“I was dropped into a place where I knew no one and nothing about the place. The wind was different. The trees and water were different. The people were different. Cold was a different kind of cold I was used to. So everyone I met and every situation I found myself in, was a discovery. And If you are discovering things on a day to day basis, that means you are on an adventure. And adventures are magical because all the unknowns unfold in front of you.”
— James Bird
There’s something enormously appealing about debut authors. A new voice joins the choir. Collectively we grow stronger, richer, more diverse. And what a feeling of accomplishment for that new author. Personally, I published my first book at age 25, back in 1986. But I remember it well, holding that slim book in my hands, and how kind so many people were to me. Today we’re celebrating Native American author Jame Bird and his magical debut, a powerful work of middle-grade fiction, The Brave. Let’s get to know him.
Congratulations on your debut children’s book, James. Welcome. Normally we’d go over the secret handshake, but, well, these are not normal times.
For now, I think we’ll both just have to hold up our hands and shake them at each other.
Hopefully one day we’ll raise a glass together. You have a young child at home, I believe. How is it going? We have two of our college-age children at home with us. In some respects, it’s felt like a gift.
My son Wolf is 20 months old. I’m very glad he is young enough to not know what’s going on in the world around him right now. His passion for toys, books, and games is keeping me busy and happy, and in a way, allowing Adriana and I to not focus on this pandemic 24-7. Which is very much needed.
Before we get into your book, give us a little background information. I mean to ask: Who are you?!
Who am I? Hmm.
Yeah, I know, we ask the deep questions here at James Preller dot com!
I come from the film industry. Born and raised in Los Angeles. I’m used to working on projects with at least a hundred people involved, sometimes more, so it’s quite interesting writing and publishing book. It’s like going from living in a busy city to moving to a small island. I feel like Tom Hanks in Cast Away… My agent is Wilson the volleyball and my editor is the fedex package.
Do you self-identify as a Native American author? Or does that feel like a box that people put you in?
I am very proud to be Native American, because after everything my people went through, and continue to go through, I am proof that no matter how hard America tried to erase us, we are still here. So I guess everything I do can have Native American slapped on to it. I’m a Native American author. I’m a Native American director. And in a few minutes I’ll be a Native American diaper changer.
Wonderful answer, I love that. What led you to write a children’s book?
I’ve been telling stories all my life. It was kind of my escape. I’ve told stories in every way possible. Through film, photography, drawing, music, poetry, comic books, screenplays, animation, and even fashion design… Now it’s time to tell stories through books. And so far, MG is my favorite.
How did you experience with screenwriting help you as a writer for this novel? Similarities and differences?
Writing a book is far more complex than writing a screenplay. A script is like train tracks. One direction from beginning station to the final station. It’s simple, strong, and you just move in one direction the entire time. Writing a novel is like riding a horse. You can go in any direction, you can be too slow, or too fast, you can fall off, you can get lost. It takes far more focus, patience, and skill to write a novel.
Collin, age 12, has an interesting numeric condition. Tell us about it.
Collin counts the letters from whoever speaks to him. So if someone asks “How Are You?” he’d reply with “Nine. Fine.”
Where did that idea come from? Why did it appeal to you?
When I was a kid, in school, teachers had no idea what to do with me. I’d dissect sentences and words and give them personalities and merge the letters to make them form new words. Because of this, I got really bad grades and put in the not-so-bright classes, but also because of this, I became a writer. I love words. I love how we all use the same words, same letters, but use them so differently. It fascinates me. I love authors.
At the beginning of The Brave, Collin feels isolated and disconnected. Is that a feeling you’ve experienced yourself?
I think we’ve all felt that way, especially in our childhood, but to answer your question, personally, yes, I grew up very poor and in rough neighborhoods. Poverty has a way of making you feel disconnected from everyone else.
Collin has felt like an outsider his entire life. Raised by a distant, alcoholic father, Collin has never met his Native American mother –- he doesn’t even know her name — until life’s circumstances led him to go live with her, a complete stranger. I thought that was a brilliant stroke of storytelling. Collin brings with him all the usual assumptions and misconceptions about Native Americans. It’s not his fault, nobody ever told him. So, he learns about his own Native American heritage at the same time as the reader. What do you think most people get wrong about Native American culture?
In my experience, when most people think of a Native American or pick up a Native American story, they assume it will be about the west, cowboys, feathers in hair, bows and arrows, buffalos, and warpaint… I want to show people that yes, Native Americans were here yesterday, but they are still here today, and they will be here tomorrow. And we wear jeans, tell jokes, and deal with all the problems other people do. We’re all the same in the end. Our stories may be told differently, but we are all the same.
Did you write the book with that mission in mind?
In a way. I really wanted to bring some magic back to people but not force them to enter an entire new world. Because the truth is, you don’t have to leave this world to experience magic. It’s all around us, right here.
Yes, I love this, and it shines through in your book. Were you influenced by the Magical Realism of, say, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez? Or more directly from your heritage?
When I was young, there were times when my family lived in a car, or all stayed in one room, or had to crash with relatives, so as a way to keep me happy, my mom would tell me stories. They were always filled with magic because reality was too harsh back then. So, I’d say my mom was my biggest influence.
There are people who are very uncomfortable with the idea of magic. And yet at the same time, a certain young wizard managed to scratch up an audience.
People are uncomfortable with the unknown, and magic is the unknown. But at the same time, magic fascinates everybody too. So I fully believe that people, whether they’d admit it or not, find being uncomfortable fascinating. It’s a feeling you need to face. And the feeling of making the unknown finally known. That is a feeling we all strive for. We also call it learning. We yearn to learn. So in a way, learning is magic.
You set a good part of your novel in Fond Du Lac Reservation in Minnesota. This is a world you know?
My Ojibwe family is from Duluth, Minnesota. It’s a very magical place if you get to know it. First glance, it’s just a industrial city on a lake, but if you speak to it, and open up to it, the place is full of magic.
What does that mean to you, full of magic? Could you expand on that a little bit?
When I say full of magic I mean that I was dropped into a place where I knew no one and nothing about the place. The wind was different. The trees and water were different. The people were different. Cold was a different kind of cold I was used to. So everyone I met and every situation I found myself in, was a discovery. And If you are discovering things on a day to day basis, that means you are on an adventure. And adventures are magical because all the unknowns unfold in front of you. You give them meanings, you give them reasons, you get to direct your adventure any way you choose to… you’re a magician. That bird that sang to me told me I’m going to meet a new friend today… If you believe in that magic and make it happen. You are using magic. And you get a new friend too.
Once settled in Duluth, Collin meets Orenda, a neighboring girl. You have an affection for beautiful eccentrics and outsiders.
I’m a sucker for the oddballs, underdogs, outcasts, and weirdos. I think if everyone was comfortable with being themselves and not worrying about how they appear through the eyes of society, we’d see that most people would be viewed as strange. And I like that. I’m happy to admit that I have not yet once met a normal person.
Thank you, James, I’m very glad your original, magical voice has been added to the children’s literature community. I wish you the best of luck. And I’m sorry, yes, that your debut has to come during these awful times.
James Bird is a screenwriter and director at the independent film company Zombot Pictures; his films include We Are Boats and Honeyglue. He lives with his wife and son in Swampscott, Massachusetts. His book will be published in June 2020 and is available for preorder now.
You want to make a debut author happy? Read his book!