A Conversation with Rebecca K. O'Connor

By Kimbel Westerson

Rebecca K. O’Connor is an animal trainer, consultant, lecturer, Director of Development for Ducks Unlimited and falconer. She has also authored a terrific memoir called, Lift (Red Hen Press).  The book is about falconry, certainly. It addresses in particular the spiritual experience involved with the sport and being in wild places, what O’Connor calls “extreme bird watching.”  It also chronicles a rocky family life full of abandonment, abuse and alcoholism.

Recently, O’Connor paused between readings at Writer’s Week at the University of California, Riverside, to talk about her new book with The Coachella Review.

What was the impetus for you to return to UC-Riverside and get your MFA?
Susan Straight, primarily. I have always talked to her over the years since I left as an undergraduate. Even when I was living in Florida, working at Disney, I would mail her stories. In fact, she found one that was still in her office and stuck it in my mailbox when I was working on my graduate work and she was like, “Remember this story? You were really good then, too.”

Was the story fiction or non-fiction?
It was fiction. So Susan and I were talking, and the program had just started and she said, “You know, you’re not getting any younger and it’s not going to get easier to go back, so if you’re in a position to, you really ought to think about getting your MFA now.” Knowing that I could come here and work with her, I did.
And I really wanted to, at the time. Obviously, all of my other writing is, for lack of a better word, hack writing. I really wanted some time to focus on a project that was about the craft as opposed to just about information or producing. I’m certainly not – I still hack write. But I think that whenever you write, you get better, regardless of what it is that you’re writing, but I did really want that chunk of time to focus on something that was very meaningful to me.

I think there’s an acceleration, too, that happens when you’re in an intense situation and having to produce. That growth can be exponential if you’re applying yourself.
And it gave me an opportunity to cut back on my work (my paying work, my day job) and really look at where I should be seeking out mentors, because in the graduate program, you’re sort of expected to try to get fellowship and go to conferences. So it gave me an opportunity to seek out people that I really wanted to work with. Although I love all the professors here that I worked with, my book was very specific. I really wanted to work with Kim Barnes who has done a women’s major memoir. I wanted an opportunity to work with Pam Houston. I was looking for, tried to touch base with Terry Tempest Williams and just in my spare time, my independent study units, figure out a list of memoirs that were very much in the vein of what I was writing and read those and try to find authors that were working on that sort of writing.

What did that bring to you?
Process more than anything. Sometimes it’s not quite tangible, either. I’ve always felt really strongly about trying to find people whose career path looks like how you would like yours to look. And whether or not you’re going to emulate them, at least those are the mentors that I want. They’re going to have some thought on the way this works. I’d rather hear from them than find out the hard way. And you can look at where they’re published. That was the sort of thing that I did, too. OK, maybe I could be writing for that magazine and that journal. It gave me a clear idea as opposed to “I’ll just send my work out to every journal that takes nonfiction,” you know?

Why a memoir? You were writing fiction as an undergrad.
Yes, I was doing fiction.

Why this, then?
I don’t really remember, to be honest. When Susan and I were talking about it, I was talking about writing a novel, but I had just gotten the peregrine and when I got him I decided that I needed to record it somehow, that it was going to be the only first time I was going to get to fly a peregrine falcon. So I started a blog ,and this was back seven years ago, and no one had blogs then, and everyone made fun of me. “What a stupid name. A blog? I refuse to call it that!” So I did religiously blog that first season … That season was over and I was starting the program and I thought, I have this whole binder of stories that’s this first season, and I would like to hash out my life and try to tell this story and tell mine. So yeah, I guess that’s where it came from.

You’ve said you are an outliner, and that’s your form of procrastination. But then you said that the book looks nothing like the outline. So how did you approach the work?
It started out as a linear book, and I soon realized that linear memoirs are boring as hell. No one wants to know about you were born and then you’re six and then you’re 12. It was as I started reading more and more books. So there was a linear outline. And then there was a “just when I was a bird trainer” outline. And then – you know. And then there was an outline just for this first season and following that. And then as bits and pieces were being written, because I was writing stand-alones (there was a handful of stand alones that were published from this book) it sort of all started getting put together like a jigsaw as opposed to being the outline that I first saw.
And like I said about the Prologue, that Prologue wasn’t there until one of the few last versions. It was in the book, and I realized that the beginning just wasn’t working. I thought it should start with falconry, but I wanted it to be really strong. And I was really scared about opening it with ripping part of a duck out. I don’t know that I would have ever even written that piece if I hadn’t been in graduate school. Everyone started asking for more and more and more details, and I kept going, “Oh my god. Really? You all really want that?” I’m like, “OK, but when PETA comes knocking on my door, I’m yelling at all of you.” And there were falconers that were not happy with me, that I opened the book like that, but the general public has not – I’ve seen a lot of reviews that say, “even though I’m a vegetarian, I get it, I understand, I liked it.”

