Twice-Shy Lovebirds Open Their Hearts in This Steamy (and Birdy!) Romance Novel

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On a May morning I’m walking with Sarah T. Dubb into Tucson’s Sweetwater Wetlands Park, a surprising oasis just off I-10 and a key waypoint on the author’s journey as a birder. We’ve come to see the wildlife that helped inspire her new romance novel, Birding With Benefits. But before we even get started, a harried man with binoculars walks up to us, gesticulating at a nearby cottonwood.

“If a Cooper’s Hawk hits you on the head, don’t be surprised!” he warns. The raptor is guarding a nest and apparently didn’t like the look of this fellow. “Thanks for the heads up!” says Dubb, her chunky cactus earrings swaying as she falls gamely into a chat. Her pun was unintentional, and it appears to be a charming habit: Not two minutes later, I remark on the jaw-dropping array of animals around us, and she says, “It’s wild!” without a hint of irony.

Dubb’s debut book shares this unaffected openness, particularly to the idea that birding and romance are perfect bedfellows. Yes, birds have long been associated with love—the poet Enheduanna, thefirst named author, wrote more than 4,000 years ago that a Sumerian love goddess was “like a bird.” But Dubb takes things to a new pitch. There is literally, literally, birding in the middle of a sex scene.  

“I always thought of birding as potentially sexy because so much of it is about paying attention,” she says. To Dubb, there’s a similar sense of revelation when something—or someone—catches your fancy. “After all,” as Dubb writes in her author’s note, “what is love if not the thrill of discovery, the willingness to learn something new, and the desire to find magic in the world around us?”

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irding With Benefits follows Celeste, a recently divorced 40-something. In the throes of a “say yes” period, Celeste jumps at the opportunity to take part in a high-stakes birding contest—and a fake relationship with her teammate, the also-newly-single John. Never mind that he’s an expert birder, while she’s never identified so much as a House Sparrow. Both protagonists are unmoored and toting heavy baggage as they try to figure out what’s next. Before long, the tri-fold stakes are set. Will they find birds? Will they find themselves? And will they, despite their shared disillusionment, find love?

As Celeste and John race to win the fictional six-week-long “Bird Binge” around Tucson—pit against other birders who include his two-timing ex-girlfriend—the sense of place is acute. They hear the mockingbird’s cheerful song, track pink-throated hummingbirds, and meditate on courting cardinals as they navigate golden grasslands, twisting mesquites, and blue waters collected in red canyons. 

Vermilion Flycatcher in Sweetwater Wetlands Park. Photo: Ash Ponders

Dubb’s ties to the Sonoran Desert stretch back to her childhood, when her father would point out birds and plants on their hikes outside of Tucson. While young Dubb was like, “Okay, sure,” to her dad’s enthusiasm, when she attended college in Washington, D.C., she realized how much she needed the expansive skies and stalwart cacti. She returned to Arizona but didn’t become a birder until she took a class at the local university about poetry and birds, completing assignments like rearranging words from local rare bird alerts into original verse. Some days the students would go birding around Tucson and then sit down to write quietly in the field. 

“Something I love about birding is it gives you this really specific lens,” she says. Dubb found birding to be a “perfect portal”—a way to find the fabulous in the mundane that, by definition, is all around us. Take, for instance, the White-crowned Sparrow, a common desert denizen that Dubb has tattooed on her left arm. “There are like a million sparrows,” she says, “but this one has this striking head.” When the bird appears outside her window each fall, she sees it as the herald of winter. 

Dubb found birding to be a “perfect portal”—a way to find the fabulous in the mundane.

Her interest in romance writing came later. While Dubb recalls skimming through her mom’s vast collection of romance novels as a kid (looking for the juicy parts, she says), she only caught the fever as a 30-something. By then she was a mother herself and had been assigned to read a romance novel in school, where she was training to become a librarian. As the COVID pandemic closed off her world, isolating her at home with her husband and three kids, Dubb leaned into the joyful world of romance novels for relief, and in May 2020, she decided to try penning one herself. 

For a genre that tends to favor younger protagonists, a novel that centers birding and a 42-year-old whose only child is about to finish high school might seem like a bit of a risk. But Dubb wasn’t thinking about marketability—she was thinking about her own life. At the time, she was 39 and on the cusp of an empty nest herself. So she wanted to write a story in which a character slightly ahead of her figured out how to navigate the years she was facing down.

Sarah T. Dubb at Sweetwater Wetlands Park. Photo: Ash Ponders

“I was in the stage of my life where I was watching friends emerge from marriages and start again,” she says. “It is just a really, really fruitful time of life, and I was excited to show a woman who was eager to learn and find herself.” Four years later, the resulting romp is an affirmation, both of life’s difficulties and the possibility of overcoming those challenges, particularly with a decent sense of humor and a few good friends. 

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ubb first visited Sweetwater Wetlands with her poetry class. Today, after watching—from a safe distance—the Cooper’s Hawk rigidly guarding its nest like some kind of gorgeous gargoyle, I ask Dubb if we’re looking for anything in particular. Not really, she says. She doesn’t bird with an agenda. But it would be poetic to see a Yellow Warbler. “It was the first bird I ever identified on my own,” she says. It’s also on the cover of her book.

As we do a loop, the game of spotting creatures feels almost like Whac-A-Mole, they’re so abundant. Collared lizards do push-ups beside the trail. Cottontails sniff around blooming palo verdes. Turtles sun themselves by the water. And the birds are ubiquitous, their calls drowning out the semi-trucks that barrel down the nearby interstate, oblivious to the lushness we’re exploring. Within an hour, we’ve seen doves, ducks, woodpeckers, Red-winged Blackbirds, quails, towhees, and an electric-red Summer Tanager. But no warblers.

Then, just as we circle back to the entrance and that perilous cottonwood, there’s a flash of yellow. “There it is!” Dubb calls. I’m not a birder, and it’s smaller than I expect, miniature next to the nearby hawk. It would be so much easier to miss it than to spot it. I feel the thrill and am thankful her book brought me here. 

It almost didn’t. After getting 17 rejections, Dubb and her agent were about to pull the manuscript from submission when she got the call that a division of Simon & Schuster was interested. She ultimately landed a two-book deal, and recently signed a contract to write a third. But, on this day, Dubb still has the air of someone mystified by her good fortune. So what, in this exciting and vulnerable moment, are her hopes for her debut?

“I would love for folks to finish the book and be curious,” she says. Maybe Birding With Benefits introduces romance readers to birding. Maybe it introduces birders to reading romance. “Just be curious,” she repeats, “about anything.” 

Birding With Benefits, by Sarah T. Dubb, 336 pages, $18.99. Availablehere from Gallery Books.

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