When you write about chickens, you belong to a certain type of community. The people in that circle are concerned about clean food, farming, and being good stewards of the earth.
I had started hearing some buzz from the chicken people about a new book “Gaining Ground” written by Forrest Pritchard. It is self-described as “A story of Farmer’s Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm.”
In essence, it’s about all kinds of good stuff.
And not only that, the foreword was written by Joel Salatin (and if you don’t know who that is, you need to look him up. Right now.)
Hmm, I’m always intrigued by buzz and so I got a copy of the book. Written as if he were your best bud sharing a cold beer with you on the back porch, I immediately knew that this book was worth all that buzz. It’s written by a guy who’s been there, and who really cares (with a sense of humor) about what he does. Here’s an example of the writing:
“After the hot-water bath came the “plucker.” A drum-shaped-clothes-dryer-type of machine, studded with hundreds of three-inch-long rubber “fingers,” it sent the scalded carcasses spinning in a mesmerizing free-for-all of steam, feathers, and flesh. Remarkably when the machine was turned off and the chickens tumbled to a clumsy stop, the birds were picked entirely clean of feathers and undamaged in any way. The person who invented the chicken plucker must have had a fascinating imagination.”
It’s that sense of “this is the work that’s needed, so this is the work I do,” that shines throughout this book making me love it. He’s one of us.
I contacted Forrest to let him know I was going to review “Gaining Ground” for my chicken blog. One thing led to another and when I mentioned this writer’s blog, Forrest graciously answered some writing specific questions on how his book came to be.
Had you published anything before this book?
Yes. Like many writers, I dreamed of being published in well-regarded literary magazines, and sent my poems and short stories to all corners of the country over the years. Suffice to say, I could paper my walls with those tiny 3×5 inch rejection letters literary magazines send out! But over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to have an editor or two see the merit in some of my work, and occasionally publish one of my pieces. But just like in farming, I’ve certainly had my share of droughts.
Running a farm is pretty much a 24/7 job, when and where did you find the time to write?
I spent four years writing the manuscript, then another intense eight months working with my editor after I signed with Lyons. Fortunately, I’ve got a great farm manager (a former apprentice who I trained years ago) who ran the farm when I needed to hide in the library for days at a time. Long story short, my first priority was to make sure the farm would be okay. Then, I took a leap of faith, and poured myself into the writing.
At what point in your farming experience did you think, “this would make a great story?”
Great question. I started the book in 2008, and put it down in 2009, after about 25,000 words (the book is roughly 95,000 words). I didn’t stop because I didn’t believe in the story, or the characters. But I recognized that I didn’t have a clear articulation of my message, a coherent understanding of what I was feeling deep down. It took a couple more years to fully understand that this book is about more than just our farm; in a broad sense, this is the story of farms all across the country, about their struggle with commodity prices, the creation of generic, anonymous food, and the economic shortfall of this system. When it finally dawned on me how important it is to explain the human story behind our food, then suddenly I was off and running again.
Your tone is very conversational, like you’re talking to a friend at the bar, did that voice come naturally (do you hear it in your head when you write?)
I’ve had lots of practice… I talk to customers every weekend at farmers markets! When you’ve been asked as many questions as I have, you start to think about farming a little differently, and put a lot more thought into your responses. People want sincere answers, and can spot a phony from a mile away. I hope that some of that sincerity translated onto the page.
Why did you choose a memoir over a “how-to” book?
In general, books about farming seem to fall into two distinct categories: experienced farmers writing “how-to” books about production, and journalists writing “how they did it, and how it’s different” style books. Gaining Ground falls squarely in the middle, telling an honest story of borderline bankruptcy and agricultural disillusionment, while offering realistic solutions and hope for the future. Suffice to say, after seventeen years of farming, we’ve been there and done that! Nothing reveals that quite so well as speaking from real-life experience.
The pacing in your memoir is fantastic, chapters end with cliff hangers, you start the book off with a crisis, how much work went into the actual organization of the experiences?
Thanks! As an English major, I was one of those kids who actually read (cover to cover) every book that was ever assigned to me. No Cliff’s Notes for this farmer, ha ha. I think the master story tellers (let’s throw out Homer, Shakespeare and Eudora Welty as a broad samples) reveal so much about tempo and character development, that careful readers begin to absorb the lessons intuitively. Why do we like suspense? Why do we try to figure out the mystery ahead of time, and feel rewarded when get the answers right? Why do some books make us laugh, or cry? Answering these questions is akin to explaining why art “matters.” We simply fall in love with certain books, and that’s that.
How many drafts of the book did you create?
I write everything in longhand, then transpose it onto the computer. In all, I probably wrote three different drafts, comprising about 200,000 original words, which were pared down to 95,000. I think it’s so much better to write extra, extra, extra, then cut, cut, cut.
You have to milk cows, collect eggs, and farm the land, how’s that book marketing thing going?
It’s going very well! I’ve got more than a dozen farmers market book signings lined up, and am always interested in more. Do any of your readers have suggestions about which markets I should visit?
What’s next for your writing?
Several ideas. I’ve got a really fun photograph-centered farming book that I think people would really dig (pun intended). We’re such a visual society, and I’d like to include more images with the writing. But don’t worry… I’ve still got a story or two up my sleeve :^)
Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.
Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com)