Women of the Northwest

Cheryl Bostrom- Sugar Birds: Finding Grace in the Wilderness

January 04, 2024 Jan Johnson Episode 83
Women of the Northwest
Cheryl Bostrom- Sugar Birds: Finding Grace in the Wilderness
Show Notes Transcript

Sugar Birds: Finding Grace in the Wilderness

LINKS: Website

Susan Peterson episode



Sugar Birds book

  Author of Sugar Birds and Leaning on Air

Winner of 11 awards, including the prestigious American Christian Fiction Awards for Debut Fiction and Christy award finalist

In the enchanting world of the northern woods, where nests of wild birds become a sanctuary for a young girl named Aggie, a captivating tale unfolds. Join me, Jan Johnson, as we explore the riveting story of "Sugar Birds," written by Cheryl Bostrom. Aggie, facing challenges at home, accidentally ignites a tragic fire that leads her into the untamed wilderness, seeking solace among its creatures and trees. As we delve into this narrative, we discover the mending powers of forgiveness and the profound impact of love and grace. But that's not all,  "Sugar Birds" is just the beginning. Cheryl Bostrom shares her insights into writing, inspiration, and the art of creating extraordinary characters. 

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[00:02] Jan: For years, Harris Hayes has taught his daughter Aggie the ways of the northern woods, where she sketches nests of wild birds as an antidote to sadness. Then her depressed, unpredictable mother forbids her to climb the trees that give her sanctuary and comfort. Angry ten-year-old Aggie accidentally lights a tragic fire and flees downriver. She lands her boat near untamed forests, then hides among trees and creatures she believes are her only friends. Determined to remain undiscovered, a search party gathers hours after Celia arrives at her grandmother's nearby farm. Hurting from her parents' breakup, she also plans to run. But when she joins the hunt for Aggie, she meets two irresistible young men who compel her to stay. One is autistic, the other, dangerous. Sugar birds, is a layered, riveting story set in the breathtaking natural world, where characters encounter the mending powers of forgiveness for themselves and for those who have failed them. Are you looking for an inspiring listen, something to motivate you? You've come to the right place. I'm Jan Johnson, your host. Welcome to women of the northwest, where we have conversations with ordinary women leading extraordinary lives, women telling their stories and sharing their passions. Motivating, inspiring, compelling.

[01:34] Cheryl: We're all sugarbirds. We're all hunting for that sweet seed that's going to soothe our hearts. You know, we all have this place in us that longs to be accepted and valued as we are. And if we're living under condemnation, we're not going to find that.

[01:55] Jan: Cheryl Bostrom, welcome.

[01:57] Cheryl: You're good to be with you, Jan.

[01:59] Jan: Your book had such an effect on me, I just could not put it back. I wanted to start reading again from the beginning, after I finished it. It was so well written.

[02:09] Cheryl: Thank you so much.

[02:11] Jan: How did you develop your idea for this book?

[02:17] Cheryl: I was raised on the Olympic peninsula and spent a lot of time in the woods for my own solace. My mom had some mental health issues, and so, of course, you can tap. You think about the redemptive ways that our own stories can be used. And while this isn't autobiographical, biographical in any regard, I was able to tap my longing for comfort and relationship and put it into my experience, the experience that my grandparents gave me when they introduced me to the natural world in the Pacific. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, and they were bird lovers, nature lovers, Washington pioneers. Our family's been on the Olympic peninsula since the early and so my sister and I used to climb trees, the Douglas furs that you and I know so well. But we would climb these trees to perilous heights and Douglas firs are really great climbing trees because if you fall, they've got the spokes all the way around them. You're just going to bounce around a little bit and get hung up and then you can keep going.

[03:41] Jan: Try and avoid a little bit of the SAP.

[03:44] Cheryl: Yeah, you get covered with pitch and maybe a little bruise, but you're not going to die going up. But we went up, probably, but we went up to riveting heights and there are a lot of bird nests up there. And eggy enjoys finding these bird nests. And her dad shows her how to sketch them and he says, find the father's song in the. Basically what he's saying to her is, find the joy in the created world that assures you that no matter how bad things get, there's healing and there's hope and there's possibility. She doesn't really understand that at her age too much. She's battling the stuff at home, but the natural world becomes really important to her and she's also very comfortable there. And that was my experience. I would head out by myself lots of times. In those days it was different. You could head out and prowl around the woods forever and go ride your horse forever. That's a long answer to a short question.

