Q & A

Olivia Gentile earned a B.A. from Harvard and an M.F.A. from Columbia. She was an award-winning newspaper reporter in Vermont and Connecticut and now lives in New York City with her husband, the comedian and writer Andy Borowitz. Life List, her first book, was published by Bloomsbury USA in 2009 and is now in its third printing. Olivia has also written for Scientific American, Sierra, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and other publications. She was a fellow at the MacDowell Colony in 2006.

How did you first hear about Phoebe?

My first real job was working as a newspaper reporter in rural Vermont. I’d never lived in the country before and never thought at all about nature, but pretty soon I met and fell in love with a man who was a passionate birdwatcher. At first I thought being passionate about birds was kind of weird, but then he took me out and had me look through his binoculars, and I started to get a sense of their beauty. I also found out that he was clinically depressed, and that birding was sometimes the only thing that got him out of bed in the morning.

Several years later, long after we’d broken up, I was still thinking about him and the way birding seemed to be his salvation. I decided to write some sort of essay on birdwatching, and I called a few bird clubs near my home in Manhattan to see what they had going on. One man at the Long Island Bird Club misunderstood and thought I was looking to join the club. Trying to encourage me, he said, “Who knows? Maybe you’ll be the next Phoebe Snetsinger.” I asked who that was, and a couple of weeks later I was in St. Louis interviewing her widower.

Phoebe spent her early adult life as a suburban housewife in Missouri, but after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer at age forty-nine, in 1981, she started spending most of her time traveling the world in search of birds. Did her diagnosis help her figure out how she wanted to live her life?

By the time she got her diagnosis, Phoebe had been unhappy for a long time. The role of housewife never suited her. She had wanted to be a scientist, but for a young woman in the 1950s that wasn’t realistic, not if you wanted to be a part of mainstream society and have a family. So she married a few days after she finished college, had four kids by her early thirties, and stayed home to take care of them while her husband pursued a career as a scientist. She took up birdwatching when her kids were young, as a way of getting out of the house. Still, she grew more and more restless, and by the time she was in her forties she was writing poems about fleeing the suburbs, which she found cold and sterile, for a wild, weedy jungle.

Then, at age 46, she went on a safari with her husband in Kenya and saw 500 bird species in three weeks—more than she’d seen in twelve years of birding in the Midwest. The vast majority of the world’s 10,000 bird species live not in temperate regions like North America and Europe but in the tropics—Africa, Asia, the Pacific islands, Latin America. She wanted to travel more, but three of her four children were still in high school. Her cancer diagnosis several years later gave her the impetus—and the license—to start a new life, but she’d been dreaming of a dramatic change for a long time.

Women are a lot closer to achieving equality than they were when Phoebe was young. Do you think her story will resonate mainly with women of her generation, or will younger women be able to relate to her struggles as well?

Today, a young woman who wants to be a scientist, as Phoebe did, has the opportunity to get an education wherever she wants and to put herself in serious contention for whatever jobs she wants—and she can still expect to get married and have children. The problem is that in practical terms, the deck is still stacked against ambitious women with children. Many men still resist taking on half the housework and childcare, which means that women end up doing more than half. So women need paid maternity leave and flexible hours, but employers rarely grant these benefits, or else they do but put the women who take them on a “mommy track.” Good day care is unaffordable to many families, largely because it’s not subsidized as it is in other industrialized countries. As a result of all this, there are a lot of younger women who are having a hard time achieving their full potential, and they might relate strongly to Phoebe.

Phoebe’s father was Leo Burnett, the feverishly hardworking founder of one of the largest advertising agencies in the country, and she was able to afford so much travel because she inherited part of his fortune. Did Phoebe and her father have a lot in common?

Leo was so passionate about his work that he could scarcely focus on anything else. His clothes were often buttoned wrong and covered with food stains; he’d sometimes try to back out of the garage without first opening the door; and he’d hop into cabs and ask to be taken to the fifteenth floor. He wasn’t just interested in making money; he saw advertising as a noble calling, and he thought a great ad was, in his words, “the most beautiful thing in the world.” The fruits of all this passion were some of the most memorable ad campaigns of the twentieth century, such as the Jolly Green Giant, the Maytag Repairman, and the Marlboro Man.

He didn’t spend much time with his children, and Phoebe grew up resenting that. But she ended up becoming very much like him nonetheless. Once she was diagnosed with cancer, she spent virtually all of her time either studying birds or traveling the world in search of them. When she saw a particularly beautiful bird, she’d jump up and down in celebration, smiling so wide that her eyes were little slits. But like her father, she didn’t have much attention to spare for anything else. She wasn’t absent-minded, like Leo was, but she grew more and more distant from her husband and her daughters, and she didn’t attend her eldest daughter’s wedding because it was planned on short notice and would have interfered with a trip to Colombia. She remained close to her son, Tom, in part because he was also a birdwatcher and they often birded together near his home in Hawaii.

