I am a former organic vegetable farmer who lives in southwestern Michigan and enjoys setting my novels in the rural and small town environment in which I live. My first novel, Getting Somewhere (Viking/Penquin – release date Jan. 19, 2012) is the story of four very different girls who serve juvenile crime sentences in an alternative detention program located – guess where? – on an organic farm. When I am not writing, I like to garden, read, play the guitar and piano, quilt, cook and especially catch up with the busy lives of my four kids (ages 17 to 27.)
Q and A
Q. How did you first start writing?
A. I think I’m like a lot of other authors in that I’ve always loved the written word – reading it and creating it. I devoured fiction as a child and spent many hours sitting in front of the bookshelves in my parents’ room when they were gone reading books that would probably have been considered off-limits if anyone had known. I always kept a journal which frequently became a recording place for story ideas, character analyses, various ramblings about people and events who didn’t actually exist.
I had originally planned to major in creative writing in college but became convinced that life as a writer was an immature fantasy and so ended up majoring in anthropology (now there’s a marketable skill!) and journalism. Not surpisingly, my favorite part of college was researching and writing papers.
As my own childen began to move off into their own lives, it became clear that managing a ten-acre vegetable farm on my own was becoming a less and less feasible option. Plus, whatever that writing itch consists of had become a chronic rash and I could no longer ignore it. I sold my farm and moved, with the two youngest kids, about twenty miles north to a much smaller property situated along a gorgeous river and surrounded by woodland in Michigan and began to write.
Q. What’s a typical day for you? What does your writing process look like?
A. Well, after nearly twenty years of getting up at the crack of dawn to milk goats, I suppose it’s not surprising that I’m not much of an early riser. I start out by taking the dog for a long walk along the river which gives me a chance to plan out the next stage of my writing. I don’t know what’s ‘typical’ for writers but I have found that it’s important for me to leave my writing at a stage – if I possibly can – where I know exactly what’s going to happen next. That way, I can jump right in where I left off and any issues that might be holding me up seem more willing to resolve themselves. I usually write for a couple of hours in the morning and then take a break, work with my son on his schoolwork, spend a few hours in the garden during the growing season, then write for awhile before fixing dinner. Many days, I go back to the computer for a couple of hours sometime during the evening (or late at night) and either read over what I’ve written or keep going if things are moving along well.
Fortunately, I don’t need perfect quiet or freedom from interruptions to write. Writing is pretty much fully integrated into my day and certainly into my thoughts. My characters and their experiences are fully ‘real’ to me and rarely ever leave my side when I’m working on a book.
Q. What are some of the important themes in your writing?
A. Though themes are an essential feature of any genre of literature, I doubt that too many writers sit down and think ‘I’m going to write a book about mankind’s alienation from nature’ or ‘I want this story to be about how people are prone to sabotage themselves with their own assumptions of reality.’ These things are a part of the author’s own worldview and are expressed through plot and character.
That said, I’ve never really wanted to write fiction that didn’t mean something, that didn’t stimulate readers to evaluate their own worldviews as a result of being exposed to mine. And my worldview is constantly formed and reformed as a result of my own experience – which includes reading in a huge way! – AND the experiences of my characters. They, in essence, inform me about my own belief systems by their actions, their responses, their behaviors.
I think a couple of important things I’ve learned from writing Getting Somewhere is that I’m extremely interested in the formation of identity and all the ways that process is influenced by our families and by the culture we live in. I’m also interested in the experience of oppression, the complex psychological and emotional ways that people respond to the conflicts between how they perceive of themselves and how they are perceived by others. And, finally, I would say that my characters have taught me a great deal about resourcefulness and change, leaving me anxious to impart the idea that we are essentially the primary actors in the narrative of our own lives, that change is not only possible but inevitable, and that we can participate if not completely in the consequences, at the very least in the integrity of the process.
Q. Who or what are your primary influences?
A. The ‘what’ is easy. I am, in great part, influenced by the natural world. It informs both my personal philosophy and my writing process.
As a farmer, there are significant limitations to the amount of control you can exert on the outcomes of your labor. Nature has it’s own set of imperitives and behaviors and all you can do is hope to understand them as best you can without being able to change them. I guess that’s what I meant earlier about the integrity of the process. I felt, growing vegetables, that the best outcome could be achieved by respecting the ‘rules’ of nature as closely as possible, making caring for the land a top priority. This meant, for my farm, respecting and building the soil, avoiding contaminants in the form of chemicals, and creating an environment which would imitate the healthy patterns of a natural habitat. I have found that these same goals work for me in writing – respecting the process, allowing characters and plot to develop ‘organically,’ trusting compassion as the driving force for ANY kind of relationship. I am regularly awed and thrilled by the similarities between growing food and writing fiction, working in nature and working in literature.
As for people, my children are my number one influence. They are the people I have watched evolve from infancy to adulthood, whose identity processes I have observed most closely. I have tremendous respect for the way they have negotiated this process.
The list of professional influences is always shifting and growing but here are a few:
Fiction writers – Barbara Kingsolver, Cynthia Voight, William Faulkner, Jonathan Franzen, Richard Russo.
Feminist writers – Simone de Beauvoir, Lucy Lippard, Betty Friedan
Ecologists and sustainability activists – Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Paul Hawkin, Vandana Shiva, Donella Meadows
Others – Carl Jung, Eddie Vedder, James Lovelock, Mozart
Other tidbits about me –
- All of my kids were homeschooled.
- We raised dairy goats on our farm and sold goat cheese at our local farmers market.
- I wrote the sustainable comprehensive master plan presently guiding planning and zoning activities in Goshen, Indiana where I used to live.
– I am presently working on my fifth young adult novel.