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Courtesy of Kristen Bird

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.

Photo courtesy of UTHealth Houston

How UTHealth Houston is improving health outcomes for cardiovascular disease

Q&A

As the No. 1 cause of death across the nation, cardiovascular disease can bring devastating consequences to patients and their families. Thanks to innovations in preventive treatments, cardiac imaging, and surgical techniques, people are more likely to receive lifesaving care than ever before.

Anthony L. Estrera, MD, Chair of the Department of Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgery at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, answers questions about how innovations in the field are improving heart and vascular health in Houston and beyond.

Dr. Estrera holds the Hazim J. Safi, MD, Distinguished Chair in Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgery and is part of the renowned UTHealth Houston Heart & Vascular team advancing cardiovascular medicine and collaborating to treat complex cases from every angle. He sees patients through UT Physicians and Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute.

Question: Houston has an extraordinary reputation for healthcare innovations, especially in cardiovascular medicine. What does the future of heart and vascular medicine look like?

Answer: A lot of major advancements in cardiovascular medicine and surgery happened in Houston with Dr. Michael DeBakey and Dr. Denton Cooley in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, including the management of complex heart issues through open surgery.

Over the last 20 to 30 years, this has shifted toward less invasive approaches, such as minimally invasive surgery. Taking it one step further, we are now investigating and performing catheter-based surgeries to treat much more complex cardiovascular diseases.

That’s really the future, hence why we have recruited the best nationally and internationally recognized physicians to address cardiovascular disease from a surgical and research standpoint.

For example, Dr. Gustavo Oderich is able to replace large parts of the aorta using a catheter. A lot of catheter-based surgeries require X-rays, which have an inherent drawback of radiation exposure and the use of contrast dyes. His team is developing techniques using GPS, which can tell the surgeon where to place the stent or put the valve without using radiation.

Similarly, Dr. Danny Ramzy is performing complex cardiac surgery with robotic arms through a small incision. The robotic arms provide the visualization and dexterity to perform the treatment through a very small incision.

I think what sets our program apart is the fact that we do everything, and we do it well. We have some of the top folks in all specialties: surgery, interventional cardiology, genetics, and electrophysiology.

As the future continues to evolve in the heart and vascular space, I have seen and appreciate the merging of these areas, which keeps the patient at the heart of what we do.

Q: If a person has a family history of something potentially catastrophic, like an aortic rupture, what can they do to proactively protect their health?

A: Understanding your genetic risk can help provide a pathway for protecting your health. Dr. Dianna Milewicz and her research team are advancing the field in genetic and cardiovascular disease to determine the natural history and prognosis of a patient based on their genes. They have already identified the altered genes associated with aortic dissection, a discovery that is now saving lives worldwide.

If you know you have a gene with a poor outcome, you can intervene sooner before it becomes a problem. For example, there was a young high school girl whose two brothers and father died from a ruptured aneurysm. The mom sought out Dr. Milewicz, who identified that the girl had the same genetic defect that her brothers and father did. Based on how malignant that genetic defect is, she was referred for surgery where we replaced her aorta and rebuilt her heart valve. Because of this, she is now able to lead a normal life.

Question: As the Chair of the Department of Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgery at McGovern Medical School, you and your team are responsible for training new physicians. What excites you most about this new generation of doctors?

A: Training the next generation of physicians, surgeons, and healthcare professionals is one of the most important duties we have at UTHealth Houston, and it is what makes our program invaluable to society in general.

As a clinician, you treat individual patients — which is very important. As an educator, you affect entire future generations of patients on a completely different level, and you are going to have an impact for years to come.

Furthermore, our program has a succession plan to make sure we are always positioned to train and bring in the best healthcare providers who will continue pushing innovation, quality, and patient satisfaction long into the future. That is what excites me most.

Photo by Melissa Taylor

Mary Poppins herself on why families should see the TUTS production this holiday season

A Jolly Holiday

This holiday season, Theatre Under The Stars is presenting an eye-popping, spectacular, and wonder-filled production of the Disney classic Mary Poppins. Based on the Disney film and book by P.L. Travers, this brand-new production of the hit musical runs December 6-24 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.

