A very good friend of mine, sometime writing partner, and fellow Pennwriter, Liz Clark, stopped by the other day for a chat. I took advantage of the situation and fired up the Dictaphone. Below is the record of the event.
Sue Lange: What do you write?
Liz Clark: I write poetry about animal rescue and events that are meaningful to me. I started writing narrative non-fiction when I bought my farm, a fixer-upper just outside of Bernville, Pennsylvania. I started with a newsletter about the farm and my experiences as a single woman in her 40s trying to buy a distressed property cheap and do all the work herself. As the animals started to accumulate, the stories got more and more far-fetched. I got a fairly good distribution on the newsletter and the readers came back and said,” Can you pull this whole thing together in a book?” That’s what I’m working on right now: Lessons from the Hog House.
SL: What’s it going to be about?
LC: It’s written about the character, Liz, who basically did what I did and bought a fixer-upper farm. Some of it is musings on Berks County, the culture of Berks County and the culture of farming. I have characters like the Ground Hog Hunters who don’t ever actually kill a ground hog, but they talk a good game. The house is haunted; it’s in Charlie Adams “Haunted Houses of Berks County.” That’s been an adventure, trying to deal with ghosts. I’m still not sure if ghosts actually exist but the ones in my house really don’t care whether I believe in them or not. The book is also about a journey. About someone who comes from a very confident, cocky executive background and is basically humbled by the whole practice of trying to live in the country and be part of the country life.
SL: You started writing because you told people about your experiences and they suggested you put a book together?
LC: I always had a love of writing. I wrote a tremendous amount when I was in high school. I sent things off. I got them published which was always a rush. Then I pursued a technical career—in nuclear engineering, project management and organizational development and eventually health care. I didn’t find the time for writing. Once the newsletter started, I would love to sit down every month or every two months and tell people the funny…I embellished it; I’m a bit of a liar, but I’d tell them the adventures of Flower Hill Farm. Flower Hill Farm has been a dream of mine since I was eight years old. The farm up the street where I grew up was the last bastion of country in the middle of rapidly encroaching suburbia. It was called Flower Hill Farm and I always wanted to have a place just like that, where I could act as if I were twelve, jump around in the hay loft, pick berries, ride horses, and have my own petting zoo. That’s what Flower Hill Farm is. That’s part of the story too. It’s a love of the land and a love of this lifestyle.
SL: If you hadn’t bought the farm, would you still be writing?
LC: No. I think if I hadn’t bought the farm, I would be living in a condo with Berber carpeting and beige colors and pursuing a high-power consulting career and continuing my subscription to the Chardonnay of the Month Club. I’ve made a conscious choice to make a trade-off that says I want to work near where I live and I want to live on this farm.
SL: So you made a lifestyle choice and because you made that lifestyle choice, you ended up being in a more contemplative mood? Or were you just bored and needed to write? How did buying the farm turn into writing?
LC: I sit on my front porch and I just have the overwhelming sense of joy. I say wow! I wish everybody could know what goes on here. I also sit sometimes on the floor of the hoghouse which is under constant construction and renovation and I cry because it’s more than I can do. Yet I get back up, I pick up the spackle knife and I keep going. I think the story to me is important and when I start to write, time slips away. I sit down and all of a sudden three hours have gone by. It lets me relive this adventure in writing. I’ve read some of this story to people and they’ve laughed and they’ve cried. They might shake their heads a little bit. I do too.
SL: They shake their heads at what?
LC: How can you buy a property in this kind of condition? It’s not a Winnie the Pooh and Tigger story. It really is a story about the central character. Things are not always going smoothly. The character as myself has been through two bouts of cancer which had to be fit into the ongoing farm project. Part of the message I hope will come out is that you just keep going. You get thrown an impossible task and you often have to be your own cheerleader. Like when my mother first came out and saw the farm. She said, “What are you doing? One person can’t do this. You can’t do this alone.” And I said, “No, one person can’t, but I can fix this hole in this wall today and tomorrow I’ll do something else. No, this whole task is impossible but I’m going to look at what’s in front of me and get it done.”
