Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.
Recently, we interviewed author Daphne Birkmyer about her writing and her multilayered tale of love, life, family, and friendship, Maiden Voyage, the third installment in the Comfrey, Wyoming series. (Read the review here.)
Daphne Birkmyer’s background as a teacher and biologist continues to exert its influence on her written work. She observes Americans through an immigrant’s eyes and is currently working on book four of the COMFREY, WYOMING series.
Visit her at www.daphnebirkmyer.com.
COMFREY, WYOMING: Maiden Voyage has messages of hope, kindness, and acceptance baked into its story. What inspired you to tackle these themes from the perspective of a transgender woman.
Although the COMFREY, WYOMING series tackles the messages of hope, kindness, and acceptance through the perspective of multiple characters, I wanted one of them to be a transgender person because the complexity of gender is underrepresented in literary fiction and often misunderstood. I met a five-year-old transgender child, assigned female at birth, who insisted he was a boy. He was so obviously a boy to me, that I chose to have Marcela, my transgender character, equally sure of her true nature by age five. The little boy I met has grown into a secure and successful young man, but he faced so much cruelty in his early years of school, his family arranged for him to continue his schooling in another town, where he would only be known as a boy. Every day, his mother drove him for an hour over a mountain to attend school, and every afternoon, his aunt drove him back. His experience in school was the reason why Marcela’s guardian, Heidi, moved the family to Comfrey, where Marcela would be known only as a girl.
Marcela, her identical twin brother, Amadeus, and their guardian fully accept who she is, and as the readers of the COMFREY, WYOMING seriesaccompany her on her journey into adulthood, I hope they will accept who she is too. Marcela is a multifaceted character: a devoted sister, a friend, a lover, and a keenly intelligent and artistic young woman, who happens to be transgender.
COMFREY, WYOMING: Maiden Voyage is diverse not only in terms of LGBTQ representation, but also in terms of racial representation. Was that something that was important to you to include before you ever started writing, or did that come about organically while you were in the midst of the process?
I didn’t start writing the series thinking about the racial or gender identity of specific characters, but I have been blessed with a racially diverse family and group of friends, and representation has always mattered. Many people still live socially segregated lives, and fictional characters have their role to play in broadening the understanding and acceptance of those perceived to be different.
In Maiden Voyage, a young black man travels to parts unknown and his experience is very much based on the experiences of my two black sons and three black nephews when they travel. When I asked one of my sons to accompany me on one of my trips to Wyoming, he refused, saying he didn’t feel safe as a black man traveling to remote areas. He was very much affected at the time by the Ahmaud Arbery murder, as were we all. My son asked, What if a sheriff, or anyone, stops us on a country back road? We could be shot, he said. We could disappear forever.
My best friend from high school, also black, agreed to accompany me instead because she didn’t think I should be traveling alone, but she was wary most of the time. We were watched more closely almost everywhere. She was more comfortable staying in the car when I went into small country stores. We were pulled over by a sheriff in a small town and my friend refused to get out of the car. I told the sheriff she wasn’t feeling well when I got out to answer his questions. It took a good ten minutes before he cracked a smile and realized we were harmless. That evening, my friend told me she was sure we were going to be arrested and no one would ever hear from us again.
Are any of your characters based on real people you know?
Many of my characters are composites of family, friends, and former students. I was fortunate in having a classroom filled with reptiles that attracted many a marginalized student, especially at lunchtime. We often sat at lab tables eating our lunch with a reptile or two slithering around. We talked about random things—the news, things going on in their families, my experiences growing up. Always at the back of my mind as I listened was, ‘I could use that in a book some day.’
Maiden Voyage is the third installment in the COMFREY, WYOMING series. Over the course of writing several books, how has your process changed, and what’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned since beginning the first book?
My process remains the same, although I have often wished otherwise. I admire a writer who can outline a book and write her chapters consecutively. My mind doesn’t work in such a tidy fashion. Characters and situations come to me randomly. I write chapters and dialogue in snippets, stopping periodically to sort through them and piece them together in longer and longer swaths of prose.
A valuable lesson I’ve learned is to trust my readers and not over-explain, while also not assuming too much. I’ve also learned to stop trying to be too clever, to slow down, and to get as many proof-readers as possible.
