I’m excited about today’s interview! I first met Marlene last year at a Shut Up & Write meetup. She was working on a memoir and was already the author of two books. One was a cookbook titled Organic Cooking for (not-so-organic) Mothers. Great title! And every more cool was that I picked that cookbook up when it first came out, in the early 80s — I was not a mom, but it was a great cookbook all the same and I definitely needed help.
I introduced Marlene to my publisher and friend, Steven Radecki of Paper Angel Press, and the rest is history. Marlene’s book came out just a few days ago, on July 1. The cover is gorgeous. I was honored to provide a pre-release recommendation. My book review is at the end — I loved it! If you want to meet Marlene “in person,” she’s hosting a launch party on Zoom on Tuesday July 7 at 4 pm. Go to her website to sign up.
Marlene Anne Bumgarner was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, England. Following World War II she and her parents sailed to New York, then lived on a family-owned poultry farm in Zephyrhills, Florida and in a rural community in Victoria, Australia, before settling permanently in California.
Marlene put herself through college working as a technical writer, then felt the draw of the land. In 1973, she moved to a piece of rural property with her husband and daughter. Following a decade teaching elementary and preschool children, Marlene taught Child and Adolescent Development for 30 years at a community college. Her first book, The Book of Whole Grains, grew out of a cultural history curriculum she developed for fourth grade. Organic Cooking for (not-so-organic) Mothers was inspired by letters written to her by readers of the “Naturally Speaking” newspaper column she wrote for the San Jose Mercury News. Working with School Age Children was written for the thousands of young people working in before- and after-school programs around the country, and is used as a textbook in many colleges and universities.
In 2001, Marlene was awarded the Educator of the Year award by the Chamber of Commerce of Morgan Hill, California. Since retiring from full time teaching, she volunteers in the Young Writers Program at local schools, and writes a monthly blog addressing topics of interest to parents and grandparents.
Find out more about Marlene’s family life, cooking, and gardening at marlenebumgarner.com.
About the Book
330 pages, published July 1, 2020 by Paper Angel Press
“We all worked together. Ate together. Sang together. Learned together. We had a good life. After living close to the natural cycles of the earth year after year, good and not good, we grew stronger and more resilient, learned to manage our occasional conflicts with tolerance and love.”
When Marlene Bumgarner and her husband moved to a rural plot of land in 1973, she thought of herself as simply a young mother seeking an affordable and safe place in which to raise her child.
By the time she left the land nearly a decade later, she had written two books and a weekly newspaper column, served as contributing editor to a national magazine, a college instructor, and a sought-after public speaker. Her natural food store, The Morgan Hill Trading Post, was the first one in her community.
Follow Marlene and her friends as they live on the land, coping with the challenges of rural life as Silicon Valley evolves into the high-tech center it is today, and the world in which they live transforms itself culturally, economically, and politically.
Why did you decide to write this book?
It was a story that needed to be told, at least to my children. John and Doña had only vague memories of our time on the land, and my two youngest children, Jamie and Deborah, knew very little about it. Once Jamie became old enough to ask me to “tell me a story about when you were young and lived on the land,” she kept at it until she knew most of the stories. After she took a memoir class with her older sister, she began encouraging me to write the stories down. Then as I shared the stories with my writing friends, I began to realize it might have a larger audience.
What genre is your book?
Memoir? Creative non-fiction?
How long has the idea for the memoir been percolating?
More than 20 years. I began writing scenes at writing workshops and retreats, when my youngest child was still a baby. It wasn’t until I took a memoir class myself that I began to put the scenes together.
Tell us about writing a memoir.
When I first became serious about writing the book I went to the garage and brought in several banker’s boxes of correspondence, financial records and publicity about my first two books and the natural foods store I opened in 1976. I organized them into a file drawer, one folder per year from 1973 to 1982. I sent hundreds of photographs out to be scanned, then tried to organize them chronologically, and then, finally, when I unearthed all my journals from that decade, I realized I had enough to fill a book. I corresponded with everyone I could think of who visited me or corresponded with me during the time we were on the land and made arrangements to visit them and interview them about that time period.
How did you go about getting input and feedback from people you were writing about? How did you decide what to include/not to include in terms of events and/or relationships?
