Monday, June 13, 2011

Melissa Coleman answers a few nosy questions

Melissa Coleman is the author of This Life Is In Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone, a new memoir about growing up on a farm off the coast of Maine in the 1970s. Her father, Eliot Coleman, was an integral part of the "back to the land" movement and one of the fore-fathers of organic gardening. She will be sharing her story at Water Street Bookstore on Tuesday, June 14th at 7pm (with Caitlin Shetterly).

1. Obvious Nightstand Question: I can't help but ask, what's on your nightstand/what are you reading now?

Just finished and loved loved A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. It every bit deserves that Pulitzer. Also on the nightstand suddenly, it seems, are a number of books by authors I know or have met: another Pulitzer winner, The Emperor of All Maladies, a brilliant work by friend Siddhartha Mukherjee, Townie by Andre Dubus, whom I saw read/speak recently and he was amazing, and The Sweet Relief of Missing Children by Sarah Braunstein, an excellent, clear-sighted debut by a friend here in Portland.

2. The "back to the land" movement seems to be having a 2.0 these days, with tons of cityfolk and otherwise setting up rooftop gardens, moving out to the country, shopping at Farmer's Markets, buying chickens. With your family's experience in mind, do you see any negatives in these trends? Would you caution people about taking on an experiment of the magnitude that your family undertook?

I see today's movement as much more sustainable, which is of course the goal. You can have your own garden AND electricity, you don't need to cut ties completely from the modern world. Back in the 1960s-1970s, a more extreme movement was required to break free of the status quo. There was only one farmer's market in Portland, Maine in 1971 and maybe one health food store. Today there are hundreds of farmers markets and health food stores across the state. It's a change that has built slowly to get to where we are today. My only advice would be that here is no one formula for how to live a healthy life, it's important to create your own version that works for you.

3. Your memoir feels so meticulously researched. You do a wonderful job of mixing the facts of what happened with your own impressions as a child of the time. Besides doing research on what was happening politically and culturally in the 1970s, did you interview your parents and other family members for the book? With your journalism background, did you treat them like any other interview subjects, or was it a more personal experience? I can imagine it could be therapeutic to get to ask all those questions and get the story straight, or maybe just really difficult.

Since my memories were limited, I had to fill in the rest of the details by talking to people who were there and reading a lot about the time. However, the research for this book never felt like research, it felt more like solving a mystery, figuring out the clues to what happened. I talked to my parents, extensively, our apprentices and neighbors, and the reporters who wrote about us. Most of the interviews felt like conversations between friends and family about a shared time, but I always circled back to the parts I needed to figure out. It did feel like therapy in some ways and I'm left with an understanding of the past that has left me at peace with it. I hope for the same for all of my family.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Caitlin Shetterly answers a few nosy questions

Caitlin Shetterly is the author of the new memoir, Made For You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home about her journey with her young family across the country twice, in search of the safety of a good job, adventure, and the American Dream. She will be at Water Street Bookstore on Tuesday, June 14th to talk about her new book (along with Melissa Coleman).

1. The Obvious Nightstand Question: I always have to know, what's on your nightstand/what are you reading?

I just finished Townie by Andre Dubus III, which is a searingly beautiful, moving, and can't-put-it-down read. I was so involved in Dubus' world I couldn't wait to get back to it every evening. Now my husband is reading it and he is just as hooked and moved as I was. Now I'm reading an older book by my friend Terry Tempest Williams, called An Unspoken Hunger. It's made up of beautiful essays--more like meditations, really-- about the environment and our responsibility to it.

2. This one is from @Bethazon (awesome librarian/culture geek on Twitter): Once you knew you had a much larger audience than close friends and family, did you feel any more pressure or responsibility when writing your blog? when recording your radio pieces? Would you change anything you did?

The only thing I changed, shortly after my first audio diary went viral on NPR, was that I took my son's name out of the blog. Other than that, I wrote every blog as if I were writing it for my husband--and, indeed, I read each one out loud to him before I published it. And he listened to every radio piece before it was finalized. In my writing life, I often have Dan read things--he has a great sense of my voice, he keeps me fair, he helps me write what I mean to say and he supports me, unconditionally--this is a gift. He read my book many times and then, finally, at the very end I read the whole thing out loud to him over 5 very long evenings (we have a young child) and I went hoarse, but we made the book better that way, because books are also meant to be read out loud.

3. I realize that no one writing a book about herself has any intention or editorial permission to write about every single bit of what's happened in her life. But I recently read a memoir in which I felt the author left out huge chunks of her life, and it ended up feeling less than honest to me. Reading your book, I felt like you could have elaborated on so many different aspects of your story (time in Paris, childhood, time in NYC) but didn't, without sacrificing any of the honesty or transparency. How did you do it? How did you know what to cut and what needed to be said? Does that make sense?

This makes perfect sense. This is important for books--you need to trust the writer. You know, as an actor, when I was in acting school in NYC, I was taught a technique of acting in which you speak from the true place of a character--whatever that might mean in that given moment. You work true moment to true moment. I've, for better or for worse, in my life, always been a person who has spoken from that place--whether I'm playing me, or someone else--I try to tell the truth from where I sit. And sometimes people don't like that and sometimes they do. But as a writer you have to remember that to tell a good story, you have to ask yourself that question from the movie about Johnny Cash, Walk the Line, "If you were lying it that gutter dying and you had time to sing one song..." what would it be? When I sit down to write, I start with that question and then I follow my heart.