A Conversation with Sarah Bird
Q: How did you decide to take on the subject of Flamenco for a novel?
A: The one subject that I always knew I wanted to write about was an obsessive love affair I had that began when I was 16 and fell in love at first sight with a deliriously handsome young man and remained so until I was 23. For years I tried to capture this experience on paper, but it always came out as a suburban melodrama.
When I was 20 and living with Beloved, I walked in on him in bed with a friend. Realizing that I had to put at least an ocean between us or I would never break free, I went to Europe. So, dazed and heartbroken, I hitchhiked and Eurailed for a year and a half. During that time I found a job as a tour guide in a botanical garden owned by White Russian émigrés on Spain’s Costa Brava. One very late night, very early morning, in a tiny club outside of Barcelona, I saw an astonishing performance of what I would learn later was flamenco.
Flamenco was the first materialization I’d witnessed that mirrored my tumultuous inner landscape. Decades later, as I was struggling to make a novel convey the experience of obsessive love, I recalled that night. The passion and intensity of flamenco, its insistence upon revealing the unrevealable, fit the emotional truth of the story I wanted to tell. I began a fumbling, stumbling study of flamenco and quickly discovered how dauntingly vast and impenetrably arcane the subject is. I live in Austin, Texas, not a hotbed of flamenco activity. I was despairing of ever cracking the flamenco code when I learned that my alma mater, the University of New Mexico, was becoming the academic center of flamenco! That each summer the UNM flamenco program hosted a festival that drew every flamenco star in the world. Submerging myself in classes and performances, I began to understand a bit about this art that only truly reveals itself in the moment of performance.
The University of New Mexico’s vibrant flamenco scene was a gift from the universe not only in terms of research but also in providing a setting for my young protagonists. Exactly the same one where, thirty years earlier, I’d enacted my drama. Flamenco’s other great gift to me is that, as one of my character puts it, “Flamenco is OCD with a beat.” Flamenco dancers, guitarists, singers are obsessed and do become compulsive about their art.
Possibly best of all is that flamenco demands the same sort of transformation that my obsessive love affair did. My heroine, Rae, goes through the flamenco dance program in order to transform herself into someone that Tomás, the object of her adoration, will fall in love with.
Q: Was it exhilarating to write about a dance that is so symbolic of passion? And what is it you were drawn to about this dance in particular?
A: Writing about flamenco was extremely intimidating. I chose flamenco thinking it was the embodiment of wild, anarchic abandonment built on unstructured improvisational outpourings and learned that el arte is as strictly regimented as haiku. Every stomp of a foot, every strum of the guitar, must fall precisely within a certain rhythmic pattern called el compás and that there are probably fifty different styles or palos. The other daunting fact I learned about flamenco is that it is an insider’s art. Experts, aficionados, and buffs abound and they all have very strict ideas about what is and is not flamenco puro.
At the times when I could manage to stop worrying about those battalions of experts and sort of channel the years of research, it was exhilarating to feel that, perhaps, I was putting on the page a distillation of both of flamenco and obsessive love.
Q: The Flamenco Academy is a departure from your other novels, most recent of them the wonderful Yokota Officers Club, in that the others were more comic in tone. What made you decide to make this one different and was it hard to leave the humor behind?
A: There was never any choice about leaving humor behind. I love humor. I love writing it, I love reading it, but a novel about obsessive love is not the place for it. Humor is a distancing mechanism. Mostly a good one, it lets us detach enough that we can talk about tragedy and taboos, fears and failings. But I could not have distance or detachment in this novel. It was hard to leave humor behind. So hard, in fact, that two years ago, when I was utterly stuck and despairing, and too many other hard things were happening in my life, I took a break and wrote a novel that had only one purpose: to cheer me up. If an idea or a character or a line cheered me up, in it went. I’m rewriting it now.
Q: How much research did you have to do and where?
A: Colossal, titanic, gargantuan amounts. I did all the live stuff in New Mexico, took classes, sat in on lectures, interviewed performers, watched the world’s best dancers, singers, and guitarists. Fortunately, back home in Austin, the library system is quite good and I had access to the University of Texas’s system as well. So I was able to do all the parts that involved holing up in carrels and filling out innumerable index cards in Austin.