Do you think you have a different take on it? You said you’re one of the only female falconers, and you approach it as a spiritual experience versus a hunting experience.
I think most hunters do, but that it’s the 10 percent out there killing just to kill and that’s how we see hunters. But I talk to hunters on a day-to-day basis and 85 percent of the people I talk to are incredibly spiritual about their hunting and about the experience and what it brings to their life, as well as food that they’ve sourced to their table. I think that I just had an opportunity because no one would pick up a book by a female falconer and make assumptions that I’m just out killing things for the fun of it.

Process again – how do you transfer a spiritual experience onto the page without sounding crazy or purple or effusive about it? Was that a challenge when you were writing it?
Um – I already think it’s a little effusive and purple prose-ish. I don’t know if it was – I have two audiences, and one of the audiences this book wasn’t written for, but I’m going to have it anyway, and that’s the falconers. So it was always in the back of my mind that if I gushed, I was going to hear about it from the falconers. Not that they were going to say, “You shouldn’t have done that,” but they were going to harass me mercilessly if I was all gushy female. And, I didn’t want to fall into a stereotype with them any more than I wanted to be stereotyped as a brutal hunter to a general audience. So I don’t think I was ever in danger of it because I was so aware of the need not to gush. I’m already a sparse writer – I think writing so much nonfiction has made me pretty sparse.

What about the personal details? How did you decide to be that forthcoming about your life and your family and your experiences? What was that drive?
I thought I needed to do it for me. As I started writing the book, I realized I was not very honest with myself and decided that whether anybody ever read this book or not, or it ever got published, that the best thing I could do for myself was dig deep and if it hurts, dig deeper and just put it down. I hoped that if I was just honest – you read memoirs where the memoirist tells you how you’re supposed to feel about everyone in the book and that drives me nuts. I hoped that if I just told it as it was instead of making judgment calls about what anyone did or expressing my opinion on what they did, that perhaps they would read the book and not see what they did that was wrong. If they could see how they were. You know, if you could see your flaws you wouldn’t repeat them. But I was hoping that they would just read the book and go, “Yeah, so?” And in some cases, that’s been my experience. One of my falconer friends said, “Yeah, you know, I knew it was a good book because I was pissed off at you the whole time ’cause you just wouldn’t listen to anybody.” I said, “That’s really funny because the women who read the book who aren’t falconers think that all falconers are assholes.” So I think I probably did my job OK. If you read it and you don’t think that you’re a jerk, then I obviously didn’t slam you. You’re still talking to me and you still think that I need to shut up and listen more.

I wonder too if that isn’t where people get the idea that there’s an element of forgiveness in the book – because you were making the effort to present things as they were and not tell people how to feel.
I’ve had endless conversations with my mom about this and I kind of wonder if it isn’t a reflection of women these days and the desire to say, “Well, it’s my parents’ fault that I’m like this.” To me it was never a book about, “Oh, my mom did this to me and I forgave her.” It was a book about, “This is what happened and this is how I’ve moved on with my life.” I have not forgiven my mother or my father or anyone else for that matter. But I don’t blame them for anything that’s come after what they were responsible for. The rest of it’s all me. And I don’t think that as a society we’re very good at seeing it through that lens. I think women tend to read the book and say, “Oh my god, how could you not blame her for all these things that have happened to you?” Well, done is done. What’s she going to do? She’s said she was sorry.

And after a point …
Yeah, after a point it’s up to you. And I can’t do anything about that now.

But it is very interesting to look at what you chose to do in getting a falcon and the challenge of training. It’s a perfect metaphor. It’s as though you chose something that was a challenge to hold on to.
And I didn’t have that full vision when I started but boy, did I have a lot of “Oh my god” moments when I was writing the book. That’s why I do that! That’s why I’m like that! That’s why this is a trigger for me, or set me off. That’s why I’m a falconer.  There’s two journeys when you have a memoir. There’s the journey of the memoir itself and the actual journey of the writing the memoir. Writing the memoir is the harder, deeper journey than what actually happened.

