Christy Collins makes her assured debut with The Price of Two Sparrows, a thought-provoking and hopeful novel for our politically polarised times. Read on for a Q&A with Christy about the inspiration behind the book.
Tell us about your book, The Price of Two Sparrows!
The Price of Two Sparrows is about an ornithologist, Heico, who tries to stop a mosque from being built in order to protect an adjacent bird sanctuary. The ensuing conflict pits environmental priorities against civic and religious ones and uncovers a complex array of issues and sensitivities in the community in the years after September 11. When I first wrote the book I set it in the Netherlands, which is where I lived during those years, but my editor was keen to have it set in Australia, which has brought out some more local issues from that time such as the Cronulla riots, and the events that followed.
Where did the inspiration for this book come from?
In 2012 I was on a study program looking at religious pluralism in the United States and I heard the story of a mosque development delayed in part due to concerns about the flight path of a particular migratory bird. The people who told me the story felt this concern was spurious and that the evidence was slight. I couldn’t stop thinking about this story and the various characters involved.
As a writer, what interests you so much about how communities foster prejudice?
We are hard-wired to favour those we perceive as part of our ‘in group’ – an impulse that served us well from an evolutionary perspective, but which trips us up now. We’ve seen the effects this has had recently in the UK and the USA and it’s clear that it’s enormously destructive to demonise the ‘out group’ whether the division is by religion, race, class, generation, politcal persuasion or any other measure. Proximity and personal interactions are powerful tools against prejudice and I think that society, at its best, can foster acceptance and mutual understanding. I hope my book shows that beginning to happen.
The protagonist of this story is an ornithologist named Heico. What’s your favourite and least favourite thing about him?
I think it’s hard to see your own characters objectively but I like his commitment to his cause and I think he’s charming and genuinely wants the best outcome to the conflict, it’s just that he’s equally certain he knows what that is. And that’s my least favourite thing about him: he has a sense of superiority and tendency to self-righteousness that sometimes gets in the way.
Heico has something of a counterpoint in the character of Nahla, a new arrival to Australia who works as his house cleaner. How did Nahla’s character come about?
As Heico’s narrative took shape, the manuscript seemed to need a character who felt an equivalent personal investment in the mosque development. In many ways Nahla’s experiences echo my own in the years the book is set: I was living in a new country, where I didn’t speak the language or understand the culture, and I knew almost no one. But for me, my religion and my skin colour never presented any issues. Nahla faces additional challenges in settling in – not least of which is the controversy about the proposed mosque which she feels, once built, will give her a sense of real belonging in the community.
This is your debut novel (congratulations!). How did you come to be a writer?
I’ve been a writer – in the sense that I have loved writing – since I was a kid. I think on some level I thought I had to have permission to be a writer, so after university I stopped writing for a while. I returned to writing in my late twenties after losing a job. It’s been a slow road (that was 15 years – and a number of discarded manuscripts – ago) but I began having a few successes with my writing not long after I moved back to Australia. Then I got the chance to do a PhD in Creative Writing – and that’s when I wrote “The Price of Two Sparrows”.
Who are the authors that inspire you the most?
Different authors inspire me in different ways and for different projects: Michelle de Kretser, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Virginia Woolf, Zadie Smith, Kazuo Ishiguro, Tim Winton, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nadine Gordimer, George Saunders. At the moment I’m thinking a lot about Muriel Spark and Flannery O’Connor.
What is the last book you read and loved?
The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon is very astute about religion, which I think is relatively rare in contemporary fiction. Her prose is beautiful as well. I’m also a fan of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, which strikes me as something genuinely new in the way women’s lives are narrated. The form of the narrative (including what it doesn’t contain) carries as much of the meaning as the content itself does – a really extraordinary project.
What do you hope readers will discover in The Price of Two Sparrows?
Interesting characters, a chance to think through some complexities about immigration, religion, science and the environment and hopefully an engaging story as well!
And finally, what’s up next for you?
I’m working on a novel about virtual reality and travel, which I’m looking forward to getting back to.
Christy’s Q&A originally appeared on Booktopia here.