Interview with Joanne Poyourow

Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
One of the first books I remember loving was Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. My forever take-away was that there are many things going on around us that people just walk by without noticing; they're not aware of what's going on. That thread continues in my work today.

A high-school favorite was Frank Herbert's Dune. Right now in the worst California drought in recorded history, it's like Dune is somehow coming to life. Herbert's characters had "moisture consciousness" and I feel like I have that too, and we're all going to acquire it in coming years as climate change accelerates.

One of my favorite gardening books today is Wendy Johnson's Gardening at the Dragon's Gate. It drifts between hard-core gardening advice and spiritual observations, they become one-and-the-same, as they should be.

The common thread in these is: things aren't necessarily as they appear to be, and if you're sensitive to it, and you really listen, the natural world will tell you a story. Now go read my books about the economy, and you'll find the same theme!
What do you read for pleasure?
I read a lot of young adult fiction for entertainment. There's some really great content out there, and a lot of it is forward-thinking. A lot of today's young adult fiction doesn't idolize technology; it questions it, and there are many different ways it shows the down sides of technology being everywhere in human life. I've read a lot of stories that show how technology and "scientific advances" are making us less-human, how they're eating away at the edges, in some way or another.

In my real-life work, we try to reclaim that human-ness. "Building community" might need internet and email to schedule a gathering, but the event itself is about people talking face-to-face and getting to know one another. I'm not a luddite; I've got the smartphone, and I'm on lots of social media, but there's a whole lot more living to be done than inside that little light-box. And when it comes to environmental solutions, and putting solutions in place in the real world, we have to step back from the technology and do real-world things.

Lots of the young adult stories I'm reading are about action: can do, let's go do it, young people out there doing stuff in the world. There isn't much "story" if you were to write about a kid sitting in a dark room playing video games. Similarly, there isn't much "life" if you were to try to do everything from your armchair. You've got to go out and get dirty, put your fingers into the garden soil.
Describe your desk
Oh dear. In a word: chaos. No matter what I try to do to get organized, my busy life full of projects surges back across my long, handmade tan wooden desktop like an ocean wave. I am a piler: I have enormous piles everywhere in my office, and my desktop is no exception. Hanging over my desk there is a bulletin board, with layer-upon-layer of colorful postcards, inspirational sayings, children's artwork, and key documents from old projects and campaigns, all topped at present with a huge goofy calendar that has full-colored photos of heirloom chickens. This layered collage expands well beyond the bulletin board's frame to the walls around my desk space. Standing up along the back of my desk are a few awards, a very faded poster of a Ross Sterling Turner wildflower painting, and a ton more documents from old campaigns (I really should clean this stuff up instead of writing about it!) I'm a horrible housekeeper, so it's all pretty dusty. One corner of my office is becoming my video studio, as I begin to create online classes in all these sustainability topics. Because I emptied the shelves to make a nice video background, the other corner is piled high with all the visual displays I use in my live talks and classes: five inflatable plastic Earth beachballs, huge crayola-colored cardboard puzzle pieces I use to teach economics, jars of home-saved vegetable seeds, files with all my information handouts, and books, books, books, everywhere books. Sometimes I can hardly move for tripping over piles of books.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I don't usually tell people this, but I grew up in the hills of Malibu, California. Back then there were a lot fewer movie stars and a lot more coyotes and owls and rattlesnakes. We were real people, and some of our strongest bonding moments were around coping together with firestorms and mudslides.

We used to hike deep into the mountains and canyons, where we were surrounded by lizards and birds, and the sage and artemesia that make things smell like California. I missed that when I moved to the city, so in my Los Angeles urban garden I planted buckwheat and native plants to make it smell right. And I ended up with a whole lot of urban wildlife: butterflies, pollinating insects, tree frogs, and even lizards.

The natural world formed me, long before I'd ever heard of ideas like Permaculture and ecosystems. Once I learned the terminology, it was like "oh yeah, I know about that" at a very deep level. So when learning about environmental solutions, I had a really strong foundation upon which to begin weaving these ideas together.
What's the story behind your first book?
I had learned a lot about environmental solutions, in particular solutions for global warming. I wanted to explore the timeline: to see whether, if we put the solutions in place, we could create meaningful change. The world didn't need yet another long nonfiction list of things we should do, so I created a few characters and blended it all into a story, to show what life would be like, what it would feel like, as these solutions got put in place. It became "a story of hope" because (spoiler) the timeline does indeed work out.