As the cast gathers and rehearsals begin — mere weeks before the first performance — CultureMap sat down with Olivia Hernandez, who plays the practically perfect nanny, to talk flying, family bonding, and finding new ways to approach such an iconic character.

CultureMap: Is this your first time picking up the umbrella and playing Mary Poppins?

Olivia Hernandez: It's not actually — I've played her once before, and I think Mary is the prefect convergence of my skills. Not only is she vocally exciting for me to sing, but I relate to her a lot.

CM: How so?

OH: She's such a complex character. She's fun and imaginative but also firm and determined. I was reading the P.L. Travers book that the musical and movie are based on and had so much to discuss with our director, Julie Kramer. Mary is so unexpected at every turn!

The first adjective the book uses to describe her is "vain," and I had always wondered what that was about. But when you think about it, she is very put together and particular about things, especially the way she looks. She knows how something is supposed to be, and won't settle for anything less. She's not your typical archetype.

CM: What's it like bringing this iconic character to life?

OH: It’s challenging, because first and foremost I want to be a Mary Poppins that people recognize, and not confuse anyone. But since the musical is a little different from the movie that everyone is so familiar with, and incorporates some elements from the book, it gives me the chance to bring myself to the role.

It's a challenge to put all those things together, but hopefully we're coming up with an end result that makes people think more about her than they ever have before.

CM: You said rehearsals just began — have you started flying yet?

OH: Not yet, but I'm so looking forward to it! I've never flown before, but I'm very unafraid of heights so I'm excited to get up there.

CM: What's your personal favorite part of the show?

OH: "Feed the Birds," for sure. It's just such a beautiful song, so haunting and touching, and Susan Koozin is incredibly moving when she sings it. That specific moment in the musical is a very important lesson that Mary is teaching Jane and Michael, and it's a song that sticks with everyone.

CM: Why should Houstonians come see the show this holiday season?

OH: It’s such a great show to bring your whole family to. There are lessons to be learned by everyone in this show, and the whole family learns to reconnect with each other through Mary Poppins. That's a really relevant lesson right now, as a lot of us are disconnecting from each other (especially while connecting more to our phones).

This show helps you remember what’s important, and it's perfect for the holidays for that reason, especially after a really rough two years.

And what’s not to love? Every time we bring up Mary Poppins to someone, people have such warm feelings about it. I get it! I grew up watching the movie and it's my husband's absolute favorite movie. It's special when something has that sort of staying power.

I also think it’s really wonderful to see such a diverse group of people in our cast. In a lot of ways, this cast really reflects what Houston looks like, with people from many different backgrounds and abilities and a lot of young people. It's exciting to see them all and see what we create together.

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TUTS' production of Mary Poppins runs December 6-24, 2022, at the Hobby Center for Performing Arts. Click here to purchase tickets.

TUTS Mary  Poppins

Photo by Melissa Taylor

Olivia Hernandez portrays the practically perfect nanny.

Graphic courtesy of TUTS

Mary Poppins flies into TUTS for a jolly holiday of music and magic

Practically Perfect

Spend a jolly holiday season with Theatre Under The Stars and its eye-popping, spectacular, and wonder-filled production of the Disney classic Mary Poppins. Based on the Disney film and book by P.L. Travers, this brand-new production of the hit musical runs December 6-24 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.

Though rehearsals have yet to begin, the creative team is already hard at work. CultureMap sat down with director Julie Kramer and choreographer Jessica Hartman — who had both just come from a meeting discussing the show's flying — to talk theater magic, family bonding, and the enduring fascination for this fix-it-all nanny.

CultureMap: Julie, what made you interested in directing this show?

Julie Kramer: I’m so intrigued by Mary Poppins. Her story is almost 100 years old and she's such an unusual heroine, coming in and rescuing everyone. I also love that this show is an expression of community — from the chimney sweeps to the eccentric neighbors to the woman who feeds the birds, everyone is a part of the experience.

