Wild Authors: Glendy Vanderah

Glendy Vanderah, who has worked as a field biologist, endangered bird specialist, editor, and writer brings her vast love of nature into her popular novels. Her first novel, Where the Forest Meets the Stars, has over 120,000 positive ratings on Goodreads. Her second novel, The Light Through the Leaves, already has hundreds of reviews. Once you settle into the first page of one of her stories, you’re drawn into both the human story and the nature around it. And it’s no wonder, as these two things are intertwined, not separate entities.

Good fiction helps us remember that we are part of the ecosystems around us, not just locally but universally. The wide open spaces around us – the forests, rivers, mountains, lakes, seas, even space itself in all its wonder – are strong characters in her books. The dysfunction of humanity is often redeemed by the power of nature. So, I was delighted to catch up with Glendy and chat with her about her two novels.

Where the Forest Meets the Stars (Lake Union Publishing, 2019)

After the loss of her mother and her own battle with breast cancer, Joanna Teale returns to her graduate research on nesting birds in rural Illinois, determined to prove that her recent hardships have not broken her. She throws herself into her work from dusk to dawn, until her solitary routine is disrupted by the appearance of a mysterious child who shows up at her cabin barefoot and covered in bruises.

The girl calls herself Ursa, and she claims to have been sent from the stars to witness five miracles. With concerns about the child’s home situation, Jo reluctantly agrees to let her stay – just until she learns more about Ursa’s past.

Jo enlists the help of her reclusive neighbor, Gabriel Nash, to solve the mystery of the charming child. But the more time they spend together, the more questions they have. How does a young girl not only read but understand Shakespeare? Why do good things keep happening in her presence? And why aren’t Jo and Gabe checking the missing children’s website anymore?

Though the three have formed an incredible bond, they know difficult choices must be made. As the summer nears an end and Ursa gets closer to her fifth miracle, her dangerous past closes in. When it finally catches up to them, all of their painful secrets will be forced into the open, and their fates will be left to the stars.

The Light Through the Leaves (Lake Union Publishing, 2021)

The story takes place in both Washington state and Florida.

One unbearable mistake at the edge of the forest.

In a moment of crisis, Ellis Abbey leaves her daughter, Viola, unattended – for just a few minutes. When she returns, Viola is gone. A breaking point in an already fractured marriage, Viola’s abduction causes Ellis to disappear as well – into grief, guilt, and addiction. Convinced she can only do more harm to her family, Ellis leaves her husband and young sons, burying her desperate ache for her children deeper with every step into the mountain wildernesses she treks alone.

In a remote area of Washington, a young girl named Raven keeps secrets inside, too. She must never speak to outsiders about how her mother makes miracles spring from the earth, or about her father, whose mysterious presence sometimes frightens her. Raven spends her days learning how to use her rare gifts – and more importantly, how to hide them. With each lesson comes a warning of what dangers lie in the world beyond her isolated haven. But despite her mother’s cautions, Raven finds herself longing for something more.

As Ellis and Raven each confront their powerful longings, their journeys converge in unexpected and hopeful ways, pulled together by the forces of nature, love, and family.

In both these tales, readers rave about how nature plays a central, healing part in the story.

Chat with the Author

You grew up in the Chicago area and have a science background. And you have worked as an endangered bird specialist. What was that like, and do you have any interesting experiences to share?

As an animal and nature lover trapped in an urban childhood, I realized a dream when I left Chicago to study ecology at the University of Illinois. After I graduated, I worked with a team of biologists who assessed the environmental impacts of proposed state highway and bridge construction projects. My coworker and I specifically looked for habitat used by birds on the endangered and threatened lists. Our study areas varied from sweeping cornfields to dense bottomland forests to urban landscapes. While on the job, we met friendly farmers who invited us to look at their gardens and hostile landowners who threatened to shoot us. Many, even the ones who were initially antagonistic, often told us their favorite anecdotes about local birds. We mostly conducted bird censuses, but we also did things like searching for shrike nests or evaluating how bald eagles used artificial perches constructed for a bridge mitigation project. There was a lot of camaraderie between the biologists, and sometimes one team would help another. I went netting with the bat biologists and waded in rivers with malacologists to help mark and release mussels. Many fun days! When I started work on my Master’s in Biology, I eventually left that job to focus on my own research.

Sounds fascinating! Now you live in Florida and have become a successful author. How does your background experience give impulse to your fiction?

