Excerpted from The Wings That Fly Us Home by Dayna Dunbar. Copyright © 2006 by Dayna Dunbar. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Dayna Dunbar
Interviewer Catherine Rourke is an award-winning journalist from New York City who now lives in Sedona, Arizona.
Catherine Rourke: What inspired you to create a sequel to The Saints and Sinners of Okay County?
Dayna Dunbar: My publisher! When I wrote the ﬁrst story, I didn’t anticipate doing a sequel, but when Ballantine wanted more of Aletta, of course I said yes. I’m so glad they did.
CR: Explain how you chose the book’s title and its symbolism.
DD: There are many references to birds and feathers in this novel that have more meaning than what is on the surface. So much of this book is about ﬁnding home, whether it is Aletta ﬁnding another home she never knew she had in New Mexico, or Vee feeling at home for the ﬁrst time, or Jimmy coming home to himself in his healing process. The birds mean different things throughout, just as there is more than one meaning for home that each of the characters experiences.
CR: How do you invent your plots and characters? Are they autobiographical or based on societal archetypes?
DD: Many of my characters are autobiographical or composites of people I’ve known, but there are many I create too. Regarding plot, I get an overall idea; then, as I write, the details reveal themselves. I don’t think about archetypes or symbolism as I write, but much of what comes through tends to align with universal themes that include these.
CR: You accurately portray the styles, music, décor, and consumer products of the 1970s. Did you conduct extensive research on the cultural icons of that time or are your details based solely on recollection?
DD: Much of the material about the ’70s comes from my memory, but the details and dates I had to research. Just as I began to write Saints and Sinners, I was having a very difﬁcult time ﬁnding the details I wanted to make the book not only authentic but also fun for the reader who lived during that era. I fretted over this for a few weeks. Then one day, I was in the drugstore, and like a beacon of light, I saw a magazine on the shelf entitled ’70s People. It was a compilation of the highlights of pop culture of that decade. I practically heard angels singing, and for good reason–it answered all my questions and gave me ideas I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
CR: Did you outline the story before you began writing or do you let the plot unfold as you work? Did the story take any unexpected turns as you were writing it?
DD: I outline as much as I can of the plot, but I never know where the whole thing is going. I’ll outline a piece, then write that, and then outline some more as it comes through. Many times, the story will take turns I didn’t expect, so the outline is just a helpful guide, not a must-do. The characters often lead me in surprising directions. Sometimes a character will show up just as an ancillary character, and then he or she will end up being very important. That happened with Maria in this story.
CR: Your story has an almost timeless quality even though it takes place nearly thirty years ago. Do you think that your characters and settings still exist today — minus the styles and products of the era?
DD: I deﬁnitely think so. Aletta really represents a universal experience in that she feels like she doesn’t ﬁt in, doesn’t know what she’s doing, and is doing her best to get by in very difﬁcult circumstances. This story has her growing up in her self-conﬁdence and ﬁnding a place where she feels accepted. The place is certainly still there. It’s my hometown in Oklahoma!
CR: What challenges, if any, did the evolution of your characters present?
DD: The character that presented the most challenges was Vee. When I began, I knew I wanted to include this political revolutionary who was on the run from the law. Unlike today, the ’60s and ’70s were ﬁlled with revolutionary organizations. As far as this character and her story, however, I wasn’t sure where she was going to go. As she spent some time in Okay, it became clear to me that she had basically been homeless her entire life, and this was her ﬁrst experience of a loving family. In order to make this more evident to the reader, I changed her past a bit during rewrites so that she would have a stronger character arc. My wonderful editor at Ballantine, Deirdre Lanning, helped with this as well.
CR: What can your readers learn from Aletta Honor’s challenges? How does she reﬂect modern women who are still struggling to liberate themselves from traditional female roles?
DD: I think almost every woman faces the challenges Aletta does. Aletta is on a journey of self-discovery, just like every other woman and mother, but she has to squeeze this in while still making a living, changing diapers, and going to kids’ activities. It is really only because Jimmy left her and she had to put the sign out to give psychic readings that she begins this journey at all. Otherwise, she was too busy! I’m sure this is deeply familiar to women everywhere, but I do believe that true liberation lies in knowing oneself, so I hope Aletta’s story encourages this in other women.
CR: Your prose is woven with the underlying human traits of denial, insecurity, victimization, and codependence. Do you incorporate these into your characters because they are so common?
DD: These traits are a part of everyone I know, even the most successful and secure women and men. Everyone is either working on these issues in their lives or has lived through them in the past. Personally, I believe there is an underlying spiritual issue that each of us has to deal with, and that is the belief that we are separate from our source, from the joy of life within. This creates inherent insecurity, fear, neediness, clinging, bullying, and the rest. Whether or not this deeper spiritual crisis is discussed in a book doesn’t really matter, however. What does matter is that these issues, which each of us faces in life in some way, are dealt with authentically through characters that evoke familiarity and kinship in the reader.
