Chris White is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter. Her debut novel, The Life List of Adrian Mandrick will be published in April 2018. The novel follows the adventures of Adrian Mandrick, one of the top bird listers in North America. There is also a dark side to Adrian: he is addicted to pain-killers and haunted by his past. As he starts to spiral downwards, Adrian receives an anonymous tip about an Ivory-billed Woodpecker sighting in the Florida panhandle.
As part of the Big Year Bird Reading Challenge, I received an advance copy of the book and had the opportunity to interview the author, Chris White. Thanks to Simon & Schuster Publishing, I’ll be giving away 5 copies of The Life List of Adrian Mandrick at the end of March! Please join the Reading Challenge mailing list for a chance to win a copy. *giveaway will be open to residents of North America only.
The Afternoon Birder: From your bio, you are a playwright and screenwriter. The Life List of Adrian Mandrick is your first novel. What inspired you to write a novel?
Chris White: It wasn’t a conscious decision at first. I had started writing descriptive prose one day when I was on a trip, and it kept coming. As I continued working, pieces of a story started to accumulate that seemed to want to become a novel.
Adrian Mandrick is an avid birder. I write a birding blog The Afternoon Birder, and my readers are enthusiastic bird-watchers. What made you want to write a novel about birding?
I had a conversation with a stranger on a plane. He told me a story about a top-level birder who, with his wife, had taken off by car to try and get to a rare bird. When they stopped to get gas, he forgot his wife at the gas station. This story stunned me, made me laugh, compelled me in a number of ways, and it sparked ideas about character and setting and theme, about a man both devoted and distracted. That was the beginning of a long and fascinating journey into the world of birds and birders.
Are you a birder yourself?
Not in the sense that you and your readers are! I have always loved birds, and nature is where I find peace and aliveness. I’m passionate about environmental and conservation issues. But when I started the book, I was relatively ignorant about the birding world.
How much and what type of research into the world of birding did you have to do to complete the novel?
Almost everything about birding in the book was gleaned from research. I was lucky to develop a working relationship with some amazing birders, as well as birder friends who took me out bird watching and supported me in numerous ways. Larry Balch, former president of the American Birding Association (who had one of the top lists in the North American region) and veteran birder Betsy Fikejs answered many, many questions for me. They looked at details and sections of the novel as well as whole drafts to help me approach the level of accuracy I hoped to achieve. I also relied heavily on the great stores of information at the Cornel Lab of Ornithology and Audubon.
When the novel starts, Adrian has the third biggest life list in North America. How did you decide which rare bird species Adrian should chase in the story?
The specific birds were chosen for a variety of reasons, often depending on where Adrian was and when, as well as what birds he would have already seen or might still need for his list. Some were chosen for their particular characteristics and what I wanted them to convey to the reader emotionally.
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is legendary in the birding world. Why did you decide to include it as a central feature of the novel? Was it meant to be symbolic? I’m also curious: is the area in the Florida panhandle where Adrian goes looking for the Ivory-billed a real place?
I was drawn to the almost mythic quality of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the ghost bird—this recurring apparition that cannot be proven nor disproven, the awe, hope and nostalgia it brings up for people. The Ivory-bill also began to symbolize what we are losing, environmentally. And as I worked with it and got to know it, the bird informed all kinds of aspects of the book having to do with metaphor, story, and characterization. And yes, the area in the panhandle is real. Some of what I wrote about it was fictionalized, of course, but I tried to stay as close as possible to what I believe to be true about the place.
If you weren’t a birder before writing the novel, has the process of writing it turned you into one? Will we now find you in Florida chasing Ivory-billed Woodpeckers? 😉
During the writing process, I constantly got the feeling birds were appearing at key moments, moving me, showing me the way. There is no question; I will never be the same. I am ever more aware of the birds around me. I live on a wide creek in the countryside of Indiana, so I have lots of opportunities. And the posts of photos taken by people like you and your followers on social media blow my mind. I have done some birding, both while working on the book and since, but I look forward to doing more. I would love to be found chasing an Ivory-bill in Florida.
There is a dark side to this novel as Adrian battles with drug addiction and a crumbling marriage. Is Adrian inspired by a real person? Do you think birding helps or hinders him?
When I first started working on an early version of this book (it went through three major phases over the years), my marriage had fallen apart. At the start, I naturally identified with Stella (his wife), and Adrian’s character was a sort of antagonist. But my creative relationship with Adrian deepened and grew, and he ultimately took over the book. He’s a composite of a couple people I’ve known, parts of myself, and plenty of fictional aspects that were built as the story was built. In terms of whether his birding helps or hinders him: I think our greatest strengths are often closely related to our greatest weaknesses, two sides of the same coin. Adrian’s birding becomes a dangerous means of avoidance, but it saves him, too.
I like your use of humour in the novel. How did you come up with some of the hilarious scenes in the book?
Thank you! I’d say those scenes were naturally funny, without a lot of work from me. They were mostly inherent, situational, when character objective and circumstance clash. And Adrian’s character, with all its pushes and pulls, gave me some good opportunities.
Your novel has been compared to H is for Hawk and Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Did you draw inspiration from other books about birding to write the novel? If so, which?
I actually didn’t draw inspiration from other books about birding. I have a tendency while I’m working on something, for better or worse, to stay away from projects that might be in some way similar. Otherwise, it can be counterproductive for me, since so much of writing is finding your own way, with your own voice. I certainly find inspiration all the time, though, as a writer—in novels, films, plays, poetry, and real-life events.
Can we expect more great novels from you?
Thank you for asking. I’m working on a novel now. I’m very much still finding my way, exploring, researching—two steps forward, one step back. But it’s an exciting process.
Any other thoughts you want to share with my readers?
Just that I’m grateful for the opportunity to meet this community though your fantastic blog. I’ve become enamored with birders over the years working on this book. I love their access to wonder and gratitude, their real world knowledge and exactitude, their ability to observe, their willingness to wait. They’ve given me their time and energies, time and time again, and told me, “That’s what birders do.” I hope the birding community feels I’ve done them right here. I hope they’ll read the book, and I hope they’ll let me know what they think.
The Life List of Adrian Mandrick is available for preorder on Amazon. It hits shelves April 17, 2018.
For a chance to win one of 5 copies of the books, please join the Big Year Bird Reading mailing list. More details of the giveaway to follow at the end of March.