“The purpose of a love story is to fuel change”: Five Questions with Molly Beth Griffin08/28/2012
It’s 1926 and sixteen-year-old Garnet Richardson is off to spend the summer in a Minnesota resort town. What seems at first a hum-drum vacation quickly becomes dramatic: Garnet starts her first job, uncovers secrets about her family’s finances, and stumbles into an unanticipated romance with a young flapper from the local dance hall.
Equal parts coming-of-age tale and historical fiction, Molly Beth Griffin’s Silhouette of a Sparrow is a fresh take on the wonders and woes of adolescence. Here, Griffin talks about teenage love, stirring up childhood memories by writing, and the Roaring Twenties in the Midwest.
Milkweed Editions: Garnet’s struggle to identify her feelings for the dancer Isabella perfectly encapsulates the awkwardness of adolescence, and her attraction to another girl makes the experience even more poignant. Why did you write about such a nontraditional teenage love story?
Molly Beth Griffin: In a novel, as in life, the purpose of a love story is to fuel change. And change comes about when something surprising lifts us out of ourselves. The more surprising that something is, the more powerful it can be. Most stories about GLBT characters focus on the “coming out” aspect, and although I think that has a place—it’s clearly an issue queer kids deal with—it shouldn’t be the only kind of book out there. Garnet’s is a love story—a story in which unexpected love forces a young woman to see herself differently, and become the person she wants to be.
Garnet—something of an amateur ornithologist—keeps herself busy by cutting paper silhouettes of birds she sees in the wild. Her two hobbies are vastly different, but speak to her personality: reserved, yet rebellious. How do bird watching and papercutting shape Garnet’s world?
With most true passions, there are ways to give a nod to one’s desires without really committing to them—to do what you love and yet stay within the confines of what is expected of you. And there is a place for that. For instance, we artists have to make our art but also find ways to put dinner on the table. But we have to be careful, because it is so easy to let the shreds of our passions become enough, when they aren’t enough. Garnet could cling to the acceptable version of what she wants, but would she ever be happy? And she could abandon the world of duty entirely, but that would come at a cost as well. Garnet’s silhouettes satisfy her and limit her at the same time, and create for her the line she must learn to tread ever so carefully.
Silhouette of a Sparrow is colored by many social and historical issues, from gender and race inequality to the economic dynamics of the ’20s. As Garnet confronts these challenges, we find ourselves applauding her conviction. Where does Garnet’s strength in perspective come from?
Molly Beth Griffin: I think she is a much stronger person than she’d ever admit to being, endowed with a great moral conviction that stems from empathy for both humans and animals. And although her parents aren’t always presented in the best light in the book, I do think that her mother’s fierceness and her father’s kind heart had a part in forming her. In fiction and in life, what we struggle with is usually what makes us who we are—we can then, in turn, overcome those issues that formed us.
What makes historic Excelsior, Minnesota, the right locale for Garnet’s wild summer?
It, like her, was simultaneously placid and adventurous. It was a tranquil resort town filled with middle-class vacationers, and the home of reckless amusement park rides and a rowdy dance hall appealing to the raucous teenage crowd of the Roaring Twenties. Garnet could go there expecting one thing, and find herself encountering something very different; she could go there one person, and leave someone else.
Did writing Garnet’s story stir up memories of your own childhood? What, if anything, did she teach you about your younger self?
I got to relive my hometown experience through Garnet, colored by a very different time. And I had to move through my own vocational trajectory of high school and college, culminating in my deeply satisfying immersion in an MFA program and the beginning of my writing career. This novel is an attempt to tell my young self not to doubt my passions, not to settle for less, not to choose the safest path but instead challenge myself to take risks and commit to doing what I love.
Milkweed Editions intern Rosie Szychalski assisted with this article.