Saturday, August 11, 2012

Hens and Chickens by Jennifer Wixson - Part II

Jennifer Wixson -
image from book jacket
Yesterday I posted my thoughts on Hens and Chickens by Jennifer Wixson.  Those thoughts led to some questions - as frequently happens when I'm reading - but this time I had direct access to the author and Jennifer was gracious enough to answer my questions and allow me to share her answers with you.  So here's a little further insight into the story and the person behind it - in Jennifer's own words:

1.  So many of the places you describe in the book - Millet Rock and the Staircase Tree come to mind - are so vivid that it makes me wonder if they are real places.  Are the locations in the book totally of your imagination or are they based on actual sites?

Now you're going to find out what most folks probably suspect after reading "Hens and Chickens" ~ I'm not a creator or inventor or magical or even specially gifted; I'm a storyteller who steals from real life.

The Staircase Tree is real. I've seen it. I know where it is. The photo on the cover of the book is actually a picture I took of this tree. The Cranberry Man (my husband) and I drove by this tree on a back road in central Maine one day many, many months ago and I spotted the Staircase Tree and said, "Pull over, quick!" (My husband thought I had to pee, I'm sure.) I hopped out of the truck and took a picture of this unique old maple tree. I don't know who had the creativity to cut steps into this downed tree limb or why (although I do provide an answer to those questions for Sovereign's Staircase Tree in Book II, "Peas, Beans and Corn"). I loved the woodcarver's sense of humor I spied in the tree, the tenacity, the ability to make good from something bad. You see these traits in Maine people a lot. Sometimes they comes out in unique ways, like the Staircase Tree.

The Millett Rock is also real. The rock is situated deep DEEP in a woodlot that abuts my own 50-acre woodlot in Troy. Years ago on one of my rambles through the woods, I stumbled on this giant rock, which rose up like a mysterious gray castle between several towering pines. The rock had an old hemp rope ladder dangling down the side like a strand of Rapunzel's hair. Well, I couldn't resist. What a view! What a lovely spot for a picnic! However, when I asked around town, I was surprised to discover that nobody knew anything about this big rock ~ except for one Old Timer (now in his 80s). The Old Timer told me that 75 years ago none of the trees in the woodlot were there -- the land was all open fields thus the BIG rock was exposed and well-known to all the locals. Folks used to climb and play on the Millett Rock and take picnics down to it. The Old Timer as a little boy used to hunt porcupines that were denned up in the Millett Rock (he was paid 25 cents for each critter, which were so numerous they were a menace to the farmers' crops). I forgot to ask him why it was called the Millett Rock, though. It's on my to-do list so I can explain it in Book II. However, I better hurry up and visit the Old Timer again soon or he may take this mystery to his grave!

In short, all the places in "Hens and Chickens" are real -- including the houses. However, especially in the case of the houses, they are a compilation or an amalgam of actual old Maine farmhouses I've known and loved -- particularly old family homes. It's almost like I took my experience with actual houses and land and put everything into a blender and came out with something new. I think that's why houses and places seems so real in the book. When I was writing, I was seeing these things in my mind. For example, I know exactly where the tin of pepper is stored in the cooking cupboard in the kitchen of the old Russell homestead so it was easy for me to picture Rebecca standing on tip-toe to try and knock the tin down, and the 6-foot Wendell Russell leaning over her to easily secure it.

2.  Obviously, the narrator of the story - being a Quaker pastor - is based on you, but after reading your bio on Amazon, I wonder if there are parts of Lila which are also autobiographical.  Did you draw on your own experience with alcoholism when writing about Lila overcoming her adversity?  

Short answer: absolutely!

I learned so much from my battle with and recovery from alcoholism, and much of that informs all my writing, whether it's my pastoral messages or my fiction. I learned through that amazing journey that there is nothing we can't do if we really REALLY want to do it, that we have the power (thanks to the grace of God) to heal ourselves.  One of the most revealing statements about myself that I make in the book is in Chapter 18, "The Parade Will Go On," when I first reveal Lila's childhood trauma.  I write: "The Goddess in her goodness and mercy gives us a second chance at life, if only we have the courage to reach out and accept the gift that the divine is dying for us to accept!" 

I am a better person because of my addiction and recovery. I'm stronger. More understanding. More forgiving (both of others and of myself). More humble (sometimes).

I wanted to create a strong heroine who had faced adversity and yet showed the courage to rise above it and create a new and wonderful life for herself. Lila is the heroine of "Hens and Chickens," however, I was the heroine of my own personal story, which I document in my earlier book, "Learning to SOAR!"

3.  I'm also interested to know - and assume my readers would be also - if you have remained in Maine your whole life.  I seem to recall reading something about your choice to start your farm and a change of lifestyle - but I can't remember where I read it.  Like Lila and Rebecca, did you leave the "city life" and make a deliberate choice for a simpler life or has this been your path all along?

My Dad sold the family farm when I was six or seven and I was devastated. We moved from Winslow, Maine to New Jersey, to Michigan and eventually ended up in New Hampshire. When I was 20 I relocated (by myself) to California (hey, it was the '70s and everyone was doing it). While on a mountaintop in California I had a vision about "going home," and I returned to Maine, where I've lived ever since.

When I was battling alcoholism, I lived in my great-grandparent's home, Sunshine Cottage, on the banks of the Sebasticook River in Winslow, the town where I was born. (Sunshine Cottage was the loveliest spot, and someday I'm going to write a novel using this setting.) Being home gave me the strength to confront my demons, and that's where I wrote "Learning to SOAR!"  I moved to Troy in the late '90s, and have been here in this small town about 15 years now. 

During much of my adulthood I lived far from the madding crowd, the life that I describe in "Hens and Chickens." I gardened and raised chickens and wrote novels and plays. I supported myself with a variety of odd jobs, and by writing for newspapers and magazines. However, I did have a brush or two with corporate America, including a job selling life insurance. This job gave me some valuable insight into the sad situation of the financial services industry (not that any of us need to go this route to discover how horrible our economy is and how disingenuous and sometimes dishonest the banks and insurance companies are)!  I was downsized from the insurance company, so naturally I thought it would be fitting to duplicate them for Lila and Rebecca's employer a.k.a. the mean and nasty Perkins and Gleeful. 

I've pretty well always lived an alternative life style, which doesn't come cheap (folks around here have to work  three part-time jobs to make ends meet, and one of those jobs is usually picking bottles up from the roadside for the 5 cents returnable deposit). However, I don't regret living with less stuff that we can't afford because I feel that I'm living with so much MORE every time I listen to the sleigh bell sounds of the peepers, or watch the sunset over the cows grazing in the field, or pick string beans and blackberries for supper. It's a pretty good gig, and I think I'll keep it.


  1. This is great! So fascinating to hear the story behind the story!