Billy Bird is such a terrific novel; it grips you tight with its poignant family tensions, its heartache boy at the centre, its sweetly crafted sentences. I loved it. I would be disappointed not see it on the forthcoming book-award fiction list as it has been one of my favourite reads of the year.
Hot off the press: Sarah Jane Barnett is the new Books Editor at Pantograph Punch – it is relaunching today! Great news. And a great interview to relaunch with!
Here is the start of an interview that explores the novel (among other things!). Full interview here.
Sarah Jane Barnett: First, a belated congratulations for the long listing your poetry collection Tender Machines at the 2016 Ockham Awards. It’s a beautiful collection. You’ve also recently launched a new novel Billy Bird, which – among many things – is about a family, a tragic event, and a young boy who takes on the persona of a bird. One of the reasons that I find your work so exciting is the way you write honestly and unabashedly about families. It took me a long time to feel comfortable writing about being a parent, possibly because the experience is as tough and brutal as it is joyous. It felt exposing, but in the end unavoidable. How, emotionally, did it feel to write Billy Bird?
Emma Neale: I understand the reluctance to write about parenthood, actually: a number of hesitations can turn people away from it as a subject. I’ve talked to writers who want their creative life to be a complete break from parenthood, as they find its contradictions, frustrations and sheer exhaustion too debilitating to revisit on the page; to writers who go in fear of the personal, full stop; or who agonise over what their own children will think of the work when they’re adults; or who fear that their work will be dismissed as ‘only’ domestic.
For me, the experience of parenthood has at times been so dividing, so challenging and shaking – potentially major early health issues for our children as babies; postnatal depression; pulling through that and wanting to be as present for the children as possible, but also to keep up some form of intellectual and creative life, and make a financial contribution (however small) to the family; that I found that even when I had carved out solitude for writing, there was so much teeming around in my head about family dynamics, and childhood development, that frequently these subjects jostled out others.
On the other hand, I’ve always been interested in how identity is shaped by our early family environments – and my own role as a mother was inevitably going to be ‘field research’! I also think, as time has gone on (one son is 14, one is nearly 7), I’ve been more able to see that each phase in their lives truly is a phase. Moments of crisis don’t have to signal permanent disaster. Some of the vulnerabilities and fears of early motherhood have just naturally dissipated as I’ve watched the children grow into confident, humorous, thoughtful, warm, wacky, creative adventurers.