So, If Birds Fly Back is your first novel, right?
Yes and no. I wrote my first full-length novel between the ages of nine and thirteen. While The Lady of the Tree was short on things like plot, character development or an original title, it was strong in enthusiasm. I knew deep down that writing was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. My family moved a lot—fourteen times before I reached university—so writing and books were things that I could hold onto when everything else was changing. To gain entry to my grad program in creative writing, I also began an adult dystopian novel called The Professor’s Wife. It was pretty terrible as well.
Did you major in English at university?
Not at first. Because I was really skilled in science, my grandparents decided that I would become a neurologist. (They saw me reading Oliver Sacks a lot, but didn’t understand that I liked the stories of science much better than the practical application.) So I applied to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to study biology with the plan of becoming a doctor. Then my beloved grandfather had a heart attack. I spoke with his attending neurologist, who said that ninety-nine percent of his patients were already brain-dead, and it was his responsibility to crush the hope of families. I dropped biology the next day.
But it wasn’t until my junior year at UNC that I transitioned to English. I was reading Fahrenheit 451 at the recommendation of Rory Gilmore, and I remember thinking: I love this. Why would I want to study anything besides literature? I spent the next semester reading American literature at Kings College London, and by the time I returned home, I had a plan to apply for a graduate program in English at Oxford, which was close enough to Hogwarts to excite me.
When did you decide to write a YA novel?
Although I loved my research at Oxford, I must say that it wasn’t my true passion. Every night, I would squirrel away twenty minutes to read young adult books. That’s when I discovered Stephanie Perkins and fell in love with Anna and the French Kiss. It slowly began to occur to me that these were the books I adored. Maybe I should try writing one. I began working on an idea before starting at City University London and finished it during the program. That novel became If Birds Fly Back.
Who are your favorite writers?
A long list of writers inspired If Birds Fly Back, but none more than Jandy Nelson. I first read The Sky is Everywhere at City, and it filled me with so much love. I’m not sure how to explain this, but I felt that our stories had the same heart. Her shining prose gave me something to aspire to, and in many ways her writing has encouraged me forward. I could go on forever about the authors who inspire me, but for the sake of brevity, here’s a condensed list: Jandy Nelson, John Green, Rainbow Rowell, Sarah Dessen, Stephanie Perkins, E. Lockhart, Jennifer Niven, Nicola Yoon, David Levithan, J.K. Rowling, Sherman Alexie, Suzanne Collins, Jay Asher, Meg Cabot, Louise Rennison, and on the adult side of things: Garth Stein, Jojo Moyes, Robin Sloan, Maria Semple, Helen Fielding, Kathryn Stockett, Sara Gruen, Donna Tartt, Mark Haddon, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Nicholls, Jess Walter, Ian McEwan, Elizabeth Gilbert… Okay, cutting it off here.
What inspired you to write If Birds Fly Back?
I know that a lot of this is covered in the biographical section, so apologies that I’m repeating myself! Based on my experience of volunteering in nursing homes, I knew that I wanted to set my book in one. I find the parallels between being a teenager and being an elderly person fascinating; both are beginning a new way of life: one, the awkward transition from childhood to adulthood, and the other, the transition from independent living to assisted care. Both encounter similar restrictions and challenges.
I was in Miami a few years ago when I saw an elderly man sitting outside of a nursing home, staring longingly at the beach. I thought: Does he ever actually get to go to the beach? What must his life be like?
Minus the missing sister, I also went through the same things as Linny as a teen. First love. Questioning my place in the world. Confronting others’ expectations for me. I’m definitely Linny – but I’m also all the other characters as well.