Conway author’s handwritten ode to birdwatching

  • New York Times bestselling author John Crowley sits at his writing desk at his home in Conway. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • New York Times bestselling author John Crowley. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • New York Times best-selling author John Crowley wrote his new novel “œKa”€ entirely by hand. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

  • Crowley looks out the window of his Conway home, where he would frequently observe crows for his new novel. RECORDER STAFF/DAN LITTLE

Recorder Staff
Friday, December 15, 2017

As usual, John Crowley was sitting in his Conway home watching the crows outside his window.

He saw a young bird, about the age where it’s on the cusp of beginning to fly, but not quite there, yet. The bird’s parents were yelling at him. Soon enough, the parents left and the fledgling was on its own.

Crowley thought about what he should do: grab it and bring it inside, or leave it to fend for itself.

“I thought, ‘Gee, maybe I could have a crow of my own,’” he said.

Crowley talked himself out of it — better not to interfere with the nature outside his window.

“I don’t know if he survived though ... later he was gone.” 

The New York Times best-selling fantasy author has been fascinated by crows for years, and has been thinking about writing a novel on them for the past decade. He actually sat down and wrote it — all pen to paper, and nearly always inside his home in Conway — for three years, until he finished in late 2016.

Recently, his new novel “Ka” came out, and Crowley is signaling it may be his last. The Conway author wrote a book about crows, but it’s really a book about aging and reconciling with how the world around us has changed.

The novel, which has received glowing reviews from the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune, is mostly set in the Northeast, a place that has always been familiar to Crowley. 

The book was written while “looking out at Baptist Hill and watching people mow their lawns, and watching crows fly around.” Crowley explained in a recent interview about what went into the makings of “Ka” and how his living in Conway for nearly the last 35 years influenced his work.

The narrator of the novel, “feels like he is living in a country different from where he grew up,” after moving back home, he explained. 

Crowley himself grew up in Brattleboro, Vt., moved to Indiana for college, and then New York City for some professional years, where he wrote his critically acclaimed, “Little, Big.” He eventually returned to New England. 

Crowley said the narrator of the novel “says to himself that he is surprised by seeing kinds of birds that he doesn’t remember seeing when he was a child ... the Canada geese use to fly overhead and still do, but they’re not going south anymore.”

Things like climate change, but also other elements that just sometimes change with generations, have thrown off this narrator. 

“Things like that have changed his feelings about the world and saddened him ... If I’m going to leave the world, it’s not the world I began in,” Crowley said about the protagonist. 

Crowley, a creative writing professor at Yale University for about 25 years, who will retire at the end of this school year, said of the novel’s main character, “I feel that way, but I’m a lot more optimistic and cheerful than the character in my book.”

Crowley admits that this novel, like the Washington Post’s reviewer Michael Dirda writes (“In sum, ‘Ka’ is just the kind of deeply moving, deeply personal ‘late work’ that a great artist sometimes produces at the end of his or her career”), is a piece that may signal the end for him. 

“It is a book about ending up and conclusions and death,” Crowley said. “In a way, it stands pretty well for a last book.

“It was this very old man who doesn’t want to live anymore and is on his last legs, but in the end it turns out to be a little more ambiguous than that. His plans don’t end up quite how he thought. Yes, it’s an old man’s book.”

Crowley crafted the novel using just pen and paper. In recent books, he has always gone to the computer to write, at least for some sections. This time he wanted to convince himself to tell the story completely through his own handwriting.

“If you write on paper, you spend a lot of time interleading,” Crowley said. “It focuses your energy much more than when you’re writing on a computer.”

Using Rhodia pads — similar to legal pads — and a fountain pen, the author wrote some of the book on Amtrak, between here and New Haven, Conn., for when he would travel to teach. He wrote some of it in libraries, some of it in a now defunct coffee shop in Conway. But for most of it, it was written in one of two rooms in his Conway house, where he lives with his wife, whom he met in the Berkshires. They have been living at this home since the 1980s. 

When he moved to Conway, there was finally a moment where he could come back to New England, similar to the character in his book: “It had the effect of returning me to the world that I was aware of,” he said. 

“I’m sure that the air and the mountains and the hills and the streets and the people in this part of the world are in almost everything I write,” Crowley added. “A lot of what I have written has been taken from Conway, from Massachusetts, from New England.”

While writing in his office, a spare bedroom that overlooks Baptist Hill, the writing process doesn’t always come quickly. That’s what he says research is so great for — for the time passing between moments of creativity and flow, where you can gather more information, in this case about crows.

“I saw a lot of crows in Conway; I saw a lot of crows riding up and down (Route) 116; but I also saw a lot of crows on YouTube,” Crowley humored. 

His office is on the second floor of his home, but sometimes he writes on the first floor near the kitchen. There’s an old cast iron stove that he and his wife have had since they got married. It’s a place where he can sit and watch the crows flock into the town. It’s also a place where he has written many of his books, including “Ka.”

Now, it may be the last time he uses the space to craft a novel — a place in Conway where Crowley could, “Sit there, throw wood on the fire and keep writing.”

You can reach Joshua Solomon at: jsolomon@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 264.