Can you tell us about how your story, “Song of Bullfrogs, Cry of Geese,” came about for you?
In spring 1989, in England, after a bout of flu, I didn’t recover my strength. I went from being the kind of person who goes running in the morning, teaches self-defense in the afternoon, and studies karate at night to a wraith who had lost twenty pounds, didn’t have the strength to sit up straight, and couldn’t walk half a block. I was diagnosed with post-viral syndrome, and then myalgic encephalomyelitis. (And then Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome; I didn’t get a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis until 1993.) Six months later, in December, I moved from England, to Duluth, Georgia, to live with my partner, Kelley.
We lived in an apartment complex called Northwoods Lake Court. In December it was a place of greys and browns, bare tree trunks and gravel. It had a lake, with a fountain, that I assumed was artificial and ornamental and empty of life. It mirrored how I felt.
On good days I would wrap up in hat and scarf and gloves and walk as far as I could around the lake: there were benches every fifteen yards, so if that was as far as I could go, it didn’t matter; I could sit and watch the play of rain on water, or sunshine, or the movement of clouds.
Winter turned to spring, and Northwoods Lake greened, delicately at first. I saw the beginnings of cattails and, one day, a fish. After that, new discoveries came almost daily: frogs, a snapping turtle, mosquito fish, damsel flies and dragon flies, lilies and duckweed. I began to feel better…
What really grabbed me was the slowness of the illness’s spread; I think this is the first story I’ve read where humanity’s extinction event moved slow enough for people to see it, to prepare. What prompted this choice, and do you think it would be better to know, like the characters in your story did, or worse?
I really wanted to write about this world I’d discovered, its rich, slow secrecy—its winter melancholy that turned gradually, then all at once, into an astoundingly fecund summer. To do that, I needed a plausible way for Molly to stay behind, to live reasonably well in an otherwise-abandoned version of the place. I hit upon a creeping apocalypse.
As for what’s best—well, if you look at history, this is the way civilization often falls: not with a bang, but a long, slow sigh on the way to becoming something else.
Two worlds seem to be a reoccurring motif in “Song of Bullfrogs, Cry of Geese”; the bridge, Atlanta versus Helen and Molly’s home, Jessica’s domesticity and her wildness. Could you tell us about the significance of these opposing worlds?
The thing that struck me most forcibly about Northwoods Lake Court was how few residents were aware of the rich life around them. They saw the lake the way I had first seen it: artificial and sterile. They used the tennis courts and the pool, but they ignored this luscious, teeming world right outside their back window. That stance seemed like a metaphor for the way too many exist: wrapped up in their own affairs, unaware of how they fit in a wider world.
What’s next for you?
I’ve just finished a novel, Hild, set in seventh-century Britain. It’s about a girl who grows up to become the woman known as Hild of Whitby. In a time when might equals right, she is born as the second daughter of a widow in exile, and ends up being a woman to whom kings bend the knee.
It’s a huge book, in every sense of the word, a thousand manuscript pages of life, death, politics, sex, violence, grief, joy. Imagine Kristin Lavransdatter meets Wolf Hall or Game of Thrones (only without the dragons). It’s epic in every way—except for actually being an epic in the accepted literary sense. It isn’t from multiple viewpoints; Hild is in every scene. So it’s an intimate novel of character painted on an epic canvas. With warlords, priests, and kings. And anxious reeves, stressed-out seers, and beleaguered queens. Plus some slaves and farmwives and scops. And more trees than you can shake a stick at. And rivers and oceans and rills and burns and becks, and seals and cows and crows and otters and herons, and death and destruction and famine and plague. And song and heroism, and gold and plotting…
These Anglo-Saxons lived without safety nets. Writing this novel felt the same: death or glory. I’m grinning as I type this, remembering the rush.
If you want to know more about Hild, I’ve been keeping a blog about the research and writing process, Gemæcce (gemaecca.blogspot.com).
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