Wednesday, April 18, 2012
April 2012 Author of the Month: An Interview With Yvonne Osborne
Yvonne Osborne is a self-described "organic writer" whose work encompasses traditional themes like romance and rivalry while also incorporating environmental themes. I recently had the pleasure of reading her debut novel-in-progress, Black River. After I'd completed the manuscript and offered my feedback, I asked Yvonne to speak with me in-depth about the project. The results were revealing:
Your novel, Black River, takes place in Michigan and is heavily steeped in that unique northern environment. How did Michigan influence this book and what impact has it had on your other writing?
The Michigan landscape and environment has had a huge impact on my writing. I grew up running barefoot around the farm. I learned to swim in Lake Huron which we just called the lake, and we vacationed “Up North” in a modest cottage on a little lake with a fishing boat and a dock. My father instilled in us a love of nature, from driving around the countryside and pointing out a dairy herd or a field of rye to walking the lane and remarking upon the unique beauty of a pheasant and how to listen for the sound of a quail.
From the predictable migration of the Canadian geese to the ever-changing landscape, Michigan is a part of me I can’t separate myself or my writing from. Though I moved away for a while, I never really left, and my writing is influenced now by what I see going on around me. This seeps into Black River. Since nothing is truer than fiction, writing fiction is an outlet for my emotions. I can plant them in my fictional characters and they act them out in ways that I can’t.
The main family in the book, the Sopals, are organic farmers who are closely in touch with the rhythms of nature. You write about their agricultural life with a great level of detail. Do you have a background in farming? If so, how do you feel your roots are reflected in your work?
I grew up on the family farm where my parents still live. It has been in the family for almost two-hundred years. We are certified organic and have had to face some of the same issues the Sopals face. Sustainable farming is a way of life. My brother is simply farming the way my father did fifty years ago, before the invention of agricultural chemicals and petroleum-based fertilizers. My roots are reflected in my work in every way. Memories I forgot I had come out when the writing begins.
Black River tackles a number of hot-button issues, including wrongful imprisonment, climate change, murder, incest, rape, illegal immigration, and the pervasiveness of the military-industrial complex. Which of these did you consider most important to write about?
Do I have to choose one?
Climate change is real and is beginning to adversely affect us here in rural America. For instance, planting zones have changed, and as farmers, we have to rethink seed varieties, switching from northern staples to longer-season crops.
As an example: our favorite varieties of garlic no longer do as well here. Crops like hardneck garlic and winter wheat need a long cold winter and snow cover. We aren’t getting that anymore. We’ve reached the point of irreversible damage, yet as a country we continue to ignore it. Thus, I think it is important to write about.
Secondly, I see chilling similarities between what is happening here and what happened in Germany in the 1930s. Fear of immigrants, isolationism, and a rising military industrial complex that is revered and can do no wrong in the prevailing view of the public.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m as patriotic as the next person, but patriotism is not about isolationism and hiding your insecurities behind the flag. It’s not about wearing the flag backwards on your sleeve. It’s about flying the flag on a pole and taking it down at night. It’s about welcoming strangers. If I had to choose, I would say that this is the most important thing I could write about.
In Black River you take a highly critical stance on both the American justice system and the U.S. military, to the point that one character's decision to enlist as a servicemember is regarded by the others as a major crisis. Some readers will doubtless take affront to your positions here. What motivated you to include them?
I’ve had military recruiters knocking on my front door to take my son out to breakfast only to find him recalcitrant in his bedroom, having changed his mind.
"Please tell them I don’t want to go."
Two grown men in dress uniforms are hard to stand down when you’re only seventeen. They entered the high school, hunting him down, but the principal had the balls to kick them out. Believe me, this felt like a crisis. More recently I’ve seen them on the farm looking for my nephew. They’re like bloodhounds on the scent of vulnerability. I see it as preying on susceptible youth with promises of money, travel, and education. I see them as Jehovah Witnesses on the doorstep, and I know a lot of people will hate me for this, but I don’t like anyone on my doorstep trying to sell me anything, whether it’s vacuums, salvation, or heroes.
It’s important for us to have a viable military but when the culture starts to permeate every aspect of society and enlistees are treated like heroes when they haven’t done anything other than make a career choice, an unhealthy situation arises. Military recruiters have argued successfully that they be allowed on campus just like any other recruiter. Okay. Fair enough. But why is the kid they recruit any more of a hero than the kid who decides to go into Medicine at his own expense? Or those who select the Peace Corps or Agricultural Science or Biology? (With growing antibiotic resistance, we are going to need a lot of them.) Or the kid who decides to farm and provide clean, healthy food for his/her community? Who are our heroes? Who will make the more important contribution to society? When undue acclaim is given to the military career over all others, the balance in society is upended.
Finally, I work at the airport and I see the welcome-home banners and the honor guards and the flag-waving and the cheering. I see young people coming home, conflicted by the attention. I remember one youth in particular who walked off the airplane by himself and was met by his parents shyly waving little flags. He shouldered his rucksack and said, “Put those away. I need a cigarette.”
You experienced some success in a writing contest sponsored by Amazon. Could you tell us about that?
Some very modest success, I would say. My novel was one of 10,000 entries. The first round judging was based solely on the pitch, a 300-word query. From that the field was narrowed from 10,000 to 2,000, a drastic lowering of the boom. So when I made the cut, I was ecstatic. Then came the reading. In the second round each 5,000-word excerpt was read by two Amazon reviewers and from those two reviews 500 advanced. My two reviews were rather tough, and I did not advance. But I have taken away something positive from the experience. And I added another layer to my epidermis.
What do you hope readers take away from Black River?
That it isn’t always easy to be good in the country. There’s a lot of passion out here in the country. We have opposing views on methods, but farming is the backbone of society, and we believe that sustainable farming is the future.
I hope that readers of Black River take away a desire to help find a solution to the migrant worker/immigration dilemma and that they will at least entertain the ideas that growing food is more important than waging war, and forcing women to give up control of their reproductive health to a government controlled by men is not a healthy way for society to advance. Finally, I hope that readers will just enjoy my story, the twists and turns, the subplots and the romance.