CALLING MR LONELY HEARTS, the novel I’m working on now, is filled with birds. I’m not sure how they came to be there, or why. I could explore the subject, but I’d rather leave it for a reader to discover. Writers are notoriously bad diviners of meaning in their work.
I love wild birds. I keep the feeders outside our house filled with black oil sunflower seed for most, and one filled with thistle for the finches. We have no cats, so they can feed here in relative safety. Occasionally, one will knock itself out by flying into a nearby window; I cringe when I hear that telltale “thump” on the glass, but don’t go and look right away because I know I’ll want to immediately dash out and do something (touch it, pick it up, cuddle it in a towel and bring it inside–all bad ideas). Most times the bird is just stunned and recovers itself quickly. Sometimes it dies. Birds seem so fragile to me.
Owls and other birds of prey are particularly significant in CMLH. What is it that makes owls so appealing, I wonder? Perhaps it’s their enormous eyes (up to 5%) of their body weight, or their apparent unflappability. The other night I came home to a barred owl sitting on our front gate. I stopped the car only twenty or so feet away and watched it–as it watched me. We watched one another for a good two or three minutes before it opened its broad wings and flew off into the field. I felt strangely blessed by its presence.
This past week I worked on a particularly difficult section of the book that had a scene with many, many owls. I spent several hours imagining what it would be like to surrounded by them. I did the usual Internet reading, gathering facts to make the scene more realistic. Then, yesterday morning, I turned on the television to make sure church hadn’t been canceled (it was snowy), and there was a wildlife guy on some morning show who had three owls he’d brought for the cameras. He mentioned one or two things I hadn’t already discovered, including the fact that the tiny screech owl can be prey for a larger bird, like the Great Horned Owl. That disturbed me. But it was an excellent reminder to eschew sentimentality when it comes to wild things. Owls are birds of prey, after all. Not pets. The notion that creatures will often prey on smaller, weaker versions of their own kind is one that a writer (particularly a thriller writer) can’t afford to forget.