What one thing would you give up to become a better writer?
One thing I give up periodically to be a better writer is the comfort of home. It is very important for me to experience what my characters are experiencing. I traveled along many ungraded roads before I found the ideal place to situate Comfrey. I drove the exact route Heidi drove when she was bringing the twins back from Casper to live with her in Riverton in COMFREY, WYOMIIG: Birds of a Feather, Book One of the series, listening to the same opera she was listening to at the time. In Maiden Voyage, I followed the route the twins took to the town of Ten Sleep to purchase a puppy and returned through the Wind River Reservation, like they did. I bumped over the same rough roads Amadeus and Lucas took to deliver a tomcat to its new owner in a very remote area. Like them, I saw elk fighting, although fortunately in my case the animals did not lock their antlers together.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing a novel?
I’m a very active person and sitting to write is exhausting. If my characters are really talking to me, I may be at the computer for many hours at a time. I set alarms to tell me to get up every hour, but I often write through them and at the end of the day I‘m almost frozen in position, like the citizens of Pompeii after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Who and what ultimately inspired you to become a writer?
I was ten when my family arrived in the United States. I had only been in my new school a few weeks when my teacher said we needed to write a story or draw a picture to commemorate Veterans Day. I surprised my teacher by writing a play, and she surprised me by typing it up, mimeographing it off for the class, and insisting we put it on for the school. It was amazing to see the words I had written coming to life—a young girl visiting a veteran in the hospital, the veteran describing the horrors of war, my classmates in bloodied bandages limping across the stage. My father took time off work to sit in the audience so I realized it was a big deal. But I was shy beyond belief as a child and after I had to go on stage to take a bow, I vowed never to write another play. And I haven’t. I hide in novels instead.
It took a lot of living before I could truly commit myself to writing. When I was in college, I took an English class from Dr. Michael Krasny, a Bay Area radio personality, academic and writer. He said I had talent and urged me to continue to write, but I was working on a biology degree at the time and I put my writing aside. Still, I kept every paper I wrote for him and treasured his prolific comments scrawled across my pages.
During the years I was teaching, characters and scenarios flickered at the edge of my consciousness, but it wasn’t until I transitioned from teaching that I put them on paper. The old adage ‘Once a teacher, always a teacher’ holds true for me. I continue to avidly read scientific journals and weave scientific threads into my books.
How much planning did you do for the series’ trajectory before you started the first book, and how much do you wait to work on or think about until you’re writing each individual book?
This question always makes me laugh. Originally I’d planned to write a book on the illegal capture and sale of exotic species, and now the capturing and selling doesn’t even occur until the fourth book (to be released next year). I chose to situate my book in Wyoming, because I had become fascinated by a highly endangered and particularly venomous little rattlesnake that lives there, but the first three books have only brief mentions of the snake. When I started the series, the only characters I had were a German chef named Heidi, her son, and a woman with a lisp named Melissa. The son made a brief appearance as a baby and Melissa is barely mentioned until Book Four.
Initially, I just wrote and wrote and wrote. I had amassed over 1200 pages before I realized I’d better start thinking of chapters and sequences and volumes. Each of the books I have written, and the one I’m in the process of writing, include portions of the original 1200 pages.
What makes this book important right now?
They say familiarity breeds contempt, but I think it more apt to say that in the case of prejudice, ignorance breeds contempt. My characters have made a timely debut during the current backlash against the LGBTQ+ community. During the confirmation hearings for our most recent Supreme Court justice, a senator mockingly asked if he could just wake up one morning and decide to be a girl. Such lack of understanding about the complexity of gender from one who votes on policy is truly frightening and appalling.
I hope my books will give some understanding about what it may feel like to realize, at a very young age, that your true gender is not the one you were assigned at birth. What might it feel like to celebrate your sister’s gender affirming surgery as you approach adulthood, yet feel loss for the identical twin brother she once was? What does it feel like to be a young black man driving to places unknown—always under scrutiny, with that knot of fear in your belly? My hope is that the diverse and highly relatable characters of the COMFREY, WYOMING serieswill build empathy, and through empathy, tolerance and understanding.
Categories: BookView Review Interview