Q&A with Jennifer Rosner, author of the incredibly moving historical fiction The Yellow Bird Sings, out today
The Yellow Bird Sings was the first book I read in 2020 and it has touched my heart so deeply. It was a story about the love between a mother and a daughter during the darkest time in WWII. Jennifer has so kindly agreed to do a Q&A with me, and I have loved every single answer she gave. Thank you so much Jennifer!
Q: I grew so attached to the yellow bird while I was reading the novel. I love how much it added to the storyline. Can you please let us know what inspired you to include this “character” in the story?
A: As a mother of two children, I’ve been well-versed in the world of attachment objects (special stuffies, blankets) and of “imaginary friends.” My eldest daughter had three such “friends” who would often pop up while she played on the swings. One day I heard of a little girl who, bereft of her parents from a brutal war, ceased speaking and cupped her hands around empty air. I imagined that the girl conjured a pet bird to soothe herself. The image stuck with me. When Shira’s character began to form, having a little bird to bring comfort and to sing her music felt right. The yellow bird expanded my writing process too. It provided me a device for deeper sub-textual expression (for example, the bird pecks at his own foot to make himself more like the outside birds) and for the introduction of certain magical elements (the bird’s form morphs as Shira perceives danger); and so on. Some readers express uncertainty as to whether the yellow bird is “real”— I think this is because Shira conjures him so richly in her imagination, and the stories her mother tells validate Shira’s imagination, and her coping strategies.
Q: This story, written from the perspectives of Roza and Shira, is about the deep love and unbreakable bond between a mother and a child. What was the most difficult part in writing it?
A: The most difficult part in writing had to do with the content of certain scenes; these were challenging because of the terror and pain involved. I had less difficulty inhabiting each character’s perspective (mother and daughter), as I felt deeply identified with both. At the heart of the story is a profound longing for closeness, and I have personal roots to this. As a child I longed for a steady closeness with my mother; but for various reasons my mother could be present to me only intermittently. When I became a mother myself, I was determined to be steadfastly attentive and bonded to my daughters (especially in light of what I’d longed for and missed). So, in a visceral way, I understood the basic need of both Shira and Roza to stay connected throughout.
Q: While I was reading it, it felt like music was another character in Shira and Roza’s story. Why music and why did it play such an instrumental part in this book?
A: From my extensive reading and research, I came to believe that creativity (and the recognition of beauty wherever it could be found) was a key to survival in hiding. In the face of crushing silence and the absolute need to vanish, music—even if never expressed aloud—asserted an aspect of one’s experience, one’s expression, that could not be stolen, silenced, or stopped. On a more personal note, my childhood was marked daily by the sound of my father practicing the violin. I studied voice (opera, specifically). My mother loved to listen to me sing; she was at her most attentive then. I grew up steeped in the transportive, connective power of music, so it seemed natural for Shira to be musical, for her to connect with Roza through music, and for music to play a role in connecting them even when apart.
Q: What are your top three favourite books?
A: Some recent ones:
⁃ Lila by Marilynne Robinson: because she renders the ordinary extraordinary and makes even the quietest moments sing.
– All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: because with his amazing word choices, he makes language new.
– Beloved by Toni Morrison: because she showed that magic, woven into reality, shakes loose fresh truth.
Thank you so much again Jennifer for your time. I hope you a got this Q&A. The Yellow Bird Sings is out today. Thank you Rosie and Picador for this amazing copy to review!