Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Taking Flight with Tanya Sousa

The animals talk in Tanya Sousa’s new novel, THE STARLING GOD.  They offer comfort to one another, hold conversations on the activities of the powerful bipeds they regard with awe, and reflect on their place and purpose in the grand scheme of things. “There is greatness,” one communicates to another, “in sharing what we were born to tell.”

Sharing what she was born to tell is exactly what Tanya Sousa is all about.

An award-winning author with a BFA in writing from Johnson State College, Sousa has held positions in human services and community development while steadily building her writing resumé.  She’s written three books for children; her articles and essays, most relating to animals and the environment, have appeared in numerous magazines and been widely anthologized. With her first novel, though, Sousa has passionately stepped up her game.

In THE STARLING GOD, which several reviewers have called reminiscent of the best-seller WATERSHIP DOWN, Sousa displays not only a lifetime of keen and reverent observation of the natural world, but a philosophy that stresses the interconnectedness of all living things and a love for the beautiful Earth we share.  “I like the idea of blending into nature more and standing out like a sore thumb less,” the author says of her goals of downsizing, and of incorporating solar and wind power into her lifestyle. “I want my impact on the planet to be less than it is now.”

But the decidedly independent Sousa, with her bright smile and signature waist-length blonde hair, is unlikely to blend into any background.  With THE STARLING GOD, she’s proved herself to be not only an articulate champion of the animals she so clearly loves, but a compassionate commentator on the most invasive species on the globe: humankind.  Readers will find her message, as told through a young starling’s search for answers, affecting and profound.

Tell us about growing up in the Kingdom and how it shaped your work.

I've lived in the NEK since I was 4, the youngest of two girls. My parents bought a defunct farm with a small pond, endless mysteries inside the old barn, and fields and wooded trails galore. My German-born mother was an avid animal lover and valued my independent spirit. My quiet, thoughtful father was happy to let me be whatever I wanted to be as long as I let him read his books and watch his sci-fi movies in peace!

This setting and these parents were vital in creating my drive to write and to specifically write as a champion of other living things. I played outside and explored the fields, woods, barn and pond for hours on end, watching the creatures I found there and sometimes catching them and learning more about them before setting them free again. The family dog and these wild things were my family and my playmates. I didn't feel separate from them or above them, but part of the whole continuum.

When I was old enough to read, I devoured books about animals. My imagination placed all these living things in vivid scenarios with me - and when I began to write, my poetry or stories were often about none other than animals. I didn't play with dolls unless they were a prop for the animal figurines I played with most!

I've had people ask me why I ended up writing about nature instead of pursuing a scientific career for instance. Part of it is genetic, I believe. My father was always a philosopher and thinker and had the quiet, observational bent of a potential writer. He's also very imaginative and "in his own head" quite a bit, which is where stories evolve. My mother actually wanted to be a journalist in her youth and encouraged my writing and reading, so I grew up thinking of "writer" as a noble career. When you put those parts together I'm sure it's obvious how I came to be a nature-oriented author.

You’re a licensed guidance counselor and have written several picture books for children.  How did those books come into being?

I didn't intend to write children's books, but I've always loved picture books. The artwork captivated me at any age, and I loved how stories could be so effective with so few words. After working with school-aged children as a guidance counselor for about a decade, I realized how few books there were, or that I liked, that taught empathy or about the environment in more than a dry, didactic fashion.

There's a big push right now not to anthropomorphize animals in children's stories, and there are studies that claim kids don't do as well in science if they read mainly tales that use anthropomorphism. I say that's garbage, and have always been very suspicious of "studies" and "statistics."

I abhorred "realistic" nature books as a child, and my experience with children tells me imagination is the place where their learning begins best - that knowledge delivered through the playful is more effective than facts alone. With that in mind, I began writing the kind of children's picture books I longed to see more of and could use in my classes.

I have three children's books out now. FAIRY FEAST introduces the idea of growing your own food and eating a rainbow of foods (through a fanciful and rhyming tale that shows every food having a companion fairy as mythology has tree spirits for each kind of tree).  The book also shows the fairy and human characters interacting kindly with other living things throughout the beautiful paintings by Monique Bonneau.

Another of my picture books is LIFE IS A BOWL OF CHERRY PITS. This one is illustrated by the whimsical and child-at-heart artist Katie Flindall and won a Moonbeam Children's Book Award. It's about a disgruntled boy who learns—thanks to his eccentric, fun-loving and farming grandmother, that the glass is indeed half full.

The last one is NINNY NU’S ORGANIC FARM. I wanted to introduce children to the concept of "organic" food, and did so through a story of an organic-farming cat (Ninny Nu) and a “traditional” farming rabbit (Farmer Jack) entering a contest to produce the most delicious food in the valley. I was lucky enough to have that one endorsed by actor Paul Newman's daughter and CEO of Newman's Own Organics, Nell Newman.

The books are now on sale through (Vermont based publisher) Radiant Hen and are part of a program called "MyBooks," where they are given out to NEK school children thanks to the generosity of donors. The classroom teachers have access to resources that go along with the books, and I love that. My purpose in writing has always been to make a difference, and I think this does the job!

