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  • Writer's pictureSarah Tarver-wahlquist

BIRDING WITH BENEFITS - Celebrating curiosity

Greetings and salutations! I originally wrote and published this post back in 2022 after completing my manuscript, BIRDING WITH BENEFITS. The book has had a long journey (as evidenced below!), and I’ve now edited and added to this post because this wonderful birding book of my heart IS GETTING PUBLISHED by Gallery Books in 2024.




I started writing fiction during the pandemic, and I know I’m not alone. I’d recently re-discovered romance in a graduate school class, and after reading every romance I could get my hands on to keep the darkness at bay, I started getting some ideas of my own. I’ve always been a bit of a writer, but it had usually been for work (what a former boss called “advocacy journalism”, ie. writing about issues like climate change and abortion without giving voice to climate deniers and anti-choice radicals). I’d also long dabbled in nature writing and creative nonfiction, but had always been intimidated by the thought of creating a whole story of my own.


But something about romance spoke to me. It gave me a roadmap to follow and a formula to play with. And thinking about it made me happy. It was a May evening in 2020 when I turned to my partner and uttered my first out-loud statement about my book-to-be: “I’m going to try to write a romance novel, and it’s going to be about bird watching.”


I wrote 40,000 words before I looked back on what I had written and realized it was just a warm up. So I started again. And then again. Then at some point that summer, I started building up the bigger universe of my story. My birder, John Maguire, had a big brother named Jake, and Jake played baseball. Soon my frustration with my inability to get my birders just right threatened the joy I felt in writing, and I opted for a change of pace. I turned to Jake’s story.


The manuscript, Love is Just a Game, landed me an agent and also won the 2021 Discover New Romance Award. I’ve written about it here on my blog, and I love this story, but ultimately things didn’t pan out on submission. This happens, and I’m at peace. This story did a hell of a lot for me, and I hope it will have a second life somewhere along the way.


While Jake’s story was out on submission, I turned back to my birders. If Love is Just a Game is my love letter to a life-long love of baseball, Birding with Benefits (which, for the record, was originally titled Love is For The Birds) is my love letter to... myself. It features a woman in her early 40s in the great, expansive, glorious and frightening time of realizing she still has a lot to learn about herself. I hope women who are also in mid-life, especially those facing empty nests, see parts of themselves in her. I am certainly in Celeste as much as she is in me. And her quiet, wood-working bird watcher, John Maguire, contains parts of me, too. He is most at home walking through the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona, and he’ll stop whatever he’s doing to watch a bird.



I grew up in Tucson, and I’ve always felt a deep sense of connection to the landscape here, but I didn’t start looking closely at birds until I was an adult. Back in 2010, with two young children at home, I needed a creative outlook and a reason to get out of the house. I found both in an evening class at the University of Arizona Poetry Center called Birds and Poems. That small and simple class changed my life, forever altering how I looked at the world around me. The beautifully curated class (taught by the brilliant Eric Magrane and Simmons Buntin) introduced me to birds through the literary lens I’d employed for so long. But we did more than sit around a big table and read and write poems about birds (though we did a lot of that, and it was great) - we also reviewed Rare Bird Alert notifications for hidden gems, and we met up on local trails to walk, and bird, and write. And I never looked at things around me quite the same way again.


 

I love birds because they are everywhere, asking us to stop the rush and look around. I love them because they are small geniuses, born with the blueprints of nests and songs in their tiny brains. I love them because they are colorful and because they are drab, because they chase their parents for food, and because they dance and fly and flirt to find a mate. I love them because they can see spectrums of light invisible to us and tell eachother secrets with their colors. I love them because they signal the seasons with their movements, because they hop about with such easy cheer, and because they show us that life finds a way to sprout wings and fly, even after an extinction level event.

 

When I say I bird watch, I mean it in the most casual of terms: I watch birds. Yes, on occasion I strap on my binoculars and pull out my guide book. Once a year I make an event of it with a friend and create a bird list of all we can see. But usually it’s as simple as taking a breath in my yard, and seeing what is there (curved bill thrashers, lesser goldfinches, verdins, sparrows, gila woodpeckers, to name a few), peeking out the blinds over my desk at work to see who is in the mesquite tree just outside (great tailed grackles), or looking up as I take a walk to catch the flash of something soaring overhead (red-tailed hawk ).


Bird watching inspires the practice of curiosity. It begs us to stop, look around, and notice the world around us. It flits by us in a flash of color when we’re least expecting it.



It took me a while, and several tries, but I eventually did write that romance novel about bird watchers. It’s more than birds, of course. There’s a high-stakes bird watching contest and a fake relationship, plus orgasms in a wood shop and sweet moments in a butterfly tent. The book is, I hope, as funny as it is steamy as it is meditative, all while being truthful to the experience of those of us looking at the world in our 40s and thinking: it’s all just beginning.


It is an argument for curiosity and discovery.


And I am still pinching myself that it found a home in traditional publishing. It was a long road, but I’ve come to think of the journey as a migration–getting the book just to where it needs to be, and finding it a safe landing spot. BIRDING WITH BENEFITS will come out from Gallery Books in the summer of 2024. Between now and then, stay tuned for more musings on birds and beyond.


Now go be curious.



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