Q. This book was inspired by true events. What about the original story made you want to write When She Flew, and why as fiction rather than nonfiction? How does When She Flew differ from the true-life story?
A. In 2004, a Vietnam war veteran and his young daughter were found living in a large forested park abutting the city of Portland. I think everyone in Portland was mesmerized by the events: first, that they'd lived there so long, something like six years, and that the girl was so well-adjusted, and then, that the police officer in charge made decisions to better help these people, decisions that were not strictly by the book, and put himself at risk in order to help. The natures of these two peoplethe girl and the copwere at the core of my curiosity. I wanted to write characters like that, and I wanted to write about such extraordinary circumstances. What I didn't want to do was exploit the people involved, most especially the father and daughter, so I fictionalized all of the characters while using some of the actual police events as plot points, but again, re-imagining the story in my own way. I even chose to fictionalize the city so that I could immerse myself in a different setting.
Q. Is the creative process different when writing fiction inspired by true events, versus writing something purely imagined?
A. Yes, it was quite different, because I had a naturally occurring story outline to write to; I don't usually use outlines. That said, most fiction is written from some kind of personal experience that the writer reshapes and re-imagines into a new fictive entity, and I enjoyed creating all of the different characters and situations that moved the emotional part of the story along.
Q. What surprised you about the book as you wrote it? What was the most difficult part of writing this story?
A. Lindy's strong voice surprised me at first. She just started talking about birds in her unique way, and the metaphor was born. The hard part was that I had to quickly do the research to catch up with her! I knew nothing about birds, or police procedure. I was helped a great deal by a friend who is a bird expert, and by the actual police sergeant on the case, who endured all of my questions, from "What do you wear on your duty belt?" to "How did you feel when you found them?" He is a cop's cop, a guy's guy, and he was such a good sport about all of it.
Q. How do you think When She Flew is a departure from your other novels? How is it the same?
A. The obvious difference is that it's more action-oriented, more plot-driven in some ways, especially in the first half of the book. But it's still very much a story about the frailties and strengths of people, and what happens when they all bump into each other. It's still about family and relationships, love and loss and healing, all the things I usually find myself drawn to write about.
Q. Each of your books represents a point of view about the human condition. What would you like readers to take away from reading When She Flew?
A. There is a metaphor in When She Flew that is apt for what I aim to do in each book, and that is to turn over stones and tell the story of what lies beneath them. In our society, we don't see the homeless, or we see all homeless people as one teeming organism. In this story, we get to know two people who live outside of traditional means and see their humanness, their struggles and small victories and disappointments. I also think most of us don't have a clue what it's like to be a police officer. Again, we lump them into a type or species of human. In this story I hope I've humanized what it's like to be a copa person who, just like us, has hopes, dreams, strong feelings, and doubts, as well as family and friends, homes and pets and bills.
Q. You also have a disabled Iraq-war vet in the story; was that another kind of stereotype you wanted to humanize?
A. Absolutely. The father in When She Flew is a disabled Iraq-war vet doing his best to raise his daughter on a small military pension. He also struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, something we're hearing more and more about in the news regarding our returning soldiers. Perhaps Ray doesn't make the kind of decisions you or I would when it comes to the way he and Lindy live, but he does a lot of things really well that are good for her. What makes a home, what is safety? Is there such a thing as the "right" way to raise a kid, to educate her? Each family is different, and I think it's dangerous when our society doesn't take those differences into account.
Q. How did you come to the title When She Flew? What does it mean to you?
A. Literally, it came from a postcard of one of Brian Andreas's artworks that I've kept propped in front of my workspace for many years (I used the quote from it as the epigraph for the book). Each of the female characters in this story tries out her wingstries something different from usualand each experiences a metamorphosis by doing so. Their interwoven flight paths are what propel the story.
Q. What are you working on next?
A.At the moment I sense a group of characters forming around a central idea that I'm not quite ready to talk about, but I think I might be about to embark on my first true ensemble piece of fiction, delving into more than one or two characters' lives. I'm excited about it but it's not well formed enough to talk about just yet.
Questions for Discussion
What is the significance of birds in When She Flew?
What are the central themes of the story, and do they apply to your life as well? How so?
Which daughterNina or Lindywas raised in the best of circumstances? The safest environment? The most loving? Did one have it better than the other? Was one parented better than the other?
Why didn't Ray utilize the services available for homeless families and veterans? Do you think Lindy is better off in the woods with Ray than in a foster home? What is she missing and/or gaining in either situation?
Do you believe the responding officers made the appropriate decisions? Who should be responsible for determining what is in a child's best interest, the parent or the state?
Should Jess have been disciplined for her actions? To what extent?
How did Jess's past affect her actions in the story? In what ways did this event change her?
Was Lindy also changed by this experience? How so? Do you believe she'll ever come back to live in society?
How might have the outcome of the situation been different if the news about Ray and Lindy hadn't been leaked to the media? Was the press at fault for pursuing the story, or were they just doing their jobs? How do you feel about the role media plays in our society today?
To invite Jennie Shortridge to participate in your book group meeting, contact her.