Author Interview: Daphne Birkmyer

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Ellen Feld is talking with Daphne Birkmyer, author of Comfrey, Wyoming: Marcela's Army, Book 2.

FQ: Which do you find easier, starting a story, or writing the conclusion?

BIRKMYER: I definitely find starting each book easier than writing the conclusion. I had written over 1200 pages before I threw myself at the mercy of a very organized friend, who helped sort the chapters into individual books. Many chapters offered themselves up as good beginnings, but when to cut each book off has been the challenge. I want my conclusions to leave readers hungering for the next book in the series, yet I want them to feel the book they just finished was a fully satisfying read.

FQ: What is your all-time favorite book? Why? And did this book/author have any influence over your decision to become an author?

BIRKMYER: For an avid reader, this is a very difficult question, but based on the number of times I have read Jane Eyre, I’ll claim this book as my all-time favorite. I discovered it at age ten through one of the Classic Comics my piano teacher bought to entertain us as we waited for our lessons. My mother gave me a full-length version for my next birthday and I have re-read it many times. The resolute heroine has continued to capture me. I read a discussion recently on whether this book could be considered the first truly feminist literature. I think so, and I do not agree with those who claim the protagonist, Jane Eyre, was too tied to repressive social mores. Charlotte Brontë wrote during a time when women’s voices were restricted, yet she still managed to create a bold, independent female character—literally a plain Jane, with a backbone of steel.

In addition, I love how Brontë uses descriptions of weather and landscape to develop Jane’s character and to portend coming events. I find myself doing that in my writing too. The high prairie winds and sagebrush steppe of Wyoming are as much characters in my books as are people and dogs.

I wouldn’t say Charlotte Brontë or any other writer influenced my decision to write—the increasing cacophony of the voices in my head did that.

FQ: How do you approach a new story and when you set pen to paper, is there a specific process you follow (or do you just write and let your story take the lead to where it must go)?

BIRKMYER: I keep readers engaged by giving them a diverse group of relatable characters with idiosyncrasies, depth and humor. I keep the science relevant. I explore some of life’s toughest issues—the death of a child or parent or dog, genetic disease, rape, abandonment, social injustice, environmental defilement— but there are enough characters and books to absorb them all. Placing the town of Comfrey in Wyoming also keeps people engaged. Wyoming, the least populous state, is a place with a rich indigenous presence, dramatic topography, harsh weather, abundant wildlife and conservative views. What better environment to test the strength of my characters?

FQ: Tell us a bit about the series. Do you know where the series will take the characters or are you working that out as you go along with each book? What has been the reader response to your series?

BIRKMYER: The Comfrey, Wyoming series is about healing, forgiveness, and accepting love. By bridging cultural and personal barriers, the characters forge deep and abiding relationships that underscore the fundamental need for human connection.

In the first book of the series, Birds of a Feather, German-borne chef, Heidi Vogel, flees New York after the death of her child and accepts a job running a soup kitchen in Wyoming as she seeks a path forward. She is unexpectedly thrust into parenthood again when she becomes guardian to five-year-old twins, one of whom identifies as transgender. Seeking a safe place to raise the children, Heidi drives through the little town of Comfrey, nestled against the base of the Wind River Range, and sees a For Sale sign in the window of the town’s only restaurant.

The second book, Marcela’s Army, introduces characters in Comfrey who will have important roles to play in the lives of Heidi and the twins. Throughout the series, children are given equal footing with adults, and the spirits of those who have passed have their own parts to play. Dogs feature prominently and so does a highly endangered rattlesnake, whose role will increase as the series continues.

My chapters are written as my characters speak to me. Sequencing comes later. All major characters have been developed through book five, although minor characters may continue to coalesce.

The response to my books has been gratifying and I am thankful for each and every reader. I have built a following that clamors for more. The first two books have made a modest splash, but I need the ripples to continue to expand outward.

FQ: Do you feel any pressure to hurry up and get the next book in the series published? Does this make it harder to write or do you work better under such pressure?

BIRKMYER: I do feel pressure to get my books out, but I’ve always worked well under pressure. I have two books in the series published. The third is getting its preliminary edits and two more await their endings. Whether the series can be completed in five books is yet to be determined.

These are uncertain times and I am of a certain age, so as forces I cannot control bear down, I control what I can. Normally, I arise to tea and toast with marmite. I eat in my garden if weather permits, then send a brief hello text to each of my three grown children before taking the dogs out for a long walk. On our walk, I listen to exchanges between the characters in my head. I come home to write, taking a break in later afternoon for a little housework. I set an alarm so I don’t get carried away with life’s dreary tasks, then I am back to writing.

Sometimes my writing proceeds at a snail’s pace because my characters are not speaking to me clearly or they change their minds about how they’re going to respond to a particular situation, so I do a lot of rewriting. Other times, I may complete a chapter in a single day. Many of the chapters for the entire series are already written or outlined, but there is a lot of culling and polishing that needs to occur. Just as my second book was about to be sent to the printer, I found a significant timing error that had escaped two editors and three trusted beta readers. I only caught it while I was reading the manuscript aloud to a sight-impaired friend. The fix involved writing an entirely new chapter and rewriting three others. This took me almost a month, but the error proved to be a gift because the new chapter allowed me to more fully develop one of my indigenous characters.

