Reading Kristy Athens’ new book is like settling in for a long fireside chat with an old friend. In Get Your Pitchfork On!: The Real Dirt on Country Living, she tells you everything she knows about rural life while peppering the facts with humorous asides and plenty of personal anecdotes.
Get Your Pitchfork On! was released last month as the seventh volume of Process Media’s Self-Reliance Series. The 341-page book is a modern and enjoyably personal take on the venerable how-to guide. It’s deliciously full of information on everything from chimney maintenance to the truth about mountain lions.
Kristy and her husband Michael spent six years living in the Columbia Gorge. What they learned forms the backbone of the book. Kristy isn’t afraid of telling people what went wrong in their experiment with country living; in fact, many chapters offer hilarious and informative first-hand accounts of how not to do something. It’s these insights that make Get Your Pitchfork On! a great read even for those who aren’t yearning for land of their own.
But certainly, if you’ve ever fantasized about fleeing the city, then you need this book. And if you live in Portland, Oregon, or nearby, come support Kristy Athens this week at her reading, scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Thursday, May 24, at Powell’s Books on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd.
Kristy has published short fiction and creative nonfiction in various magazines, newspapers and journals. You can get a great feel for her voice by checking out her entertaining Pitchfork blog.
Welcome to the Seven Questions series, Kristy!
1. Tell us about your new book, Get Your Pitchfork On!: The Real Dirt on Country Living.
Get Your Pitchfork On! is a primer for urban people who dream of moving to the country. My husband, Mike, and I owned seven acres on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge. We had four buildings, eight to ten chickens, a dog and then a cat.
The book has five sections: Land; Buildings, Inside and Out; Animals; Food; and Community, Family and Culture. The book is sort of between genres—I call it a “how-to with stories.”
2. Kristy, when and why did you decide to write about your experience in the Columbia River Gorge? Did putting your anecdotes on the page cause any new revelations about your six years in the country?
I started to think about writing a book after we moved to our land in 2003. I had been reading about “the country” for a few years, and had started learning to garden in Portland. I found that the existing books were great but that most of them were written in the 1970s. Some of the information was hopelessly outdated, and there was no mention of things like cell phone coverage, which turned out to be a big problem at our house. So, I thought maybe an update was in order.
The first piece I wrote was an essay about how much harder everything was to do than Mike and I had imagined. I sold it to Portland Monthly magazine, and they ran it in 2006. I wrote an essay about dressing a quail in Northwest Palate in 2008.
I was still mostly interested in fiction at the time, and I had two great jobs; one as community relations coordinator for the hospice and one as editor of a local lifestyle magazine. Very busy with those jobs, I was making notes for a book but not really progressing much with it.
Meanwhile, I started to get involved in local politics. This is in the book—I did not understand the ways of the small town and played with fire, and got burned. I lost both jobs, separate incidents, within a month of each other at the end of 2006.
This was, as you can imagine, quite a blow. But what’s important is I finally identified what was really missing from all those romance-of-country-living books—how to live in a rural community as a newcomer. When my husband and I had to sell our house, I was devastated but realized that I would be able to talk about my experiences with a truthfulness that I would never dare to employ if I were still living there.
3. Your book covers many facets of rural life. How did you organize such a wealth of material? Did you use an outline?
The manuscript was a real mess for a while! All of my prose is short—usually 1,000 to 1,500 words. So, for my own sanity, I couldn’t think of the book as a book—I had to think of it as a series of short pieces.
At first, I just wrote what interested me at the time. I skipped around; I didn’t worry about transitions or flow; I just cranked out the content. After a while, I started to think about how to organize it. Most of it was pretty clear-cut, but then you’d have something like deer—are they a pest? A beautiful wild creature? Dinner? Where should they go in the book? That was a little trickier.
4. The food section of GET YOUR PITCHFORK ON! offers useful information about gardening, composting, canning, dehydrating and “wildcrafting.” Now that you’re back in the city, do you have a garden or do you frequent farmers’ markets? Does your rural background affect your food choices in the city?
We were eating organic food long before we moved to Washington, so having lived on land is not such an influence; more a confirmation of ideals. But I did learn to can while I was in the country, and I made blueberry jam last summer. That felt good.
We are currently renting a house in Southeast Portland and I’ve been too busy with a full-time job, artwork and this book to focus on gardening much. A couple friends have had me over to their houses this spring to ask me questions about their gardens, which has been fun. I am definitely looking forward to having a decent plot of land again!
I am a total egg junkie (as evidenced in my blog), so buying eggs from the store, even an organic grocery chain, is totally killing me. I cannot wait to get chickens again!
5. Your experiences form the basis of GET YOUR PITCHFORK ON! but you also did some research. Please tell us a bit about that experience.
The most interesting and re-affirming part of working on Get Your Pitchfork On! was the research I did. It helped to hear other people’s stories and confirm that I was by no means alone in having experienced challenges as an urban transplant.
After we sold the farm, I called my Grandma Athens. She is also a writer, so I knew she would say yes when I asked if I could come and stay with her to work on my book. I spent four weeks over October and November 2009 in Appleton, Wisconsin, writing and researching. Appleton is right on the cusp of being a small city but is still, really, a large town and is surrounded by farmland. So, I read the local paper and toured around with my aunts, who educated me in both family history and rural Midwestern life.
In the spring of 2010 I served as the writer-in-residence in an extremely rural county in Oregon: Harney. For two months, I traveled around the county (which is more than 10,000 square miles in size!) and taught writing to schoolchildren and adults, and also had a lot of time to work on the book. While I was there I interviewed a veterinarian, hiked with llamas, and got an extensive lesson in firearms. One of the kids introduced me to her pigs. It was perfect to be re-immersed in a rural place while working on the book.
After I had a full draft of the book, I sent it to people all over the United States for feedback—friends from North Carolina, Florida, Minnesota, and of course Oregon—to make sure I hadn’t missed anything and that it wasn’t a Pacific Northwest-specific book.
6. Your obvious love of storytelling also plays into your artistic Etsy business, ithaka: repurposed literary ephemera. Does the concept of reusing paper play into the same values you had as a farmer?
That is an insightful question! I’d never thought about it, but you are absolutely right—no farmer I know lives an extravagant lifestyle. Frugality and thrift are valued, which is, incidentally, an interesting middle ground between farmers and city-environmentalists.
I have pretty much always been an “environmentalist.” Part of the challenge of the artwork I create is that it has to come from a first-hand source. I only cut books that are damaged or obsolete, like encyclopedia volumes and atlases that include the Soviet Union. It would be easy to print images from the Internet or photocopy the books I have, but my goal is to take material out of the waste stream.
Also, I have to note that I was never a “farmer” per se. I often refer to the land and buildings we owned as a “farm,” but my husband and I never sold our produce.
7. In addition to your new nonfiction book, you have published a lot of short fiction and creative fiction. Any advice for writers who are trying to get their work out there?
Start small—you can’t get into [insert prestigious literary journal here] right out of the chute. If a publication offers writer’s guidelines, for god’s sake read them and follow the directions. Don’t get “cute” in your cover letter, be sincere and concise. Good writing stands out far more than some kind of snarky attitude or clever typeface. (Can you tell I’ve been an editor before?) Send work that is appropriate for the publication. The best way to determine that is to read the publication.
Attend and then try to get into local readings. If you’re serious about being a writer, then you have to be a team player and go to writers’ events. We all know it’s all about you, but you have to at least pretend otherwise. Don’t be competitive; we’re all in this together.
Kristy, thank you so much for visiting today, and thanks, too, for explaining the definition of a farmer. Congratulations on the publication of Get Your Pitchfork On!