[04:53] Jan: Yeah, because it seems like. Well, I'm guessing that most writers write pieces of themselves anyway, or pieces of people they know, or to incorporate or model characters, at least some aspects of them, too. Did you find while you were writing it that you connected or made other connections with who you were as a kid to Aggie or maybe other things that were revealed to you?

[05:27] Jan: Does that make sense?

[05:32] Cheryl: I think it's always a learning.

[05:36] Jan: A.

[05:37] Cheryl: Growth in self awareness, as you're right, because I'm a hybrid plant plotter. Cancer, meaning that I'll have my story arc laid out. But it's as I'm writing the scenes and as I'm entering into these characters that they tell me what they're thinking and what they're going to do. And lots of times there would be things emerge in these characters that I would go. I would know it was tapping something in my memory and it was evoking some sort of thought or experience that I'd had. But it's just almost magical the way the characters will actually direct you. And I trust that ideas are imparted to me from God as direction or as instruction. So I listen hard and it's pretty thrilling.

[06:28] Jan: It is magical, too, to be writing along and all of a sudden your character says something like, you go, wait a minute. Where did that come from? Yeah, I don't know that well. A reader isn't going to experience that. It's got to be a phenomenon just for writers that have that happen. But it is kind of like, I guess this is a real person here with their own ideas. I didn't know we were going to take the story that direction.

[06:57] Cheryl: Yeah, well, and when a character, if I'm writing a scene and my character feels flat to me, or if I get stuck, then I know that I need to know more about that character. I need to dive deeper. And then when the character starts talking again and I start experiencing that, then I believe that my characterization is coming to life and will have the same effect on my readers. It's a pretty neat experience, and I had heard about it happening to others, and then when it happened to me, I thought, oh, yes, this is great.

[07:31] Jan: I know. This is amazing. Do you feel like once you start writing your character, you've got your basic idea and you start writing, do you feel like it takes you a few chapters, though, to really figure out who they are?

[07:45] Cheryl: Oh, yeah.

[07:47] Jan: And then maybe even go back and redo some of the start once you know them better?

[07:53] Cheryl: Absolutely. And it's interesting because I've talked to a few people this last year. They had just done some memoir work, and one guy told me that he just never even went back. He says, yeah, I just don't want to do that editing stuff. I don't want to go back and read thought how. I thought, wow, that's amazing. Because the discovery, I think even more the discovery happens during the revision. And in this case, I wanted these girls to be both Celia and Aggie, my dual protagonists. I wanted it to be set in a wilderness where that illustrates the personal wildernesses that they're entering and the wilderness that guilt and shame can drive Aggie into after she lights this fire, because this little girl thinks that she has killed her parents and that everyone's going to hate her. And she's right at that cusp of rational, more mature thinking. But she still has a lot of childlike thought, and so she believes that she's going to go to jail for accidentally lighting this fire. And so she runs into the wilderness, and the things that she tells know her self talk, the things that she is tempted to believe about herself, drive her deeper and deeper into this isolation. And so, even though she's in a Pacific northwest wilderness, I think it's relevant to most of us who have grappled with guilt or with shame at some point. And we have to learn what we're telling ourselves. And come to recognize our own belovedness. Until we can recognize and receive grace and a sense that we are loved. Yes, we're imperfect. Yes, things are broken. That's what brings us out of wilderness is the relationship you were mentioning before we started here about how important relationship is to you. And so Aggie has to experience that, and so does Celia with what she's going through as she deals with her anger.

[09:58] Jan: Yeah. And I think that just the idea of the lies that we believe and act upon you make it so realistic. With Aggie, of course, she would think those same things. And of course she would react those same ways just out of fear. And not understanding her mom and having that great relationship with her dad and longing to have that. But let's talk about Burnaby. What a great character he was.

