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Chronicles from a backyard like your’s

By Samantha Dunn, The Orange County Register
Published: June 1, 2024, 5:21am

If you didn’t know the line “Hope is the thing with feathers” had been written by poet Emily Dickinson, you might think it was the marketing tagline for “The Backyard Bird Chronicles,” a collection of observations, meditations and drawings by author Amy Tan.

In 2016, Tan — whose bestselling novels include “The Joy Luck Club,” “The Kitchen God’s Wife” and “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” among others — says she felt a chilling change in American culture, one she says she perceived as suddenly rife with overt racism and ill will.

She found solace and yes, hope, in her own backyard in Sausalito, spending hours watching the comings and goings of the common birds who congregated at her birdfeeders.

“They made me laugh a lot. They were wonderful and surprising; I could watch them forever,” Tan recounted in a recent telephone interview from Nashville on her book tour — where unfortunately she was holed up in her hotel room, having contracted COVID for the first time, which caused her to have to cancel a string of scheduled events.

Without a plan or goal, she simply trained her skilled novelist’s eye on the dramas at the birdfeeders. “I would watch the birds sometimes throughout the entire day, starting in the morning,” Tan said. “And it was addictive. I just kept seeing them and figuring out all these patterns. I had so many surprises, like when new birds showed up. So it was always a jackpot.”

She broke out her sketchbook — she’s found drawing a relaxing pastime since she was a young girl, as she details in the 2021 documentary on her life, “Unintended Memoir.” Soon Tan dove headlong into nature journaling, taking classes with naturalist and artist John Muir Laws.

“I would draw and I would be thinking about all these questions as I did that,” she said. “I felt that I was going deeper into myself with a larger need for understanding. It gave me something to fill these empty or sad parts, which had been caused by everything that was going on in the world.”

The resulting “Backyard Bird Chronicles,” a distillation of nine of her nature journals, seems to have resonated with birders and general readers alike, debuting at No. 1 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list when it came out in April. (It proved so popular, according to Tan, the publisher promptly ran out of stock the day after it debuted.)

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Yet Tan never intended for these private musings, quotidian observations and representational drawings of her backyard birds to become a book — that was the idea of her longtime editor Dan Halpren.

The way Tan tells it, she has been delayed in producing another novel — her previous book was the 2017 memoir “Where the Past Begins” — and Halpren had moved to another publishing house.

“I told him, ‘I will follow you anywhere, but I’m not going to sign a contract for this novel that I’m working on —’ ”

Tan interrupts her story to say as an aside, “I did not want a book contract with anybody. I have spent all these years having contracts. Most people are overjoyed to have a contract, but I always felt it made me an indentured servant.”

Then she continues: “And he said, ‘Well, how about your nature journals?’ I said, ‘Oh no, it’s, like, all these scribbles on the pages and they’re messy and there’s words missing and there’s misspellings and smudges and wine stains … I don’t know.’ And he said, ‘Why don’t you just send 20 pages and then I’ll show it around the [publishing] house and then, you know, we’ll talk about it.’ ”

We all know how that ended, but for Tan, this book also turned out to be unique in other ways from her previous publishing endeavors.

“This is the first book that I’ve ever had a wish for,” said Tan. “I write books for personal reasons and then come what may — people might get something else out of it, and I hope it’s good.”

It’s safe to say many have indeed gotten something out of her work, judging from the laurels she’s received, which include being awarded the 2023 National Humanities Medal by President Biden, and inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters — not to mention being a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the International Orange Prize.