By day, Kristen Bird is an English teacher at The Kinkaid School and is always on duty as a mother and wife. However, most of her afternoons — and the occasional weekends — are spent penning novels full of revenge, murder, and tons of drama.
Her second novel, I Love It When You Lie, came out earlier this month from Mira Books, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises. It follows a family in a small town in North Alabama that comes together to say goodbye to the family matriarch. But the Williams women have tons of secrets, and the reunion catalyzes an unraveling of their seemingly put-together family.
Her first novel, which was also published by MIRA last year, is equally thrilling — and set in a familiar setting for Houstonians. The Night She Went Missing takes place on Galveston Island, and is an unputdownable suspense about a missing girl and the tight-lipped community that might know what happened to her.
Bird shares with CultureMap some of the details of her two books — plus the third that’s on the way — and how she juggles her prolific writing career with motherhood and her career as a teacher.
CultureMap: Did you always want to be an author?
Kristen Bird: I won a publishing contest with a group of my classmates when I was in third grade. The local printing press in our small town in North Alabama printed the book for us. That was my first taste of publishing.
As I got older, I didn’t think it was a very practical career. I got a double major in music and mass media. I thought I would do something with writing in a corporate or journalistic setting. I worked in marketing for about three years, and then my husband and I moved to Galveston, and I offered to substitute teach as I went back to get my master’s degree in literature. I was really drawn to books and was remembering how much I loved writing. Instead of substituting, they offered me the job because the teacher passed away suddenly. So, I started teaching and have been teaching for 17 years now.
Even through my teaching career, I dabbled in writing on and off. My creative writing thesis was a novel. It was my first time writing something longer than 50,000 words. It was a contemporary romance with flashbacks to Jane Austen’s time period, because I wanted it to involve some research. My next book was another historical fiction set around the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. That was the book that made me realize I wanted to be a traditionally published author, but no one wanted that book. After that point, I thought I’d take a break or give up. But about a week later, I had an idea that ended up being The Night She Went Missing.
CM: How did you decide to write a thriller?
KB: My transition to thrillers was indirect. I knew I wanted to write something contemporary that didn’t involve all the research that the historical books had involved. So, I set it in modern times and in a place I knew very well: Galveston. It’s definitely not a hard-core thriller, but it’s still housed under that umbrella. I’d say it’s more of a mystery or suspense women’s fiction.
CM: With the first book being set in Galveston, you opted for another familiar region for your second book: North Alabama, which is where you grew up. How important is the setting for your books?
KB: I feel like the setting really sets the tone and the atmosphere. For both of these books specifically, it helps direct my characters’ actions as well. I grew up in the ‘80s and early ‘90s in North Alabama, and we return there every holiday. There’s just a particular kind of person that comes out of there — and I don’t mean that to be either bad or good. I just mean that being set in the Bible Belt really influences the world view and how people react to things. The political climate there is quite different from somewhere else like Galveston, which is surprisingly pretty liberal. So, I don’t write characters who lean one way or the other, but I do feel like the environment they are in will influence the way they think. And, sometimes its fun to know that and then go beyond the expectations and break them out of that.
I chose Galveston because I knew it very well, and it has always creeped me out living there because there are so few ways off the island — there’s San Luis Pass, the Bolivar Ferry, and the Galveston Causeway, with the Causeway being the most accessible, and if there’s a traffic accident, then it would be just really hard to escape. And that idea intrigued me.
For I Love It When You Lie, I set it in a small town because I wanted it to be somewhere where everyone would know everyone and be all up in their business.
CM: Your new book follows the Williams family and jumps between their perspectives. Were there any characters inspired by real people in your life or ones you felt most connected to?
KB: The three sisters inspiration really came from my life, but I also have a younger brother, and what I know of my family and the really close sibling bond that we share. The characters aren’t us, but it helped me to sometimes feel more empathy for the characters when I thought how my sisters would react.
CM: What do you want readers to take away or experience reading the book?
KB: First, I’m always trying to entertain. But secondly, I think I want people to think about the stereotypical caricature of southern women. I know there’s a lot already out there that depict southern women as being strong — from Steel Magnolias to Gone With The Wind. But I think of the newer southern woman as being not only strong but also fed up. I think that this kind of anger as a driving force for the lengths that they will go through to protect their family is something that’s really interesting to me. And I think we are having a moment in fiction right now because of the political climate that is producing these thrillers that have kind of a female revenge plot. I think there’s something in the zeitgeist right now that’s happening.
CM: In addition to writing novels, you’re a teacher. How do you juggle both careers plus being a mother so that everything you need to do gets done?
KB: First, everything doesn’t get done. I had a great talk with my therapist a few months ago. She told me her challenge for me was to drop the ball on a few things — don’t go to all the meetings, don’t take all the appointments — and basically be kind to myself and let my effort be enough. We have limits and we have to embrace them at some point.
In order to do that, I have to be able to shift gears. I know that if I have a swath of papers coming in, I’m going to have to wear my teacher hat that week. I’m not going to be able to write every day, like some writers say you’re supposed to do. If I have a sick kid, everything goes out the window. I have to be flexible enough to be able to switch into different roles. If I’m on deadline, it gets really hard. It is a balance, but I don’t think it can be completely balanced.
I am part time this year for the first time since my twins were born — we would have had three in childcare, so it made sense to just be part time. Recently, I went to my administration and they’ve been so supportive. I usually teach until 12:30 and then I go to a coffee shop or home to write.
CM: Do you have a favorite place in Houston to inspire you or write at?
KB: I live in Sugar Land, so I like to write in Blockhouse and BlendIn coffee shops. I just took my kids during spring break to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston to see the Pipolotti Rist exhibit. The thing that got me really excited was they had two paintings of Judith Beheading Holofernes in the lobby, and that’s in my third book. It’s one of the big art motifs throughout it. I pick up bits and pieces of the content in my books from places I take my kids. And, articles really spark my imagination. My first book was loosely based on an article that I read in the New Yorker about a woman named Hannah Upp who went missing. And there’s so much from Galveston in that book, too —Shrimp ’N Stuff, Gaido's, and I mention a local Brewer called Texas Leaguer.
CM: Tell us about your third book.
KB: It’s a suspense set in the Texas Hill Country, and it’s called “Watch It Burn.” It’s about a woman who’s 67 years old and a member of a prominent family. Her husband runs a self-help organization and a retreat center where he brings A-list celebrities and political figures to. His wife is found drowned in two inches of the Guadalupe River. The women in town start to dig into the details of her death, and so they decide to infiltrate the organization and realize there’s some cultish activity. And, in order to reclaim their town, they might have to set it all aflame.