Working the Land, Writing in Your Head: Q&A with Novella Carpenter

Novella Carpenter (photo by Sophia Wang)

I was in Upstate New York last fall, visiting family, when my aunt thrust a book in my hands. “I saved this for you,” she said. “You have to read it.”

The book was Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, by Novella Carpenter (Penguin Press, 2009). I was skeptical. After all, my aunt is as conservative and Catholic as I am liberal and un-churched. But I was immediately sucked into Carpenter’s world, into the unlikely mixture of urban life: the graffiti, the drugs, the lawlessness of a dead-end Oakland street; and the farming life: hives buzzing with happy bees, baby chicks chirping on the doorstep, pigs rolling lazily in the dirt.

The story takes us through Carpenter’s journey to make a home amid the blight, and start a farm on an adjacent, unused lot. It’s a modern-day adventure that addresses the issues that many of us — on the left and the right — are wringing our hands about these days: the deplorable state of the environment, the rise of “frankenfood,” our lost connection to the art of cooking and to communing with each other through food.

But Carpenter has better things to do than wring her hands. The turkey just flew into the neighbor’s yard and the pigs are hungry! Throughout, Carpenter is unapologetically herself. She has high ideals for what makes a purposeful life, but she’s no hippie and she swears like a trucker. By the end of the book, she manages to leave us feeling giddy and hopeful for the future.

As it turned out, she lives 20 blocks from my own urban home-sweet-home, and since I read the book, we’ve become friends. One evening recently, I sat down with Carpenter in her second-floor Oakland apartment, while the goats dozed in their sleeping shed and the baby ducklings nestled together on the back stairs. Though we didn’t get into her recent travails with the City of Oakland because of her urban farming, we did talk about the continuing reactions to her book and the new memoir she’s working on.

ZYZZYVA: What kind of feedback have you had from readers since the book was published?

Carpenter: I get a lot of emails from readers who say they read the book and they’re inspired to do some of the things that I did, like keep bees or raise turkeys. And then I get emails from older folks who’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for a long time, and they just want to tell me about it. People just want to share their farming experiences and I’m an outlet for it. I never know how to respond to those emails, but I like getting them.

Sometimes I get hate mail. Usually rabbit activists who don’t agree with the fact that I eat my rabbits.

Z: Why rabbit activists?

There’s a whole group of people who keep bunnies in their homes, and they consider me to be a murderer. I think it’s great that they keep pets — people need to have animals around to love. But me, I mean, I’m more into the edible pet idea. We have some ducklings on the steps — they’re so cute. But then they grow up and they’re not so cute anymore. And then it’s dinnertime…

My basic principle is the animals have a great life: They’re fed good food, they’re given love. I hold them and take care of them. You know how people say a steer just has one bad day? My animals have one bad minute. There’s no stressful trip to the slaughterhouse, there’s no fear before death. [At the moment of death] they are literally being held by the person who’s raised them and cared for them, and it’s done humanely and swiftly.

Z: So given all of that, why the anger directed at you?

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Carpenter: Unlike a giant corporation, like Tyson, I’m an actual person. You can bitch about Tyson, but they’re anonymous because they’re a giant corporation. I’m an easy target. I have an email address. I’ve become a placeholder for their anger.

When Michael Pollan wrote the article, “This Steer’s Life,” [the original New York Times Magazine title was “Power Steer”] people were not reacting against the meat industry when they wrote angry letters to the editor. Instead, they said, Let’s save Steer number such-and-such. It’s this idea that if you can save the individual, then everything will be fine. It’s because in America we think the individual is the most important thing. It’s very cowboy. It’s not thinking of the greater good. It’s not thinking there’s a feedlot where animals are pumped full of hormones and then slaughtered in giant squalid slaughterhouses manned by underpaid laborers and then fed to the public.

My point is, what if you become the slaughterhouse worker, but you have a farm, and you take responsibility for that work? For me it’s like, let’s just all take responsibility for our food and then we don’t have this problem of people working in these terrible conditions and the animals living in these terrible conditions.

Z: How do you integrate being an urban farmer with writing about it?

Carpenter: Being a farmer, there’s a lot of time you’re doing manual labor and just thinking. You have time and space to think.

One of Carpenter's Muscovy ducks (photo by Sophia Wang)

Z: Do you write in your head?

Carpenter: Not exactly, but I do a lot of thinking that ends up in my writing. I definitely get core issues I’m thinking about worked out in the garden. And then when I sit down in front of the computer, I have a more cohesive thought.

