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.

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