Your new book, THE STARLING GOD, features an intriguing premise and point of view.

Because this novel is told from the point of view of birds, people often assume it's a Young Adult story, but it absolutely is not. It's a book that is very much about adult themes and for adult readers. I think it would be good for high school or college-aged students, but certainly not younger unless the readers are very interested in birds or in social and environmental issues.

The story follows a newly fledged starling who has been raised by a new wildlife rehabilitator from such a young age he only recognizes her as “mother.” Once released into the world of birds –who, in an attempt to make sense of humanity’s often devastating behaviors, have formed a religion deifying human beings -- he sets out to learn the truth about this connection after being told he is "The Starling God," a bird destined to help other starlings be more like the humans they revere. Is he what they say he is? The truth he discovers is important to the survival of his kind and all kinds of living beings - including humans.

THE STARLING GOD is a reminder that we share this planet with other species and that we are all connected. Forgetting that, which is what humans have done (and other species are beginning to do in the tale), is dangerous to all living things.

Why did you write THE STARLING GOD?

I wrote this novel because it had to be written. It wouldn’t stop pushing me until I did. It’s a “life’s work,” I suppose you could say.

I have a stack of journals that I've kept over the last 30 years. I write about observations in nature, my deepest thoughts, dreams - literally - anything that pulls at me to document. Sometimes there are seeds to stories or articles within those entries, and one such entry was about starlings singing on a sloping roof outside my bedroom window.

During a trip to Germany, I discovered they are actually "European starlings" and are an invasive species that have been reviled here in the states. This inspired many questions - aren't WE the most invasive species alive now? Why don't we recognize that and how can we judge what deserves to live or flourish or spread and what doesn't?

The thought led to noticing we even decide what a "weed" is versus a "flower" and we tear out what doesn't meet our "flower" criteria. We do the same with all living things - one tree is "bad.” One tree is desirable. One bird is "bad" and we shoot it or poison it or shoo it away. Others are welcomed, fed, loved, photographed, etc. It seems like such egotistical and god-like behavior, I thought, "What must the other creatures think of us?"

That long thought process lead to an essay called "Mirror.” It was first published as a runner-up in an essay contest and then later in "Thrive in Life" magazine. It discussed starlings being reviled when in actuality they are strikingly like us, and poses the suggestion that we focus more on our own invasiveness. It finally coalesced into the idea for a novel, and in 2014 the work came to fruition and was published by Forestry Press (based in Tennessee but with strong Vermont roots).

Readers have liked my work, my other books and articles, but this novel is touching something deeply in people, and I am honored beyond words. When readers write reviews that say the story is life-changing, or discuss how the effect it had continued to haunt their thoughts for months after reading it even though they've read many other books since, you know something has worked.

It took five years to complete this novel and I'm incredibly proud of the result. If anyone ever wondered, "Who is Tanya Sousa?" all they would have to do is read this and they'd see into what I see, what I wonder, what I think. The fact that others have found it profoundly moving is more than I could have hoped for.

And so, what’s next for Tanya Sousa?   

I've been writing a number of very varied children's picture books and sending them out - five are looking for a home right now. I haven't sold those yet, but I've had some lovely personal replies from publishers saying they like my writing style and asking me to keep submitting. It's important not to give up!

The picture books range from a very simple and non-fiction work about my growing up and spending time with wildlife (called "Frogs in the Baby Carriage”) to a fantasy of another culture in another world where the people make life-long bonds with giant, intelligent insects (think dragonfly riders and carpenters who work side by side with ants and mud daubers). That one is called "Dryft Wing" after the main character. I have more ideas than I can get out.

I also have three ideas for novels and am actively involved in research on the subject matter of all three. My next step is to figure out which one to actually write first. These novel ideas are also very different from each other, and I'm afraid I can't share details about the storylines at this point. Let's just say one calls me to travel to Montana to meet a very special beef cow, one would take speaking with academics who know the most about the seeming human population bottleneck that took place about 75-80,000 years ago, and the other is a more New Age novel completely different from anything I've written before.

Beyond writing, my goal is to be happy.  To me, that means having control of my own schedule as much as possible and living in a more flexible way than many jobs allow. It must be "the artist" in me that calls for that. My first words (that's right, not first word but first words!) were uttered when I was toddling about and my mother called for me to come to her. I was exploring my environment, and busy, so I balanced precariously against a living room chair and replied, "Wai a mini (wait a minute)!" My mother couldn't believe it, so she gasped, "What did you say?" She said I looked at her, quite serious, stuck out my arm and put my pointer finger up and said, "Wai a mini!"  So to go with that flow that's always been a part of me – that would be ideal.

You'll find THE STARLING GOD at Amazon and also Forestry Press:  Forestry Press  To purchase Tanya's children's books, visit Radiant Hen:  Radiant Hen Press

This interview appears in the September 2014 issue of The North Star Monthly.  Check out their site:

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