Thursday, December 17, 2015
Saturday, November 14, 2015
Tuesday, September 1, 2015
About PRETTY DEAD
Sunday, May 17, 2015
Sunday, March 1, 2015
The Orchard was released almost four years ago, but I still get lovely letters from readers who recently discovered the book and want to reach out to me. When I was on tour for The Orchard, I wrote a lot of different essays. Short ones, long ones, some for a big audience, some for small ones. I always thought I'd eventually put the essays together in an ebook. Never got around to it. Maybe someday... But anyway, a recent letter from a reader took me back, and got me thinking of my essays again, and I grabbed this one and thought I'd stick it up here. This is from the talk I gave at the opening breakfast for the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association yearly conference. It about killed me because...not a morning person. :D
Orchard is probably the most important book I’ve ever written. But little
did I know that the nonfiction account of my life on an apple farm would be
considered more compelling, more horrifying, and more thrilling than any of my
you know that apples are part of the rose family? And like apples, it takes a
lot of spray to create a perfect rose.
But the big difference is that we don’t eat roses.
The Orchard opens with a
chilling story I used to hear when I worked at my uncle’s bar in Illinois.
in the seventies, herbicide salesmen traveled the Midwest and would put on
these free feeds. Farmers would get a free lunch, listen to a sales pitch, and
hopefully put in an order for chemicals for the upcoming season. At that time, one particular company
encouraged its salesmen to drink the herbicide in order to demonstrate its safety.
The salesmen would pour it in a clear glass and drink it. This really happened, and you have to
wonder if any of those poor salesmen are alive today. And did they believe that
what they were drinking was harmless? Or were they desperate enough to do
whatever it took to keep their jobs?
I think sometimes we simply convince ourselves that things are okay when
they really aren’t.
wrote this book to document 70s and 80s farm culture. I wanted to show people
what a farm looked like from the inside, from the heart of a young woman. But I think The Orchard speaks to everyone. We can all relate to wanting a
beautiful life. We can all relate to the feelings of isolation and confusion,
of devotion to a cause, of love of family. These are things that resonate with
all of us, no matter our background or lifestyle. And we all respond to the
path the human spirit takes when presented with danger and challenge.
not the typical memoir writer. I’ve never liked to talk about myself, and I was
happy writing genre fiction. But I’d had this unique experience that had taken
place in a secret world known only to a small group of people, this weird and
awful and wonderful life in which I’d married a farmer, moved to his planet,
observed his culture, had babies, and returned to tell people about it. Along with my experience, I had
years of writing under my belt.
How could I not tell my story? As a writer, I felt an obligation to
chronicle and share this life I’d lived.
The Orchard is really a
tapestry of three stories, the story of surviving a challenging childhood, the
story of a beautiful life inside a life, and the story of poor choices people
make in seeking perfection.
is the story about one farm, but it’s also a story about every farm. It’s a
story about a nation and big business. It’s a story about people not speaking
up. It’s a story about our children and our children’s children. It’s a story
about acceptance of things that shouldn’t be accepted. It’s the story about a
young woman who falls in love, marries an apple farmer, and never sees the
world in the same way again. And
it’s a story about the deepest and most profound love of all: the love of a
parent for a child.
I was working in that bar in Illinois, a handsome apple farmer walked in and he
began courting me in the most magical way. We went on horseback rides in the
moonlight, picnics at the pond, and sketching in the apple orchard. He welcomed me into his world, and I
easily forgot that other people lived there.
months after he stepped into my uncle’s bar, we were married.
was twenty-one and he was twenty-three.
had this romanticized notion of getting back to nature and the land. I imagined
myself barefoot with a baby on my hip, raising crops and canning organic
vegetables. But farm life wasn’t what I’d expected. From the very beginning,
from the moment I stepped foot on the farm, I was shunned as an outsider. My
handsome husband began to behave in ways I couldn’t understand. And the farm
itself, while beautiful and alive, began
to reveal dark secrets.
I was told to stay away from certain
areas. “Don’t walk in the orchard.
Don’t swim in the pond. When I asked why I shouldn’t do these things, faces
closed, expressions became hard, and I got no answer. I finally figured out it was because of pesticide
contamination. But nobody would
speak the words aloud.
At night, pesticides drifted in our bedroom
window while we slept. During the day, the poison coated the sheets and clothes
I hung on the line. It was all around us.
I was horrified by what I witnessed, but I felt helpless to do anything about
wasn’t just the horrors of pesticide use that I had to deal with, it was coming
to terms with the realization that I would never belong on this farm.
a little snapshot from the book.
after we were married, my husband quit showing up for supper. The evening meal is called supper,
never dinner. Dinner happens at
noon, and is never called lunch.
