||Meriwether O'Connor is a goat-farmer in rural Maine who grew up in Kentucky, and has migrated around the country following her heart and her need to live where she can raise her own food and harvest wild edibles from poke to rattlesnake. Before moving to Maine, she lived most recently in New Mexico, where (among other things) she ran a poetry project.
Read Susan J. Tweit's review of Joe Potato's Real Life Recipes: Tall Tales & Short Stories for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 10/22/2014
When did you begin working on the stories in Joe Potato's Real Life Recipes? And what tradition do they come from? They're not quite Southern Gothic...
All of them were written within the past five years. About half had been in little magazines along the way and about half were new.
Joe Potato fits into what is now called "Grit Lit," a more down-to-earth version of Southern Gothic, I guess. It suits me, even if Maine's not exactly known for its grits.
How did you know when you had enough stories for a book? (That is, did you start out with a fixed idea of how many stories you needed, or did you keep writing until at some point you said to yourself, I've said enough for for now.)
Actually, there were a lot more stories. I left out quite a few. I chose the ones in the book because they all seemed to go together. Some of the ones I left out had such a different feel to them. Just because it's a perfectly nice story doesn't mean it's going to make the whole thing stronger.
I wanted the book to be an experience all of its own. It wasn't just a container for the tales, but sort of another world you entered into itself. Kind of like Mother Goose for grown ups. Or, the first time you read Mother Goose or Hans Christian Anderson and it felt so alive. One person said reading it was like sitting by a fire and hearing stories. Now, to me, that's a compliment. So it affirms for me that it was okay to keep it slim and have just the right ones in there.
Are the characters based on people you've known over the years?
They're all fictional. I try really hard to make things be as real as possible, though, in their own way. For instance, all the plant lore is true. Even about the Marvels of Peru breaking a couple of Mendel's rules. Most of the recipes are real, as well. At worst, they're cobbled together from experience, tales I've heard, and research.
Some of the stories in Joe Potato's Real Life Recipes are told in a very realistic fashion, almost deadpan, like "The Squirrel"; others, like "Marvel of Peru" have aspects of magical realism, something I think most people wouldn't associate with a vernacular voice of Appalachia. (Okay, at least not before Barbara Kingsolver used it in Flight Behavior). Were you conscious of choosing realism or magical realism for the different stories, or did they just spin out that way?
The stories are pretty much their own creatures. I craft them, but to a certain extent, they already exist. I actually took some of the magical realism out of a couple of the stories based on some advice. Next time, I think I'll leave them be. I think readers are smart enough to see them side by side.
I think regions with a strong base in nature lend themselves to both, honestly, whether they're seen that way from the outside or not. The same thing that makes you have a very pragmatic view of nature also makes you view it as magical as you see so much more of its possibilities. You realize how big an influence it has and all that entails, both mystical and practical. Myself, I really enjoy both types of writing, realism and magical realism. I could read Jack London and Isabel Allende right in a row with no problem.
The writer who probably best exemplifies what I would love to do is Ntozake Shange when she wrote the 80s novel Sassafras, Cypress and Indigo. Most people know her for the movie "For Colored Girls," based on her play. She's an amazing writer who seems to be able to do whatever she wants. She deconstructs language and recreates it fresh on the page.
I saw a reading she gave once for Sassafras. Actually, I should say that I participated in a reading as she created a room from the novel that we, the audience were encouraged to interact with! The characters creatively made dolls, food and weavings, among other things in her book. We were able to finish some of the weavings up on the wall, play with the dolls, etc. Truly wonderful. She has influenced me with that openness and accessibility in many things I've done since. What a gift to give a stranger!
She brought the characters off the page and the readers into the book. She used many, many techniques to do that, including recipes. By having my own characters give their opinions about food they ate in the story once the story itself is technically over with and boss the reader about how to prepare it, I wanted to help create that same feeling of moving beyond what was expected.
A sort of light, laughing feeling...like you're cheating, but in a good way. Sure you can have recipes but can you really have characters telling you the right way to drink your coffee or make your sandwich? And arguing with each other about it? Why not? Plus food is just so important, both as nourishment and as culture, especially in the rural Appalachian culture that these Grit Lit stories come from. When does a recipe, even an odd one, not make something better?
I really love that one of the characters in Joe Potato basically nullifies the recipe at the end of his own story by saying, "why have a garden? The chickens just eat it in the end." I wanted the sense they were their own people and didn't have to follow the narrator's or author's guidelines. That was important to me...that sense that they exist outside of me and my imagination. (This refers to the print edition which had some changes since the e-book.)
You've just returned from a book tour by Greyhound bus. How did that go? And why Greyhound?
My characters are definitely bus takers, so it fits the whole theme of the book. In "Winter's Coming," Mrs. Sunday finds herself walking up and down the city trying to find the bus station with the racing dog, aka the Greyhound. Before it was Greyhound, it was Trailways. The new one I want to take is MegaBus. Haven't taken that one yet.
It's cost effective to take the bus—plus I get to meet more of the readers more in depth which I love. I traded the book for many things along the way which helped me meet a goal of getting it into people's hands who might not go to readings, who might find them too fancy or boring or off-putting in some other way.
If a stranger hands you a book or someone tells you to read it, you might not want to, but if you get it in return for something, it brings a whole other realm to things. It's now currency. It's far more than a book. It's like being one of the old time bards or something. Storytelling for your supper. Or, 2 a.m. snack of bratwurst from a hotdog cart in Nashville while listening to a guy play Heartbreak Hotel on his sax on the street corner. Whichever. And which really happened on this tour.
The next day, across the same street, I traded a book to a man all dressed in silver (including his skin) for sharing his shelter from the rain in a sudden downpour. I will never forget either of those two men or their stories, as I would at your standard meet-and-greet. You meet people on a whole other level, which I'm so grateful for.
