If you have questions for Natalie Brown about herself or her debut, 'The Lovebird', please do post them here and they will be passed to Natalie to answer on about June 30.
This thread is now closed to further questions. Thank you!
Join Date: 11/16/10
Join Date: 09/11/11
Q: Lovebirds come in pairs. What is the significance of the lone lovebird being left in the pet store?
Natalie Brown: Loneliness and loss are major themes in the novel, though that makes it sound more depressing than it is! Still, every character in the book struggles with them in his or her own way.
Margie (the main character), Annette Mellinkoff, Jack Dolce, and Cora all crave their lost mothers. Dad and Simon long for their lost wives. Jim misses his lost father. Granma is also motherless, and in addition to that she deals with a much broader sense of loss—that of the spiritual and cultural traditions that shaped her youth, and that she has taken pains to reclaim.
I didn’t know when I began writing The Lovebird that it would end up being so much about absence and longing. The chapter in which Margie and Bumble set the caged birds free from the pet store was one of the first bits of the book that I wrote, and I initially thought it was just a humorous, zany little episode, a satire of the sort of ineffectual capers committed by some real-life animal rights activists. At that time, I knew Margie associated the left-behind lovebird with her dad, but I didn’t have a complete idea of the symbolic significance the lone lovebird would eventually take, or know that it would give the book its name. Initially, the book was simply titled Margie Fitzgerald. There was a desire to change that to something else, and The Lovebirds was one suggestion that came my way; I thought it had to be singular, not plural, as that singularity points to what the book is about. I think a lot of people, when they pick up and begin the book, assume that the lovebird of the title is Margie. In my mind, it’s Dad. But everyone in the story is certainly a lone lovebird at one point or another.
Join Date: 08/11/11
Q: Why Latin?
Natalie Brown: In addition to using it in chapter headings and opening quotes, I sprinkled a few Latin phrases (all translated) throughout the book. I chose Latin for a few reasons. It's a dead language in that it hasn't been anybody's native tongue for over a thousand years. In the novel, only twelve people, including Margie, enroll in Simon Mellinkoff's Latin class because learning a dead language seems a bit like an exercise in futility to the average undergrad. So the Latin in the book embodies a kind of futility and impermanence, which is echoed in the futility of Simon's—and later Margie's—activism, and also in the impermanence of their romance.
I also chose Latin because, being dead, it contrasts with the Crow language, which also figures in the book. The Crow language should be dead – when you consider the major effort toward forced assimilation that might have killed it and did kill many other Native American languages – but it isn't. It is still alive, and because it has persisted in living it embodies vitality. So Latin is the language of Book One of The Lovebird, which largely concerns lost things, while Crow is the language of Book Two, which is much more about the miraculous continuation of life in spite of loss and heartbreak.
Finally, I chose Latin because Margie is so fond of relics, and Latin is a linguistic relic—one that, even as she matures, she holds onto because it is a way to acknowledge a certain, significant phase of her life.
Join Date: 05/01/13
Q: How did you choose your images and symbols? Was it all purposeful and preplanned?
Natalie Brown: That was pretty much all unplanned, or at least unconscious. I certainly packed this book full of images, symbols, relics, and totems, because Margie habitually imbues these everyday sights and objects with great emotional significance. She is someone who sees the magical or the holy in the everyday. But, if anything, the images and symbols chose me, and then found ways to connect to each other without my conscious awareness. And that’s what I love most about writing: how much the act of writing is an act of faith, because somewhere inside I do know how this is all going to fit together, even if during much of the process I don't know that I know. I love the sense of risk, and the sense of discovery. I thought early on that I was writing about a sexy young animal rights activist; I found out later I was really writing about mothers and loneliness and the saving power of nature. I guess all writers experience some version of that.
The only symbol that was purposefully included in the book was the bright green snake who lives under Jack Dolce's bed. That’s because it was an actual, real-life bright green snake who inspired me to start writing this story in the first place. I was living in L.A. at the time, and teaching writing at a community college. One day while walking down one of the outdoor corridors on campus, surrounded entirely by concrete and stucco, I happened to see a bright green snake emerge from a crack in the sidewalk in front of me. Maybe he was somebody’s escaped pet, or maybe he was really a wild thing—I don’t know. He was such a totally unexpected sight, and he thoroughly delighted me and set my wheels spinning. He gave me the juiciest, most alive feeling. To me, the snake was emblematic of this really rich vitality, and also of living close to the earth. Within hours after seeing him I got the idea for a story about a very vital young woman who would fall in love with the earth. So I had to give the snake a place of honor in the book.
Join Date: 01/12/12
Q: How much research did you need to do in order to write this book? Did you spend a lot of time researching the beliefs of the Native Americans?
Natalie Brown: While earning my Master's degree in Native American Studies at Montana State, I spent two years learning a little about Native American history, spiritual traditions, federal law and policy, and contemporary issues like poverty and sovereignty. I researched the Crow tribe's traditional relationship to animals and stars. I wrote my thesis on traditional indigenous concepts of the earth as a woman's body, and how those concepts connect in specific ways to current human health issues.