Our cast is a mix of actors out of New York and leading lights of the Houston theater community, and together we're composing a love letter to this town and theater in general. Getting to make magic with something that's so beautiful and joyous, especially after the pandemic, feels like a huge gift.

CM: Jessica, why did you want to choreograph this show?

Jessica Hartman: My Virgo personality has never quite understood Mary Poppins but as I've grown older, my perspective has shifted. She changes the way this family is looking at each other and helps them to see each other in a different way, and that's a good challenge for me. How do I take something that I know so well and honor what has existed before while still being creative and take the audience somewhere unexpected?

CM: How do you begin to approach a show with so many “magical” elements?

JK: I already had a fascination with magic and magicians and putting them onstage, so this show encourages that interest. There's flying and things appearing from the magic carpetbag, and I’m looking for every opportunity to find magic in the staging and create unexpected moments that you will probably not have seen in other productions. TUTS has a fantastic props department and we’ll be using them for all they’re worth.

JH: Mary Poppins is magical from the beginning — she makes anything possible — so we want the audience to feel like Jane and Michael discovering all these new wonders. We've really taken a microscope to the script to find those moments.

CM: How do you make a classic that's beloved by so many your own?

JK: It's no secret that PL Travers had some issues with the movie, so we’ve been talking a lot about her and what she thought. The stage musical is more British, grounded in this world of Edwardian London, and the book is by Julian Fellowes, who did Downton Abbey.

But it's also still a Disney show, so there still needs to be that family feel and those truly magical Disney moments. There’s also more music in the musical, which means you get the songs and numbers you know and love but might also discover new favorites. Sadly, there are no dancing penguins ... but don't think I wasn't tempted!

CM: What do you think audiences will like most about this musical?

JH: As a mom during Christmas, the thing I want most for my daughter is experiences. Going to the theater with your family and seeing something so magical — nothing can beat that.

JK: This cast is phenomenal; you're going to see a very high level of performance. But also one of the first things I did after Broadway reopened was take my whole family to see Aladdin. To be able to sit with them and watch genies be real and magic carpets fly, to feel that joy and possibility together as a family was so healing. It reminded me why I do what I do.

I really hope people will take this opportunity to gather their families together and come to the show. It speaks to parents and children and our childhood selves, and it has so much heart. That’s ageless and timeless.

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TUTS' production of Mary Poppins runs December 6-24, 2022, at the Hobby Center for Performing Arts. Click here to purchase tickets.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Katy's new baseball complex powers this week's top stories

this week's hot headlines

Editor's note: It's time to recap the top stories on CultureMap from this past week.

1. Massive new baseball entertainment complex hits a home run in Houston. The new venue aims to do for batting cages what Top Golf did for driving ranges.

2. Beloved Houston bakery and cafe rises with new Woodlands location. Chocolate chunk cookies and Old-Fashioned Diner Cake are coming to The Woodlands Waterway later this year.

3. 3 Houston chefs and restaurants named James Beard Award finalists. The nominations include two national categories, Best New Restaurant and Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program.

4. Ken Hoffman takes a swing at Houston Astros' pitch to build a new downtown hotel. Our columnist explains why he's intrigued by Jim Crane's new initiative.

5. Houston's 10 best pastry chefs conjure sweet and savory treats. From cakes and cookies to kolaches and conchas, these 10 chefs really know their stuff.

Goofiness keeps Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves light on its feet

Movie Review

In the franchise world in which we now live, movie studios are always looking for the next big thing that will ensure fans come flocking to the theater. The role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons has gotten a pop cultural boost in recent years thanks to the Netflix show Stranger Things, and now – just shy of its 50th anniversary – it’s getting its own blockbuster movie, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.

Michelle Rodriguez and Chris Pine in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Michelle Rodriguez and Chris Pine in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

The somewhat complex story centers on two of the titular thieves, Edgin (Chris Pine) and Holga (Michelle Rodriguez), who lead a group of rogues who make a living by stealing, but only from those who deserve it. One such altruistic mission, a relic that can bring back the dead, leads to the pair getting caught and put in jail, separating Edgin from his daughter, Kira (Chloe Coleman).