SL: You made a big change from your previous life when you didn’t live on a farm, before you even considered writing. Was there some incident that had you change your outlook to accommodate this lifestyle change?
LC: Well, I moved from a previous career into health care which I really enjoy. I had gone from a very technical background to one that is a whole lot more people-oriented. It does bring out the softer side of you. But getting the farm was something that didn’t make sense in terms of what a single woman in her 40s ought to do with her life; I had always done what I ought to do. Got a good education, corporate job, nice car, black suit, tinted panty hose, day planner, the whole nine yards. But I had this dream in the background. This other lifestyle should go on. I do jump back and forth between both worlds. I jump into my executive world; I jump into my farm world and they’re very, very different. My farm world is such a creative place and such a free place that it allows me to tell stories.
SL: What makes having a farm creative?
LC: Figuring out how to afford it. (laughs)
SL: Why is a farm expensive?
LC: The joke is the farmer won a million dollars in the lottery and when asked what he was going to do with it, he says “I’m just going to keep farming until it’s all gone.” We never have enough money to do all the things we want to do. I think farmers (I’m happy I can include myself as a “we” in farmers), well, there’s always more work than you can get done in a day and we all have this image of the perfectly put together farm where everything is painted, all the gates work, and there are no weeds in the hayfield and no weeds in the garden. Things like that. The fact that you have land allows you to grow and change with that land and land is not constant. It’s not like a yard. It has requirements. When it’s raining you can’t cut the hay; you make hay when the sun shines. Everything has to stop and everybody has to rearrange themselves to respond to the needs of the farm. If the mare is going to foal, you’re going to be up for the next two weeks. Nature doesn’t run by a schedule so you have to adjust yourself to nature. So if you get up in the morning and you had all these plans for the farm and it’s snowing, you have to so something else.
SL: The opposite then of your technical career?
LC: When I did nuclear plant outages we scheduled the outage to ten-minute intervals and we knew how to run 40,000 man-hours worth of work and get it down to ten-minute intervals. Farming is so far from that. And the other thing is when you’re on your farm, you’re out there in nature. You better play the game her way.
SL: So you mentioned you were writing in high school. What kinds of stuff did you get published?
LC: Essays on patriotism—always good subject matter. I got a few articles on scouting and a few poems. I’ve had two well publicized poems on animal rescue. “For Hanna,” about a dog in a shelter. It’s been out for many years and I’ll still walk into a shelter and see it tacked to their bulletin board. Another, “For Anna” is about the tragedy of horse auctions.
SL: Your book is not fiction so it’s like what you were doing with your essay writing. It’s based on fact so it relates in that way. And now you’re getting some of your poems published. What type of writing do you see yourself doing later on? Will you always be doing both essays and poems?
LC: I get no choice about writing poetry. I’m the sort of poet that wakes up at three in the morning, grabs a piece of paper and writes an entire poem from beginning to end before I can get back to sleep so I guess I don’t get much choice about that. And the writing experience has been great. I had the opportunity to work with another writer, someone else to encourage and inspire me. I wouldn’t have gotten organized around a book without someone telling me how to get started and keeping me on a timeline. Her advice was: start outlining your chapters. Start figuring out what you want to say and set yourself some deadlines with recognition that you have to do content first then you have to go back and edit and re-edit until it weaves itself together into something that looks like a book. I always think about the quote from Stephen King who when approached by someone who said, “Oh, I want to be a writer,” he said, “Well, then, start writing.”
SL: How do you feel about the editing process?
LC: I like it. One of the things that has been helpful for me is the Saturday morning critique group. I can easily fall too much in love with my own writing and I miss things in my text. First of all, reading your work aloud helps in the editing process, but it helps even more to read to a group. Reading only to one person, especially one who likes or loves you, you’re not going to get the same critique as when you’re reading to a group of people who are more supportive strangers. The Saturday morning group is very encouraging which is helpful because it is hard, especially for someone who is not a seasoned writer, to get your stuff out. The poems were easy. I got them out and they got published and I got lovely letters. (The people who hate my poems never take the time to write.) But when it comes to this project, it’s important that it makes sense. I’m so familiar with the material because it is true material, that I forget details and it’s important for people to pull me up short and say “Wait a minute. How could that happen that way?” And I realize, “I forgot to tell you…”
SL: Where are you at in your project then?
