I’m delighted to welcome author Marlene Anne Bumgarner to my blog. I loved her memoir which took me back to coming of age in the 1970s. Below are Marlene’s responses to my interview questions, followed by her bio and contact/buy links:
For our readers unfamiliar with your memoir, Back to the Land in Silicon Valley, can you share what it’s about?
Back to the Land in Silicon Valley is the story of my husband and me, who moved to a rural plot of land in 1973 and were joined by friends who shared our desire to be self-sufficient and sheltered from the sociological and political strife of the Vietnam war period. Over the decade we lived on the land, we faced the challenges of rural life and the attraction of technology as Silicon Valley evolved only a few miles north of our freehold. One reviewer called the book “Little House on the Prairie for grown-ups.”
You’ve had a rich and varied career as a writer, speaker, business owner, and educator. Yet writing a memoir, particularly about a period in your life that happened decades ago, is an enormous undertaking. Other than wanting to pass family history on to your children and your inquisitive grandchild Stella, what inspired you to write Back to the Land in Silicon Valley?
We found living on the land to be a healing experience. Our cohort of like-minded people had lived through the Bay of Pigs, the very real fear of atomic war, the assassination of several of our nation’s leaders, and 24/7 television coverage of the Vietnam war and racial violence. We wanted to shelter our children from that world. We didn’t know it, but we adults needed that shelter also, in order to grapple with the brokenness of our nation.
As our children grew up and started families of their own, I realized that they were facing many of the same challenges that we had. They wanted to raise their children in a safe and peaceful environment, sheltered from the hatred and violence they were seeing on television every day.
I wrote the book for my own children, yes, but also for other young adults looking for alternatives to ordinary life in the cities and suburbs of America. I wanted to show them that although we may not be able to escape the modern world we live in we can modify it; living lightly on the land, learning to manage interpersonal conflict, raising a few chickens or rabbits in our back yards, growing vegetables for personal consumption. These are pathways available to all of us, whether we live in a city, the suburbs, or on a rural plot of land.
In the prologue of your memoir, you say that this period of your life in the 1970s altered how you “perceived the world” and your “place in it?” Can you talk about how your world view and identity changed during this period?
The first thing I discovered after we moved to the land was that no one was going to show up to help us solve our daily problems. We had to grade our own muddy road, collect and remove our trash and our personal waste, figure out how to obtain water, heat and light, care for animals, raise vegetables, build fences. I was 19 when I was married, and 26 when we moved to the land. I was accustomed to other people – grownups – taking care of things. Now I needed to learn how to take care of myself. That was a lesson that has served me well all my life.
What do you hope your readers will take away from your experiences in this very formative period of your life as a young wife and mother?
I hope they will see that they have many options in life, and one of the most important one is to take responsibility for their actions. I was a very passive young woman when we first moved on the land. Slowly at first, then with increasing speed, I learned how to ask for help, then how to accomplish new things myself. I hope they will see that they are the authors of their own lives, and that neither parents, partners, the government, or friends have the right to dictate their actions, as long as they are in accordance with local laws and regulations.
The sixties and seventies were such a tumultuous time in our history, and we are once again living through a challenging and divisive period. You made some conscious parenting choices to create an alternative environment in which to raise your children. Do you have any advice for contemporary parents struggling to raise children in such fractious times?
Look at your options. We have many choices in our country. Public school, private school, home school – parents can stay at home with their children or entrust them to others to care for and educate. They can choose from a wide variety of philosophies of education and child rearing. I encourage them to read widely, talk to others who have already raised their children, and reflect on their own childhoods.
Your memoir includes many joyful moments and evidence of your continuous resilience, as well as a number of dark experiences, particularly the disintegration of your marriage. Was it painful to revisit this part of your history?
It was incredibly painful. That’s why it took over 20 years to write it, and why it sat, unfinished, for so many of those years. In an effort to get through the pain I enrolled in a weekly writing class, attended two memoir-writing retreats, and read other people’s memoirs. In the end I hired a writing coach, who guided me and gave me a safe place to share painful memories.
When I got to the end of your memoir, I had the same reaction your granddaughter did. “What happened next?” Do you have any plans for continuing to write your life story?
I do. My parents were both in the British Army during World War II. Their strength and resilience were models for me, although I didn’t understand that until they were in their eighties. I want to write about our emigration from the north of England to a chicken ranch in Florida, our flight from an unsatisfactory life on the ranch to the vibrant and fast-growing San Francisco Bay Area, and their final adventure, moving to Vancouver Island in their sixties, to clear a plot of land and build the home that would shelter them until the end of their lives. Somewhere in that story is what I did after I left the land with my first two children, and why.
Speaking of writing projects, what are you currently working on?
I have completed the revision of a book I wrote in 1982. Now titled Organic Cooking for (not-so-organic) Families. It is with my publisher, and hopefully will be out by the end of the year. I am researching a book about grandparenting – how intergenerational relationships can shape the next generation. And I am writing a cozy mystery with a grandmother as the protagonist. I’ve never written fiction before, so that is fun.
Do you have any advice for aspiring memoir writers?
Start while you are living the story you plan to tell. Keep a journal, letters, photos, newspaper clippings. When you are ready to start writing, put together a support team, at least one person who knew you in your childhood (fact checker), someone who has written a memoir (guide), and someone in your family who actually wants to know the story (fan club).
Anything else you’d like to add, or wish I’d asked that I didn’t?
Yes – the publishing world has changed during my writing life. I pitched my first book, The Book of Whole Grains, directly to St. Martin’s Press in 1975, and they took it. I self-published my second book in 1982. My third book was a text, and the publisher came to me in the early 90s. I was fortunate to find a small publisher to take my memoir and my new cookbook. But you need an agent to secure a traditional publishing contract with the big five, so I am developing a nonfiction proposal for the grandparenting book, and I will soon start sending it out to agents. There are other alternatives, too, such as self-publishing and hybrid publishing. No matter which route today’s writers choose to take, they also need to publicize their books. Which is why I am thankful to you for this interview.
Thanks for visiting today, Marlene!
After teaching at Gavilan Community College in Gilroy for 30 years, Marlene Anne Bumgarner moved to the California coast when her first grandchild was born. There she volunteers in the Young Writers program in local schools, leads writing workshops, and enjoys walking along the coast with her border collie, Kismet. The author of The Book of Whole Grains, Organic Cooking for (not-so-organic) Mothers, and Working with School Age Children, she is now writing a historical novel set in 19th century industrial England. Find out more about Marlene’s family life, cooking, and gardening at marlenebumgarner.com.