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An Interview with Pam McGaffin


Pam McGaffin is the award-winning author of The Leaving Year (SparkPress, 2018). She is a former journalist who returned to her original passion of writing fiction after a long career in newspapers and public-relations. Her short stories have appeared in online literary journals, and her articles and essays have been featured in newspapers and magazines. She and her family live in Seattle, where there are many crows.

What inspired you to start writing this book?

I watched a BBC story about a Seattle girl who was receiving gifts from wild crows and was amazed. If these birds are smart enough to develop a reciprocal relationship with a human who feeds them, what else might they be capable of thinking and doing? I toyed with the idea of a novel from a crow’s point-of-view (I’d loved Watership Down as a kid) but didn’t know where to start. After a very messy NaNoWriMo draft and lots of research, false starts, and rewriting, I finally had a story about a family of crows struggling to survive the outbreak of West Nile virus in New York City in 1999.

Tell us the story of your book’s current title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

Shade of Wings is the current working title, but that could change. I’ve already spent days (and nights) trying to come up with a title that doesn’t suck. I don’t want the word “crow” in it because I want an image of a crow on the cover, and I’ve always heard that it’s one or the other, not both.

Describe your dream book cover.

Something bold. I’m picturing black and white with hot-color highlights, maybe including a New York City skyline in the shape of a wing.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

Crows are songbirds, believe it or not. So, the soundtrack would be their caws, clicks and rattles. They have a whole repertoire of vocalizations and can even mimic human speech.

What books are you reading (for research or comfort) as you continue the writing process?

I’m lucky to have a crow/corvid expert in my own (Seattle) backyard. John Marzluff, a professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington, along with author and artist Tony Angell, collaborated on two indispensable guides to all things corvid: In the Company of Crows and Ravens and Gifts of the Crow – How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans. I’ve gone back to both books again and again in my research. I also read and enjoyed Crow Planet, Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

After many years as a newspaper reporter and public-relations professional, I returned to my childhood dream of writing fiction. Shade of Wings will be my second novel. My first, The Leaving Year (SparkPress, 2018), is a young-adult coming-of-age story about the daughter of a fisherman who is lost at sea. I’m proud to say that it earned several accolades, including the 2018 Best Book Awards Winner in Fiction: Young Adult and a starred review from School Library Journal.

Something readers wouldn’t know: My favorite movie is The African Queen with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn because the characters of Charlie and Rose are so well drawn. My favorite line, though, was uttered by the German boat captain: “By the authority vested in me by Kaiser William II, I pronounce you man and wife… Proceed with the execution.”

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

Novelist Frank Norris (not Dorothy Parker) said, “I don’t like to write, but like having written.” That’s me. I find the process to be tortuous most of the time but am compelled to do it. A day without writing feels wasted.

I have a fairly distinct memory of the moment I decided to become a writer. I think I was 9 or 10. I was standing in the backyard on a star-filled summer night when the muse gripped me. I ran into the house and filled page after page of my grandmother’s notepad with a story about a girl who could fly. I was probably imitating a book I’d read. Yet I wasn’t what you’d call an avid reader as a child. I didn’t race through books, but I had my favorites, including Watership Down, Island of the Blue Dolphins, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and The Black Stallion.

As an adult, my favorite authors include William Trevor, Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler, and Louise Erdrich.

Where is your favorite place to write?

Guemes Island, which is a short ferry ride from the city of Anacortes in northwest Washington State. The place is magic and has many birds.

Do you have any writing rituals?

Mornings are best. I’ll read over and edit the previous day’s work to get in the flow. Then I’ll work for a few hours and break for lunch. Sometimes I’ll hit it again in the evening. I’m not fast or prolific. My first book took 10 years, but a lot of that was waiting on feedback and queries.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

I hope readers take away the message that we are all animals dependent on the health of the planet. I know there are a lot of corvid fans out there who might be interested in reading Shade of Wings, but if I can engage the non-fans with my story, I would consider that the ultimate achievement.

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