Catherine Seiberling Pond joins us today at Literary Labors. Several years ago she and her family moved from New England to Kentucky, where she now writes and blogs about farm life, among other things. Read about their unusual journey here. Welcome, Catherine!
So, The Huffington Post recently ran an article about you and your family’s unusual move to the Kentucky countryside, saying: “this family went to enormous lengths to rid themselves of ‘stuff’” – can you tell our readers more about your decision and how it impacted your life as a writer?
Well, we’re still ridding ourselves of stuff, slowly (let’s just say that in my golden years, or sooner, I could open a kitchen-related antiques shop) but for us this was an entire lifestyle change. It’s like we reversed the usual pattern of living: historic dream house to doublewide (now we live in an older farm cabin-cottage across the street although we still have the doublewide). But I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is what we were meant to be doing. Both my husband and I grew up in or associated with very historic houses so the irony is not lost on me. The idea of place, architecture, domestic and rural life, and farms always fuel my writing or what I plan to write about (or photograph). Here, after six years, I feel nestled and that perhaps in many ways, we are truly home for the first time in either of our lives. And yet we came here knowing no one and with no associations. It’s been liberating and also disquieting at times but a midlife shake-up that has redefined everything.
Since your move, a certain “Edgar” has entered your life. Has he provided any inspiration for you as a writer?
Oh yes, I have become rather obsessed with Edgar (who I named after Joan Rivers’ deceased husband—I probably watch too many reality shows—and who we naturally pronounce as “Edgah,” as she does)—the Hereford bull my husband found in the mud, abandoned by his mother, on their mutual December birthdays in 2011. I have created this entire life for him but I’ve always tended to do that with our pets over the years—my children are naturally concerned—and make no mistake, Edgar is a pet. Which brings up the reality of farming: do not name your animals if you will eat them (or sell them). Edgar has a stay of execution on our farm but he also works hard. The other day he was resting on a knoll under some trees as his summer harem were gathered around him in a half circle. Edgar has a good life and let’s just say I’m planning to share it with the world in some form.
What’s the first thing you ever wrote? Do you recall the moment you knew you wanted to become a writer? How did you go about becoming a writer and getting published?
In grade school I used to write letters to my grandmother back in New Hampshire, where we visited every summer from Ohio and later moved when I was eleven. Fortunately my mother saved them. They seem intent on berry-picking in the pine woods and picnics under the apple trees when we would visit each summer (food has been a sub-theme in my life). When we moved to New Hampshire I started corresponding with my friends and family: I still have a box of these letters and so happy I kept them because letter-writing is a dying art form.
I’ve always been an odd combo of sentimental and snarky and I grew up with an appreciation for the written and spoken word as well as a visual sense of place and design. Fortunately, I had several people in my life who encouraged these things: my maternal grandmother (herself a writer), my paternal grandfather (who dictated the most wonderful single-spaced, multi-page letters—all of which I still have—and gave the best speeches), a children’s book writer with whom I used to read aloud and have tea on Tuesday afternoons, and a college professor who mentored me on my thesis regarding the architectural symbolism found in 19th century English literature. So there is no particular moment, just a long stretch of them.
As for getting published, the first article I ever wrote, about living and working in a Victorian house museum in Boston back in the 1980s, was purchased by the original Victoria Magazine. It was beginner’s luck. I went on to write more for them as well as for other shelter magazines like Old-House Interiors and Early Homes. But I’ve had rejection, too. You just have to keep writing, keep pitching, keep on keeping on.
I’ve always appreciated the line from Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons: “When I am fifty-three or so I would like to write a novel…(but) for the next thirty years or so I shall be collecting material for it. If anyone asks me what I work at, I shall say, ‘Collecting material.’ No one can object to that.” I get that as I’ve pursued many interests and vocations, raising a family, and still I try to write. I probably started blogging to keep at it but that has sometimes lessened my drive to be continuously published in traditional markets. Believe me, there are days I think of Virginia Woolf in a fine country house with servants who brought her tea, surrounded by other artists and writers (but without the crippling depression, of course: for that I am thankful to modern medicine).
How often do you write a day and for how long? Do you have a favorite spot to write?
I love quiet nineteenth century libraries but that was in the day with the “shooshing” librarian and long stacks and wonderful old study carrels. To be honest, I mostly write on deadline at the kitchen table and I often write in the wee hours as I’m nocturnal by nature. When I get on a roll I get lost in the work and nothing can distract me: I like that place.
Do you have any quirky rituals when you write?
No, but I probably should start with a more precise routine for my own stuff. It often takes last place in the order of things. If I am paid to write something I am all over it. I believe that is because I feel validated when doing so.
