Swissair crash backdrop to novel Birds in Fall
HALIFAX INTERNATIONAL WRITERS' FESTIVAL
A plane travelling across the Atlantic Ocean crashes off the coast of Nova Scotia and the victims' mourning family members flock to the closest spot on land.
Brad Kessler's latest novel, Birds in Fall, starts off in a way quite similar to the ill-fated Swissair Flight 111 disaster.
"But once I began writing the book, I had to forget all the real stuff and create my own fictional world," the American writer said in a recent e-mail interview.
So instead of the province's South Shore serving as the setting, the tale takes place on an island. But people grieving lost loved ones still show up from around the world as they struggle to come to grips with the tragic situation.
Kessler is quite familiar with this emotional territory; he lost a close friend on the Swissair flight. Those heart-wrenching weeks immediately after the crash when his friend's family was waiting for a positive identification served as a sort of genesis for his story.
"There was something haunting about that waiting period, that limbo state while they searched the ocean, before they could officially pronounce him dead," Kessler said.
But the outpouring of affection and support that Nova Scotians showed for people they had never met before was also a factor, he said.
"That was the real inspiration for the book," he said. "The reaction in Nova Scotia."
Kessler's characters include a bird biologist from New York, an Iranian Ã©migrÃ©, a Bulgarian pianist, a couple from Taipei, and two Dutch teenagers.
With this cast he weaves a haunting story that's lyrically written and expressed with help from music, mythology, ornithology and poetry.
"I was inspired partly by the eclectic nature of the Swissair flight," Kessler said. "It had a truly global character, people from dozens of different countries. I was also interested in the universal element of all plane crashes. They happen everywhere, to people on every continent. They're a nightmare shared collectively.
"I wanted to look at how all these people from different cultures react to the same tragedy "” and the same landscape, how their reactions are both similar and different. Some find comfort in the beauty of this Nova Scotia island. Others are chilled by its starkness and emptiness. Most are drawn back there, year after year."
He had only visited the province once before, shortly after turning 18. But he chose Nova Scotia as the setting for this story because of its long history in dealing with tragic events such as the Titanic, the Halifax Explosion, the Springhill mine disaster and countless shipwrecks off the coast, he said.
"All of these things seemed to have imbued a sense of guardianship among the Maritimers, as well as a sense of the terrible living alongside the beautiful," he said.
"Certainly they've done something to the spirit of the people living along the coast.
"When on that night in September of 1998, people heard the groaning jetliner and the explosion they sprung right into action without hesitation. They knew, it seems instinctively "” almost atavistically "” what to do."
Birds in Fall
by Brad Kessler
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