Fellow thief Forge (Hugh Grant) agrees to look after her, but after a daring escape, Edgin and Holga discover that Forge is even more of a scoundrel than they thought, rising to the title of Lord in their absence with the help of the sorceress Sofina (Daisy Head), and poisoning Kira’s mind against them. They must gather the rest of the team, including Simon (Justice Smith) and Doric (Sophia Lillis), to try to take him down and recover the relic once and for all.

Written and directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, with help from co-writer Michael Gilio, the film has the unenviable task of turning the famously dense game into something that pleases both fanatics and those unfamiliar with its many characters, creatures, and locations. It’s clear the filmmakers are trying to strike a balance between the two, loading the story with terms they barely attempt to explain while at the same time making the movie as goofy as possible.

Only the second of those two approaches truly works. The problem the filmmakers run into is that this is an introductory film that barely seems to care about introducing its characters. A lengthy speech by Edgin at the beginning attempts to do that, but is staged in such a way that the humor of sequence takes precedence over the details of the people. The only reason the characters wind up likable is because of the sheer amount of time spent with them and the actors’ performances.

Well, that and the comedy sprinkled throughout the film. If Daley, Goldstein, and Gilio do anything right, it’s not taking the material too seriously. The world has already seen Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, so adding in funny elements like the wise-cracking Edgin, a supremely fat dragon, and more keeps the film from getting lost in its own minutiae. Not all the jokes land, but 75-80 percent of them do, which is enough to keep the film buoyant.

Pine, as he’s shown in the recent Star Trek and Wonder Woman films, has charm to spare. He occupies this particular role extremely well, and so even if you can’t remember his character’s name, his performance carries the film. Rodriguez is an acquired taste, but her surly demeanor and physical prowess works for her here. The supporting actors shine at times, but the film doesn’t showcase them enough to make them stand out.

While miles better than the reviled 2000 Dungeons & Dragons, Honor Among Thieves is a merely okay beginning for a possible new franchise. There’s some excitement to be had and it stays light on its feet thanks to the comedy, but more attention paid to the story is warranted if they decide to make sequels.

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Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves opens in theaters on March 31.

Top Houston bartender dishes on hospitality-focused healthcare nonprofit

What's Eric Eating Episode 276

On this week's episode of "What's Eric Eating," Two Headed Dog owner Lindsay Burleson joins CultureMap food editor Eric Sandler to discuss I'll Have What She's Having, the Houston-based nonprofit dedicated to improving access to healthcare for hospitality workers. The conversation begins with a brief history of the organization, which was founded by a group of Houston chefs and physicians.



From there, Burleson discusses many of I'll Have What She's Having initiatives, including free mammograms, access to birth control for both men and women, and a new focus on mental healthcare. While the group is led by some of Houston's most prominent female chefs, bartenders, and restaurateurs, Burleson notes that its programs are for everyone.

"What we really want is for people to have access," she says. "We want people at Whataburger to use this. We want the line cook, the bartender, the dishwasher. We want anybody to be able to have access to this mental healthcare. We don't want it to be lip service."

While the discussion centers around the programs I'll Have What She's Having offers to hospitality workers, people outside the industry can do their part by contributing to the organization's fundraisers. Burleson previews the group's Rock & Roll Picnic that will feature some of the city's top culinary talent along with live music. Tickets for that event will go on sale soon.

Prior to the interview, Avondale Food & Wine owner Mary Clarkson joins Sandler to discuss the news of the week. Their topics include: Gordon Food Service opening new grocery stores across the Houston area; Dessert Gallery's plans to open a second location in The Woodlands; and the opening of Muse, a stylish new restaurant in the former Emmaline space.

In the restaurants of the week segment, Clarkson and Sandler discuss their recent meals at PS21, the new French restaurant in Upper Kirby, and Theodore Rex, the modern fine dining restaurant in the Warehouse District. Listen to the full episode to hear what they thought about their meals at both establishments.

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Subscribe to "What's Eric Eating" on Apple podcasts, Google Play, or Spotify. Listen to it Saturdays at 3 pm on ESPN 97.5.