Evan Sheldon: What inspired you to write 142 Ostriches, also, why ostriches? Were you influenced by your academic work?
April Dávila: It all ties together, I was an undergraduate at Scrips College in Claremont, Southern California. I was an ecology major to start and ended up in marine ecology. While studying ecology, I started going out to the desert with friends, and we would have parties at night. I fell in love with the desert—that was where this whole thing started. When I decided to write a story, I knew I wanted to set in the desert.
I was writing stories loosely based on my mom’s experiences growing up on a dairy farm. It started as my mom’s story, but over years of editing, all the factual stuff was replaced by fiction. There’s only one line that still remains in the book that’s actually true to life. It’s when the grandma shows up at the doorstep, and says, “You’re doing a terrible job, I’m taking the girl to live with me on the ranch.” That’s what my great-grandfather said to my grandmother. That detail kicked off this dramatic unfolding of my mom’s young life. She was thirteen years old and she spent her formative years out on the ranch with her uncles who were pretty abusive. She had so many stories of family and strife.
Those were the stories I was writing, but I wanted this set in the desert. I called my mom and asked if there was any chance there’d be a dairy farm in the desert—absolutely not, that didn’t make any sense at all.
I began researching and found an ostrich ranch called the OK Corral Ostrich Farm. I called to set up a tour, and the minute I got there I knew it was the best setting for a family in conflict. The birds themselves are walking contradictions: they’re graceful and beautiful but also scary with that giant claw. They can gut a man in one kick. They have these beautiful big super-model eyelashes yet rough scaly skin. Everything about them spoke to contradiction, and my story is about the contradiction of loving your family and hating them at the same time.
142 Ostriches almost has a southern gothic feel: there are family secrets, there’s darkness. Was this your plan from the beginning?
I always envisioned the family as an obstacle for Tallulah, my main character. What I didn’t understand until I got into it was how much it would be about the family coming together or not. I always saw my mother’s uncles as bad guys. In the first draft, Tallulah only had uncles. As I rewrote it, the story became more and more female: grandpa became grandma, Uncle Chris became Aunt Christine, the mother character took on a much larger role. I think instead of just one-dimensional villains, like, here’s my bad guy and they’re bad, finding some sympathy for them, gave a greater depth of character and made the story more interesting. As that rewriting happened, the story became much more about family.
What came easy to you while writing? What did you struggle with or grow into as you worked through these drafts?
The feedback I got, from my agent and editors, was that my dialogue was good. This was surprising, when I was in grad school I had teachers tell me that my dialogue was bad. I got so worried about my dialogue being bad that I put a lot of effort into listening to how people actually talk, especially my family. I’m proud that I was able to bring some deep attention to the dialogue and improve how characters talk to each other.
People use language differently. In the book, Tallulah’s boyfriend never calls her Tallulah; he always calls her Lu. It’s the little things like that. You start to notice that people have these habits, these ways, of talking with each other that are worth paying attention to.
One thing I’ve always had a knack for is writing location. Maybe it speaks to my training as an ecologist way back when, so it’s important for me to know the details of an environment: the weather, the sounds, the smells, how all of your senses can be engaged in a setting. I’ve been thinking about the time of year even more. When I’m struggling with a scene, I’ll look at the calendar and pick a date. Okay, it’s April 18th, in this part of the world—they’ve just celebrated this holiday. I’ll even look up the weather from April 18th of that year. Not that I’m going to need all those details, but it helps me see the specifics of that environment. Oddly, picking a date on the calendar helps me narrow down the actual time and space and write to the specifics of it.
How long did it take to write and revise?
I finished the first draft in 2010. I was so proud of myself and sure I was done. On the advice of a professor of mine, I put it in a drawer and worked on something else. I wrote a short story, came back to it, re-read it, and—because I read a lot, as writers should—I read it and was like, that’s not a novel.
So, I wrote it again. I didn’t have an outline. It was part of my master’s program—I just had to write a novel—so I started writing and I had no idea what I was doing and I didn’t know what I wanted the story to be. Every time I went back to page one and rewrote it, it would go in a different direction. Then I’d put it in a drawer for a while, sure I was done.
I did this over and over, about fourteen times in ten years while working full time and having two babies. It wasn’t until I was close—I’d learned a lot about writing, I had written the story, I’d learned a lot about the characters—that I had this sense that something wasn’t there.
I was at the Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference in October 2016 and heard a presenter talk about the three arcs of the story. We all know about the character arcs and the emotional arcs. He lectured on the author’s arc, and what it is you’re trying to say. My author’s arc, the thing I wanted to say, was that we have to face these things in our lives that are difficult. In my book, the mother character is an example of someone who is continuously running away from her problems, and Tallulah has been raised to do the same. Her big moment is pulling her head out of the sand!
I had this moment sitting in the audience. I’ve been writing this book for eight years about a woman who needs to pull her head out of the sand, set on an ostrich farm! I almost stood up saying, “I’ve got it!” I ran home, and when I rewrote it that time with that in mind, everything fell into place. After fourteen drafts of not knowing what the hell I was doing, I finally realized what I was trying to say.
Would you talk about some of the publication process? Finding an agent, querying, any of those things that might be helpful for our readers.
It might be worth adding that I blog about all this in great detail. I just wrote a blog post sharing my query letter, summary, and everything I sent to my agent. If people are curious, they can check it out on my website, it’s all there.
As I was going through the process of writing, thinking of someday going to query an agent, whenever I read a book that I thought was a good match I would look up the agent. I had a list of agents I thought would be a good fit. At the top of the list was an agent who had visited one of my classes when I was in grad school, his name’s Joel Gotler. He represented one of my professor’s books. It had been ten years since he came into my class when I finally queried him. I said, “You probably don’t remember me, but you said when my book was ready, I could send it to you, so here are the first three pages.” He got back to me later that day and asked for the full, and on Thursday offered to represent me. I was giddy, I didn’t know what to do with myself.
The process from there turned into rejection after rejection. He loved it, we worked on it and got it ready to go, and editor after editor passed on it. Six months, probably forty-something rejections. I asked him, “Should I rewrite? Did I miss the mark on something?” One editor said, “love the characters, but not the story;” another loved the story but not the characters. The feedback was so contradictory that his gut said it just needed to find the editor who loved it.
And then it did! We found him in John Scognamiglio at Kensington. I did very few edits with him, just one pass in terms of line edits and story, and then of course lots of copyediting. It did take a year and a half because they wanted it to be a spring book. There’s a whole thing about farm books being spring books.
They bought the book in July of 2018, but they already had their spring 2019 lineup so they pushed it to 2020. Which would have been fine if the pandemic had not . . . [laughs]. It’s been a little rough, trying to launch a book in the spring of 2020. I think people are starting to get back into reading, but right around the time my book came out was when people could not focus on anything but the pandemic. Such is life.
Any other agent or querying advice you’d like to offer?
The thing that gets overlooked the most is the synopsis. People should write a synopsis after their first draft is done. You learn so much. I tried to write a synopsis when I first realized I didn’t know what my book was. I needed an outline but it was too late to outline. I found that the middle chunk was, and then she goes here! And then she goes there. Writing it in that format really highlighted for me that this was just her driving in circles. That really helped me clean up the prose and find the meat of the story. Writers groan and moan when you talk about the synopsis, but I have come to love the synopsis as a tool for figuring out the story. And of course, when you come to the point of needing one for agents and querying, then you have it.
You’ve been a resident of the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony. What did that experience do for you as a writer? Do you have any recommendations for readers who might be interested in residencies?
In a word, go. A friend of mine recommended Dorland because she had gone. It’s kind of off the radar. There are a lot of big residencies that get a lot of attention and probably a gazillion applications. Dorland is a place that is not just writers, there are painters and musicians too. The artists I met there have inspired me. When I think of real artists, they may not be working full time in their art—most of them have day jobs—but they’re so passionate about the work they’re doing that it just sucks you in. All of the sudden, you’re more passionate about the work you’re doing, and then you all go back to your cabins and work furiously. Especially having two kids and doing a lot of other things in my home life, being able to set aside a week where I tell everyone, I’m not answering my phone, I’m not answering emails, I’m going to be working on my novel—it is the most productive time I’ve ever had. It’s how I got through the last draft of my first book.
I went again this last January and pushed through the first draft of my new book. What I’ve found when I’m on residency is that I can write for twelve hours a day. It’s totally unsustainable in terms of lifestyle; I microwave burritos all day, I don’t exercise any more than it takes for me to walk to the bathroom and back. It’s not a healthy lifestyle. But for one week a year? I get so much work done, it’s amazing. It’s such a beautiful place. It’s out in the desert, but it’s up on a hilltop, and you can see these sprawling hills and hot air balloons that go up in the morning.
You’ve been nominated for a Pushcart. Did writing short fiction help your development as a writer, or did you come to that later on? Do you still write short fiction?
It’s funny, I’ve always said I’m not a short story writer. Then I got nominated for the Pushcart by this journal that published a bit of flash fiction I wrote. When I took a step back, I realized I do write short fiction! I’m just usually so obsessed with whatever novel I’m writing that the short fiction feels like a one-off. I don’t write a lot of it. I’m a big believer in not waiting for inspiration. When I’m writing my novel, I sit down every day and work on it. It’s work. I don’t write because I’m inspired. That said, I do wait for inspiration to strike when I write short fiction. If it turns into something worthwhile, I’ll have my husband read it because he’s really good at critical questions. He’s a filmmaker, so a creative in his own right. If he reads it and finds it interesting, I’ll do another edit or two and see if I can find a home for it. Because I only do it when inspired, I write maybe a short story a year, hardly at all.
So, you started out with novels and dabble in short form?
I feel like there’s this big myth in grad school where you write a few stories, then you get published in The Paris Review. There’s this path, and then once you’ve done that you can write a novel. I call total bullshit on that. When did that even get started? They’re such different beasts. The fact that you’re good at short stories does not mean you can write a novel and vice versa. I had a friend in grad school who wrote the most beautiful short stories—bring-you-to-tears short stories. Could not write anything more than twenty pages. There was something about the way he wrote that didn’t sustain for longer work. I definitely think of myself as a novelist, not a short story writer, but I do like to play sometimes.
What are you currently working on?
I’m almost done! It’s right here on my desk. It’s the story I wanted to write as a first novel but knew I didn’t have the chops to do it. This is the story that started percolating in my head when I first had the idea that I wanted to be a writer. I tackled it as my second book. I’m so glad I waited because it has been challenging, and everything I learned writing my first book has helped in this one. It’s much more epic; it spans three hundred years. I have characters who are born in 1776 and find themselves under a spell wherein they don’t age until they choose to have a baby. They age along with the United States and have all these adventures. There’s always this question of, would we want to give this up for children? Why do people have children? What is the benefit? What are the tradeoffs? I basically took the metaphor of the immortality of youth and made it real.
Do you have anything else you want to share?
As I was writing this novel, whenever I learned that I was misstepping in some way I would write a blog post about it. I have a ton of blog posts about things I learned along the way, everything from clichés, to what makes a scene, to writing setting, writing emotion, writing sensation. If any readers are still curious, that’s all on the blog.