The Gravity of Birds (S&S) is Tracy Guzeman’s debut novel. Her work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Vestal Review, and Glimmer Train Stories. Guzeman lives in the San Francisco Bay area of California.
What inspired you to write this book?
Tracy Guzeman: The Gravity of Birds started out as two short stories I couldn’t finish. The first story was about two sisters whose relationship changes when one is forced to act as caregiver for the other. The second story involved a young man, recently graduated with a degree in the arts, whose career is on a downward trajectory. What would that feel like, at a time when most of his peers were experiencing success? I set the stories aside, periodically resurrecting them to try again. One of these repeated attempts coincided with a move. I was packing up an old family portrait — an oil painting of my great-great-great-grandmother and her two daughters. It suddenly struck me that those daughters might be the two sisters in the story. The painting itself worked its way into the other story, and then I saw the potential connection between the two.
There are a lot of well-researched details about the art world in The Gravity of Birds. Are you interested in art, or did you research the topic specifically for the book?
TG: Two things that have always been on my personal wish list: musical ability and artistic talent. Unfortunately, I have no rhythm and can barely draw a straight line. But I do have a great appreciation for art in all its forms, something that was encouraged by my parents from the time I was young. My mother and I would often take the train into the city to see the ballet, or to spend the day at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of my favorite places. In spite of that appreciation, I needed to do a great deal of research for the book. The websites of various art museums were resources I revisited time and again.
Were books an important part of your childhood? If so, what book had the greatest impact on you, as a child?
TG: The rule in our house was that you could check out as many books from the library as you could carry yourself, so my sisters and I showed up every Saturday morning with a plastic laundry basket, filled it to the brim, then dragged it over to the circulation desk. Rebecca was the first book I checked out from the library’s adult section. It was wonderfully dark and mysterious and twisted, and I couldn’t stop reading it.
Tell us about Spine Poetry!
TG: The Huffington Post credits artist Nina Katchadourian as being one of the longest practitioners, starting with her project Sorted Books in 1993, but I imagine there were earlier attempts. If you’re a bibliophile, one of the greatest pleasures has to be choosing how to arrange your books! My own method has more to do with spine color and font style than with the author’s last name, book title, or subject matter. I admit I’m obsessed. I spend more time than I should moving titles around until I get them in just the right order.
During one of these bouts of rearranging, I realized I’d inadvertently created poetry. A.S. Byatt’s Possession was next to Abby Frucht’s Are You Mine? and Ann Beattie’s Love Always. W.S. Merwin’s Migration was sitting on top of Bernhard Schlink’s Flights of Love. And there was John Mortimer’s Clinging to the Wreckage, sandwiched between Angela Carter’s Burning Your Boats and Michael Dorris’ A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. Once I started seeing connections, it was hard to stop. Now it’s a regular practice. It’s become my Sudoku.
When you travel, do you stop at bookstores? Any particular indies make a lasting impression?
TG: I’m lucky to live in the Bay Area, where we’re blessed with so many wonderful independent bookstores. But when I travel someplace new, bookstores and museums are the first places I stop. I’ve never met a bookstore I didn’t love, but a few of my favorites include The King’s English in Salt Lake City, Annie Bloom’s in Portland, and The Globe Bookstore in Seattle, where the rocking chairs and selection of background music always makes me feel like I’m reading in the well-stocked study of an old friend.
Have you ever bought a book because of its cover?
TG: Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat has one of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever seen. And Ben Fountain’s Brief Encounters With Che Guevara (the hardcover) is also stunning. I ended up liking what was inside both books just as much as I liked the covers.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
TG: Archangel by Andrea Barrett; Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry; Woop Studios’ A Compendium of Collective Nouns and The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin (both recommended to me by Jan at The King’s English in Salt Lake City); Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy by Dr. Pat Morris (a gift from my brilliant editor, Trish Todd); The Best American Short Stories collection (2013) and The O. Henry Prize Stories collection (2013); and Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin and Case Histories by Kate Atkinson, two old favorites I’m re-reading.
If you were a bookseller for a day, what book would you want to put in every customer’s hand? (Besides your own, of course!)
TG: Andrea Barrett’s short story collection, Servants of the Map. “The Forest” is one of my favorite stories of all time — a tale of the mishaps that unfold when an elderly Polish scientist travels to America and meets two sisters, Rose and Bianca Marburg.
If you could invite three authors (past or present) to a dinner party, who would they be? What do you think would be the topic of conversation?
TG: I’m working on a literary thriller next, so I’d invite Stef Penney (The Tenderness of Wolves), Kate Atkinson, and Daphne du Maurier. The topic of conversation? Murder, and how to nearly get away with it!
The Gravity of Birds by Tracy Guzeman (Simon & Schuster, Hardcover, 9781451689761) Published: August 6, 2013
For more on Tracy Guzeman, visit tracyguzeman.com.
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