Novelist Sarah Bird On Her Love Letter to Texas Women


When novelist Sarah Bird arrived in Austin in 1973, she was a recent graduate from the University of New Mexico who was moving to follow her boyfriend. As time went on, though, he dedicated his life to Scientology, and she didn’t follow. As she says in her latest book, A Love Letter to Texas Women, “a head-spinningly short time later, we were dividing up the record albums.” But after receiving a fellowship from UT to study journalism, Bird stuck around and hasn’t left since.

Love Letter, a purse-sized book that’s more personal essay than novel, documents the Texas women who have influenced Bird, MA ’76, from her arrival in Austin to today, using her own photographs to help to tell the story. Bird brings her characteristic brand of unflappable humor to reflect on strong women—from the confident, colorfully named ladies of the Hyde Park Beauty Salon (“Eddie Faye, Peninah, Waynette, Permelia Lynn, Dicy”) to the grace and grit of first ladies and Distinguished Alumnae Lady Bird Johnson and Laura Bush.

Bird—a 10-time novelist and this year’s recipient of the Texas Institute of Letters Lifetime Achievement Award—spoke with the Alcalde about her book (out today from UT Press) and what makes a Texas woman so special.

51IDIP5zIAL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_What distinguishes a Texas woman?

Well, the whole book is kind of about my coming to terms with moving to Texas and Texas women. I followed this bad boyfriend to Austin and I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder, which seemed to be an impediment to writing a love-letter book. Actually, this is the brilliant idea of UT Press’ Gianna LaMorte. She proposed it to me. I’m really not that kind of go-go, up with people kind of writer. I’m more prone to find the worm instead of the shiny red apple. So I told her “I don’t think I’m the girl for the job.” But then I started to look back and recall what a distinct impression being a Texas woman makes.

If you leave the state and tell people you’re from Texas or if you go to Canada—and certainly in Europe—you just get such a reaction. It finally dawned on me—whether I think there’s anything special about Texas women, the rest of the world certainly does. That became the basis for me to reexamine my relationship with Texas women. Some of the women I admire most in life have been Texas women and that opened the way for me to write an actual true love letter.

How do people see Texas women in other places?

There are lots of stereotypes, and I write about some of the famous Texas women—for example, Molly Ivins and Ann Richards and Lady Bird Johnson—who did the most to brand the Texas woman in the broader culture. So the reactions vary widely.

When I told my friends in New Mexico I was moving, they gave me what they thought I would need for my life as a Texas woman: three cans of Aqua Net hairspray, some red plastic go-go boots from Kmart, a toy six shooter, and a Gideon’s Bible. That was my stereotype coming in and at the time probably a lot of peoples’.

There’s a boldness that people see about Texas women. I’m not an expert, though. I’m an expert on my experience with Texas women and my observations. But as a broad overall serving of “What does the rest of the world think of Texas women?” It runs the gamut.

Aside from the famous Texas women you mentioned, you also write about other women you’ve met. 

One of the first contacts I had that was very, very memorable was during my first job in Austin. I worked at the LBJ Presidential Library as an archivist. The red mandarin boxes that all the artifacts are kept in were all cataloged by me! Lady Bird had a little reception for the temporary summer workers and I actually got to meet her, look into her lovely face, and experience that bone-deep graciousness and kindness that she exuded.

After that, my next close encounter with Texas women occurred at a housing co-op that I lived in off campus at the Seneca House, which is still there. At that time, it was a co-op for graduate women and a very ’60s throwback kind of place. Everybody was there with their hearty whole-grain bread, nobody shaved their legs or used dryersweb3deodorant, and that was sort of the antithesis of my stereotype about the Texas woman.

Then when I was in graduate school doing photojournalism, I did my thesis at the Hyde Park Beauty Salon. I met these wonderful Texas women who were so kind and welcoming and hospitable. They introduced me to a concept—and I’ve never really heard it since then but the older generation of Texas women used it—and it was to use the word “neighbor” as a verb. They would talk about “neighboring” with people, and they carried this over from their former lives on ranches living out on the frontier and how important it was to be close to your neighbors. Women depended on the friendship of their neighbors and really hungered for female companionship. I saw that it was really, really genuine. That was a turning point in my relationship with the Texas woman.

And how do you see Texas women now?

They’re my world. At this point it’s asking a goldfish to talk about water. They’re just the medium that I swim in. They’re great and they’re horrible and they’re everything in between. I called out the best of them and the best of Texas women are the best women, period.

What are your thoughts on Texas men?

I didn’t really have any thoughts about them. I was madly in love with that guy that I came here with. But I mean, I married a Texas man. He’s the greatest guy on Earth. I know far more Texas men than I know any other kind. I don’t know, I can’t stereotype. But you know, I gave birth to a Texas man. What else can I tell you? That’s how dedicated I am to Texas men—I gave birth to one.

What went into writing Love Letter? Does it tie to any of your previous work?

Once I figured out what to say, it went very quickly. A great part of it was that so much of it came back to me because of the photographs. I’ve never used them in a book so it’s really kind of a thrill. The book relates in absolutely no way to my other books. It’s an essay that relates strongly to essays I’ve done as a columnist.

It’s been about 40 years since you first moved to Austin. Do you consider yourself a Texas woman yet?

Like I say, it’s not for me to decide. It’s in the eye of the beholder.

Photos courtesy of Sarah Bird.


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