I can believe that. Trying to express it.
Well, you’re trying to make sense of your life and I would say that all of the great religions of the world come back to finding the god within. So writing a memoir, if you’re really dedicated and do the hard work, it really is a spiritual journey. That’s what you’re doing. You’re trying to find the god within. It changes you.

What was your favorite part of the book?
This is so neither here nor there, and I don’t know why this is my favorite, exactly, but my favorite part is the first big fly-off where I lose Anakin and we don’t have the signal for awhile and we get him back – that part of the book where I find him and pick him back up and the flashback with my mom coming back and realizing that when something’s gone and it comes back, you don’t get back what you lost. It must be one of my favorite parts because I must’ve discovered something there. It must have been a really “oh my god” moment when I was writing the book, but I just love that part of the book.

Again, that whole in and out of your life thing.
But isn’t that how life is? Nothing is permanent. And you have to learn to appreciate what you get back, even if it’s different, even if you’ve lost something while it’s been gone. It could be you that’s gone next. Thing happen to people whether they want them to or not. It’s that appreciating and absorbing and devouring the moment. You don’t know how long it will last.

What’s next for you? What are you working on?
A novel.

Is it done, almost done, early in process …?
I’m about a quarter of the way through it.  I guess that’s a fair estimation of how close it is. It’s been years of research.

Is it related to falconry again?
There may or may not be some falconry in it towards the end. Like I say, you tell the same story over and over. “This book is completely different!” Oh my god, no, it’s not. It’s the same story. It’s about a woman who goes on a journey within and discovers how to get to the next place through a wild place. It will probably be done in the next six months.

Publisher? Red Hen?
I’m going to wrap up the manuscript and go looking for an agent and see where it goes from there.

How did you end up with Red Hen?
They were on a short list of small presses that I was interested in getting the book published with and I had been given an introduction. I sent the manuscript to Kate Gale and she liked it and picked it up.

I was just curious if you chose, if you picked a particular press.
Well, I had a big New York agent who had a very specific house in mind and shopped the book there and the editor there said that it would have a very limited market, only falconers are going to be interested in this book. My agent said, put it on a shelf, write something else. But I still wanted it to go to Gray Wolf, Milkweed and Red Hen. So she said, “OK, we’ll send it to Gray Wolf.” I had met Fiona McCray, the editor, at a conference, and she read it and said “I like this, there’s a lot of really wonderful things in this book, but it just doesn’t quite fit our catalogue.” And I thought, you know, she’s right. I love Gray Wolf books, but it really wasn’t quite a Gray Wolf book. So my agent said, “See, I told you, it doesn’t work. Only falconers are going to like it but that’s about it, and besides that, it can be a memoir about falconry, or a memoir about you, but it can’t be both things. You can’t mix them up like this. It’s not working.” And there were two more places I wanted to shop it to. And I sent it to Red Hen and Kate picked it up. So it really never got shopped. My preference would have been for it to go to a bunch of big houses which did not happen.

I think the best memoirs are wrapped up in other things.
I agree. To me, all of my favorite memoirs, they happen in an exotic way, whether that’s an experience or a place. They take you someplace you wouldn’t go on your own and they tell a universal story. So you get to go someplace you wouldn’t otherwise go, and go, “That’s me!” I said to my agent, “This is not going to be just a falconry memoir or just a memoir about me because a) who the hell cares about me? And b) a whole book about me? Come on!” Although it informs the falconry. A book just about falconry? That’s been done. And then the falconers really are just going to read it. And I don’t want just the falconers to read it. I wanted a book that could be consumed by the general public so that people would understand or have a little bit better understanding of the amazing experience that falconry is. Because there will come a time when animal rights folks are going to start saying, “Oh my god, do you see what those falconers do? We need to get this outlawed!” We’re a very small group with not much lobbying strength and nobody’s told our story from this perspective. It was something that I really wanted to do, which is really the only reason I would have preferred to – in the beginning I was thinking that I would like to go with a large publisher. But it doesn’t really make a difference whether it’s a large or a small publisher. You’re fortunate to get published. It’s in print and available.

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