How Hood River, a family cabin and crows inspired Oregon author’s latest novel – Here is Oregon

How Hood River, a family cabin and crows inspired Oregon author’s latest novel – Here is Oregon

Eileen Garvin’s new novel, “Crow Talk,” publishing April 30, is a love letter.

It’s a love letter to the Pacific Northwest – Garvin grew up in Spokane and attended college in Seattle. To crows. To people on the autism spectrum, like her sister Margaret. To people experiencing loss and grief. To Hood River, the Columbia Gorge town where she’s lived for two decades.

As in Garvin’s first novel, “The Music of Bees,” the story revolves around an unlikely friendship helped along by another species. “Crow Talk” opens with Frankie, a 26-year-old avian biologist from Hood River who’s licking her wounds after a one-two punch of career and personal setbacks. She decides to spend some time alone in the family cabin, at the fictional June Lake near Washington’s Mount Adams, and schedules her trip for September to ensure solitude.

But Frankie’s retreat is interrupted by 5-year-old Aiden. He and his parents, Anne and Tim, also have come to June Lake for a getaway, bringing their own problems. Then an injured young crow turns up.

Garvin talked recently about what inspired the novel, why crows, and more. Here are excerpts from the conversation.

Q: Did you spend a lot of time in nature growing up?

A: I did, actually. My family had a cabin in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. And we spent a lot of time there. It was a lovely little spot. We had access to the woods. I didn’t realize until I was older how much I loved that and really have incorporated it into my life as an adult.

Q: Was there a specific inspiration for “Crow Talk”?

A: During May of 2020 I had just turned in the revision of “The Music of Bees” to my editor, so it was out of my hands. And you’ll remember that everything shut down in terms of state parks, U.S. Forest Service lands, city parks. All of a sudden we couldn’t go outside and I was very stressed.

I figured I could get to the family place. My parents still own it. I could get there without interacting with anybody. And I just felt so relieved at being able to be back in my safe place and a happy place.

Realizing that this place had been so comforting to me and so important in my life – so what would happen if I made a similar imaginary place, I took some people with troubles and put them there?

Q: There’s so much loss in this book. Frankie lost her father, and there’s the emotional loss of her mother. She loses her academic mentor. Anne has lost her best friend and she’s lost her career. Anne and Tim, they’ve lost the child they thought they had. Aiden’s lost his ability to communicate. A lot of loss!

A: That’s terrible! Why would anybody read this book?

Q: What drew you to writing about that?

A: I think I am drawn to that kind of story. I like dramas, I like sad movies, I like to see people figure things out.

Frankie, for example. It didn’t feel realistic to me to just have it be one thing, like, oh, her father died, so she’s sad and she’s gonna go to the cabin. It had to be more complicated than that.

Q: I’m thinking of the old saying “When it rains it pours.” It does seem like we never encounter problems singly, it’s always on top of something else.

A: Right? And you think, oh, if I only had this one problem I could cope with it, but it’s everything on top of everything else. So yes, I think it does feel more realistic to me to have it be that way, and it adds more dimension to each one of their paths.

Q: Tell me about crows and how you got interested in them.

A: I’m a real wannabe biologist. I had so much fun writing “The Music of Bees.” I wrote relying on my own beekeeping experience and eventually completed the master beekeeper apprentice program through OSU [Oregon State University].

So I thought it would be fun to try something with birds. I originally thought about doing something with the spotted owl because that felt very Northwestern to me. But then as I got into it, I recognized that I’m very much a listener. And I was hearing the crows all the time, and I realized they’re everywhere all the time. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a park in Portland or you’re here in Hood River, in the woods or in Spokane, they’re just there. They’re ubiquitous and they’re funny and they’re mouthy and they’re watching us and they don’t care what you think.

I started reading about John Martzluff’s research at University of Washington, which I’ve used in the story. I just thought that was fascinating, that [crows] could learn to recognize people and then teach their young and teach their neighbors to recognize bad humans and also the good ones.

Q: What I really liked about Aiden was that it would be so easy for an author to write, “Aiden is on the spectrum,” but you show, you don’t tell. It’s all about his behavior.

A: I did that on purpose. Autism fascinates me. It remains a huge part of my life. My sister is still a very big influence on me. She didn’t speak really at all till she was 7. The only way she would express herself would be crying or yelling. I really learned to watch people and read nonverbal communication.

With Aiden, I wanted to think about that part of it, like, what is he looking at? What is he paying attention to? His mother’s observing him and seeing the child that’s disappeared. But what’s going on in his mind? And why is he finding it hard to articulate in the way that he did before?

Q: What was it like to write about Hood River?

A: It feels very natural to me because I love it here so much. You can see both mountains [Mounts Hood and Adams] from the grocery store parking lots, and there’s the river, and it’s just so – it’s just beautiful here.

Q: What was the most fun thing for you about writing this book and what was the most challenging thing?

A: The most fun thing was the crow research. I loved having an excuse to do that research and then to see how I could work the stories and research into the manuscript in a believable way.

The hardest thing was writing Aiden’s point of view, because I wanted to reveal what was going on in his mind without giving up way too much, and because he’s 5 and because he’s stopped speaking and he’s using fairy tales to convey his worldview.

Q: What advice would you give your protagonists, Frankie and Anne?

A: I would say, “Have a little faith.” In Judith [Frankie’s mother] and in Tim. Give them a chance.

If you go: Author appearances

  • 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 30: Book launch party with Waucoma Bookstore. Eileen Garvin discusses “Crow Talk” with nature writer and author Michelle Nijhuis. The Ruins, 13 Railroad St., Hood River.
  • 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 1: In conversation with Oregon author Elizabeth Rusch. Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St., Portland.
  • 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 8: Author appearance and book signing with Betty’s Books. Churchill School, 3451 Broadway St., Baker City.
  • 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 9: Next Chapter Books, 1000 S. Highway 395, Suite C, Hermiston.
  • 1 p.m. Saturday, May 11: North Bank Books, 66 S.W. Russell Ave., Stevenson, WA.

— Amy Wang, for The Oregonian/OregonLive

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