My land partners had begun to pass away; I realized I only had a short window to collect other people’s memories and ask them for feedback on my version of our story. I called, emailed, and visited everyone who had lived on the land to tell them what I planned to do. While they were supportive, I soon realized that I was the only one with the desire or the information to do this. Memoir is about perceptions, colored by time and fallible memories. I tried to limit myself to writing about what I remembered or could document, and did not delve into the private lives of my friends.
Your memoir captures not only a moment in our cultural history, but also weaves in delightful anthropological tidbits (The Whole Earth Catalog, among others) as well as political insights. For me though, what really stood out was how you followed your heart, your leading. That leading took you places you probably never dreamed of. Have you experienced other such seismic shifts in your life?
I have. The opportunity to teach child development at a community college led me to some wonderful challenges, including writing grant proposals, creating a pipeline to teaching for students who didn’t meet basic college entrance requirements, and participating in a state-wide advisory committee for afterschool program staff. Then, when I thought life had settled down and I was almost ready to retire, I met my soulmate. Together we traveled to India to work in an orphanage, to Australia and England and Canada and Florida to trace my roots, and to South Dakota to revisit his childhood. But that’s another story.
As I read the book, I kept circling back to persistence, resilience, and passion. I was amazed at how difficult life on the land could be, especially with a toddler. But, all in all, it seemed like your belief was so strong that you just kept chipping away at the problem in front of you, then the next one, and the next. With all the daily time-consuming difficulties, how did you find time and energy to keep a journal?
I truly don’t know. I haven’t managed to keep a journal for more than a week in the last thirty years. During those years, however, with no television, telephone, or internet, my journal was where I turned to record the weather, day to day events, and how I was feeling. I wrote last thing at night, unloading the day’s trials and successes, and clearing the slate for the next day.
Do you have a writing mentor?
I have two, actually. My first writing mentor was Ellen Bass, who I met at a local author’s night at the Morgan Hill Library. I traveled over the Santa Cruz Mountains for two years to attend classes and workshops that deepened my writing practice and my self-awareness as a writer. After I moved to the California coast, I met Laura Davis, attended her memoir writing intensive, and participated in her weekly writing group for many years. She helped me hone my skills and my confidence, and the other participants in her classes provided me with an audience that provided valuable feedback.
What’s your writing schedule? Do you have a favorite place to write?
While I was writing Back to the Land I arose every morning at 6:00 and walked nine tenths of a mile to a coffee shop, where the sounds of clanking cups and saucers came to become my prompts and background to my reminisces. I wrote each scene on my iPad Pro using Scrivener, and used the corkboard feature to rearrange the stories until they made sense. Writing this memoir became an obsession; on the three days a week I drove into town for my exercise class, I would spend two additional hours at a coffee shop nearby. Somewhere along the way I discovered Shut Up and Write, and joined other writers a couple of times a week to write in yet another coffee shop. For two years I wrote every day.
Anything else you’d like to add?
The months leading up to the release of this book have been filled with learning about the publication process and marketing in the time of Covid 19. Once the book is launched and on its way, I plan to revise my second book, Organic Cooking for (not-so-organic) Mothers, and then get back to writing two other books I have started and put aside. My iPad awaits me.
I can be reached online here:
Nancy’s review (5 stars!)
This memoir by Marlene Bumgarner captures the essence of the 70s back to the land movement. With humor, honesty, and love, the author shares the story of her family’s odyssey on a 10-acre parcel of land in the coastal California hills, just south of San Jose, California. The adventure starts with two families, two trailers, errant fencing, dogs, and a flock of chickens. Hard work, optimism, some serious problem-solving skills, and a steep learning curve lead to a full-on farm with animals, landmates, and children. But constant money pressures, zoning bureaucracies, parenting, and conflicts with landmates take their toll. This luminous tale, set against the explosion of tech, is a story of determination, hope, resilience, and ultimately, of wisdom and transformation. An enthralling memoir.
This is fabulous interview Nancy. How generous of you to take the time to share her story. And what a terrific story it is. Ironically, I recently met Marlene in the Santa Cruz Shut Up & Write group.