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Amy Tan's bird obsession led to a new book — and keeping mealworms in her fridge

Amy Tan, author of <em>The Backyard Bird Chronicles</em>.
Kim Newmoney
Penguin Randomhouse
Amy Tan, author of The Backyard Bird Chronicles.

Updated April 23, 2024 at 07:59 AM ET

If you know author Amy Tan for The Joy Luck Club — a novel about Chinese immigrant families in San Francisco — her new book, The Backyard Bird Chronicles, might seem like a deviation.

That's because Tan didn't set out to write a book when she started working on it in 2016.

She was depressed with the state of the world then and was trying to lose herself in nature.

She began looking out her window and journaling. Soon, she had pages and pages of observations and drawings of the birds in her very own backyard. Those musings turned into The Backyard Bird Chronicles, a nature journal out this week.

Morning Edition host Leila Fadel spoke with Tan about the joys of birdwatching.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Leila Fadel: What made you start journaling and focusing on birds?

Sketches of Great Horned Owls from Amy Tan's new book, <em>The Backyard Bird Chronicles</em>.
/ Penguin Randomhouse
Penguin Randomhouse
Sketches of Great Horned Owls from Amy Tan's new book, The Backyard Bird Chronicles.

Amy Tan: I tend to be an obsessive person to begin with, but one of the things I obsessed on in 2016 was the degree of racism that was being shown, and people now considered it almost their freedom of expression to say exactly what they thought about other people who were of a different race. It was people ignoring me as if I were invisible in a store – everybody else being served, but not me. And it happened on an airplane not that long ago. And the first thing that comes to mind is: racism. Yeah, and I never had that feeling before, and it was horrible. So I needed to get it out of my mind, and I decided to go back into nature and also start learning how to draw.

Fadel: Did it help with all of this terribleness that you were feeling and experiencing?

Tan: Yes, it was like a reset for the world at the time because I was feeling so much despair that our world was turning uglier and uglier. And instead, here I was in nature. And it was beautiful. It was in the moment. And what better antidote to be in a place of biodiversity as opposed to hatred of diversity?

Fadel: You have these incredible drawings of California quail and golden crown sparrows and hummingbirds, pine siskins – in different moods and health. All of these scenes are from the bird life in your own backyard?

Tan: Every single bird in the book is from my backyard. Every bird that I've drawn is a bird that looked at me. I only write about the birds in my backyard. And that was just a decision I made for myself that I would make this very personal.

Fadel: You say that you're a bit obsessive. How many hours a day were you watching birds in your backyard?

Tan: I have bird feeders visible from almost all of the windows in my house and I have a lot of windows. So I was spending, on some days, 10 hours watching the birds and sketching them...Now, I was learning to draw. So a lot of that time was simply drawing the same bird over and over and over again just for the practice of it.

Fadel: You notice the birds and you also notice them noticing you. Who is Amy Tan to these birds?

Sketches from Amy Tan's book, <em>The Backyard Bird Chronicles</em>.
/ Penguin Randomhouse
Penguin Randomhouse
Sketches from Amy Tan's book, The Backyard Bird Chronicles.

Tan: I suspect that they know me as the flightless creature who brings out the food. I once took away the feeders because there was an outbreak of disease that some finches had brought. And I took them all down for a very long time, and suddenly I had birds coming to the window in the bathroom...and they were looking at me very intensely. These were birds I always wanted to see. And now here they were coming to the window. And I remember one of them just looked at me, an orange crowned warbler, and then it tapped his beak on the window. And I've heard people say, 'Oh, they're tapping it because they see their reflection, blah, blah, blah.' But this was not that. When I moved to another room, it followed me and went to that window and just stared at me. And then it followed me to another window. And then later in the day, when I opened the door, it flew in and it just stared at me like, "Where is the food?"

Fadel: Your husband makes a few little appearances in the book where he drives you to get food for the birds. And I think at one point you're spending $250 a month on food for the birds. What does he think about your hobby?

Tan: That's obsessive, I would say. I know. I would buy these live mealworms. Sometimes there were 20,000 of them. And I would put them in containers...and then I would put them in the fridge. And so when I started getting 20,000 instead of 10,000, Lou did say something about, "You've got too many mealworms in here."

The other thing that he was tolerant of is that sometimes I would have a dead bird and I carefully wrapped them up, put the date when they were found and what the breed was. And then I'd put them in the freezer to give to the California Academy of Sciences. Then I feel they're going off to a very advanced institution, and it makes me feel better in a way. They will serve a purpose, even though they've died.

Fadel: Also, Lou really loves you. That's a sign of real love.

Tan: We've been together for 54 years, so he knows me and my habits, and I've had dead snakes in the freezer in the past. So this is probably one step up.

Fadel: Par for the course. Amy Tan, her new book is The Backyard Bird Chronicles and she's written and illustrated it. Thank you so much for this book and really such a joyful conversation.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Julie Depenbrock
Julie Depenbrock (she/her) is an assistant producer on Morning Edition. Previously, she worked at The Washington Post and on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi Show. Depenbrock holds a master's in journalism with a focus in investigative reporting from the University of Maryland. Before she became a journalist, she was a first grade teacher in Rosebud, South Dakota. Depenbrock double-majored in French and English at Lafayette College. She has a particular interest in covering education, LGBTQ issues and the environment. She loves dogs, hiking, yoga and reading books for work (and pleasure).

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