You and I could call ourselves foodies, so it seems we both have an affinity for the kitchen. What is it about cooking and homemaking that fascinates you? (I can say “fascinates,” can’t I? From the things of yours I’ve read it would seem that the domestic arts hold a certain mystique for you.)
I do enjoy cooking but I’m a terrible homemaker even though I ideally like everything in its place and have created an eclectic but comforting design in our homes over the years (with mostly old or inherited stuff). Because I am a bit of a perfectionist, I tend to either do things all the way or not at all. Therefore, our house could always be neater and I have to fight my constant information inner-hoarder (who loves books and magazines, and clippings: yes, even with Pinterest I still clip stuff).
I’d rather do other things than clean but I love to organize a cupboard or shelf or read about people who love to organize––and it fuels much of my writing about the idea of home, place and farm (I also collect and read other books on the same subject, from all eras). My alter ego is someone who obsesses about their house, always keeps it tidy, but probably doesn’t have much else going on: she lives deep within me and surfaces on that rare occasion. There’s also been a millennial boon in nesting and all of the home, cooking and farm practices: whether done part- or fulltime. I believe that as the world gets crazier many of us just want to nestle in with our families or friends and cook a nourishing meal. Sometimes it’s all that we can do.
Speaking of kitchens, you wrote an entire book dedicated to THE PANTRY. Would you mind telling our readers a little more about it and the inspiration behind it?
Hah, there again: a compulsion for organized cupboards, drawers and shelves and everything I just said in your last question. It came out of that interest and realizing that there was no specific design history on this special room in the house so I wanted to write about its presence in American homes. Unfortunately, the book was remaindered by my publisher after the 2008 crash at a time that, ironically more people were starting to want more storage space for food. [So I bought the book back from them and now sell the book, signed, from my website.] The pantry resurge is in a large part from domestic nostalgia but also practicality.
Do you have any other kitchen-related writing projects that are in the works? What about writing on totally different topics – are you working on anything else at the moment or does a specific genre interest you?
I had a book deal with an English publisher that ended abruptly: after I submitted my manuscript and images they decided not to publish any of their American line of shelter-related books for financial reasons. I’m free to bring it to another publisher. I’m not upset about it as it was a writing exercise and I learned a lot about 1950s kitchens. However, I do think it is indicative of the state of publishing now. Meanwhile, I am working on a farm-related memoir and have some farm-related children’s books that are being shopped.
And let’s get a little cliché now: Any advice you’d like to offer aspiring writers?
My husband says it all, and often: “Just sit at your desk and write.” He’s not a writer but he is better at rejection than I am and he obviously knows me well (he is linear and task-oriented and I am anything but, at times). And don’t quit your day job unless you are being very well-paid to write your own stuff: few can afford to be full-time writers and those that are usually got there from hard work, a lot of rejection and perseverance––as well as luck. To give you an idea of income on my first book and other writing since, I’ve been looking for a day job for four years. I still have a hard time calling myself a writer, or justifying it, even after a few books and many published articles. My advice is to always be alert to the world we live in: read, take it all in, watch and listen to language and music. Write what you know or what you want to learn about. Novelist Andre Dubus III said, “The soul needs stories, the soul will always need stories.” And we will always need writers.
Finally, let’s close with our obligatory set of questions:
Have you read A Confederacy of Dunces, our literary inspiration here at Literary Labors (and the Occasional Cheese Dip)? Do you like cheese dip, by the way? Do you have a favorite cheese dip recipe you could share with us?
No, but I’ve read Parliament of Whores by P.J. O’Rourke. Does that count? [And thanks, David, for adding another book to my reading list!] I’ve recently tried pimento cheese (dip?) and it’s quite good.
I don’t know if you can technically call this recipe a cheese dip, but it’s divine:
Baked Cheese and Artichoke Dip
1 can (not marinated) artichoke hearts (frozen will also work)
½ cup good mayonnaise (like Hellman’s)
1 cup shredded Parmesan (or Monterey Jack or a combo of the two)
1 liberal grind black pepper
1 dash paprika
1 pinch kosher salt
Separate the artichoke hearts and drain. In a bowl, toss the artichokes with the mayo, cheese and spices. Put in a greased chafing dish and bake at 325 degrees for about 20 minutes until melted and bubbly. Serve on sliced French bread or crackers. [You can also add some thawed frozen spinach to the artichoke-cheese mixture.]
Catherine Pond lives with her family on a cattle farm in south-central Kentucky from where she writes, cooks, cans, keeps chickens, collects too many things and tries her darnedest to keep house. You can follow her blog here or read more about her here. You can also follow her on Facebook or Twitter @CatherineSPond or @FarmwifeMidlife.