What does her family think of the book?

I think they have mixed feelings about it. Dave and the four kids were all kind enough to be interviewed for the book, and Dave and Tom each sat down for five or six interviews. In addition, the family let me read Phoebe’s notebooks, poems, and letters and excerpt them in the book, which was very generous of them and allowed me to get inside her head in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. I think they recognized that I was going to celebrate Phoebe’s life in the book, and they wanted to help me do that.

But the book also brings to light Phoebe’s flaws, the problems in her and Dave’s marriage, and the tensions that developed between her and her children near the end of her life, when she was putting her birding and traveling before all else. Dave and the kids understood that those subjects would need to be in the book, but, not surprisingly, it was painful for them to discuss them with me, and reading about them in the book must have been hard, too.

In the book, you say that birdwatching is more than a hobby for some people—it’s comparable to a religion. What do you mean by that?

I think of a hobby as something you do in your spare time: maybe you draw or you garden for a few hours a week. By contrast, many people make birding the center of their lives, in the same way that other people center their lives on religion. Some of these birders got their start, as Phoebe did, when they were going through a difficult time in their lives—many women begin when their kids are very young and they’re feeling cooped up and overwhelmed—and through birding they find both a way of transcending the daily grind and a close-knit community of people they can relate to. In her mid-thirties, not long after she started birding, Phoebe joined a bird club outside St. Louis, and it turned out to be, in her words, the answer to her prayers—she made more friends in the club than she’d ever had in her life, she learned the intricacies of birding from the club’s old-timers, and she took weekly field trips with the group that became the highlight of her week.

Birders are often stereotyped as “little old ladies in tennis shoes.” Is that stereotype accurate?

Actually, there are all kinds of birders. There are quite a few retirees who watch birds, but they’re just as likely to be men as women. There are birders who fit in birdwatching amid their work and family obligations. A fair number of them are teachers or academics who get a lot of time off in the summer; there are also quite a few physicians and engineers—scientifically minded folks whose first love is birding, but who didn’t think they could make a good living as ornithologists. Not all birders are white collar, though; some are reformed hunters who decided somewhere along the way that they liked the sport but not the kill, and those guys tend to make a living doing physical work, such as fighting fires or mining sand and gravel. There are a lot of teen-aged birders, too, although not many of them are girls. Maybe that’s because boys are still encouraged to run around in the woods digging up worms and collecting frogs more than girls are.

The other reason that the “little lady in tennis shoes” stereotype is misleading is that birding can actually be a very physically arduous—even dangerous—activity. In her sixties, when she was chasing rare birds in remote, wild places, Phoebe trekked up to altitudes of 17,000 feet, camped out in the cold and rain, endured a boat-wreck in the South Pacific, got caught in an earthquake, got malaria, broke bones, went to war zones, and—on one particularly unlucky day in New Guinea—got kidnapped and assaulted by five thugs. You can see perhaps 5,000 of the world’s 10,000 birds without too much suffering, but you have to work hard and take some risks to get the rest of them.

You spent seven years on Phoebe’s story. How have you changed as a result of the long process of researching and writing the book?

For one thing, I’ve become more patient. When I first started researching Phoebe’s life I imagined that I would spend one year learning about her and one year writing the book. I was very naïve. It takes years to properly research a biography—to locate all the people who knew your subject; to interview them again and again, if they’re willing; to track down the person’s journals and letters, if possible; to learn as much as possible about the person’s family of origin; and to read about the era and the milieu in which he or she lived. I eventually learned to enjoy the unpredictable but exciting process of researching Phoebe’s life and to think as little as possible about the book I would eventually write.

Second, I’ve come to appreciate nature. Toward the beginning of this process, I still thought of birding as a little odd, and my first draft reflected that—to its detriment. Then I took a bird and mammal safari in Kenya, one of the first foreign countries Phoebe visited. It was staggering. We spent a lot of time in the northern part of the Serengeti ecosystem, on the savanna. In addition to the lions and elephants and antelope that I recognized from nature documentaries, I saw giant ostriches rolling around in the dirt, bright orange sunbirds fluttering from tree to tree, and little birds called bee-eaters that seemed to have a different shade of green on each feather. Here in the U.S., we don’t have the lions and the elephants, but we have birds that are every bit as striking as the ones I saw in Africa, and it no longer seems strange to me that people devote so much time and energy to looking for them.