[10:31] Cheryl: Thank you.

[10:32] Jan: How did you come about with that.

[10:36] Cheryl: Know I've got some people in my life who have some of those traits. And I taught school for many years and worked with some kids who were on the spectrum. And I have some of that emotional synesthesia know where Burnaby, as he experiences intense emotions, colors change for and I think it was really fun to write him because he's such a solid guy. And yet he's grappling with being on the spectrum. And with being so misunderstood by so many. And yet his worldview and the way that he explains himself to Celia really grows her. Because first off, she doesn't feel like she's competing with him in any know, they both love. He's brilliant. But in this first book, Sugarbirds, he's a very unusual character. And she has been schooled in her culture. And she's a high school kid. And she takes what he does personally at first. And so just watching the juxtaposition of their relationship as she grows and as he grows more attached to her. I'm loving him because I love the people whom he represents.

[12:06] Jan: Right.

[12:07] Cheryl: And yet almost like when you're learning a foreign language and you at first you have to translate it to yourself, eventually you start thinking in that language. Eventually I was able to inhabit Burnaby's skin and experienced him through his eyes, I hope. And that's always the with your.

[12:31] Jan: Yeah, yeah. And Aggie feels protective of him as. Yeah, it's kind of, um, where you become the older know or just because of that protective thing, the same thing you do as at one point where you become your parents parent, that type of aspect.

[12:54] Cheryl: I had that book contract and I just turned in the last one just before Christmas. But in those final months, my routines kind of started going out the window. And instead of doing my little workout every day and walking every day, it was down to a couple of days a week. And my daughter says, mom, you've got to lift those weights. You've got to keep moving until you. Because if you don't, you've got to keep doing it while you can because then you won't be able to. And I thought, oh, here we go.

[13:31] Jan: Thanks for thinking of me, but I'm not quite there yet.

[13:35] Cheryl: And I was very grateful and appreciative. And she's exactly right because I had a little sciatica and I just sat.

[13:44] Jan: Too much this year.

[13:46] Cheryl: And yet coming back to Aggie and Burnaby, she's protective of him. At this point in the story, he's 17, very obsessive. His rituals and his behaviors has a lot of compulsions that can be attached to those on the spectrum. And an editor who read this book before it went to press has written a number of books on autism and has a high functioning autistic son. And I just wanted her to read for accuracy and for clarity. And she said, well, if you've known one person on the spectrum, you've known one person on the spectrum, because they're as varied as all of us are. And I think it was important in this book to have Burnaby be as unique as he was because I just don't want any stereotypes for anybody on the spectrum.

[14:47] Jan: Right.

[14:49] Cheryl: And that's important. And also to recognize the beauty that he has in his character and in the way he sees the world that those of us who are not neurodivergent can really learn from. We who consider ourselves more typical because we're more typical, less unique. I don't know, more typical think that we have to bring the neurodivergent into our way of thinking and our way of living, and it's just not true. And it's not true for any sort of diverse population. To learn to recognize the differences, to learn to appreciate and value and learn from one another is really a precious.

[15:35] Jan: Yeah. What would you say was your overall theme?

[15:41] Cheryl: I would say that it's grace, it's love and forgiveness that brings us out of our wilderness. So I guess that's the overarching theme, as Mender says, to seal you later. We're all sugarbirds. We're all hunting for that sweet seed that's going to soothe our hearts. We all have this place in us that longs to be accepted and valued as we are. And if we're living under condemnation, we're.

[16:17] Jan: Not going to find that even self-condemnation.

[16:21] Cheryl: Absolutely. Yeah. Because Aggie, well, and there's all this projection that goes on. Know the term projection where what I'm feeling, I assign to you as if you're applying. Aggie believes that others see her the way she's seeing herself, and they don't. Everybody's looking. She's got a whole community out there looking for this little girl and trying to find her and bring her home and give her comfort, and she won't receive. She thinks they're after her, and so she hides from everyone. And how often do we do that? Emotionally, people reach for us in love and want to offer us love or faith or relationships that are different than any we've ever known, and we just don't think it's possible. So we resist and we hide.

