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Heather Webber Spins a Magical Tale in 'Midnight at the Blackbird Café'

Author's latest book is a blend of sweet romance, small-town charm and mysterious pie


spinner image portrait sketch of author heather webber overlaid on illustration of small-town buildings with mountains in the distance and a tree with birds in its branches in the foreground
Portrait: Joe McKendry; Background: Nick Matej

 

Best-selling author Heather Webber’s first trip to Alabama involved a bit of serendipity — or, as she likes to call it, “Southern magic.”

It was February 2007, and after another author had to cancel, Webber — who was raised in Massachusetts and now lives in Ohio — was invited as a last-minute fill-in for two book events, one in Birmingham and one in Wetumpka. Somewhere during the hour-and-a-half drive from one location to the other, through the small towns, past the old farmhouses and new developments, past the sky-high pine trees and kudzu vines, she bonded with the state. “This was a place that felt strangely like home,” she says. “When I realized it wasn’t possible for my family to move south, I decided I could travel there as often as I wanted — through my books.”

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Midnight at the Blackbird Café is one of those books. A blend of sweet romance and small-town Southern charm, the novel takes place in the fictional little town of Wicklow, nestled in the mountain shadows of Alabama, which is where Anna Kate has come to bury her beloved Granny Zee, owner of the Blackbird Café. Anna Kate’s trip was supposed to be quick — to close the café and settle her grandmother’s estate — but despite her best intentions to avoid forming ties or getting to know her father’s side of the family, she finds herself drawn to the quirky Southern town her mother ran away from so many years ago and its mysterious blackbird pie.

Webber’s love of Alabama aside, it was the Beatles song “Blackbird” that inspired her to write this particular book. Years ago, she became obsessed with the song and played it on repeat. “When that kind of thing happens, the writer in me pays attention, trying to figure out why it’s resonating so deeply,” she says. Webber was especially drawn to the lyrics about blackbirds singing in the dead of night, and about broken wings and learning to fly, so she started to brainstorm the many ways characters could be broken and what could help them heal.

Her blackbird research led to “Sing a Song of Sixpence” with its “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie,” and then a tidbit in Celtic folklore that revealed that blackbirds were considered guardians and messengers of other worlds. “With all that,” she says, “the heart of Midnight at the Blackbird Café took shape. What if blackbirds with their songs could pass messages from dearly departed loved ones through, of all things, pie, to bring solace and love to those left behind?”

“As an author, I enjoy navigating family ties, examining the strong threads that hold families together, or piecing back together the strings that have frayed or snapped.”

Midnight at the Blackbird Café falls under the genre of “magical realism,” which is a little different from fantasy or paranormal novels in that the magic of the story doesn’t need to be explained, Webber notes. It just is. “Roald Dahl said, ‘Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it,’” she says. “I see magic everywhere. I see magic in the flutter of a bee’s wings. In an act of kindness. In the veining of a leaf. In an artist’s hands. I’m also a big believer in everyday magic — the type you feel but don’t necessarily see, and it’s that kind of magic that I tend to write about most.”

Webber also tends to write about small towns; many of her 30-plus books take place in them. “Since conflict drives a story,” she says, “small towns offer wonderful ways to stir the pot. Most are places where everyone knows everything about each other. It’s hard to keep secrets, and there’s little to no anonymity. Nosiness and gossip know no bounds.”

Conversely, she adds, small towns can rally, support and come together in a crisis. When the novel begins, Wicklow, a former artist’s colony, is a bit broken and in need of healing, and its residents come to its rescue. “It’s truly uplifting and heartwarming to witness the love and care shown for neighbors in a time of need,” Webber says.

At its core, though, Midnight at the Blackbird Café is a story of family, and of the sometimes difficult but unconditional love that is found between family members — particularly children and their parents and grandparents. Anna Kate and her maternal grandmother, Zee, had a loving relationship, but Zee struggled with how much Anna Kate deserved to know about her heritage. And Anna Kate’s paternal grandmother, Seelie, has her own difficult choices to make on behalf of her family’s well-being — choices that her daughter, Natalie, doesn’t support.

“In both cases, the learned wisdom and experiences of a grandparent have to be weighed against the well-intentioned, but perhaps misguided, wishes of a parent,” Webber says. “While the grandparent/grandchild relationships present their own set of rewards, they also present challenges — and I think a lot of readers can relate to the inherent push and pull of these family dynamics.”

Webber adds, “As an author, I enjoy navigating family ties, examining the strong threads that hold families together, or piecing back together the strings that have frayed or snapped.”

Writing came later in life for Webber, who says she’s “one of the few authors I know who didn’t grow up wanting to write.” Instead, she grew up watching the drama series Quincy, M.E., which was popular in the late ’70s and early ’80s and starred Jack Klugman as a medical examiner who helped solve crimes. For a while Webber wanted to be a medical examiner herself, until she realized it wasn’t the medical aspect but the mystery element of the episodes that she loved.

In the spirit of Midnight at the Blackbird Café, it was a dream that eventually prompted Webber to write her first book in 1998. “I had no writing experience and was a young mom of three small children at the time,” she says. “But when I couldn’t get that dream out of my head and excitedly talked nonstop about how it would make a great book, my husband simply said, ‘Write it.’ I was naive enough to try. It was a stand-alone novel with magical elements, so it kind of feels like I’ve come full circle. That book was never published — it lives in my office with a cozy family of dust bunnies — but it’s still one of my favorite stories because it sparked a passion for writing that hasn’t waned.”

Webber has been writing mystery series for years (some under the pen name Heather Blake), but for Midnight at the Blackbird Café, she made a return to the stand-alone novel. “I was so accustomed to leaving subplots open-ended that I had trouble tying up all the loose plotlines!” she says.

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While Webber came to writing later in life, she has always been a big reader. One of her fondest childhood memories is “hurrying home from elementary school with the latest library books. I’d curl up in a mustard yellow club chair — it was the ’70s! — and read to my heart’s content,” she says. Her favorite books — classics from Jane Austen, Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle — tend to be the ones she turns to for comfort or when she needs a smile — or “simply when I need to know everything is going to be OK in the world,” she says. “Reading them is like visiting old friends.”

She hopes readers will come to think of the characters of Midnight at the Blackbird Café as friends, too. “It’s my greatest hope that when readers close this book, they feel comforted from the belief that when someone dies, they’re not really gone, whether that feeling comes from a treasured memory … or from a dream that seems very, very real.”

 

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