Thursday, March 19, 2009

Author Q&A with Jeannie Ralston, author of The Unlikely Lavender Queen: A Memoir of Unexpected Blossoming

Jeannie Ralston’s book, The Unlikely Lavender Queen: A Memoir of Unexpected Blossoming, was published in May 2008 by Broadway Doubleday ( 254 pages).
A story of growth and maturation, both the personal and botanical variety, the book follows the development of Jeannie’s lavender farm in Texas through droughts, grasshopper plagues and other agricultural set backs, and details her parallel evolution, as she reluctantly sheds her Manhattan persona and truly learns to bloom where she’s planted.
The book has been praised by the New York Times and was recommended as a great read by Good Morning America and publications as diverse as The Dallas Morning News and Fortune Small Business.
Jeannie’s lavender life has gotten a second wind in Mexico, where she lives with her family and consults for a lavender project near Dolores Hidalgo, which is helping a poor pueblo to become self-sufficient by growing lavender as a cash crop.

How did you get your start in writing?
I was always writing little poems and ditties growing up. In junior high, I was named the editor of the annual and in high school I was editor of the school newspaper. I then went into journalism school and had four internships with various publications while in college. I ended up at McCall's magazine in New York City after graduation and began writing for McCall's and then various other magazines, mostly women's magazines, but almost always stories with a news slant. For about 10 minutes, I was the editor of my own magazine (called TeenAge) and eventually I started freelancing for Time Magazine and Life too. Since then I've been a contributing editor at Allure, Ladies Home Journal and am currently a contributing editor at Parenting. I've also written for National Geographic and travel magazines. I've never had a intense interest in writing a book (I didn't think one subject could hold my attention for the amount of time a book required), but after I had run a successful lavender farm for five years, I realized that my story might resonate with readers.

What does your writing routine look like?
The best way to talk about my routine is to talk about how I write anything I'm working on--from short essays to this book. I always do 3 drafts. My first draft is just to get something on paper. I give myself permission to be stupid and write terrible cliched phrases and to commit all kinds of writing sins--anything is OK as long as I get something on paper. That way I have something work with and I can see if the story that is playing itself out in my mind actually holds together once it's on paper (or computer screen, nowadays). My second draft is about getting the structure right and filling in any gaps in my research or actually looking up the quote I had used in a certain place to get the exact wording. So the second draft is the nuts and bolts draft. It's where a lot of the heavy lifting is done, I think. My third draft is devoted exclusively to the language. This is where I focus on making the words sing, making sure no cliches have made it through the other two drafts, finding new ways to express and describe. It's terribly important for me to work in this way so that I can compartmentalize--work on only certain things with each draft--rather than trying to conquer the whole piece or chapter or book at once. That's too overwhelming, I believe.

Tell us some writers whose work you admire and why.
I really admire writers who can be funny yet at the same time touch a deep emotional chord. I'm thinking of David Sedaris. Or someone who can report the hell out of a story and also be able to describe something so perfectly or with such a fresh eye that I stop and think, "God, how did she think of that?" I'm thinking of Alexandra Fuller in this case. I also have to admit that some of my favorite recent books were the Harry Potter series, which I read with my oldest son. I also adore anything by Jane Austen and could read her books over and over. And do.

What are you working on next?
Right now I'm writing articles for magazines again as I try to decide what type of book I'd like to do next. I'm not sure I want to do another memoir--at least not right now. It's hard to put yourself out there like that, exposing yourself and your emotions and your mistakes to the world. I'm also watching the publishing industry to see how it's going to shake out. I feel over the next year or so there are going to be enormous changes and I want to make sure that if I have an idea for a book that it has the best chance of being received well and selling well.

What made you decide to write this memoir?
I started working on this book in 2005, after what I suspected would be my last lavender season. It seemed to be an ideal time to reflect on the lavender business—how I got into it unexpectedly and how it had changed me and my world view. I could see a real arc to the story, and I thought that the ending was not what a lot of people would expect. Most people who pick up this book, I believe, will presume that it will end when I’m happily busy with my thriving lavender farm. But of course real life isn’t always like that. In the end, my husband pushed me once more—testing my resolve and our marriage again.
But probably the main reason I wrote this book is that whenever I told my story to the visitors at our lavender farm—which was very often—people seemed truly fascinated. Not only by the agricultural aspects but by the major life changes, struggles and compromises I made to get to a truly happy position in life. What I think people were responding to was the idea that you can’t plan for happiness. You can think you know what you need to be fulfilled, but when life takes you down a completely different track, even if you’re far from where you thought you’d be professionally or personally, you can still find contentment.

What challenges did you face with this book?
The main challenge I think was to write honestly but not hurt people who are part of the story. I'm mainly referring to my husband, who was the engine for a lot of the things that happened in the book. He's such a wonderful man, but he's restless and has an enormous number of ideas. Sometimes his ideas and his personality can be exhausting, but I wanted to make sure I conveyed all the wonderful aspects he has along with those qualities that are harder to swallow. Also, we are like any married couple. We've had our ups and downs and I wanted to make sure I was fair to him while describing the journey we made together. He's been a real trooper about all this scrutiny. Fortunately, he's thick-skinned. Sometimes he has asked me why I needed to include this or that, referring to moments that were not our best as a couple, and I've told him that I wanted the story to be real. I wanted people to be able to identify with the struggles we've had, because everyone has something they have to get through. How often do you really get a true portrait of someone's marriage? I knew that if the book was about how great our marriage and life were not only would it not be true, but it would have no tension, no real plot. Plus, it would be sickening. Who wants to read that?

What advice would you have for other writers/would-be writers?
At this point I would say blog. I did a weekly blog for a year before I wrote my book and I was surprised how much that improved my writing. To write regularly for an audience and get constant feedback regarding what was working and what wasn't, really prepared me for writing my book. Obviously, I had lots of training before that--writing for magazines. But the regular nature of writing about my life for my blog readers pushed me along that much more.
EDITOR'S NOTE: J. Louise Larson, blogmistress for The Writing Porch, interviews published authors. To be considered, email her at jackielarsonwrites (at) gmail (dot) com. Larson's work has been published in a number of newspapers and magazines, including the Dallas Morning News and Entrepreneur Magazine. She is the managing editor of the Ennis Journal and a contributor at the Waxahachie Daily Light, and she has received the top award for series writing in Texas, the Texas APME, as well as a silver from the Parenting Publications of America. She co-authored a nonfiction career guide for FabJob Publishing in 2006, and is seeking representation for her new novel, 'At High Tide.'

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