BRIDGET BIRDSALL IS THE AUTHOR OF ORDINARY ANGELS AND DOUBLE EXPOSURE, WHICH IS CURRENTLY A FINALIST FOR A LAMBDA LITERARY AWARD. SHE IS AN EDENFRED FELLOW, THE RECIPIENT OF THE MARGE CHANDLER SCHOLARSHIP, AND A FINALIST FOR THE ROOM OF HER OWN FOUNDATION’S GIFT OF FREEDOM AWARD.
Bridget Birdsall! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?
Yes, I published my first novel, Ordinary Angels, through CreateSpace in 2011. After my editor at FSG was let go and Front Street Press, where I had a potential two-book contract in the works, closed their doors, I had to make some tough choices. My son reminded me that I had promised to publish a book by the time I was fifty. He was the one who’d encouraged me to self-publish. Out of three books that were ready, I chose a coming-of-age novel, which reads more like a memoir, which it is. In fact, it is my story. I liked the idea of independently publishing this particular book, because then I could control its distribution. Moreover, my mother had threatened to “sue my ass off” if I wrote anything about our family, and she had sued one of my brothers, so I took her threat to heart. The costs to me were strictly personal choices I made to create the best product I could create. I hired a developmental editor and a book designer, spending about three thousand dollars, give or take.
Does your craft alone provide you a livelihood?
No. I hope someday it will. Over the years, I’ve had all kinds of jobs to pay the bills. I’ve managed a community center, sold real estate, been a marketing and sales consultant, a retail store clerk, taught in high schools as a visiting artist, and at various colleges and universities, most recently at UW-Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies. It was nice to have a regular salary and I loved working with students, but the climate and culture was such that I was unable to share my gifts with the world—which is what I believe we are all here, ultimately, to do. As writers and artists, we have to find ways to support ourselves in the material world. The main thing I’ve had to work hard to change in my own psyche is the false belief that “artists starve,” which is what my father told me at a young age. As artists, we live in a world that needs our gifts, talents and perspectives more than ever. As for me, I’m currently looking for work that nurtures my creative life, a “B” job. Not because my Dad was right — though in retrospect I’m grateful he pushed me to get a business degree — but because I need a paying job to support my writing. I recently met with a nationally-known writer who was supported by her partner for fifteen years, until thirty books later when she began to realize a profit. Now she makes a decent income: a third from books sales and royalties; a third from speaking engagements; a third from teaching and consulting other writers. I would compare it to the NBA — it’s a great dream to have, a fabulous goal to shoot for, and just maybe some of us will make the cut, but we would be one of the fortunate few.
If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, do you feel you have as much time as you need to write?
At the beginning of each week I map out a time plan. I take a big orange marker and set appointments with myself at every possible writing opportunity. This can be anywhere from a fifteen-minute slot, to a four-hour chunk of time. I also occasionally do retreats where I take myself away to quiet place, especially when I’m revising. Often when I’m off by myself I write, sometimes nonstop for a day or two. So I guess it is not about having enough time, but more about making time. We spend our time, energy and money on what we value, and I value every minute I have to write.
How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?
I know when two or more individuals, usually in my writing group, tell me: “This part of the book isn’t working for me.” If I get five different ideas that are different, I take what I like and leave the rest, but if more than one person says the same thing, I pay attention.
When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?
A wise woman writer once said 80% is good enough! The truth is, I am always seeing opportunities for improvement in my own work, even if it’s already been published, so all I can do is settle for making it the best I can make it. Then I must let it go and trust it will do what it is supposed to do in the world. Of course, my hope is that whatever I write will find its readership, that it will make a difference in their lives. I believe books can change lives, even save them. A book changed my life forever (see question seven).
Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?
Both. I believe I was called to write by some kind of GOD / DOG with a weird sense of humor. Some higher Source that graced me with severe dyslexia, so that I would have to consciously chose to practice my craft and ask for help and stick with it, no matter what. This meant being teased about not being able to read, feeling dumb, like I would never get it, and, as I embraced the writing life as an adult, putting myself and my work out into the world. Through countless rejections and disappointments and frustrations and near misses, this went on for years and years and years, and yet: I am never happier than when I am writing! Time falls away. I become completely absorbed in the moment. I become one with my story and my characters and the page — it’s an amazing high.
What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after.
The book that changed my life was The Sojourner, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. It was not a children’s book, but I read it in sixth grade. I’m not sure how it ended up in my hands, but by then, I was devouring books at a rapid rate because I had FINALLY learned to read. It opened up a whole new world for me. It connected me to other souls, fictional souls, people who were twice my age from a different time and place, but who felt like I did. They too, had experienced the same bottomless pit of grief and confusion that I’d had when my brother died. They understood what it meant to be different or lonely, to doubt that God existed and still notice beauty, to love the natural world, and to long more than anything else in the world to feel valued and loved for who they were. Most importantly, they were inherently trustworthy, because though they were secretly tucked inside the pages, they were vulnerable and real and honest about the existence of both good and evil in the world.
Here’s an excerpt, though I recommend reading the whole book to really get the impact of this page, which is toward the end, where after many years have passed the two brothers are together, again. Ase / Asahel’s brother Benjamin is dying:
The gaunt face turned to him. The unshaded light was pitiless on the sick eyes.
A voice croaked, “Asahel?”
He took the withered hand.
“I was afraid—you wouldn’t come in time.”
“Have you had a doctor?”
“No use. I’m finished.”
The eyelids closed. They were parchment thin.
“The light hurts.”
Ase turned it out. He sat on a straight chair close beside the bed. The hand groped for him and he held.
“Asahel, I’ve always missed you.”
“I never knew. I’ve never been done missing you.”
”I have to tell you things Ase, You tell me first. I’m so tired.”
“What do you want to know, Ben?”
“Your family. You’ve done well?”
Ben’s voice was now familiar.
He said, “No Ben. I failed.”
He could tell it in the dark, one old face not having to see the other.
He began, “One child was good. Her name was Dolly. She died when she was six.”
Ben said, “I remember. You wrote me. Mother killed her.”
Ase withdrew his hand, because it was trembling.
“No, Ben, I never wrote that.”
“You didn’t need to. I knew. I knew Mother better than you did.”
“Was she always mad?”
He could ask it, the unaskable, knowing the answer, he could say it, the unsayable.
“She was evil, Ben, wasn’t she?”
“Always evil. Go on, Ase.”
The Sojourner, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings