The Crows of Beara by Julie Christine Johnson
Genre: Fiction, Climate Fiction, Eco-Lit, Women’s Fiction
Along the windswept coast of Ireland, a woman discovers the landscape of her own heart
When Annie Crowe travels from Seattle to a small Irish village to promote a new copper mine, her public relations career is hanging in the balance. Struggling to overcome her troubled past and a failing marriage, Annie is eager for a chance to rebuild her life.
Yet when she arrives on the remote Beara Peninsula, Annie learns that the mine would encroach on the nesting ground of an endangered bird, the Red-billed Chough, and many in the community are fiercely protective of this wild place. Among them is Daniel Savage, a local artist battling demons of his own, who has been recruited to help block the mine.
Despite their differences, Annie and Daniel find themselves drawn toward each other, and, inexplicably, they begin to hear the same voice–a strange, distant whisper of Gaelic, like sorrow blowing in the wind.
Guided by ancient mythology and challenged by modern problems, Annie must confront the half-truths she has been sent to spread and the lies she has been telling herself. Most of all, she must open her heart to the healing power of this rugged land and its people.
Beautifully crafted with environmental themes, a lyrical Irish setting, and a touch of magical realism, The Crows of Beara is a breathtaking novel of how the nature of place encompasses everything that we are.
About the Author
Julie’s short stories and essays have appeared in several journals, including Emerge Literary Journal; Mud Season Review; Cirque: A Literary Journal of the North Pacific Rim; Cobalt; River Poets Journal, in the print anthologies Stories for Sendai; Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers; and Three Minus One: Stories of Love and Loss; and featured on the flash fiction podcast No Extra Words. She holds undergraduate degrees in French and Psychology and a Master’s in International Affairs. Julie leads writing workshops and seminars and offers story/developmental editing and writer coaching services.
Named a “standout debut” by the Library Journal, “Very highly recommended” by Historical Novels Review and declared “Delicate and haunting, romantic and mystical” by bestselling author Greer Macallister, Julie’s debut novel In Another Life went into a second printing three days after its February 2, 2016 release.
A finalist for The Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, judged by PEN/Faulkner author and Man Booker Award nominee Karen Joy Fowler, Julie’s second novel The Crows of Beara was acquired by Ashland Creek Press and will take flight on September 15, 2017.
A hiker, yogi, and wine geek, Julie makes her home on the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington state.
It took him longer than he anticipated to find a space near the gallery’s back loading door and to bring the last of his pieces inside, but when Daniel walked into the gallery, Annie was standing transfixed in front of the sculpture he’d titled Grian/Gealach—Sunrise/Sunset—her hand reaching for the delicate spheres of metal. She withdrew her hand before touching the piece, though her body leaned in still.
“Go on. It’s all right,” he said over her shoulder, removing a pair of stained and torn leather work gloves.
She seemed not to register him. Then she turned and nodded at the gloves he clutched in one hand. “Do you work here?”
“I’m delivering pieces for the installation.” He waved around the exhibit space. “We’ve set up just a few so far, but they give you an idea.”
“Is the artist a friend of yours?”
“Some days, yes. Some days I really can’t stand the sight of the bastard. But mostly we get along.” He winked and motioned her toward the sculpture. “Really, it’s meant for all the senses, not just visual. Go on.”
She drew the tip of her finger down one large round of metal. It blazed like firelight, catching the dipping sun, but the metal was cool. “It’s beautiful.”
“I like for people to handle these pieces—I want them to feel the texture and temperature of the materials.” Annie turned in surprise, but Daniel pretended not to notice. “Fingerprints leave marks and oil—that’s a good thing, at least for my work. People change my art as much as I hope it changes them.”
“I didn’t know you were an artist.”
“I do the guiding to keep a steady income coming in, but this is meant to be my day job.”
Giant parcels wrapped in quilted moving blankets leaned against the walls; only one other piece had been unwrapped, a protective cover draped over the corners. It was a tall, narrow triptych of patinated metal with a background of aquamarine. Gracing the foreground was a long hawthorn stem of leaves and berries that shimmered and waved in a silhouette of red and gold.
“This is copper,” she said in wonder. “You work with copper.”
“Copper mostly. Some bronze, chrome. I’m just starting in with glass—studying with an artist out of a cooperative here in Kenmare.”
“But, Daniel. Copper.”
“Recycled copper. I use discarded materials, from building sites mostly. Ironic, right? I don’t want the mine in my backyard, but I’m willing to exploit it nonetheless—is that what you’re thinking? I’m not so naive as to think we shouldn’t have mining.”
He pulled the cover away from the sculpture’s sharp edges and let it drop to the floor. The hawthorn was in a cow pasture where he often sat, watching for the Red-billed Chough that foraged for seeds in the manure. “But in my own way, maybe I can show that the earth’s resources aren’t ours for the taking wherever, whenever we want. Art is a way to connect people with their environment without polarizing, without politicizing. It can be used to that purpose, but it belongs to everyone. I want my art to show nature as a cultural artifact. I made a very deliberate decision to use what’s already been taken from the earth—what had been stripped from Beara’s earth more than a century ago. Maybe that is my political statement.”
At that moment, hearing the words in his own voice, speaking his heart out loud, Daniel made his decision. But it was something he needed to sit with, to form more fully on his own. And he couldn’t forget, no matter how enchanting this woman was, who she was, why their paths had crossed.
Interview with Julie:
As people learned about your book, what unexpected things happened along the way?
JCJ: This is something that happened after my first novel launched in early 2016. My tenth grade boyfriend, who broke my heart in the most Molly Ringwald way possible, heard about my novel, read it, and then found me on Facebook. I hadn’t seen him since he graduated from high school in 1985. We talked one night for hours. I was dismayed and delighted to learn that I’d broken his heart, too. We had a great laugh recalling the same set of circumstances and events in completely different ways. And we remain friends.
Who are your literary influences or inspiration?
JCJ: As a child, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh lit the fire of my determination to be a writer, and C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia filled me with the wonder and joy of storytelling. As an adult, every word written by Jane Austen, for her sense of humor, the sheer beauty of her sentences, the way she can tell the most delicious and satisfying of stories; Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, for its strong, sensual women and breathtaking world-building; and Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. This novel made me crave to put words on paper. I read it years before I began writing, but it nudged open the door of my writer’s heart.
Why do you write?
JCJ: It feeds my soul. It’s a necessary to me as breathing. I’d go mad if I couldn’t.
As a result of publishing your book, what have you learned about yourself and/or the writing process?
JCJ: My entire life fell apart after the publication of my first novel. I don’t know how else to say it. My husband and I divorced after twenty-five years of marriage; I fell into a series of deep depressions. Writing changed ME, publishing changed the course of my life.
Last October, I returned to a full-time job after four years of writing full-time; the need for a stable income and health insurance compelled me back into punching a timecard. I’m grateful to have found something I love (I work in the wine industry), but it’s meant putting the brakes on publishing goals.
And yet. My second novel has launched. I have a third on submission and I am working on a fourth project. I spent two blissful weeks at a writers’ retreat in France last September. The writing I did on retreat has been the thing that I’ve held onto this past year as proof that my writing fire still burns deeply inside and I will return to those embers when I am able. I’ve kept up my physical health through yoga, swimming and hiking, as I know this is the key to strong mental health. I’ve also recently fallen in love and embarked upon a new relationship with a visual artist who is so supportive of what I do and gets it. Gets the calling to create that is impossible to ignore if the soul is to survive. It’s so beautiful, this crazy life. And yes, I’m still writing. The stories are piling up in my heart and I believe that the space and time to release them will come my way again.
Where do your characters come from?
JCJ: I just went through the Rolodex of my characters and I can think of only one short story—a work-in-progress—in which the characters are based on real people. Very present in my writing, however, are deeply personal themes. For example, Lia in IN ANOTHER LIFE is acutely claustrophobic. So is this author! I haven’t been in an elevator in years. The character in my third novel, UPSIDE-DOWN GIRL, is coping with child loss and has immigrated to New Zealand, both of which I have experienced. And I often write about how place changes and shapes us. My characters undergo major life upheavals and sortings-out once they leave the United States, when they are forced to confront themselves away from familiar social and cultural norms.
Annie, the protagonist in THE CROWS OF BEARA, and I don’t seem to share many similarities, but I adore her. By the novel’s end she’s just starting to come into her own, to realize her own emotional and artistic strength. I’m a few years older than Annie—forty-eight to her late thirties—but I see in her the same sense of purpose, a reinvigoration of character and self and determination that arrives with turning forty. You look around and say, “Right. This is who I am at this moment. I am beautiful, strong, I have so much yet to give, to discover. Let’s do this. Let’s live.”
What genres do you work in?
JCJ: Truly, I have no genre in mind when I begin writing a new novel; I just want to tell a good story. Authors like Deborah Harkness, Mary Doria Russell, and David Mitchell, who take genre conventions and toss them out the window, are my inspiration!
Interesting, and beautifully encouraging, are the reactions from industry professionals, including my agents, editors and booksellers. They love that my work can’t be pigeonholed in any category or genre, that it sprawls its limbs across the multitude!
I consider myself a storyteller. Genre doesn’t factor in when I think about my characters or themes. The joy is in challenging myself to do things I didn’t know I had in me, like historical fiction for my first novel IN ANOTHER LIFE; to play with convention, as I did with the paranormal element IN ANOTHER LIFE and magical realism in THE CROWS OF BEARA; to look for the best stories in my soul.
What feeds your process? Can you listen to music and write or not… can you write late at night or are you a morning person… when the spark happens, do you run for the pen or the screen or do you just hope it is still there tomorrow?
JCJ: I write on the sofa, at the dining room table, in bed, in favorite cafes, on the beach, in the library… wherever, whenever I can.
Early morning is the best time for me- my head and heart are clearest- but when I’m in the groove with a project, setting word count goals and writing during scheduled times are my strongest tools. I need a bit of noise- ambient music, café chatter. I also do a lot of problem-solving and planning while hiking, swimming, riding my bike. Moving my body in active meditation helps me fill in plot holes and find inspiration. Journaling helps me get out the personal gunk so I’m free to pay attention to my characters.
What’s the underlying message of your writing? The non-fiction description.
JCJ: There’s a scene about midway through The Crows of Beara when Annie sees Daniel’s art for the first time. And in observing his own work through her eyes, he realizes the power of what he does, how his art can change minds, perspectives, lives. It’s very much how I feel about what I do as an artist. Words are my voice, my sword, my hand out to the universe. Art, whether it’s visual, literary, musical, or of the body, is what connects us to ourselves, to each other, to the greater world. It’s what keeps us all truly alive. This is one of the major themes of the book, and I love showing Daniel coming alive through the power of art. I love feeling connected to the world, to creation, by what I bring to the page.
When did you first write a story? What was it about?
JCJ: I wrote my first short story in January 2011 and it was published in the anthology STORIES FOR SENDAI in June 2011; all sales of the book were donated to an agency providing relief to the Sendai area after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. The story was set at a temple just outside Tokyo, where there is shrine that honors unborn children: fetuses who died in utero as miscarriages or abortions or stillborn children. My protagonist was recovering from a miscarriage.
I’ve been writing and publishing steadily since. My first novel, IN ANOTHER LIFE, was published by Sourcebooks in February 2016. I have a third novel currently on submission, and a fourth project underway. In between I’ve published short stories, essays, poems, blog posts, book reviews.
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