Q&A with the William J. Cobb

  • September 25, 2012

Encompassing economic turmoil, fears of a major virus, climate change, fundamentalist cults and the hardships of illegal immigrants, William Cobb’s The Bird Saviors is a brilliant new novel that offers an elemental and timely story of resilience, hope — and unexpected love.

Mr. Cobb is the author of The Bird Saviors

Ruby Cole faces a heartbreaking decision: She must either abandon her baby or give in to her father and marry a man more than twice her age who already has two wives. Her choice sets in motion events that upend the lives of an eclectic mix of characters that include an equestrian police officer, pawnshop riffraff, a disabled war vet, animal-control agents and a grieving ornithologist who is studying the decline of bird populations. All the while, a growing criminal enterprise moves from cattle rustling to kidnapping to hijacking fuel tankers and murder, threatening the entire community.

Encompassing economic turmoil, fears of a major virus, climate change, fundamentalist cults and the hardships of illegal immigrants, William Cobb’s The Bird Saviors is a brilliant new novel that offers an elemental and timely story of resilience, hope — and unexpected love.

Mandy Huckins asks….

The dwindling avian population parallels the decline of the human population. However, the disappearing birds are the direct result of human action, while the decline of people is more complicated. Why are people killing birds?

First off, I based the bird-killing characters of Crowfoot and Mosca on employees of the actual government program for “nuisance” animals that is quoted as an epigraph, in which flocks of birds are killed when they are seen as a threat to either farms or airports. But the virus I’ve imagined in the novel is one of some complexity and mystery, which is common enough in the real world: Some viruses are quite easy to identify and to create a vaccine for, and some are more complex and difficult, such as the HIV virus. Although it is never explicitly stated, it is not the H5N1 “bird flu” virus, but a more mysterious virus that is believed to have originated (or mutated) in bird populations and spread to humans, a credible scenario.

I did some research on viruses, and found them to be fascinating. Two books stand out as excellent works on virology and the human impact of pandemics: John Kelley’s The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time and The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, about the Spanish flu of 1918. Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance and Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone are also quite good.

The situation seems bleak for both groups, but you offer some small amount of hope in the character of Ward, the ornithologist. He seems to be a decent human being with honorable intentions towards his work and personal life. But is he really equipped to effect change? He is just there to count birds. Although gathering information might be the first step in conservation, it’s hard not to see it as a futile effort. Likewise with Ruby and her baby — are they simply replacements for the wife and daughter he lost to the virus? Will he be able to truly make a new life with them, for them?

Ward Costello is a field ornithologist, and yes, I think he is cause for hope. Or perhaps more specifically, he represents the intelligence, concern and reason that I see in many people. He wants to do the right thing, to make a difference. The Bird Saviors has a number of characters who represent the opposite — people like Hiram Page, a pawnshop owner who is basically out to get what he wants and to hell with the rest of the world, or Jack Brown, a young yahoo who is not necessarily a “bad person” but who doesn’t think too much about it one way or the other. All of these people are part of the human mix, and I certainly believe that the forces of reason, compassion and intelligence often trump or mitigate the forces of selfishness, callousness and greed. Then again, sometimes they don’t. It’s the ongoing battle of human nature.

At heart, I think I’m both an optimist and pragmatist, and there are indications all around us in the world of these opposing forces. An easy example: My 5-year-old daughter is now in kindergarten, and it’s obvious that most of the people there care greatly about their children, not only the parents but the teachers as well, and listening to the sounds of children laughing and playing, you know there’s goodness in the world, both vibrant and ordinary. As far as Ward goes, I imagine he will have a new life with Ruby, with ups and downs, and yes, with happiness. What he does will matter. The good that we do matters. You have to believe that.

While reading the novel, I wondered why aren’t people more cautious around the ones infected with the virus. Ruby’s father does lock her in her room when she is sick to keep her from infecting her baby, but there are myriad other examples where the healthy willingly help the sick and the infected are rarely quarantined. Why?