In the story, the characters belong to a support group where they encourage each other in their various campaigns and efforts to create change. Early readers said "hey, I want to belong to that group!" so we started a for-real group in our Los Angeles neighborhood. In the 10 years since we started the group, we have built two community gardens, brought the ideas of the grassroots Transition Movement to Southern California, and nurtured the start of many other groups and gardens. So it goes far beyond "a story of hope" into a story of real, tangible change.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
My first book, Legacy, is a book which crosses genres. Conventional publishers didn't know what to do with it. No one was writing environmental fiction back then, so the fiction publishers didn't want it. And publishers of environmental nonfiction didn't want a novel. I got a pile of rejection letters, so I ended up self-publishing it out of default. I had a bit of help with my second book, but I learned how complex it gets with so many people involved. You end up spending a lot more time on the "publishing" part (which for authors isn't the fun part). Add to that my impatience with publisher timelines, and my steadfast belief in Creative Commons, and it was pretty much a no-brainer that I'm cut out to be indie.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
I'm one of those writers who puts things on paper in order to figure them out. I really start with what is useful to me, as I explore my own personal inner discovery process. So when you pick up, say, my information sheet on D-I-Y soil testing, it exists because I wanted to figure out whether a person could test her soil for free, low inputs, how she would go about doing it, what she would need, and what she could do with the results. And once I'd figured it out -bingo- there would be a new piece of writing. I like figuring it out, but it's really thrilling when people tell me how useful it is to them; that part is nearly always a surprise to me.

I love to share my writing, and I give away a ton of stuff for free, both online and in-person. It's really only when people say "I wish all this very useful stuff was all in one place" that I try to compile it into a book. So, now the secret's out. If you want my stuff for free, a ton of it is available someplace on the internet where I shared it in my blog posts over the years!
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
Building stuff. Creating community projects. Gardening. Sometimes knitting. Cooking. It's funny that most of my hobbies end up eventually working their way back into my writing. True, I haven't (yet) felt called to write a knitting book, but from time to time over the years I have considered a local foods vegetable cookbook ...
What is your writing process?
Pen and paper, for sure, is almost always the first step. At this point, I might scrawl on anything. Margins, old flyers, scraps of paper, grocery receipts. These days I usually carry a miniature notebook in my purse or pocket. Because writing can happen anywhere. I wrote some sections of Legacy at the kitchen counter while making spaghetti dinner for my kids.

I usually have a "go kit" which is pens and paper and post-its so that I can write or edit in the morsels of time while waiting for an appointment. I also have this big set of headphones, which originally were marketted as hearing protectors for shooting guns. They're my "cone of silence" to help me focus.

My process is to write down all the ideas. Keywords. Often these flow one-to-the-other in a visual diagram like a circle or flowchart of some sort. I'll then burst out with text that fills out the ideas, usually stream-of-consciousness style. Somewhere at this point it gets put into the computer. I use a tiny netbook laptop that is really lightweight, so that it can drop into the "go kit" when needed.

Once it's in the computer, I tend to rough-edit it onscreen, and then print it out to edit again off-screen. Somehow it looks different to me when printed on paper, and I see different things about it. I'll mark it up horribly, with all these wild arrows moving paragraphs and inserting stuff. Usually I end up moving entire sections around, because my stream-of-consciousness can go all over the place without much organization. To me, writing is organizing my thoughts, so it follows that editing is a huge part of my process.

I also keep a notebook by my bedside. Often I'll wake in the middle of the night and have a thought. I've trained myself how to write in the dark, so that I don't have to turn on a light and awaken my family. I jot it down, and the next morning interpret that horribly messy shorthand scrawl and type it into the computer. Some of my best original material comes to mind in the wee hours of the morning. The trick is turning pages in the bedside notebook without it waking my husband!
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
My to-do list. At any given time, I've got building projects, writing projects, classes to teach, gardens to plant, seeds to save. It keeps me going, keeps me busy, keeps me happy. I don't sit still. It helps me to get away from worrying about all the environmental problems. I do stuff. I know that I'm doing the best I possibly can to make the world a better place.
Published 2015-08-06.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author, publisher or reader.

Books by This Author

The Secrets of Soil Building
Price: $2.99 USD. Words: 18,160. Language: English. Published: August 22, 2015. Categories: Nonfiction » Home and Garden » Sustainable living, Nonfiction » Home and Garden » Gardening
Rich, healthy, alive garden soil is the key to success in every organic vegetable garden. Here's how to build great soil -- at low cost and with minimal inputs, without much gardener time, within tight urban spaces. Learn how to compost, mulch, vermicompost, perform D-I-Y soil tests, and maintain fertility year-round -- so that you can produce food sustainably for years to come.