I say quite deliberately that I learned "a little." I studied with a lot of humility because, prior to the holocaust that resulted from colonization by Europeans, there were at least 500 culturally distinct Native American nations on this continent, so I was well aware that it is impossible to possess more than one droplet of knowledge about an ocean's worth of human experience. As a non-Native person, I retained that sense of humility when writing my book. After I began working on it, I made a few trips out to the Crow Reservation and attended Crow Fair, which is featured prominently in the novel. I also read and enjoyed books by a Crow author, herbalist, and traditional foods expert named Alma Snell. Her work and her sense of humor touched and inspired me. When I created the Crow characters in my book, whom I loved dearly and who felt very real to me, I tried to be both realistic and respectful, and I strove to be accurate when depicting the few Crow traditions that I included in the novel, as well as the Crow language.
Join Date: 10/16/10
Q: Were you involved in the design of the cover? Do you like it?
Natalie Brown: Yes, I was very involved in the design of the cover, which is not to say that I take any credit for how gorgeous it turned out. But I made several sketches. Of course, I can't really draw, as the character portraits displayed on my facebook page evince, but I had clear ideas! I knew I wanted an illustrated border, with the title centered and enclosed by dense, botanical - and animal-inspired imagery.
Initially, I'd suggested illustrations of all the animals and plants that are mentioned in the book—mourning doves, bison, lobsters, chokecherries, magnolias, wild roses—a gathering of all kinds of flora and fauna. Then Malin Rosenqvist, the incredible Swedish artist whose work graces the cover, came along and created absolutely beautiful art that really captures the lush quality of the book’s prose.
Orange blossoms are a major motif in the novel, and also a major feature of my own sort of personal mythology, being a child of Orange County, so they make the cover that much more special to me.
Join Date: 10/16/10
Q: I loved The Lovebird. I think this is your first novel - did it take you a long time to write? Also, are you working on anything now?
Natalie Brown: Thank you. When people say they feel love for the book it means a lot to me, because my whole mission in writing it and in writing other novels is to create a contagious kind of beauty. This was actually the third novel I'd completed. I've been trying to write fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in earnest since I was eleven, and trying to write novels since I was a fifteen-year-old serving countless hours in after-school detention for my near-daily ditching of Algebra. I worked on this particular book off an on for about four years in my late twenties, sometimes not touching it at all for long periods. I put it through a few revisions. Initially, it was not structured in a linear way; every other chapter was written in the present tense and set on the Crow Reservation.
I am working on a novel now that truly intrigues me. It's much darker and stranger than The Lovebird; it's a noir-ish fairytale of sorts set in 1940s Los Angeles, and it chronicles the life of a street kid/saint. I'm also working on a collection of essays.
Join Date: 10/15/10
Q: Is the novel autobiographical?
Natalie Brown: Superficially speaking, the only things I have in common with Margie are the places we've lived—Southern California and Montana. I was never involved with a professor, was never an animal rights activist, am not a vegan, was not raised by an alcoholic father, and have never lived on the Crow Reservation. Emotionally speaking, well, there may be some autobiography…
Join Date: 10/15/10
Q: Why do you think you started writing so young?
Natalie Brown: I would describe it as a compulsion. There are so many different ways to make art, but I have always felt compelled to try to make it with words. One of my favorite reviews so far came from a reader on Goodreads who described The Lovebird as "absolutely a wonderful sensory word experience." That thrilled me, because I do focus so very much on words and am endlessly fascinated by what effects they can achieve.
Join Date: 08/11/11
Q: Because responses have been so varied, I feel the need to ask you what is the significance of the twitching ovary?
Natalie Brown: Margie's responsive ovary illustrates her body's reflection of her emotions. It's the place where her feelings become physical. If feelings are ethereal and the body is earthy, then Margie's ovary is the spot where those two realms meet.
She's a tuned-in, hyper-sensitive person. When she feels an almost overwhelming sense of empathy or desire to care for another being, that feeling manifests physically, and she experiences it in the part of her body that's associated with womanhood/motherhood.
The book is concerned with motherhood, maternal feelings, the power of the feminine, the notion of being connected to the earth, and idea that the earth is actually a woman's body, one that's generous and abundant in its offerings. I suppose I could have simply said Margie's heart or head flamed, tingled, or ached, but, in the context of the book's themes, ovary seemed much more fitting.
On a more personal note, I'm sure I'm not alone in having my own emotions manifest in a physical way! This is just a fact of life. I saw someone describe this element of the book as "magical realism," but, honestly, to me it never seemed like magic that Margie's ovary would be, as she calls it, "a radar for helpless things."
Join Date: 04/20/11
I don't have a question for you. But, do want to say thank you, not only for writing such an engaging novel, but for taking the time and making the effort to answer the questions here. I find it refreshing and helpful. I shall look forward to reading your next book.
Natalie Brown says: Thank you, Lea Ann!
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