Today, Behind the Words welcomes Susie Finkbeiner, wife, mom, and award winning novelist.
Please, tell our readers a bit about yourself. Where you’re from, where you live?
I’m a lifelong Michigander and proud of it! I grew up in Lansing, (I attended a church right across the street from the Capitol) but now live on the western side of the Mitten. I love living within a thirty minute drive of Lake Michigan.
Is writing your full-time job?
It is! I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity to focus on my writing. My husband works really hard and we are careful with our budget to make it possible.
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing for most of my life, starting in childhood when I’d write little stories in my teddy bear diary. I started my professional writing life as a playwright just about fifteen years ago.
Briefly describe your writing day.
Generally, I write while my kids are at school (unless there’s a global pandemic on and everyone’s doing school from home). I spend a little time going over what I’d written the day before, writing a scene or two to progress the story, and taking time to read what I’ve written out loud. I also spend part of my day reading to keep my mind tuned to good literature.
Tell us about your latest release.
The Nature of Small Birds is set in three different eras — 1975, 1988, and 2013 — and tells the story of the Matthews family and the adoption of their daughter Minh from Vietnam at the end of American involvement in that conflict.
What inspired this book?
My childhood was directly impacted by the Vietnam War. Growing up I’d often hear my dad’s stories of his time stationed there as a Navy Sea-Bee. I was so intrigued by the stories he told of the women and children he had the opportunity to interact with there. Once I found an old magazine with a photograph of the child who became known as the “Napalm Girl”. After that day, I wondered often what became of the kids in Vietnam after the United States left the country. Years later, when I stumbled upon an article about Operation Babylift (the airlifting of 3,000 Vietnamese children to be adopted in Australia, Canada, and the U.S.), my curiosity deepened. While I am unable to tell the story of all the children who survived the Vietnam War, this book is my effort to tell the story of one of them.
Could you share one detail from your current release with readers that they might not find in the book? Perhaps a juicy bit of back-story, or something only you know about a character?
There are three main characters in this story, each telling their part of the story from a different era. Bruce (the dad) tells the 2013 timeline. Linda (the mom) has the 1975 portion. Sonny (their oldest daughter) shares from 1988. What readers might not know is that Bruce, Linda, and Sonny are based on friends from my personal life. It was fun to place them in a fictional situation and spend a whole year “with them” on the page even if (because of Covid) I couldn’t see them in real life.
What has been your hardest scene to write? Any of your books
Every book has at least one scene that proves especially difficult to write. But among those scenes that I’ve written over the years, one sticks out in my mind. It’s toward the very end of my second novel. My Mother’s Chamomile is about a family of funeral directors who are in the process of losing one of their own. The scene I’m thinking of was after the emotional climax of the book, a much more muted moment compared to the devastation of the chapter before it. It’s been ten years since I wrote that scene and I still remember the emotional toll it took on me.
Who has been the most difficult character for you to write? Why?
There’s a character in The Nature of Small Birds named Hilda who was quite difficult for me to write. She’s not a pleasant person, really. She’s bossy and judgmental and emotionally distant. Add to that, she’s bitter at some of the cards life has dealt her. But that wasn’t what made her a challenge to write. The challenge was to remember her humanity, to keep in mind why she was so hard hearted. And when I thought about all she’d been through, I could have compassion for her. I still don’t particularly like her and still find her abrasive. However, I acknowledge her pain and can pity her.
All writers are readers. Are there any particular authors that have influenced how you write and, if so, how have they influenced you?
I read a whole lot. And the books I choose are from all kinds of genres. Because of that, I’ve been influenced by some spectacular novelists! I think that the author who has influenced me the most in the past few years is Gary D. Schmidt. He writes with such emotional honesty, depth of character, and with enough humor to balance out the more heartrending scenes. On each page of his novels, he is careful with the hearts of his readers (who are mostly middle school kids). All of this is what I strive to do with my fiction.
Do you have a secret talent readers would be surprised by?
I’m not sure how talented I am at it, but I sure love playing my ukulele!
Your favorite go to drink or food when the world goes crazy!
Coffee and chocolate. Chocolate and coffee. Chocolate coffee. Coffee chocolate. Oh, and a side of popcorn please!
And what is your writing Kryptonite?
Oh, I am horrible at writing kissing scenes. They stress me out! But every once in a while I can’t avoid it and have to power through. Thank goodness the Lord didn’t ask me to write romance.
What is the one question you never get ask at interviews, but wish you did? Ask and answer it.
You know, nobody ever asks me what my favorite bird is! Which is okay, but it sort of goes along with the theme of my most recent book. I could yammer on and on about this, so I’ll limit myself to small birds from Michigan. And my pick is the red-breasted nuthatch. They’re pretty, cute, and never get into scuffles with the other birds who visit my feeders. They also have the most adorable call that makes me smile.
LOL – We love birds too! Thanks so much for joining us, Susie!
Here’s a quick look at Susie’s latest release: The Nature of Small Birds: A Novel
In 1975, three thousand children were airlifted out of Saigon to be adopted into Western homes. When Mindy, one of those children, announces her plans to return to Vietnam to find her birth mother, her loving adopted family is suddenly thrown back to the events surrounding her unconventional arrival in their lives.
Though her father supports Mindy’s desire to meet her family of origin, he struggles privately with an unsettling fear that he’ll lose the daughter he’s poured his heart into. Mindy’s mother undergoes the emotional rollercoaster inherent in the adoption of a child from a war-torn country, discovering the joy hidden amid the difficulties. And Mindy’s sister helps her sort through relics that whisper of the effect the trauma of war has had on their family–but also speak of the beauty of overcoming.
Told through three strong voices in three compelling timelines, The Nature of Small Birds is a hopeful story that explores the meaning of family far beyond genetic code.