Much of the pressure I feel is self-imposed. My books have become my soapbox and I am not yet ready to step down. As a former high school science teacher, I infuse my work with science—once a teacher, always a teacher. I also feel an obligation to support my multiracial, gender nonconforming family, extended family, and friends through those of my characters who battle social injustice and demand environmental equity.

FQ: Many authors say that it’s hard to say good-bye to the characters in a series? Do you think it will be difficult for you? Have they become part of your life?

BIRKMYER: My characters have always been a part of my life. Growing up, I had imaginary friends far longer than most children. Even today when facing a personal challenge, I find myself asking what one of my characters would do, and if he or she is a trusted voice, I will listen. My series will eventually be complete, but many of my characters will continue to live with me.

Within the series, I have solved the death of one character I was particularly fond of by having her continued (although much reduced) presence in spirit form. I had planned to kill off a character in book four that a friend has forbidden me to kill off. She has fallen in love with him. I am not sure I can deal with another intense, spiritual presence, so he may get to live. We will see.

FQ: Did the story change as you wrote the book?

BIRKMYER: The story has changed dramatically since its inception. I chose Wyoming as my setting because my original premise was to write a series about the exotic species trade. I wanted a state that a light plane could reach from Mexico, yet far enough away from the border to not be on the radar of Governmental agencies that deal with wildlife trafficking to and from Central America. I took multiple trips to Wyoming and fell in love with the place, but then the human characters and the dogs took over. I also had to make sense of why a classically trained German chef would commit herself to staying in a small town in Wyoming.

That endangered rattlesnake, the Midget Faded Rattler, still has a big part to play, but it waits until the fourth book to woo ophidiophiles (those who love snakes).

FQ: Are any of the characters based on real people you know? If so, how closely does your character mimic the real person?

BIRKMYER: For someone born to be an observer of human nature, there is no better job than being a teacher so I have been blessed with diverse array of muses. Many characters are mosaics of former students, colleagues, current family and friends, but no character mimics one specific real person.

One character, Beppe Biro, owes his initial presence to Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who was beaten and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming in 1998. Matthew is the impetuous for having Beppe spend some of his teenage years in Wyoming, and for events that happen to him there. I didn’t know Matthew Shepard, but I honor his parents and carry him in my heart.

FQ: If a character(s) is based on a real person, what made you decide to do that? Did you tell that person he/she is a character in your story and if so, what was their reaction?

BIRKMYER: No character is based on one specific person, although I have used the names of several former students and colleagues. I checked with them and they said they didn’t mind.

FQ: Tell us about your favorite character and why that person is your favorite.

BIRKMYER: This would be a toss up between, Heidi Vogel and Nara Crow. Heidi came to me to right a wrong—the anti-German prejudice (based on experiences in World War II) of a family member toward one of my childhood friends. At the time, I silently vowed that if ever I wrote a book, I would have a German protagonist. I sought a woman with a strong will and great heart, and Heidi Vogel came to me. Heidi picks up whatever life throws at her and carries it over the finish line. She is relentless in her protection of the twins entrusted to her care, and by the second book has changed her last name to match theirs’. She is devoted to her German cousin and his Italian husband and they provide her and the twins unwavering support. She has a stoicism and level of organization I admire greatly but do not share.

Nara is atypical of most indigenous people in being cut off from the richness and support of community. Her father never healed from his abandonment at a rest stop as a young child, and being raised by white parents. His wife and daughter are similarly cut off from community, and after the death of her mother, Nara faces life alone. She is also the character who most allows me to flex my scientific chops. She is tough, intelligent, and full of angst, humor and wit. She steals a book on ocean ecology after a childhood trauma and finds comfort in its depths. Largely self-educated, Nara is a fountain of knowledge. She stands toe to toe with Heidi and the two women forge a bond that transcends their very different backgrounds and extends beyond the grave.

And let’s throw some children into the list of favorites. The twins are a constant in all the books. Born identical, they become yin and yang—one deeply connected to his Native roots, the other with a single-minded pursuit to attain a body that reflects her gender identity, and standing by her side, is Lucas Darcy. He is far more precocious than most people would think a child could possibly be, but I have known children as precocious as he. Lucas of the yellow eyes and long canine teeth is exquisitely talented and very odd—such a charmer.

FQ: How did you approach the need to keep readers engaged and tuned in to keep turning those pages?

BIRKMYER: I keep readers engaged by giving them a diverse group of relatable characters with idiosyncrasies, depth and humor. I keep the science relevant. I explore some of life’s toughest issues—the death of a child or parent or dog, genetic disease, rape, abandonment, social injustice, environmental defilement— but there are enough characters and books to absorb them all. Placing the town of Comfrey in Wyoming also keeps people engaged. Wyoming, the least populous state, is a place with a rich indigenous presence, dramatic topography, harsh weather, abundant wildlife and conservative views. What better environment to test the strength of my characters?

To learn more about Comfrey, Wyoming: Marcela's Army, Book 2, please visit the author's website at: daphnebirkmyer.com

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