated in the year theyve been away. She
starts to search for reasons why. While on the island, Bernie wins a dance
contest. The prize is a trip to Tokyo where Bernies family was
stationed for the only happy years of her childhood. The catch is that
Bernie is the intermission act for a third-rate comedian, Bobby Moses, who
believes she is going to be Joey Heatherton to his Bob Hope. While in
Japan, Bernie learns the terrible cost paid when secrets that nations hide end
up buried within families.
Q. Youre a military brat yourself. What was that like?
A. This novel is my big, gushy Valentine to military families, but especially to
dependents, the children and wives in those families. My particular
experience of growing up brat was defined by being the shyest in a family of
eight fairly introverted human beings. Like the family in my novel, we
were stationed on Yokota and Kadena and too many others to mention, and, my
father did fly Cold War reconnaissance missions, but after we were transferred
out of Japan, he ended up doing fairly non-military things like getting a
doctorate and running Department of Defense Schools. My mother was always
the antithesis of the white gloves and girdle sort of officer wife. All of
this made us something of our own little tribe of nomadic recluses, outsiders
within this greater tribe of outsiders permanently passing through America.
Q. You mentioned the secrets that nations hide. Did any actually end up
getting buried in your family?
A. Not specifically, but this book did grow out of an exceptionally vivid memory
I have from my familys years in Japan. I was six at the time and we
were living off-base "on the economy." It was a hot day, the
hydrangeas were drooping in the sun and our small yard was saturated with the
sweet smell of honeysuckle that hung from the high barbed wire fence around our
house. My brothers and sisters and I were playing in the swimming pool my
mother had rigged up from a large packing crate and some plastic sheeting.
Though I didnt know it at the time, she was pregnant with my third brother.
This was 1956 which was, essentially, the tail end of the American occupation,
and my father had been gone for several weeks on "TDY," temporary duty
assignment about which no questions were ever asked. He simply left on
these assignments then, one day, with no warning, he would return. Sometimes
with ginger jars from China. Sometimes with ivory carvings from Alaska.
Details were never supplied. But on this day something unusual happened.
Not only did an official staff car appear in our neighborhood, where giant
American vehicles were rarely sighted, but this car carried my fathers
commanding officer in full uniform. When the car stopped and the major got
out, I felt all the sleepy summer air molecules around my head reverse polarity.
I looked at my mother and though nothing showed on her face, I knew in that
instant that the appearance of a uniformed officer at our house in the middle of
the day meant tragedy beyond what I could imagine. Because no explanations
were ever given for why my mother ended up sobbing in this officers arms, I
went on to create my own stories about what might have happened.
It took many years before I understood that "reconnaissance" meant spying
and it wasnt until I was researching this novel I learned that of the ten
crews that originally made up my fathers reconnaissance squadron, his was the
only one that survived. Or that the Distinguished Flying Cross he had been
awarded wasnt for perfect attendance. Or that the major had come to our
house that long ago day simply to tell my mother that my fathers crew had had
engine trouble and would be coming home later.
Q. How has your family reacted to the novel?
A. In my dedication, I thank my family for their great gift of understanding and
accepting my capricious weaving of fiction through our shared past. And
they really have been colossally generous because there are many similarities
between my family and the one I created. We are both families of eight, we
lived on Japan, on Okinawa, we didnt transplant easily. Then I take all
that shared experience and mash it through, what the pulp writer Earle Stanley
Gardner called, "The Plot Genie." So that some family members are removed,
others are added, the mother ends up with a prescription pill problem and the
father is silent and removed neither of which was true of my abstemious mother
and garrulous father. But the larger truth is that, in fact, many, many
wives were "over-served" by doctors at base dispensaries eager to keep wives
slim and tractable, and most fathers of that time were silent and removed.
My great blessing then is that no one in my family has fixated on these points
where fact and fiction intersect and have accepted the book as the tribute I
intended it to be.
Q. Since your main character is a girl growing up as the daughter of an Air
Force Officer, do you see this at all as a sort of female version of Pat
Conroys novel The Great Santini?
A. Only in my wildest, most self-deluded fantasies. The Great Santini is the
dependents Rosetta Stone. It was the first and remains the most
definitive portrait of the military family. I was in such awe of
Conroys achievement in decoding the vast hieroglyphic of our world that I
didnt consider writing about my own brat experience for decades. Then I
began getting little prickles that suggested something might remain to be said
about all the women whose lives rotate around military men. And I
mean all the women: wives, mothers, daughters, teachers, nurses, maids,
sew girls, bar girls, pan pan girls, yes, even, go-go girls.
Q. You manage to bring a lot of great, vivid detail to the description of life
overseas and on bases in the 50s and 60s. Did you rely on anyone elses
recollections beyond your own for the specifics?
A. My brothers and sisters helped me tremendously, especially with the parts
about Okinawa, since they were there year-round for three years and I only
visited during the summers. Their memories of the Kadena Karnival were
especially vivid and borderline traumatic: the habu-mongoose fight, the
Okinawana "exotic" dancer sticking a snakes head in her mouth, the novelty
act guy catching ping pong balls in his mouth then pretending to excrete them.
These are research topics that Encyclopedia Britannica just cant help
Q. Would you have any desire to go back to those places in Japan from your
A. Well, I did go back. Like my heroine, I won a dance contest and toured
the military clubs in Tokyo area with a third-rate comedian. This was in
1968. In the eight years since wed left Japan, the country had been
transformed. When we left, it was a childs fantasy land of shopkeepers
who gave you handfuls of fish oil gum just for being a child, of paper houses
that glowed like golden lanterns in the night, of days where giant cloth carp
were flown just to honor boys and girls, and hovering above the whole
dreamscape, always pink in my memory, was Mount Fuji. Of course, it is
always jarring when childhood memory encounters reality, but to have those fairy
tale memories collide with what I found when I returned, visions of people
sucking up oxygen on street corners because the air was so polluted (it was
impossible any longer to see Fuji from where wed once lived), was a shock.
What I would dearly love would be to go back to the Japan of my childhood.
And, I suppose, I made as good an attempt at that as Im likely to by writing The
Yokota Officers Club.