I got so many practical things in exchange for Joe Potato: a phone charger, bratwurst and potato chips, directions, ginger ale, character research for stories, help toting my luggage, advice and lots more. Across so many states so many folks were so welcoming. Oh, and a cat. That was the day after I got back.
Also I traded him, Joe Potato, for lots of life stories which I love! It's really a miracle how each of us navigates this earth during our lifetimes and I'm honored when someone chooses to share with me their own special brand of stubbornness or perseverance. It helps me when I feel frazzled to think of all these other good people fighting their own fights in life. And, of course, parts of their stories will make it into the Daily Yonder which tickles me pink. So many of them were so amazing.
The Daily Yonder tweeted about your book tour as it happened. How did you make that connection? And has that exposure opened up new opportunities?
It was so fun. I had bothered those poor people about a review. They'd said no as they didn't deal with fiction. But it was the best no ever as it turned into me writing a story about my trip south for the book. I met so many folks on the bus from New Jersey to Tennessee, from Maryland to Kentucky, and everywhere in between. So many great folks and stories. I was glad the Yonder was interested in riding along, too. There were folks going to have babies, folks going to funerals, folks going off to school and folks going to find jobs. It was really an amazing cross section of people.
A bus is like a small town on wheels. You get to know people a lot better. Or worse, depending. The Daily Yonder has been wonderful to work with. A true blessing. It looks like I'll be doing some regular things for them so that's nice.
What did you learn from writing Joe Potato's Real Life Recipes that you didn't know before? What surprised you most about the book?
I was tickled that other people got my sense of humor. I was really worried about that. As far as what I learned...I didn't realize I thought about plants so much. I thought about going to school to be a botanist when I was younger, but I'm just so much better at doing things than sitting still being told about them. I was one of those fidgety kids in school who could only really listen when I was busy doing something else. Not conducive to acquiring a Ph.D., I'm afraid. I've also been really tickled that so many people in large cities enjoy it, too. I didn't know if they would "get it," but they do!
You've lived what could be described as a rural subsistence existence in New Mexico and now in Maine. How has knowing those two very different places at the intimate level of raising your own food and foraging for wild plants affected your writing?
It's affected me very much. Both of my parents came from rural and foraging cultures, though they didn't do it themselves as grown people. Even when I lived in a city, I knew the plants that you could eat or use to heal. I really love that nature does provide for us. I'm grateful.
It affects my writing as it sort of weaves its way into things no matter what. Even in the city, I would get dandelions or henbit from the yard or purslane from the cracks in the sidewalks. It just sort of forces its way into my writing, like those weeds that come up through a blacktopped road or that tree that slowly breaks down a brick wall or encompasses a cyclone fence inside itself. They're just there, regardless. They don't feel the need to ask for permission.
What's next for your writing? Another book of short stories?
I'm winnowing down stories right now for the next collection that will be out next year, probably called Gardenia's Picking Up Pawpaws. Gardenia is the character from "The Squirrel." Paw-paws comes from the "picking up pawpaws" song we used to sing as kids. (Pawpaws are a gigantic fruit that you either love or hate. They're known for growing in patches...as in... "way down yonder in the pawpaw patch!") It looks like a few other characters will reappear, too, with also a lot of new folks along for the ride.
I'm starting to try and place a few of those stories to test drive them so to speak. Right now, there's a character who gets obsessed with a chiffarobe and steals it to "save" it from its current owner and carry it for miles in a storm. I'm not sure he'll make the grade, but I am enjoying him living his life right now regardless. Also there's a lady who's failed fireman's training school three times and finally passes. I'm kind of cottoning to her. I hope she makes it into the book.
I feel lucky I get to know all these characters along the way and I root for their tales to make it in which is hard as not everyone can. It could be a great tale but just not really fit with the others. I think I sound more like a coach or an editor for an anthology but that's how I feel. My characters may come through me, but they're very separate, too.
What's your favorite recipe using wild food?
Probably something with pigweed. Not the amaranth pigweed but the lamb's quarters one. The one that really does taste like spinach. I've served that to people who weren't into fresh food and they loved it, said they'd be happy to eat it every night.
There used to be a patch nearby an art gallery I went to. I'd get a mess of greens and take it home to cook. I told them what I was doing but I'm not sure if they ever believed me. There were some really nice berries that grew over there, too. I told folks and they looked at me like I was inviting them to eat dirt. Maybe I was!
By the way, if you're vegetarian, a good way to get the yummy taste in greens or beans that pork fat might give is to save the grease after you make french fries and stir a spoonful or two in. It gives the down-home flavor you might be missing. I realize this is heresy these days, but grease used more than once gives the best flavor in such a situation. And by grease, of course, I mean vegetable oil. We just call it that.
I'm tickled to say that a couple people who are vegan read the book and enjoyed it. I always kind of feel duty bound to warn vegetarians beforehand that it's very...farmy. But they said they appreciated the way I talked about food and the culture around it.
Also, I imagine, though I could be wrong, the idea that really none of my characters is above being food themselves was refreshing. They are not high falutin' in any sense of the word. So, there's not that disconnect that we're part of the food chain as well. They don't see themselves as better than what they eat, no matter what that might be, and in fact have a daily relationship with it. Maybe lack of self-importance is what makes it Grit Lit ('cause it's certainly not recipes with grits!).
Oh, and most importantly, the vegans thought it was funny! I don't think there's anything wrong with being serious and funny like there's nothing wrong with mixing the magical with the real. It's all for entertainment, in the end, to make our time here as enjoyable as possible, so why not?
Read more about Meriwether's Greyhound bus trip on the Daily Yonder website and on Twitter.