Amy Tan likes to stress that she’s a bird-watcher, not a birder. While a birder might travel the world in search of a specific species, Tan prefers to stick to her own backyard. By spending hundreds of dollars on bird food and hand building feeders out of wire, the author of The Joy Luck Club and other novels turned her Marin County, California, property into a mecca for bird migration. In her backyard, finches gently tap her window and hummingbirds eat out of the palm of her hand. But unlike most birders—or bird-watchers—Tan doesn’t just observe the creatures. She draws them.

The Backyard Bird Chronicles (Knopf, April 23), with a foreword by well-known ornithologist David Allen Sibley, assembles diary entries and illustrations from more than five years of drawing birds. While the simple act of observation remains the focus, Tan’s book touches on conservation, the Covid-19 pandemic, and finding solace through nature. Kirkus spoke with Tan in her New York apartment. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve always had a connection to nature, but it didn’t always include birds. Why birds, and why now?

I think for a lot of people, birds are always there. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons why you take it for granted and don’t really look at them. And it wasn’t until I was in nature and learning to draw that I realized they were very interesting to look at and draw. Once I started journaling, I just saw so many interesting things about birds. They were my consolation during a period when it was very dark. I think it was dark for a lot of people. I needed to be in nature. I could find birds as a focus for directing my observation, my curiosity, and my efforts as I was learning to draw.

How did the pandemic play into it?

It’s so weird—you’d think the pandemic would have given writers the total freedom to finish their books, but instead, people were derailed. And I think it was because the whole meaning of the future was disturbed. You had this sense that maybe this is going to take over the world and everybody’s going to die, or people who would have bought books have been looking at far more important things like staying alive. And so it all became really meaningless. What was more meaningful was to be in the moment, and to love what life was about. That included the beauty of nature and the peace you could find out there.

You write that your “impulse to observe birds comes from the same one that led [you] to become a fiction writer.” What is that impulse, and how are birding and writing related for you?

I could do a psychological analysis and tell you I grew up to be an observer because I had a mother who was suicidal. I was an observer of little hints of what might happen. I could say I’m an observer because we moved every year. I lived in a total of over a dozen homes and went to many different schools, so I had to observe before I ever belonged, observe my surroundings and how they were different. I think there’s a psychological reason why, but it could be that innately, I was born with this tendency to just look and look for patterns. That’s something my father said about me in an interview he had done when I was 6, that I had this amazing imagination. My father saw that I had this imagination. And naturally, nature fuels a child’s imagination.

Many of your illustrations resemble comic books/graphic novels, with some even having speech bubbles. Were you thinking of graphic novels when you drew them?

No, I had no plan in terms of layout or anything. Had I known I was going to publish this book, I would have developed layouts for each page before I set them down. And I would have planned it. But a lot of those pages were done like this: Sketch quickly, type up a few observations, and then boom, that was it. As my editor Dan Halperin likes to say, “It’s authentic.” It definitely is authentic. It’s not manipulated to look pretty for publication.

As a birder myself, I don’t take pictures or draw what I see. How does drawing affect your experience with nature?

I think drawing and nature are compatible, more so than photography. When you take photographs, you’re looking through a lens. You’re not looking directly, and I think you can really miss what is there in front of you. Whereas when you’re drawing, you’re looking, and you’re trying to know every little detail because you don’t get to produce it with a camera. You have to notice the shape of the bill, you have to notice the proportions of the bird and how the head and the posture are. You get to know that bird at a very detailed level as you’re drawing. In the moment of the observation, you’re just looking intently at what it’s doing. To me, it’s much more compatible than, say, photography.

What would you like birders and nonbirders to take away from the book?

You know, I never write a book with intentions of what readers should feel at the end. But this is an accidental book, and it was already done when it was proposed that it be published. So what I would love is for people to read it and say, “God, birds are so interesting,” and fall in love, deeply in love, with one bird. And for that to lead to more love of birds and concern about the conservation of birds. I would love it if more people got into bird conservation.

What is that one bird that you fell deeply in love with?

There were two: one that made me really love birds and want to have them come to the yard, and the other that made me want to stop having birds come to the yard. The first was a hummingbird that sat on my hand and fed and looked at me. And the second was a bird that flew to me because it was sick. It was a pine siskin that had salmonellosis and was going to die. It made me so sad. I took down all the feeders, which is what you’re supposed to do if there’s any kind of bird disease going on, and gave away all the food that was not opened yet. And I just didn’t know whether I’d ever [put up feeders] again, because it was so heartbreaking. And when I went back to it, I wanted to prevent the death of even one bird. That is what propelled me into conservation, because it [addresses more than] just illness. [Conservation works to stop] anything that kills these birds.

Dan Nolan is an Indie editorial assistant.