A Q&A with Amy and Lee Woodruff

When I thought about who should interview me for the Q&A page on my website it was immediately obvious: my dear friend, Lee Woodruff. She’s a CBS This Morning Contributor, a three-time published author, and more important than those two things, she is very, very funny. Luckily for me, she agreed to have this little sit-down.

LEE: The obvious first question ……. what’s the meaning behind the title, Seven Birds?

AMY: I started working on Seven Birds in 1994 (why it took so long is a whole other discussion) after a conversation with a friend about the Counting Crows’ new album. The lyrics of the album were so intriguing and poignant and reminiscent of my life for some reason I thought, huh, is there a story there? Some story that ties in these birds and these evocative lyrics and links them to my own memories and stories? In the album, there was a song about actually counting crows, and that was the song that kept haunting me; I grew up going to Chatham, Massachusetts and there were crows everywhere. I listened to the Counting Crows, the Black Crows, Sheryl Crow, I lived on Crows Pond and there was a house on the property called the Crows Nest … and it’s not just crows—in my childhood I remember so many birds: gulls and mourning doves and quails too. The sounds and songs of them bring me right back to that place.

LEE: That’s a lot of birds. For many authors, the first fiction book is the story of our lives, because we write what we know. So specifically, with this book, how much did you draw from your own life? And how much did you create characters out of whole cloth?

AMY: I guess I started writing it as a memoir; I actually thought there was a genre called fictional memoir (laughing), but I don’t think there is; I think there are either novels or memoirs. I really wanted to fuse those two genres in some way, I guess. There are seeds of truths in this book—like some of the places I describe are places where I’ve lived or spent time—but the actual story and the characters and the occurrences are entirely untrue. Going from memoir to fiction allowed me to fully imagine and elaborate. What I will say, which most writers and readers will get, is that stories come from what we know, even if that is a foundational feeling like grief or heartache or pure joy.

LEE: Was there one character who was the most fun to write?

AMY: The chapters from the perspective of the character Penny, who is an adult with special needs, were incredibly fun and easy to write and needed the least amount of editing. Her voice came spilling out onto the pages, fast and furious. I’m not sure exactly where she came from, but some of her expressions and pronunciations of words came from my own children, when they were quite small. I really needed one of the characters to be strong, and have it all together, even ironically. Penny’s character is brave and funny and stubborn and I adore her.

LEE: Which character was the hardest for you to write?

The character that might be the closest to me in spirit is the character called Fez and weirdly, those Fez chapters were the hardest chapters to write. They took forever and they were hard to edit; you’d think those would be the easiest. When I started writing from her perspective, she came out kind of wooden and flat. It was as if she were numb, and behaving in a way that I might act in certain situations (since I tend to semi-shut down under duress). I had to think hard about to add greater dimension to her, and it meant stepping outside of myself and thinking about how Fez might respond to something and not how Amy might respond.

LEE: Did you know where this book was going when you started?

AMY: Kind of. I had the basic story in my head, but then I kept layering and adding as I went. A lot more rich and detailed experience was added throughout the process. It started more like a book of short stories, all told in first person format, with linked or connecting characters to unify a single tale, but it got very complicated and my editor suggested I narrow it down to three voices and create a single novel as told from the three characters. Once I simplified the format, the book really started to come together.

LEE: What are you writing next?

AMY: I’ve started working on a thriller, a mystery. It starts with a young girl witnessing her mother’s brutal murder.

LEE: YO!

AMY: Yep, and then after the murder, the young girl and her two sisters go into therapy to both work through their complex feelings of grief and also to try to solve the murder through memory resurfacing exercises. It has twists and turns and a couple of big, crazy, unexpected revelations.

LEE: Is this a departure from the first?

AMY: Yes, totally. It’s gritty and quite dark. I’ve been exploring mental health and grief issues lately and the importance of therapy in working through traumatic events, and the story rose up from that.

LEE: Looking forward to reading that one next.