Writers sometimes find inspiration in the most unlikely of places, or they are inspired to write by the tiniest passing detail. While reading “The Dentist’s Parrot,” I couldn’t help but wonder at the origins of the story. Could you share a bit about its conception?
I was afraid you’d ask this question, because the origins are not that clear to me. I remember thinking that if a parrot learned to talk in a dentist’s office, it probably wouldn’t talk very clearly. However, I don’t know how that became a story from the parrot’s point of view.
When you get an idea for a story, do you bookmark it to come back to, do you feel compelled to sit down right then and give it life, or some other way?
Well, for this story, I got the idea about a dentist’s parrot while I was at work, so I couldn’t write it down right away. In fact, several days passed before I wrote it. I confess that at other times I sit down to write with no clear idea at all. I just start and something comes. Or not.
Describing unusual or exotic places can be tricky, but you give a lovely description of a rainforest toward the end of the story. Have you visited a rainforest, and, if you haven’t, what is your creative process for describing a place you have never seen?
Nope, never been to a tropical rainforest. In this case, I wasn’t trying to write about a real rainforest, but the rainforest in the parrot’s mind, which would be idealized, the way places in our pasts often are. So I just imagined it.
Which authors inspire you to write and influence your particular style? What are you currently reading?
When I was in high school, I was in love with the prose of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I wanted to grow up to write like him. I love Jane Austen—great characters and humor. Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping was a huge book for me—just so beautifully written. Right now because I’ve been teaching it, I have been rereading Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. It’s so wonderfully written. In a way it’s a shame that it’s always assigned to young people. So much in it is about regret and looking back that I don’t think I fully appreciated it when I was younger.
Your story is very lighthearted at the outset, but it quickly and subtly takes on a more melancholy tone as you introduce themes of displacement, isolation, and longing. Is there some subtextual meaning you were hoping to communicate to the reader?
When I was an undergrad, Robert Pinsky guest-taught a poetry writing class I was taking. He said something like, write the poem and let other people figure it out. So I adopted that philosophy.