People don’t always do the sensible thing. In some cases we know we might get infected with a virus and we take the risk anyway because we want to care for family or friend; or, as in one case in the novel, when Israel James carries Ruby Cole after finding her passed out in the nativity scene, because it seems the right thing to do. I’ve also imagined this scenario for the virus: It had an initial and somewhat deadly outbreak two years before, as is common for new viruses, and that is when Ward Costello’s wife and daughter died. (An example: Here’s an article from CNN about a new virus that’s been discovered, which crosses to the human population from ticks.)

But for this virus the mortality rate was not that high, and rarely is with viruses, so it was not the dreaded pandemic that is often theorized with the bird flu — such as the possibility of half the population dying — but was much smaller than that, as has occurred in various severe flu outbreaks. Many have already developed immunity to it, so people have become complacent. They know there’s a danger, and schools are still taking precautions, but many people are tired of worrying about it and have decided that whether they become ill or not is “the Lord’s will.”

One of the most interesting relationships is between Ruby and her father, whom she calls Lord God. Sometimes she hates him. Other times, she pities him and even seems to love him, or at least care about him. But he can be hard to love — an overbearing, hypocritical zealot, though he believes he has his daughter’s best interests at heart and definitely loves his little granddaughter. How did he develop for you? Did you intend for readers to hate him or love him?

The novel originated with Ruby’s voice in my head, complaining about her father, whom she nicknames Lord God. I believe he’s essentially a good man, but has become twisted, warped and embittered. He adheres to a rather cornpone mysticism; he believes his visions, but they are really nothing more than that. He’s lost his way, and in his clouded “righteousness,” lost his priorities. But he really wants to protect his daughter from what he believes is the evil in the world. And he wants to find a man to provide for her, which is why he’s trying to marry her off to Hiram Page. As far as readers loving or hating him, I think neither. But I’ll say this: I imagine that if I met Lord God, I’d be somewhat repulsed, but also couldn’t take my eyes off him. He’d command the room. And I think those people make good characters and are worth understanding more.

I believe people complain about character flaws in others that they themselves possess. Do you agree? Lord God is a prime example. He complains about Muslims and is proud to have killed them during his time in the military, yet the Saints, the religious cult he leads, share many similarities with fundamentalist jihadists. Ruby even mentions that the Saints are often referred to as “American Taliban.” This is so ironic, but is it also just a part of human nature?

Absolutely. Fervent religious groups seem especially vulnerable to the delusions of righteousness. You begin to believe your belief system is the One and True Religion, making you blind to the reality that most other religions believe they are the One and True.

Becca comments in the book that “people are always telling me what to do. Especially men.” This is also a concern of Ruby’s — she chafes under the will of her father. Do you believe this is a problem for most women? Are men programmed to take control?

Though I can’t speak for most women in general, I certainly recognize it’s a problem for the world. Lord God is a (rather homespun) member of the FLDS church, Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, whose culture is male-dominated. Men make most of the decisions and are expected to. Are men programmed to take control? To some extent, I’d say yes. Manliness is usually associated with being decisive. We often label someone a “wimp” if he can’t make up his mind. But we often suffer for the bad decisions of those “deciders” (to use a George W. Bush line), and young women like Ruby are more vulnerable to those bad decisions, especially when they’re under the thumb of a dominant father like Lord God.

At the end of the novel, Lord God asks Ward if he is a good man. Ward replies, “I try to be.” Lord God says, “You don’t try. You either are or you aren’t.” This discussion calls into question the definition of a “good man.” Each character has his own definition. What is yours?

Well, I certainly agree with the idea that manliness involves being decisive, but that seems a low bar to hurdle. Any dope (or crook) can make a decision, can act, but hasty, stupid or vicious actions usually have harmful consequences. Being a good man — and I always think of the irony of Flannery O’Connor’s title of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” — is a much higher bar to clear. Being a good man is an active role that involves using compassion, intelligence and respect in making your decisions. Add tenderness, kindness and humility to that equation, and you’re cooking.

Mandy Huckins holds a Master of Arts Degree in English from the University of Charleston in South Carolina. She recently moved to the Washington, D.C. area with her husband, an Air Force officer. When not reading, Mandy works for the Combined Federal Campaign-Overseas, which provides uniformed service members and DoD civilians serving overseas the opportunity to make a charitable contributions to one or more of over 2,500 different organizations.

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