Bird's Words

by Jennifer C. Shenk

 

Sarah Bird

 

Walking casually through the living room of her modest west Austin home, Sarah Bird passes a director's chair marked "The Boyfriend School" and steps out onto her back porch, looking disapprovingly at her lawn chairs. They are covered with dried mud left over from the last rain. She quickly retreats indoors, emerging a few seconds later with two brightly colored bed sheets: one of which she throws over a chair; the other becomes a cover for the patio table. As a final touch, she adds a bowl of orange powder-covered potato chips (cheese-flavored?) and presents her festive handiwork to me with a flourish of her hands, "Your seat, madam?" she says with a smile and a small laugh as she takes the other seat.

Bird ("Oh, please, call me Sarah," she insists.) is the author of Alamo House, The Boyfriend School, The Mommy Club, and Virgin of the Rodeo, all novels set in Texas cities and replete with humor and satire straight from the voice of Bird herself. Quirky, friendly, and pee-in-your-pants funny, Bird possesses many of the most endearing characteristics of her novels' plucky "leading ladies," and her unusual background has given her seemingly endless material for her writing. But all she's ever wanted, she says, is to be able to write just one more piece.

Bird entered the world of writing with "true confession" novels after she returned to the United States from her junior year of college in France. As a French au pair taking care of a three-month-old baby (the only other person in France, she says, whose French was worse than hers) Bird began reading "photo romance" books. These books of pictures with captions that told a "true romance" story caught her attention when it occurred to her, "Somebody gets paid to write these," she says.

When she returned to the United States, she looked up the comparable market for the French books, which turned out to be the pulp fiction "true confession"novels aimed at a blue-collar audience. She began writing these stories (such as a first-person book about kidnapping her own child) as a way, she says, of "backing into writing, because I didn't have the confidence, even to admit to myself, that I wanted to be a writer." The books turned out to be good training for a writer, she says, because it was written in first person, she had to adopt a voice that was not her own, and she had to be faithful to a world other than her own.

After finishing her anthropology degree at the University of New Mexico, Bird moved to The University of Texas with a fellowship in journalism. While studying photojournalism for her master's degree, she did some of the "most important things in [her] work that came out of that time? I have some really fond memories of UT and my experiences there."

One of the most interesting things she found to photograph were offbeat rodeos, a project that evolved from a UT assignment. She used her knowledge of anthropology to study the differences in black, Native American, and Mexican rodeos and to capture the perfect moments that told the stories of each rodeo and the culture surrounding it. Some of her photos and observations from that project recently were featured in the premiere issue of Austin magazine.

Another project to emerge from her time at UT was a novel that she calls the "ultimate revenge" for her life as a graduate student living across the street from a fraternity whose members would have loud parties every night that lasted into the early morning hours. Although she worried that the book, Alamo House: Women Without Men, Men Without Brains, would be perceived as "hostile" toward UT, she found that professors, students, and even librarians (who were the butts of several irreverent digs) "loved the book."

After writing Alamo House and realizing that the novel did not bring in enough money, Bird wrote several romance novels under the pseudonym Tory Cates. "[Writing the romance novels] paid the rent, kept my typing speed up, and taught me how to fill up pages with words," Bird says. But it did more than that. It gave her material for her next novel, The Boyfriend School. A novel about a photo journalist-turned-romance novelist and her impending romance, The Boyfriend School is set in Austin and includes a trip for the book's heroine, Gretchen Griner, to the "Luvboree"romance novelists' convention in Dallas. While writing this novel, Bird also worked on a screenplay of the book as a writing exercise to get to know her male lead character. By the time she finished her novel, she also had a screenplay, which was then used to create the movie, Don't Tell Her It's Me, starring Steve Guttenberg, Shelley Long, and Jami Gertz.

"It was a surreal experience and completely enjoyable right up until the point at which I sat down and watched the movie. And then the dream ended," she says. "It was such a shock."

Never having written a screenplay before Don't Tell Her It's Me, Bird says she learned a few things from the experience. "The big lesson was how much the visual overwhelms the verbal and how you have to write visually." She adds that it makes little difference how clever the dialog is if the screenplay is not written with the visual in mind.

After her "crushing disappointment" with Don't Tell Her It's Me, Bird wrote her next novel, The Mommy Club, while she was pregnant with her now-eight-year-old son, Gabriel. Then, she wrote her latest novel, Virgin of the Rodeo, which she is turning into a screenplay. She says the book was optioned (she was paid for the option to turn the book into a movie) immediately when it came out. In the last few years, she also has worked on screenplays for National Geographic and Hallmark, who have teamed up to produce a series of films for ABC about adventurers and explorers. She says she is not sure how many of these screenplays she'll write.

"Every time I think, "I've got some time now, I'm going to start working on a novel," then something comes along that is so fascinating to me that I just can't say no,"she says.

Bird says that her writing has to be a serious, money-making career now that she has a child. And screenwriting pays well. But writing novels, she says, is "the ultimate expression. There's nothing in my experience that compares to it."

A collaborative effort, screenwriting involves the vision of all the people involved in making the movie, from the actors to the directors. Novels, however, are the writer's sole vision.

Bird says there are great benefits to screenwriting, though. In addition to the money, she says that everyone involved calls and checks in on how the writing is going. But when writing a novel, she says, "You could be on Antartica. You know, you're out of radio contact with the world. You're just sitting there digging it up out of yourself. It gets kind of lonely."

Bird adds that screenwriters from Austin are popular now with Hollywood, and it is a good time to be writing for television and the big screen. "You can go into almost any producer's office and they're going to want to talk about Antone's and eating barbecue at Stubb's and swimming at Barton Springs... It's their way of showing that they are not typical L.A. people, that they've got soul."

Although she says her career is moving toward screenwriting, she hopes to find time to write a novel based on a period she spent in Okinawa with her mother and her father, who was in the air force at the time. Her "very bizarre experience" there included winning a dance contest and subsequently touring Japan as the intermission dancing act for a "sort of third-rate Borsch Belt comedian."

With all her successes as a writer, Bird says she's gotten more that she has ever expected. "I don't know if I'm cursed or blessed with low expectations, but all I ever wanted was to be allowed to do it one more time," she says. "And I've achieved that."


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