I’ve been asked repeatedly if I went to Spain. No, modern-day Spain would not have helped unless I could have visited in a time machine. The parts of the novel that are set in Spain take place from, roughly, 1920 until the end of the Spanish Civil War. Though, if I did have that time machine, I would return to the Golden Age of Flamenco, around the turn of the last century when flamenco flowered in the cafes cantantes, the singing cafes, of Andalusia. That period entrances me. Maybe it’s the gaslight.
Q: In your acknowledgments, you not only thank your teachers in flamenco, but also the astonishing guitarists who elucidated and inspired you. How?
A: Once I decided to attend the flamenco festival and take classes, I knew I would need something to keep my then-13 year-old son, Gabriel, occupied. He’d been studying guitar, so I signed him up for a beginning flamenco class. In the most amazing and necessary of coincidences, his teacher turned out to be an old friend of mine from high school, John Truitt, who generously allowed me to audit his class. I already knew that John is a lovely human but quickly discovered that he is a brilliant musician and, possibly, the best teacher I’ve ever witnessed. He electrified and elucidated me and the entire class.
In long conversations, John shared the history of flamenco in New Mexico and helped me understand how a guitarist and dancer work together. Best of all, he taught Gabriel the rhythm structures so that later, back in Austin, he could break them down for his old ma.
Some of the other guitarists I mentioned shared both technical information and stories from their own lives about romances with fiery Gypsy dancers and the intricate hierarchy of the flamenco world.
Q: As there was with The Yokota Officers Club, are there always autobiographical
elements in your fiction?
A: Yes, though I would say that The Flamenco Academy is both my most autobiographical book and the least. The most in the sense that I reveal the utter irrationality and humiliating self-annihilation of my obsessive love affair. The least in that none of the particulars of the story correspond to my own other than that they both took place in New Mexico and, like Rae, my protagonist, I ate a lot of chile cheeseburgers at the Frontier Restaurant!
Actually, answering this reminds me of another autobiographical link. Like most people, I have a semi-mythological relationship to the place where I came of age. In my case, it was along a fairly funky strip of Route 66. So, it was great fun for me to mythologize some of the landmarks of my teen years, the Aztec Motel, De Anza coffee shop, Pup and Taco drive-through, my high school just a few blocks off the main drag, Frontier Restaurant, the divey motels that were the sites of many a teen bacchanal.
Q: In the opening of the book, you mention that Flamenco has 10 Commandments. The first being to give the truth and the second to do it en compás, or in time. Can you
reveal any of the others?
A: Hah! I am and always will be an outsider in that world. In flamenco, you have to do the thing to truly understand the thing. So, ultimately, each artist discovers different commandments. Some applying only to him or her.
Q: Do you recommend that mere mortals try it? Or just go and observe? And what happens at the big Festival in Albuquerue each year?
A: Yes, yes, yes! I wrote an article for Oprah’s magazine about being a fumble-footed, middle-aged matron trying to get my flamenco groove on. The “beginners” class was filled with professional dancers, owners of dance studios, teachers, so it was hardly the beginning I needed.
Because of the interest the article generated, the festival has added a true beginner’s class which, I hear, is an uproarious amount of fun. One thing I can testify to, however, ten days of flamenco hand twirls and my Carpal Tunnel was cured! Praise Jesus!
Q: After this, do you know what you might write about next or is it too soon?
A: I’m working on my cheer-up novel, Weightless, right now. It grew out of knowing so many women—highly-educated, ambitious, bright—who had either just lost their jobs or had jobs with health insurance that was so bad, they couldn’t afford to get a Pap smear. It sounds facetious, but an entire political philosophy is revealed here.
So, I created a character who’d been brought low by divorce, (from a husband who bears an uncanny resemblance to W.), by the pop of the Internet bubble, and by losing her moral compass. And then I make her move back into her college co-op boarding house. It’s a riches to rice cakes story.