[17:15] Jan: I love how you have Aggie at the end, taking agency. Solve the problems. No, I don't want to do a spoiler here. Yeah, that was really great.

[17:28] Cheryl: And what kind of life do you want to have? Do you want to have a life that is rich with joy and wisdom and understanding and resilience, or do you want to just keep bucking your way upstream in a world that really isn't very friendly? A lot of times. And egg has that option. When she goes into the woods, she can either see it as very foreboding, which she's tempted to do at times when she's injured and when she sees some of the things that are occurring out there. And there are some moments when she sees that this wilderness she's in is really quite perilous. But she keeps hearing her dad talk to her, and she keeps hearing and encouraging him, or him encouraging her to hear the father's song. Listen to the song that's in the natural world. It's an overarching song. It's in the ground underneath. It's everywhere if you listen for it. And then it's a personal choice to open your ears to that or not, because you can see the woods, you can see your own wilderness as impenetrable and as something that's so dark you can't ever get through it.

[18:45] Jan: Yeah, exactly. So true. Would you read a few of the first pages?

[18:51] Cheryl: Okay. Northwest Washington state, 1985. The stories are told in opposing narratives. Celia. Aggie. Celia. Alternating narratives. This is an Aggie chapter. You stay on the ground, Agit. Aggie scowled as her mother shouted across 30 rows of foot high, corn teeth clamped. The girl slammed her gloves into a bucket, then lengthened her stride until she reached the four wheeler beside the barn. The words lay sharp against her spine. Mama must have seen her eye. The crow's nest near the alders they cut that morning. Or she did. Without looking back. The girl cranked the engine and revved the throttle. The tires skidded sideways, spewing gravel behind her before they caught and fishtailed into the pasture in a streak of crushed grass. The machine bucked uphill across uneven ground. Too fast, she knew, but the engine's whine would drown out anything else Mama might yell. When she crested the rise, she dropped the throttle into an idle and ran her eyes along the ridges of the north cascades. Their slopes blew beneath the snowline. Then she shifted sideways in her seat to look back toward her family's log house, the cupula topped cedar barn, and the garden shrunken in the distance. Her parents bent over baby onions in the June afternoon sunshine, weeding beyond them. Sprinklers irrigated the tree seedlings Aggie had been hoeing since lunch. She clenched her arms and felt the ache in them, thankful that dad called her off the job to retrieve the chainsaw he'd left in the woods. She drove down the backside of the hill, nosed the vehicle alongside a pile of firewood rounds, and clicked off the ignition as if dismounting a horse. She swung her leg behind her and jumped to the ground, then trotted toward the Douglas fir that held the nest. Mama expected her to find dad's saw and return right away. Nothing else. No climbing. But her mother would never know. Aggie could make it up and down the tree in under five minutes and be home with the saw before either parent missed her. Her eyes crawled up the old fur to a dark cluster of twigs where a sharp beaked silhouette brooded her eggs. The male crow watched Aggie from an adjacent tree and bobbed to his mate, who waddled from the nest and hopped to a nearby branch. Aggie tilted her head at them and pressed her finger to her lips. Nothing to worry about, she whispered. I just want to see them. The fur was an easy one, the nest only the height of a telephone pole. She had scaled trees like this, what, a hundred times 500? With no sign of Mama, she entered the tree, her feet and hands deliberate as she climbed, her movements brisk boughs heavy with needles offered a quick ladder. The silent crows watched, squatting wings poised, their necks stretched low. Halfway up, the foliage grew sparser, and her heart raced at her high visibility. If Mama followed, she would spot her for sure. Aggie picked up her pace, planting her foot on a limb the diameter of her wrist and without testing its strength, pulled her full 55 pounds onto it. The limbs snapped. A flailing arm snagged a branch, and she dangled, scrambling for toe holds. Both birds squawked and took to the sky, spreading the alarm. Startled sparrows launched from the grass below as the crows circled and dove. Eggy found her footing, embraced against the onslaught. When a beak speared her shoulder. She pawed the air behind her, intercepted a crow across its breast, and flung it sideways. Both birds arked skyward, protesting as she hoisted herself to the bowl of the nest and peered inside. There, arranged in a circle like the petals of a flower, the olive green egg's narrow tips touched at the center. Five, she said to the raucous hovering birds, and stuck her thumb in the air. A thrill surged through her. In two weeks, she'd begin to visit daily, though the crows were sure to jabber a few more times. They'd get used to her, like they all did when she watched their first egg hatch. She'd memorize it and draw the cracked shell and emerging beak. She'd record every hatchling in her book, just like dad taught her. Now, though, she had to move fast, and the fur's twiggy branches slowed her descent. A young birch, skinny and limless as a fire pole, intersected a bow below her. Yes, the birch would give her a straight shot to the ground. She sidestepped along a horizontal limb until it narrowed dangerously, then leaned into the thin tree, caught the trunk, and swung her weedy body over with the bear cub's grip. Shinied lower until a shriek ricocheted through the woods. Eggy. The crows vanished into the trees, still clamped around the trunk. Eggy arched backwards as her mother appeared. Even upside down, she saw fright scrape across Mama's face, and it lodged like a stone in Aggie's chest. She jumped the last few feet out of the tree and stood on one leg like a heron, her eyes locked on her mother's knees. Mama gripped Aggie's chin. How many times have I told you not to climb so high? After yesterday, I thought you understood. Shh. Ten years old, still can't trust you. She jerked Aggie's jaw higher, her eyes blazing. No more. Starting tomorrow, you will either stay within visible range of me or you will help Aunt Nora at the dairy while your dad and I are working. Someone has to keep an eye on you. And then she goes on and she's angry at her mom. Right.

