Housecleaning often results in unpleasant surprises—astonishingly large dust bunnies, lower back pain and the like. For Kathryn Fitzmaurice, however, a tidying session led to something else entirely: a decision to leave her teaching career and focus on writing full time.
In an interview from her Southern California home, where she lives with her husband and two sons, the author tells BookPage that her grandmother, science fiction writer Eleanor Robinson, “passed away 21 years ago and left me a huge box of unfinished work. She wrote on the box, ‘Give these to Kathy—she’ll know what to do with them.’ ”
For many years, Fitzmaurice says, “I’d go by it and think about trying to follow in her footsteps. I kept putting it off because I was afraid to really see if I could it.” Then, three years ago, “I was cleaning out the house and, looking at that box, I thought, I want to try it!” Although quitting her teaching job was “a really scary decision,” it was a sound one: Fitzmaurice soon signed a two-book deal, and her first novel for young readers, The Year the Swallows Came Early, lands in bookstores this month.
A few weeks after the book’s release—March 19, St. Joseph’s Day, to be exact—hundreds of cliff swallows will arrive at the San Juan Capistrano Mission from Goya, Argentina; they will remain in California until their October return flight.
“That’s 7,500 miles one way,” Fitzmaurice marvels. “They’ve been doing it for centuries, fulfilling their inner biological destiny. It’s one thing that’s always the same, a promise that will never be broken.”
Unbroken promises are something that Eleanor “Groovy” Robinson (named for the author’s grandmother) longs for as The Year the Swallows Came Early begins. The seventh-grader witnesses her father’s arrest, only to learn that her mother called the police. Although Groovy’s small family is a loving one, her father’s carefree yet unreliable nature has finally led him to do something that could jeopardize Groovy’s future. Groovy is a thoughtful child who dreams of attending culinary school. She practices cooking at home and at the nearby Swallow restaurant, where she joins her schoolmate Frankie in working for his stepbrother Luis.
Fitzmaurice skillfully captures the sound and feel of children’s conversations—the banter between Groovy and the brothers, with its underlying fondness, feels genuine and sweet. So, too, do Groovy’s interactions with the sassy Marisol, a neighbor girl who is determined to become a famous artist and is supportive of Groovy’s dreams of a life filled with creative pursuits.
That sense of possibility, of a world wide open, infuses the book; even as the characters are hurt or confused by the strange, sometimes incomprehensible turns their lives are taking, they cook and draw and look forward to the swallows’ arrival.
The author says she enjoys writing for the middle-grade age group (8 to 12) because of that sense of wonder. “I love it, because children that age still believe things can really happen. They have hope and faith built into them . . . not that you necessarily lose that after age 12, but I love the spark at that age where everything is possible, still.”
One possibility that’s central to The Year the Swallows Came Early is that of forgiveness. As Fitzmaurice notes, “Forgiveness is hard, and sometimes you have to do it again and again. It can slip away.”
She adds, “I would hate to sound didactic. But maybe, if someone could see it’s possible to make the choice to forgive someone vs. to keep on being angry—it’s so exhausting, and it takes away from the good things in your life even if you’re not aware of it.” With forgiveness, as with writing, Fitzmaurice says, “You can’t push it—you have to wait until it’s there.” She writes between 4 p.m. and 1 a.m., in an office that has on its shelves volumes by or from her grandmother, including a book of Emily Dickinson’s poems.“ In the front cover, she wrote, ‘Dearest Katherine, Emily Dickinson is a revered poet. Perhaps one day the same will be said of you. Love, Grandmother Eleanor.’ I made a copy and framed it,” Fitzmaurice says. “It shines from the wall, giving me hope and a map toward someone I can maybe become someday.”
Linda M. Castellitto housecleans and writes in North Carolina.