The Story Behind the Story: “In The Shape Of A Small Bird”

“In The Shape Of A Small Bird” began with a fabulous tropical picture, taken by photographer Laurie Klein, of a small falling down structure and the jungle growing around and over it, a cross on the ground. I often write to pictures, first describing what I see and then going wherever the image leads me.

In this case, it led me to what I had been seeing, and feeling, in the news – a world changing too quickly in negative ways (war, natural disaster, growing evil toward children and animals), overwhelming rage and a lack of accountability.

The story creates a world that doesn’t follow rules. Rivers “ran too quick to the sea,” and “refused to move with fish who refused to swim and rocks that moved themselves in the night.” Gnarled roots move – curl and stretch out. Birds talk. The narrator’s brother controls some of her movements, puts her in dangerous situations, and she feels the rage of all that, but the God she speaks to, who represents all humankind, doesn’t seem to care.

The hard part, with every story, is finding the ending. I knew I wanted the narrator to find her freedom. I had a long conversation with my husband about humanity, spirituality and God. Then I made a list of the story’s inventory, which I often do when I’m lost. It wasn’t until then I realized the birds, who had been there from the first draft, kept vigil on the edge. And I knew.

Julia Strayer

About Julia Strayer

Julia Strayer’s fiction and essays appear in Glimmer Train, SmokeLong Quarterly, Post Road Magazine, South Dakota Review, Mid-American Review, and others. She placed first in the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers, and her work has been anthologized in The Best Small Fictions 2015. She earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and teaches creative writing at New York University.