[24:59] Jan: Perfect. Okay, tell us where we can find your work. You have another book coming up. It's just been published, right?

[25:07] Cheryl: Leaning on. No, it's coming out May 7.

[25:09] Jan: Oh, May 7.

[25:11] Cheryl: Yes. Just starting to out and, well, it can be read as a standalone. It's a sequel to Celia and Burnaby are the protagonists as and it's a very unusual love story. And it begins again in Watcombe county here. And then it moves over to eastern Washington into the Palouse and mystery love was a, it was a fun one to write. Any place. Any place. Yeah, but Amazon leaning on air is available for pre purchase now and sugar birds is available everywhere.

[25:56] Jan: And audio on audible as well.

[25:59] Cheryl: Yes, any audiobook platform. The Sugarbirds audio is available and I talked to my publisher yesterday anyway, they said that the audiobook for leaning on air probably will be available within the first few months of release. We'll see. I haven't heard that.

[26:17] Jan: Perfect. Perfect. Well, Cheryl, thank you so much for sharing who you are and your process and your characters with us, and it's really been a pleasure.

[26:29] Cheryl: It is fun to talk to you and if anybody wants to correspond with me or learn more, you can go to cherylbostrom.com and I've got a lot of stuff there.

[26:39] Jan: Okay. And you have your newsletter, so I'll post those things in the show notes below so people can access them as well.

[26:47] Cheryl: Okay. Thank you, Jan.

[26:49] Jan: So good to and nice to meet you.

[26:53] Jan: Hey listeners, I hope this episode with Cheryl Bostrom resonated with you. Everyone goes through seasons of loneliness, isolation, guilt, unworthiness, and confusion in life. Cheryl's book Sugar Birds addresses all of these and finishes with redemption and hope. If you enjoyed this episode, you may want to go back and listen to episode 29 with Susan Peterson, an avid murder. Could I ask you a favor? If you haven't subscribed to this podcast, click the plus sign at the top of the podcast, which will automatically send you the latest episodes as they become available. And if you like a particular episode, it's easy to share. Simply click the three dots and you have options to share or copy the link to send to your friends or post on your favorite social site. Be sure to check out the show notes for links to Cheryl's books, my website, and more. I look forward to seeing you next time. If you enjoyed this or any other.

[27:54] Jan: Of my podcast episodes, it would be amazing if you would take a few minutes to leave a review so others can find it. Transcripts are available on my website@janjohnson.com please.

[28:05] Jan: Join me again next week.