My scientific background, of course, informs my writing, but I feel I write my best when I’m in the realm of emotions I understand through my own deepest experiences. These personal experiences have become common topics in my writing: childhood trauma, resilience in children, addiction, depression, mental illness in family members, compassion for all life and its supporting ecosystems, and healing through nature connection and loving relationships.

Your debut novel, Where the Forest Meets the Stars, is a beautiful story about love. Can you tell the readers what is going on in the story and how you were motivated to write it?

The story is about three strangers who dramatically change each other’s lives when they meet by chance in an isolated rural area. Jo is a biologist who’s trying to recover from her mother’s death and her own illness and surgeries. Gabe, her reclusive neighbor, can’t overcome a family history that caused him to stop trusting his relationships. One night a girl who calls herself Ursa Major shows up on Jo’s doorstep. Her body is bruised, and she insists she’s come from the stars to witness five miracles. When Jo seeks Gabe’s help to identify the girl, the two of them are entangled in the wonders and dangers of the unusual child’s fantasies.

The story was motivated by a variety of influences. I’d always wanted to write a book set at a house I rented in southern Illinois when I was a biologist. The isolated situation at the end of a road, the creek and woods, even the old graveyard are all true to that actual location. I wanted that setting to give the story a fairytale atmosphere. The main story idea came to me after I saw director Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth. I felt affinity with the idea of a child using fantasy to escape the violence and evils of war. As a child growing up in an unstable home, I used the nature of my wild-grown backyard to escape the traumatic events that were happening in my family – it was almost like a fantasy world for me. I chose the cosmos as Ursa’s fantasy world because the night sky has enthralled me since I was a child.

I loved Pan’s Labyrinth too, and almost anything that director has done in the Spanish cinema. In your upcoming novel, The Light Through the Leaves, a mistake leads to loss. Same question as above: your inspiration for writing this story and what is happening.

I’m fascinated by small twists of fate that change lives in big ways. An impulsive decision, a chance meeting, an unavoidable accident: how do the fateful seconds in our lives alter the rest of our days, and even future generations?

At the beginning of The Light Through the Leaves, in a chaotic moment, Ellis Abbey forgets she hasn’t put her infant daughter in the car. The child is stolen before she returns. The rest of the story explores the repercussions of her mistake. But the reader gradually discovers that many events, going back in time for generations in multiple families, led up to her making that mistake.

Ellis’s mistake was inspired by a true story. All parents have lapses in vigilance, and sometimes those awful moments cause lives to hang in the balance: a baby left in or out of the car, a child fallen into a swimming pool, a toddler swallowing something dangerous when mom or dad wasn’t looking. Usually fatigue and stress play into these situations, as it does in this book. Parenting is a very tough job, and there will always be guilt that comes with it. I wanted to explore some of those topics. But there are many other themes. A big topic in this book is what we teach our children when they’re too young to form their own opinions and how that affects many lives.

In both your novels, the natural world is a strong part of the story. Why is it important to you to write stories that focus on human experience but also include nature?

Nature can be much more to us than a pretty photograph on our screen savers. It has the power to help us feel connected to the universe. And I can testify that it has the potential to mend emotional wounds. I include nature in my stories because it’s an integral part of my evolution into the person I am today. On a grander scale, that’s true of all of us. Our species came from that world and we’re still in it, though denying that reality is causing increasing problems for the health of our planet. Like humanity, nature has both its brutal and beautiful sides, and I find this paradox to be a source of inspiration and metaphor in my writing. Also, if putting nature in my books inspires people to love and protect our Earth, all the better!

I rarely see books with as many positive reviews as yours! Do you have any tips for new writers becoming that successful?

Creating characters and stories people care about is crucial. How to do that? Write from your own deep, strong, and maybe dark emotions. The story doesn’t have to be about your life, but it should pull that emotion out of your soul as you write. Write stories you love and want to write, stories that erupt out of you. If you’re writing for any other reason, the story and characters will feel flat to readers.

Anything else you are working on now that you can share?

I recently completed a book that may become my third published novel. I can’t reveal much yet, but I’ll say it could be called a dark romance – a bit of a departure for me. But the story has many of my favorite subjects and themes: nature and biology, hope and healing, and some magic sprinkled in.

Sounds awesome! If there’s anything outside of the above that you would like to talk about, please do!

I’d like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about my writing with my readers. Hearing from people who have bonded with my words and characters has been one of the most treasured events of my life.

Thanks so much for your time as well and all the work you’re doing to inspire people to care more about our planet and appreciate the nature we have around us.

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on Dragonfly.eco.

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Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.

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