While my book, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, was a New York Times bestseller and, 17 years later, is still in print, it is not nearly as well known as the documentary film of the same title. Many people assume that the film was based on the book and that they tell the same story. But that’s not the case. The film focuses on the last year I spent with the flock, with only fleeting references to how and why I got involved in the first place. It never mentions Dogen, the bird whose story was most important to me. Judy prefers to film things that are actually happening in front of her rather than do recreations, and that bird was no longer alive. So my book tells the entire six-year story and adds insight into why I did it and what I learned. The information contained within the book is drawn from a massive journal of over 1000 type-written pages that I kept throughout the experience.
Including research, the writing was a seven-year project. My first ambition as a teenager was to be a novelist, and I used to write short stories as preparation. But shortly after I graduated from high school, the goal of being a singer/songwriter took over, and I abandoned prose. I’d never written nonfiction before, so it was a bit of a challenge to use what writing skills I did have in the service of real events. But I got the hang of it and now prefer writing nonfiction.
The book came about because I’d been living on or very near the street for a very long time. My interest was in seeking truth and I avoided full-time work, partly on the grounds that it would take too much time and energy away from that search. I lived in little cubby holes that the neighborhood provided, so my main expense was feeding myself. To that end I did take odd jobs. I did that for so long that I started feeling worthless. One day I told myself that, if only once, I had to make some money doing something I liked—just to prove that I could. This happened during the time I was feeding the parrots, so I wrote an article about them, which was accepted. I got paid for it. Why not write a whole book, then?
There are certain things that I would like to change now (I wish I could have used color photos, of which I have thousands), but I’m satisfied with what’s there. My favorite chapter is actually an essay called “Consciousness Explained.” It goes a long way toward saying effectively what I wanted to say on a complicated subject. (I should point out that the chapter title is ironic.) It’s interesting that, in strange ways, the story of the parrots continues. I hope someday to publish a story I’ve uncovered in the years since I stopped feeding the flock that clearly illustrates how I was destined to have that experience. I always had that sense when I was in the midst of it, and I see now that it really was true. A lot of people don’t believe in that sort of thing these days, but it’s real.