CR: Many of the male characters feed off women’s energy and display weak behaviors such as alcoholism, chauvinism, rage, and violence. Do you think this reﬂects the behavior of many men in our society?
DD: No, not the majority of men. I just think that the issues I discussed in the last question play out in the lives of men differently than they do with women. In general, I think men tend to externalize their baggage and that it can come out as anger, competitiveness, and violence. Women tend to internalize their hurt and fear more, and it comes out as neediness, manipulation, emotionalism, and lack of self-esteem. I have to say, however, that I’m not thinking of these things as I write. I just try to be honest with what I observe. I’ve written about some wonderful men in both books, and I try never to vilify anyone, whether man or woman.
CR: What or who was the inspiration for Vee’s character?
DD: When I was growing up, there was a distant member of my family who was very much like Vee. She was involved in radical politics and even hid out from the FBI with us once. My parents only knew this fact later, of course.
CR: What is your purpose as a writer in portraying the feminine experience? How does your work serve today’s women?
DD: I always wanted to write something to honor the women I grew up around. These women, including my mother, grandmother, and aunts, as well as all of their friends, seemed to me to keep the world running–but not the world of business, politics, entertainment, and science. Ironically, these seemingly very important worlds were not important to me. What was important back then was love, a warm meal, being given a birthday party, having gifts at Christmas, knowing the bills were paid again this month (barely), or being driven to basketball practice. These were the things women did in my world, and I am grateful beyond measure for it. I hope in honoring these women, I am able to honor all women, many of whom really run the world but rarely get the glory.
CR: What inspired you to weave the Native American component into the story? Did you spend much time in New Mexico or with native peoples? How did you develop such familiarity with the Native American language, culture, and rituals?
DD: I graduated from college in Santa Fe and absolutely fell in love with it. I learned a great deal about the Native American culture while I lived there, particularly from a wonderful woman I was very blessed to meet. Her name is Teresa Pijoan. She is a Native American author, a storyteller of her tribe, and a professor of Native American studies. She helped me signiﬁcantly with the prayers, rituals, and chants in the book and even gained permission from tribal elders for me to use what is included.
CR: Describe how the creative process works for you as a writer. Do you write every day? How long did it take you to write this book? What serves as your muse or greatest source of creative inspiration?
DD: When I am in the middle of a project, I usually write four or ﬁve days a week, and I try to complete at least three pages a day. This book took just over a year to ﬁnish, plus the time it has taken for editorial work with my editors at Ballantine. My greatest source of inspiration is my love for people and wonderful stories that honor the heroism in us all. Writing is deﬁnitely a spiritual experience for me in that I really just try to get out of the way and let something greater than me do the work.
CR: Are you considering writing another story in this series?
DD: Yes, I have already come up with another story I want to tell about these characters. As long as they keep telling me what to write, I’ll keep writing.
1. How are the themes of home and homecoming played out throughout the novel? What does home mean for each character? How do all of the characters ﬁnally come home? What does home mean to you?
2. What does the eagle feather symbolize? Why does Aletta feel she can’t conduct a legitimate reading after receiving the feather from Julian? How does she reclaim her gift?
3. Aletta Honor is initially an insecure person. How does she release her past pain to discover her identity? Do you know anyone who has had to let go of their past in order to grow?
4. Aletta lacks the conﬁdence to make it on her own without a man. Does she ﬁnally liberate herself? Have women’s roles signiﬁcantly changed since Aletta’s era?
5. Is Aletta a good single mother? Does she do the right thing leaving her kids with Vee while she goes to Santa Fe?
6. How do the strains of peer pressure and parental divorce affect Sissy’s behavior? Do you think the mother-daughter relationship in this story is a typical one?
7. Do you think that Okay, Oklahoma, represents a microcosm of everything that’s right or wrong in small-town America? Would you want to live there–then or now?
8. Do you think Jimmy will quit drinking for good? Did you like his character more by the end of the book?
9. Aletta dates Eugene immediately after her marriage disintegrates,even though he “fails to challenge her brain or her soul.” What do you think is the key to a compatible partnership?
10. What are the differences and similarities among the men in Aletta’s life? Do you think she and Jimmy can repair their marriage? Do you think Aletta and Jimmy’s relationship is realistic?
11. Do you think Julian is the right man for Aletta?
12. Do you think Vee is a strong or weak character? Does she help or hinder Sissy? How do the Honors transform Vee? Why do you think she went back to Okay, knowing she would eventually get arrested?
13. What role do Aletta’s vivid dreams play in enhancing her journey of self-discovery? Do you believe in the importance of dreams? Can you remember a dream that greatly impacted your life?
14. How does Aletta’s family genealogy transform her life? How do Native American women such as Adelaide and Senda link Aletta with her strength and identity?
15. What is the symbolism of Aletta’s journey into the mountains? How is she changed upon her return? Have you or would you consider a vision quest for yourself ?
16. Near the end of the novel, Aletta declares: “I’m the tcaiyanyi of Okay.” What does she mean? Why is it signiﬁcant that she says this?