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 melodrama.
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 performance.
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 flamenco puro.
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 obsessive love.
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 you with.
Q. Would you have any desire to go back to those places in Japan from your childhood?
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.
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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