Interview with Alice Greenway, author of The Bird Skinner

18th May 2016

Alice Greenway creates intensely believable characters who come from other places and other times…  She captures so well the unsleeping tragedies of the past, and how these bear in upon the present.’  Helen Dunmore


Can you talk a little about the background for The Bird Skinner?

AG: One question I had mind when I was writing the novel was that while modern psychology tells us that it’s good to talk through and confront our demons, I wonder whether, for some people, memory might be too overwhelming and the past too painful to address.

The character of Jim is based on your grandfather?

AG: Yes, my grandfather was an ornithologist, a quite well known ornithologist who worked at the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Harvard, and at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  He collected birds all over the world and travelled to Indochina with the French ornithologist Jean Delacour and in 1958 published Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World, which is still used as a reference book by ornithologists today.  He has a wonderful, quirky story-telling style, which you can find both in his book and his other articles and letters, one I tried to convey in the novel. When I started the book, I knew that my grandfather had worked at museums and that he’d served in the Pacific War, but I had no idea exactly where he served, nor did I know anything about ornithology.  Since then I’ve really given myself college courses on the Pacific War and on ornithology. My husband and I went to the Solomon Islands and I spent about two weeks visiting the battlefields of Guadalcanal. Then at the end of the trip, I thought I should give my husband a break from all this war tourism and we went to New Georgia, the next group of Islands to the West—to relax and swim. So there we were in this amazingly beautiful place with wonderful reefs for snorkelling.  And on the small resort’s list of activities, alongside reading in the hammock and snorkelling trip to a nearby island or  a visit to “skull island” was a  WWII tour!  How could I resist? Naturally, I spent the next few days in a small motor boat with a 5 horsepower engine, being taken around World War II wrecks. By the time I left, I realized I wanted to write about New Georgia rather than Guadalcanal. I fell in love with New Georgia.  It was like a tropical Maine and strangely familiar to me.

What is your connection with Maine?

AG: I grew up overseas, and from about age 16, my family started to spend summers in Maine. My grandfather actually lived in Greenwich, Connecticut – and this is where fact turns into fiction. I tried writing about Greenwich, but it just didn’t take off, so eventually I decided to set the American part of the novel in Maine instead. My parents have a place there and I have a small cabin on their property. I usually get there, every summer. Scotland, where I live now, also reminds me of Maine – the Hebridean islands make me imagine what Maine might have been like in the 1950s.  It was hard enough to write about the Solomons and the museums, all places that were new to me, but I know Maine well. You have to spend time in this place you create, so there has to be something about it that you like?  When you write, you create another space where you can live vicariously, for me it helps if this is a place I would actually want to be.

Do any of your siblings remember your grandfather?

AG: Not really.  Since we lived abroad, we only saw him now and again when we came home in the summers. He could be a  gruff man –  difficult and unpredictable. I wasn’t so aware of it at the time, but my father remembers how he once invited us sailing, then we arrived, all set to go, he decided he didn’t want to take a lot of puking kids on a boat, so we didn’t go.  For us children, that meant a gloriously unscheduled afternoon but for the adults it was a disappointment. Maybe I knew him the best of my siblings because I went to college nearby and I occasionally visited him from University.  I have cousins who grew up nearby and perhaps it is hard for them to have me come along and write about this person who lived next door to them. But the people I was really concerned about were my father, and my uncle and aunt.  I spoke to my father many times about the book, and I let both my uncle and aunt read the galley.  They were amazingly supportive.  However, the character in the book is obviously not my grandfather. It is inspired by him and I tried to write in his voice, but everything that happens in the book is fiction, and he’s become a fictional character.

What about the other characters?

AG: From the beginning,  I had in mind that Jim would befriend a Solomon Island scout. The man who took me around New Georgia in a boat became a model for  the character Tosca – I even used his name imagining I’d have to change it before we went to print.  But later, when the book was about to be published,  I wrote to ask whether he would mind me using his name, and discovered his name was actually Taska, so there was no conflict. Cadillac too is pure fiction.  I can’t remember how I even thought of her. Physically, I had a glimpse of a woman in the Chester Rest House where we stayed in Honiara, who walked past with her toothbrush stuck in her hair and that’s the only image I had. I guess I wanted Cadillac to be the woman I wish I had been. I wish, when I visited him from University, that I had been able to step in and have a relationship with my grandfather and become a friend to him, the way she is able to with Jim. I suppose she is a fantasy of what I wish I could have been for my grandfather. But he was a hard man to know, very reserved and private. Some people thought he was a terror, others saw a more generous, charming or eccentric side to him. I felt that he had this huge heart, that was just all bound up.   As kids, if we went to kiss him, he would draw back and say: ‘No kisses at germ time’. And it was always germ time.

Alice Greenway is an American who grew up in Hong Kong. As the daughter of a foreign correspondent she also lived in Bangkok, Jerusalem and the United States. She now lives in Scotland with her family. Her first novel, White Ghost Girls was longlisted for the 2006 Orange Prize.