But anyway, he quit showing up for supper, and when I asked him what he
could possibly be doing out there in the dark, he scoffed and said I knew
nothing about farming. I actually began to wonder if there was another woman.
night I heard his truck, and I followed the sound, and knew that he’d pulled up
to his parents’ house, which was a stone’s throw from our little place. So I walked across their backyard and
stood on the patio where I could see in the kitchen window. And there was my
new husband —eating dinner with his parents. Yes, there was another woman. His
in this isolated world, I began writing genre fiction, and my first book came
out in 1988. During that time period, I attended a county fair. The local
library was selling three hard covers for twenty-five cents, and I came home
with a first printing of Rachel Carson’s Silent
Spring. I read it and began to
wonder if maybe I could write about some of what I was witnessing on the farm,
but I was told that nobody really cared what happened in the Midwest, and
nobody wanted to read about farm chemicals.
writing The Orchard was something I
knew I would do some day; it was just a matter of how and when.
living on the farm, I learned to assimilate into the culture. In spite of
everything, my husband and I were able to carve out our own often-idyllic
existence, and create the loving family I’d
at the same time, I was always aware of the darkness that surrounded us. This
sense of threat. We might have been breathing poison and eating poison and
drinking poison, but so was the rest of the country. They just didn’t know it.
the salesroom, apples were sliced and offered as samples, but workers weren’t
allowed to wash the apples before cutting them. That might taint the warm,
fuzzy feel of a trip to the apple orchard. Nobody wanted to be reminded of why
their apples didn’t have spots on the skin, or worms inside. Customers just wanted
an unblemished and beautiful apple.
I finally started writing The Orchard,
I didn’t think about the emotional toll it would take. Life (and death) on the
farm was a past I’d worked hard to put behind me. It’s possible to recall an
event for an hour or an evening, but immersing myself in the details for a year
and a half was painful and daunting. And as I said, in the end the truth was
more horrifying than any fiction I could ever write.
I came back to something I’d been told in the eighties: Nobody wants to read
about pesticides. Then
I realized what I had was a dark, but true fairy tale, complete with the
magical land, the handsome prince, the naïve bride, and the poison apple.
along with the fairy tale was a message to the world about what was happening
on farms throughout our country, a time undocumented and unexamined. I needed
to document it. Examine it. This
piece of my life, this piece of seventies and eighties farm culture that still
impacts all of us today.
of the events in The Orchard took
place some time ago, but sadly not much has changed in the farming world.
Apples have once again been named the most pesticide-laden fruit in the
country. But I no longer believe
that people don’t care. I think they care, and I think they want to know, and I
think they need to know what’s happening and what has happened.
think it’s also important to keep in mind that farmers aren’t to blame. The
market dictates what kinds of crops are raised, and how they are raised.
Farmers couldn’t sell imperfect produce, and a lot of farmers paid the price
for that perfection. Many men and women died to provide unblemished food for
our tables. The United States as a
culture seeks perfection in everything, and no one person is strong enough to
stand up to that culture, but fortunately, we have a more educated consumer
symbolize home and love and family. There is no other fruit that speaks to us
on such an emotional level, marking the seasons with promise and mystery, and
that bittersweet feel of a beautiful fall day when the shadows hitting the
ground are black and sharply defined, when the air carries with it a loamy,
ephemeral scent that smells like the perfume of our lives, and we can feel our
history and our future in that single, magical day. In one beautiful apple.
visit an organic orchard. Pick an apple. A deep red one. Polish it on the leg
of your jeans. Hold it in your
hand, and enjoy its beautiful imperfections.
Sunday, December 28, 2014
We're heading into award season and I recently got news that Stay Dead was listed as one of the best suspense thrillers of 2014 by Suspense Magazine.
Complete list of winners in the suspense/thriller category:
I finished the third Elise Sandburg book in November. Right now it's scheduled for a July 25 release, but that could change. AND damn if I still don't have a title. :D Nobody's fault but mine. I have a list of possibilities, but nothing feels 100% right.
What I'm working on now:
This is a long, boring story. This summer I was invited to be a part of a super-secret project involving a big and exciting concept. I can't go into a lot of detail because... secret. The whole concept was so compelling that I couldn't say no. I wrote a post-apocalypse crime fiction story (50,000 words) for this project.
When will I learn not to get involved with new companies? I should have learned my lesson with Quartet Press. Remember them? Didn't think so. They folded before they started, but not before sucking up a lot of my time and leaving me with nothing to show for it. So it happened again with this super-secret project. I was wrapping up the first draft of my story when things fell apart, and now I've spent a total of five months on this story—first writing it for a high-concept project, then later trying to revamp the super-secret story into straight crime fiction.
If you've ever done a major revamp you know it can take ten times as long as simply starting from scratch. It's like trying to remove the baking soda from a recipe once you realize you added it by mistake. Yeah, you could dump it completely, but you used this really fantastic chocolate that you'll never find again.
So now my post-apocalyptic book has dwindled to 15,000 words of straight crime fiction. And it should be 80,000. Basically I'm starting over. Sigh. Hope to have it finished by June. It actually DOES have a title, but it's too early to share. Present day crime fiction set in Minneapolis.
Monday, December 22, 2014