We talked with illustrator (and frequent Southern Cultures contributor) Natalie Nelson + author Acree Macam about their new children's book, The King of the Birds. (Illustrations by Natalie Nelson, courtesy the authors.)
Natalie: Hi, I’m Natalie, and . . .
Acree: And I’m Acree. I’m an author.
N: I’m an illustrator.
A: And we have a book together called The King of the Birds.
N: A picture book.
A: For children.
N: And adults.
A: Children and their adults.
N: The book is inspired by Flannery O’Connor and her love of peacocks. We got started on this journey several years ago when I took kind of a spiritual pilgrimage to Andalusia, which is where Flannery O’Connor lived for, I think, thirteen years—most of her adult life she lived there and wrote there.
N: They have one peacock there [and I had] just read an essay that she wrote called “The King of the Birds” where she described how peacocks used to fill the grounds and be everywhere—so much so that when she went outside she would run into them. And so, standing there on the grounds I started being able to really picture what that might have been like, and I really wanted to draw these birds everywhere. I was watching the one peacock that they have on the farm, and I started understanding this personality the peacock has that she writes about. So I came back very invigorated, and I told my friend Acree about my idea.
A: I loved the idea of doing a picture book about Flannery O’Connor just because I’m a book nerd, and I like writers, and I like classic authors, so getting to work on a piece of art myself that was somehow related to that was really exciting. I was working in advertising at the time as a copywriter, so the kind of writing I was doing was very short and concise. So I was really drawn to the idea of a picture book because you’re kind of doing the same thing. You’re trying to tell a bigger story with few words and simple words. We wanted to write something that a five-year-old would understand, but [also that] someone who was fifteen, or twenty, or fifty would enjoy.
N: I’m a big Flannery O’Connor fan, so I loved the thought of getting to introduce young children, who probably wouldn’t read her until late high school or college, to this character [of Flannery] through the eyes of the peacock and her bird collection. It’s part of her life that is probably more accessible than some of her darker stories that some people love and some people just don’t get. She writes about the peacock in the same way—people are either enamored with the peacock and his display, or they’re sort of just turned off by it and uncomfortable with it, and I think there’s a parallel there with her stories and her audience—in her own day and now.
A: There’s an author’s note in the back of the book where we’re kind of encouraging the kids that are reading the book to read Flannery O’Connor when they’re older, so I like that it kind of is driving them back to classic literature and driving them back to the source of the story.
N: Yeah, that was really important to us, and we were happy that our publisher really wanted to include the note about her in the book.
A: Our publisher is Canadian, so we almost didn’t understand why they’d gotten the book. We were like, “Why do they want to publish this southern book?” But I think that they liked it as a story in and of itself. We’ve also been finding people in the South who like it because of the Flannery connection, so there’s a lot of different ways that you can come at it.
N: We did want it to be a story that would stand on its own—if you just thought it was weird that we named a character Flannery and you had no previous concept of Flannery O’Connor, that the book would be a fun book about this silly peacock and his relationship with his owner.
A: I like the ways that Flannery shines through the book. There’s the subject matter—the biographical nature of the story—but then also the tone and the humor and the characters. We were inspired by Flannery O’Connor’s voice, and so her voice, I think, comes through in the story and through the expressions of the animals and the expressions of the characters. I feel like you get to know her a little bit through reading this story.
N: The way that Flannery O’Connor talked about her initial fascination with birds—it all started with [her] supposedly train[ing] a chicken to walk backwards, and she even got on the news. A newspaperman came from New York to see the chicken and Flannery became famous. That’s how we start the picture book, but that’s from her own account, and there’s a video of it on the Internet that you can find.
Watch Flannery O'Connor with her trained chicken. (YouTube/British Pathé)
We tried to incorporate a lot of references to the story that Flannery O’Connor wrote about her peacocks. One of my favorites is this quote where she says, “[B]ut if I have found anyone indifferent to the peacock’s display besides the telephone linemen, it is the peahen.” That kind of is the crux of the story because in the picture book, Flannery gets a peacock and is just waiting to see him display his colors.
The middle of the book is about all the lengths she goes to to try to get him to raise his tail, and finally she realizes, “Oh, he needs a companion.” So she goes and gets a peahen and immediately it works. [In the picture book] there’s a spread where he finally raises his tail. All the birds are impressed, the people are impressed and everything, and the next spread is just one sentence that says, “The queen looked down at the ground, interested in some rocks that were there.” Because she doesn’t care.
A: She’s totally disinterested.
A: The very last line of her essay, “The King of the Birds,” is, “I intend to stand firm and let the peacocks multiply, for I am sure that in the end the last word will be theirs.” And the end of the picture book there’s a great multiplication of peacocks . . . A lot of reviewers have said that the main character of the story—the real protagonist—is the peacock, not Flannery. And I think that’s kind of true to the essence of her—of her story of the peacocks where it’s really like their life [and] she just lives in it kind of thing.
N: Yeah, Andalusia was their farm not hers. She just happened to be there to provide food.
A: And she talks about how indifferent they are to her, too.
N: Yeah, but she loved them, nonetheless.
A: So this is the result of many minutes of YouTube viewing . . .