Jody and Maxine have been married for forty-seven years, and every morning for as long as Jody cares to remember, Maxine has set up her easel in the middle of the den and gazed out across the yard. There’s not a curtain in the house, and the light in the mornings makes Jody’s eyes ache. His wife, Maxine, says she needs the light to paint by, and since all she paints are bluebirds, she wants the windows open so she can watch. Out back is a manicured stretch of lawn that ends at a fencerow of iron posts and steel wire, behind which the green is taller and more thriving, interspersed with stalks of pokeberry and Jimson weed. At the top of every fence-post sits a birdhouse, each one painted red, from which bluebirds tumble. Feeders and birdbaths are spread out at intervals, filled with algae-ridden water or suet.
From the sink in the kitchen, Jody watches Maxine move her brush over the white canvas. From smears of paint, birds emerge perched on strands of barbed wire, or hover in midair above flourishing pastures. Paintings like these cover every wall of the house. Once a year in May, Maxine takes them all down, loads them into the van and drives to Wills Point, Texas to the annual Bluebird Festival, where she sells them for ridiculous sums.
Bradford Tice received his MA in poetry from the University of Colorado, and is now at work on his Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. His poetry and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in such periodicals as The Atlantic Monthly, North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Mississippi Review, Crab Orchard Review, and the anthology This New Breed: Gents, Bad Boys, and Barbarians 2 (Windstorm Creative).
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
- HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
- BT: I think my first glimpse of the characters in this story, Jody and Maxine especially, came about a year after my grandfather’s death. My grandmother had died about three years before, and I found they were very much in my thoughts during that time. As a child, one of the things that perplexed me about my grandparents was how nasty they could be to one another. To hear them speak, you’d think they were barely suppressing the urge to go for the knives on the countertops. Yet looking back on it from adulthood, there’s no doubt in my mind that they loved each other dearly. I think that’s where the germ of the story came from. I wanted to write a story about two people who desire very much to love one another, and in fact do love one another, but over the course of years, for reasons too numerous and trivial to enumerate, had simply disconnected in some way. Plus, I’m a sucker for love stories, and the best ones are those that call the star-crossed lovers on their bullshit. That’s why I play a lot in the story with the motif of love as electrification—something amazing, but dangerous. It’ll shock the piss out of you if you don’t watch.
- HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
- BT: Deciding on a point of view was the hardest thing. This piece started out as a first-person present tense narrative told from Jody’s perspective and for some reason that skin never fit the flesh of the text. After I had written the first draft of the piece, I gave it to a friend to look at, and he was the one who suggested that I take it out of first-person and try a close third-person perspective instead. At first, I balked at the idea. It was like being asked to change the sex of the story. Yet, after some consideration, I realized my friend was right. The voice of the story’s narrator and the voice of Jody’s character were two vastly different people.
- HT: Why did you choose bluebirds to be the focus of Maxine’s painting?
- BT: I had already decided that I was going to make Maxine’s character an artist of some kind, and I thought it would fun if she were one of those artists that spend their whole lives consumed by one image or thing—like O’Keeffe with her bones and sexualized flowers, or Lautrec and his prostitutes. Why bluebirds? In the South, where I grew up, bluebirds have such a privileged and idealized status. My grandmother used to talk about them like they were leprechauns—creatures you had to trick to gain their treasures. The boxes for them have to be just the right dimensions, the hole just the right size for the bluebirds. And God forbid if any of us kids got too close to their nests, risking that the skittish birds abandon the boxes completely. I have a lot of resentment of those birds. Who do they think they are anyway?
- HT: Why did you make Jody an electrician? And why do you think it’s taken him so long to confront Maxine’s possible infidelity?
- BT: I wanted Jody to be mechanically minded to underline the sadness of someone who fixes things for a living, yet cannot fix the most precious thing in his life. I wanted him to be ineffectual in that way. As far as why it’s taken him so long to confront Maxine...I’m not sure. When confronted with the possibility that someone you care about has betrayed you, I think anyone might wish to look the other way. Because if you address the infidelity, confront it, you have to deal with the pain of that. And who wants to do that?
- HT: When did you come up with the idea of adding Amos as a character? What’s his purpose in the story?
- BT: Amos was there from the beginning. He just sort of strutted in with his guns and his smirk and demanded to be put somewhere. I always liked him as a character, but at first I wondered if he was right for this story. Obviously, in the end I let him stay. I think the story needs Amos. He’s a balance to Jody’s grief and desperation. Plus, Amos is the kind of man that Jody would love to be—an abrasive, cocky, let’s-grab-life-by-the-balls-and-ask-questions-later kind of guy. On top of that, Jody sees him as the kind of man Maxine would have an affair with, and I think that’s why Jody is both repelled by, and attracted to, Amos.
- HT: Do you have any idea why birds of the blackbird and raven families have group names implying revelation?
- BT: None, other than the obvious, traditional association of ravens and crows to sites of violent death. Their cries probably have something to do with it as well. If you get a tree full of starlings together, their chatter does sound like a conversation that you just can’t quite make out.
- HT: Do you think Jody ever gets rid of the starlings?
- BT: Yes and no. In my mind, there are two sets of starlings that invade the story. The first, of course, is the literal birds taking over Maxine’s bluebird houses. But Jody has his own set of starlings, and they sit in his head and make a lot of noise. They’re the manifestation of Jody’s fears and the hostility that has grown over time between Maxine and him. They’re the racket in his chest. He rids himself of them by accepting the inevitability of their presence, but I’m not sure they could ever be defeated. I actually submitted this story to a workshop once, and there were a few people in the class who really wanted those birds to fry at the end. In the end though, the anticipation of that event was more electric in my mind than any actual delivery.
- HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
- BT: The first draft of this story was done in a week, and then I spent the next two years revising. That’s pretty much my formula for every story. When I have an idea, I try to throw everything onto the page as fast as possible, so I don’t lose anything. Then begins the slow process of revision where I try to find pattern in the chaos.
- HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
- BT: Be fearless, be committed, but be reasonable. It would be wonderful if we could all be that writer who writes everyday, without fail. However, I’m not. Everyone’s writing process is different, and although we should to be industrious and professional about our craft, it’s good to forgive yourself every now and again. It’s alright to fail. It’s alright to experiment. I try to remind myself of that often, because the one thing I never wanted was for my writing to feel like a chore.
- HT: What are you working on now?
- BT: I’m trying to put together a collection of stories. I need about two more for the manuscript to be of an acceptable length. Right now, I’m working on a story told from the point of view of a father whose eleven year old son gets sent home from school for kissing other boys in his class.