LC: I had it finished and just at the agent-finding stage and then decided to make some changes in the approach so now I’m solid on the first half of the book and about 75% complete. There are some critical pieces that I went to put in. I know in my head what I want, I just need to get them on paper now. I expect I’ll finish in the next month.
SL: And then you’re going to look for an agent right?
LC: My first approach is to try and find an agent and get it published. I’ll pursue other approaches, but I would really like to have it published by someone else because I need an assessment as to whether or not it’s the best product it can be. If I self-publish, I won’t get that. It is a labor of love, but it’s not my baby. And I’ve been kind of proud of myself because I have been able to listen to people’s critiques and I’m thirsty for people’s critiques. I’ve been able to hear them and use their input to make major changes. The Saturday morning group members were critiquing the chapter on buying the farmhouse and as the people were talking I got so excited because all kinds of ideas were coming out. I ended up completely revamping the chapter and it’s forty times better than it was when I started.
SL: After you get this published will you continue writing whole books or just stick with your poetry?
LC: Yes, I think this is my first work; my first publishable book. I would love to do a historical novel based on some family history from the early 1900s. My grandmother and her two sisters ran their own business, starting at the age of twelve; took the business over from her father, parlaying that into a mini-empire.
SL: Will it be fiction or will it be another non-fiction type of book about your family?
LC: It will be fiction because I have to fill in a lot of details. So I’m going to use their storyline but it will be fiction. And it will not be funny. I like writing funny stuff, but funny stuff has to be about my life because otherwise I’ll feel like I’m making fun of other people. There’s another thing I’d like to write. I do a lot of career counseling, coaching on the side. I’d like to do some non-fiction around how people get and maintain their employment, happy employment. I’ve given some lectures on that and I do life-coaching and that’s a passion for me.
SL: How long have you been a member of Pennwriters?
LC: Just over a year. I joined at your urging and it’s been wonderful because it has enabled me to label myself as a writer. That was a struggle for me because where I came from was so far from looking at myself as a writer. The first thing I did was go to the conference and learn so much about the publishing industry. How to get your work in front of people and what it really takes to treat your work like professional work. The difference between people who keep that paperback novel in the desk drawer and people who get it onto the bookshelves is the discipline, process, and determination. I think Pennwriters helps close the gap.
SL: What authors do you read?
LC: I like corporate humor, Scott Adams. I read a lot of business non-fiction for my job. For fiction, I like those beach novels, chicklit, Stephen King. Erma Bombeck who was the maven of laughing at everyday events.
SL: I can definitely see Bombeck’s influence.
LC: I do like that kind of humor.
SL: So what are you going to read at the Speckled Hen on Tuesday?
LC: I’m going to read the initial chapter about deciding to buy a farmhouse. The story began during a typical Pennsylvania antique auction. The chapter gives some great insights into Berks county culture and sets up the main character in the story as working through life as a series of experiences that she has to use to achieve her dreams.
SL: Anything else you want to say?
LC: This project has been a real defining moment for me in terms of being able to see myself as a writer. I love to create an emotion in my reader. I’m trying to make them laugh along with me, and be able to relate to my the journey in Lessons from the Hog House. Hopefully, if it’s very, very good, they will learn a few lessons of their own.
I’m sure they will. And I can attest to the fact that it is a very funny book. I can’t wait until it comes out.
For anyone interested, Liz will be appearing at the Reading Reads Speckled Hen event that I’ve been talking up on here on the blog. The date is tomorrow night, October 21, at the Speckled Hen (30 South 4th Street in Reading, PA). We’ll be getting going around 6pm. Other Pennwriters on the bill are Pam Garlick, Carol Haile, and Kathryn Craft. I do hope to see some of you there. Maybe we can talk about doing more of these events.
Watch for Liz’s news at her website: Flower Hill Farm.