Melissa Coleman: LibraryThing Author Interview
Melissa Coleman is the author of This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family's Heartbreak, now out in paperback. She is a columnist for Maine Home + Design magazine and serves on the board of The Telling Room, a writing center for children and young adults in Portland, Maine. She lives in Freeport, Maine, with her husband and twin daughters.
What made you decide to write this memoir? Was it something you always intended to write about?
Somehow I managed to avoid writing, and talking much, about my childhood for many years, fearing, I think, that I was responsible for some of the tragic things that happened. However, with the birth of my children, the past began urging me to make peace. I also found myself wanting to celebrate the beauty and connection to nature in my childhood, and the amazing effort made by my father, Eliot Coleman, and others, to lay the foundations for today's organic food revolution.
How much research was involved to bring such rich detail to the parts that occurred before you were old enough to remember it? You have your mother's journals. Did your parents help you otherwise in the process of telling this story?
I began with my own scraps of memories, images from photos, and family stories, but I needed to do a lot of research to fill in the blanks. There was my mother's journal, numerous news articles about us, books by the Nearings and others, and I tracked down and interviewed many of the apprentices and people who visited us during the 1970s. It was only with the help of all these people, especially my parents, that I was able to tell this story.
Both! It's incredibly difficult to dig into painful events in the past, but also very rewarding to let them go and find the beauty beneath. The liberation that came was something like what comes from making compost. You put all these scraps of things into a pile and let them settle and soon enough they turn into black gold, as my father calls compost, the rich soil in which new life can grow.
Some of the most beautiful scenes are the ones where you describe the connection to nature and the freedom you and your sister had growing up. This freedom came with a terrible price. How much does the fear from your own experience inform how you parent your own girls? And how do you share your love of the earth and connection with nature with them?
The natural world is the most powerful memory from my childhood. I'm reminded of lines from Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality," ("There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream/The earth and every common sight/To me did seem/Apparell'd in celestial light.") As children we have a strong connection to nature and God (or a greater power) that we often lose as we grow older. This is our "paradise lost." I find that magic again through contact with children and nature. And when I let go of the fear of loss, I live more fully.
This book was brutally honest at times, you told your story without apologizing for it, or for your characters, which I know your readers admire. Was this something that came naturally to you, or did you have to fight with an inner critic and editor the whole time?
While I didn't exactly strive to be "brutally honest," I did strive to write my understanding of the truth with compassion and understanding for all.
How did you come up with the title, This Life is in Your Hands? In the context of your story, it could mean so many things. What does it mean to you?
The title refers to our neighbor, Helen Nearing, who often read our fortunes in the lines of our palms. While the lines in each hand are unique, Helen told me they are not set in stone, but can grow and change as we do. The title also suggests that we can choose how we live our lives—do we focus on regretting what we don’t have, or celebrating what we do? It's up to each of us in every moment.
Tell us a bit about your writing process. When, where and how do you write?
Best for me is first thing in the morning. I'm not naturally a morning person, but I get up as early as I can, before the family is awake, and write until the day takes over. My husband is great about giving me that time when my mind is more attended to metaphor and the connections between things. Editing comes easier in the afternoon when my mind is more pragmatic.
What was the process of publishing this book like? Did you know it would be published as you were writing it, or was it something you wrote for yourself?
The book began as a personal way to understand the past, but at the same time I was writing for a reader. I found it best to toil in obscurity until I knew it was ready to go out in the world, and then I was lucky to find an amazing agent and publisher fairly quickly.
What are you writing now? Are you primarily a non-fiction writer or do you write fiction or poetry as well?
I found it hard to start a new book while promoting this one, but I'm now researching a story that's been tapping on my shoulder over the past year. It's not about my family this time (much to all of their relief, I'm sure!), but it feels great to begin the adventure of a new book.
—interview by Lisa Carey
Books by Melissa Coleman
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