Besides you can’t write all day. I can write about four hours a day, and the rest of the time I’m puttering around feeding animals and pulling weeds and that kind of stuff. That’s when my unconscious mind is doing a lot of the heavy lifting for me, while I’m working. Or sleeping. Or eating. Plus, in the garden, there are lots of moments of tension, or your neighbors come by to talk about the garden. It’s a good springboard for ideas about humanity or community or your culture. That’s what I like about it.

Also, my farm is only a tenth of an acre. It’s a manageable size. It’s not like I’m a farmer. I don’t know how Wendell Berry does it. I don’t have to get my team of draft horses ready to plow 20 acres. That’s the kind of work that would make you so exhausted you couldn’t write.

Z: Tell me about the process of writing your last book.

Novella Carpenter: Writing Farm City was a challenge for me. My original proposal was to write a series of essays, each one with a Latin name for a farm animal or vegetable. My idea was kind of David Sedaris — funny, where you get the picture of the person, but there’s no clear narrative. It’s just about whatever subject you’re riffing on. David always talks about his family, and I would just be riffing on the farm.

When I met my editor, Ann Godoff, she said, “No, you’re not going to have these little chapters. I want it to read like a novel. A story with a beginning, a middle, an end.”

She has this little statue of a jade Buddha in her office, and I remember rubbing its belly and thinking, This woman is a genius. Of course! Who would want to read a bunch of essays from some nobody?

Then I had to actually write it. I had to take apart my essays, disassemble them … well, basically I just had to rewrite the whole book. It was really painful. One of my first readers, a good friend of mine, said, “It reads like an acid trip.” It didn’t hold together. I hadn’t learned how to signpost.

Z: So how did you learn that? To create a coherent narrative?

Carpenter: I had a lot of readers. They would say, “Tell me more about this.” “Tell me more about that.” I had the bones of the story, but I had to get the tendons and the muscles in there to guide you through the anatomy of the story.

After a while, I would write something, then look at it with fresh eyes the next day and see that I needed to explain something more. Time is really important. I had to write, then sleep, and then look at it again. It’s not even about editing. It’s about sleeping and letting your unconscious brain work on it.

Also, memoir is hard because it actually happened. So you really have to mine what you were thinking. You can’t just invent a motivation. I’d ask Bill [my partner], “What was I thinking when we got the pigs?” and he’d help me remember. It helped that I had a journal and I had a blog, so I could go back and look up what the pigs looked like or what I was feeling at the time. Otherwise it gets really hazy.

Z: What are you working on now?

Carpenter: I’m working on a how-to urban farm book that’s coming out in Spring 2012. And I’m working on another memoir called “Gone Feral,” which is about trying to reconnect with my estranged mountain man father.

Z: Tell me about the memoir.

Carpenter: There’s a conflict between farmers and people who just want to live wild. Hunter-gatherers who want to not have to do any work. It’s a very romantic view of what it’s like to live off the land. My father went missing in 2009 and very much represented that ideal: the man who can live in the wild without anyone else around. When he went missing, I thought I’d lost my chance to understand that perspective. To understand who he is, and who I am, because I’m half of him.

So I started to chip away at this idea. I took training — primitive skills camp — where we made fire with rubbing two sticks together and practiced stalking wildlife. Bow-and-arrow shooting. That kind of thing. This was all in anticipation of meeting up with my dad.

Z: Is he still missing?

Carpenter: No. He resurfaced. He’s fine, but having him disappear really made me think about needing to connect with him. On what terms can we relate to each other? We’re estranged, but I knew there was this kernel, that we weren’t really that different. Just like farmers and hunter-gatherers aren’t really that different.

There’s this whole study that anthropologists have done that shows hunter-gatherers actually were stewards of the land. That they tended to the land the way I tend to my farm.

Z: So it’s a story about wildness versus domestication?

Carpenter: Yeah. And it’s about father-daughter relationships. And how dang hard those are. Really, how hard they are to … there’s so many myths. My dad is definitely not the breadwinner. And I’m not Daddy’s Little Girl. I’m a tomboy anarchist.

Katrina Alcorn is a writer and web consultant and lives in Oakland, Calif.. She blogs at

One thought on “Working the Land, Writing in Your Head: Q&A with Novella Carpenter

  1. I’m the aforementioned aunt. I hope not nearly as heinous as “conservative and catholic” might suggest. I do step on toes from time to time.

    A couple of years ago I had a friend ask me to donate money to her “save the bunnies” rescue operation. Apparently there are feral bunnies all over Los Angeles – abandoned months after they have outgrown their Easter cuteness. I suggested rather than spending an estimated $400 a month for one bunny’s care (I still shake my head at that proposed number) the organization could kill two birds (bunnies) with one stone by butchering the abandoned bunnies and donating the meat to the poor of LA. The donated money could then be spent to help the poor. She didn’t like the idea and I haven’t heard from her since.

    Oh well.

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