Interview by Carly Stevens
Julie Carrick Dalton and I chatted on a Zoom call early last month. She is a journalist and more recently a farmer and a novelist. Her new novel, Waiting for the Night Song, was published earlier this year and she is already working on her second. Our lively discussion focused on life on her farm, her family, and, of course, her writing. You can visit her website here.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your background, both personal and academic?
JULIE CARRICK DALTON: I grew up in Maryland and partly on a military base in Germany. I’ve moved all over the country. I’ve lived in Washington, Texas, Virginia, Delaware. We landed here in Massachusetts about 20 years ago. Now, I divide my time between Massachusetts and New Hampshire where I own a small organic farm.
I'm a journalist. I'm not working for any publications right now, but I do still write articles. I've written for the Boston Globe, Business Week, parenting magazines, and all sorts of different publications. Now I mostly write about writing. I write for the Chicago Review of Books and Orion Magazine doing book reviews or interviews with authors. I'm new to farming. I started about ten years ago which was about the same time I started writing my first book. I built my farm from the ground up in the same year I was writing the book. They're kind of one story to me. There were a lot of days that I was writing at night after having been working on the farm all day. A lot of the imagery and the backdrop for my story comes from the farm where I work.
Also, I am a mom of four kids and I have two dogs. Life is pretty busy.
Q: What are you working on right now?
JCD: I’m working on another book called The Last Beekeeper. It’s coming out in early 2023 by the same publisher. It also has environmental themes.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about it?
JCD: The story is set in the near future, not a distant future. It looks very much like our world, but there is an event that hastens the collapse of our pollinators at a more rapid pace than what we're expecting right now. The story is about the relationship between a beekeeper and his daughter, how it declines, and how they find their way back to each other as the bees are dying. It is actually a hopeful story, though—it sounds really dark when I say “the bees are dying and their relationship is breaking down!” There is a lot of hope in it in the end. It's really about a relationship and the environmental elements are in the background of the story.
Q: Can you elaborate on how your personal life impacts your writing?
JCD: It goes back to the farm. I bought the farm kind of by accident. One hundred acres of land near our family home in New Hampshire went to market for timber development so they started clear cutting the woods. It was near the home I live in and we have bears, moose, and deer that walk into our yard all the time and they were clear cutting the forest where they live! I had this panic attack moment where I said to myself, “they're going to tear down this forest! The moose are going to be homeless! What should I do?” A lot of people go panic shopping for shoes. I panic shopped a forest. It was in the pit of the recession and real estate was reasonably priced at the time, so we bought the land.
Then I needed a reason to own it because I'm a writer, I'm not a farmer. I partnered up with a friend who runs an equestrian business and built a farm on the land that had already been cleared. She keeps her horses there and runs a riding program and I grow vegetables. While I was doing that, I was also writing my book. The context of the farm—like the scenery, the agricultural research and environmental research I was doing—shows up in my book. Elements of climate change show up in my story. They were all influenced by things I witnessed on my own land that I didn’t know about. I wanted to put all these ideas I was learning about in my story.
I'm also a mom. A lot of my mom life shows up in the book. Interactions with the kids in my book and the literature the kids read were all elements of my kids. They show up in sneaky little ways in the book. There is a whole lot of me and my family life that shows up in this book.
Q: What are the joys and challenges of putting so much of yourself into your writing?
JCD: It is funny because talking about it now I see how much of myself is in the book. When I was writing I didn't do it intentionally. I would always take my kids out picking blueberries, so this idea of the little kids out in a rowboat picking blueberries was like the central image that started the book. But other than that little central image, the story is fiction. It's a murder mystery so it is not based on anything that happened in real life. I promise there's no bodies buried in my woods! I was doing things and incorporating my own childhood very subconsciously. When my mother read the book, anytime Katie, the main character, was getting into trouble or something bad was about to happen, she said to herself “no, Julie, don't do it.” She equated Katie with me because I was writing myself. I didn't do it on purpose. I wasn't trying to recreate my own childhood, but I kind of did.
There’s a young teenage girl in the story named Sal. She is my main character's best friend's daughter. When I was writing her character, I was writing the teenager that I wish I'd been. She is brave and outspoken. She stands up for things. She's not afraid to speak her mind, and she doesn't care what other people think. She is all the things I wish I'd been when I was 13. There are parts of me that show up in all of the characters in different ways. I wasn't doing it on purpose. That is probably common with the first novel in particular because the character traits most accessible to me are my own.
Q: Are you continuing this process with your second book, are you trying to avoid it, or how are you bringing yourself into it?
JCD: The Last Beekeeper has a lot of me, too. The main character in my second novel is not as closely me as Katie was in the first book. There are definitely some similarities. She has a fondness for growing food, which I do. She's very attentive to the vegetables she's growing and the land. She is very in tune with nature. That is very much a part of me. But then, Katie is also mechanically minded. She's a tinkerer and fixer of things. I couldn’t build myself out of a box. So there's a lot of her that's very different from me. I don't feel like this character is as closely linked to me. The relationships in the story aren't based on real relationships. There's much more imagination on my part in this book, rather than relying on my own life. There are definitely still little flickers of me.
Q: Can you walk me through your writing process? Did the pandemic impact your writing in any way?
JCD: I did not know what I was doing with my first novel, Waiting for the Night Song. It was the first time I tried to write a novel. It was kind of a mess. I wrote by the seat of my pants. I just sat down and wrote whatever came into my head. I could only see one page ahead of me. I didn't know where the story was going and the result was a really messy draft. There was a lot of revision and cutting tons of work that I just threw away because I hadn't put a lot of planning into what was going to happen. The revision process was really tough. When I was actually writing the novel, I had four young kids. So I spent a lot of time writing in stolen moments in the car waiting to pick kids up for school, the ballet waiting room, or a doctor's office waiting room. I did not have a schedule. A lot of writers are great about structure. I've never had a schedule. I pieced together moments.
The second book, The Last Beekeeper, is a different story. My kids are much older now. They're all self-sufficient. I also understand how to plot a novel now. I outlined this book in pretty good detail. I am allowing myself room to change as I need to. If I get to a point in the outline that isn't working anymore I will change it. But, I still know where I'm going. I know how the book is ending. I know the arcs for my characters. It's a much more controlled way to write. I think this is how I will write in the future. It feels better to me than when I was writing Waiting for the Night Song. I kind of know what I'm doing.
As for the pandemic, I had a very hard time writing for the first half of it. I didn't write much at all. I finished up copy edits and some last minute details for Waiting for the Night Song last summer. In the fall I had a very, very hard time writing. I just couldn't focus at all. I had all the time in the world and I could not write. I know that happened to a lot of writers. I don't think that's rare. I'm back in a really great writing groove right now, so I hope that lasts for a while. This book is due soon, so I would like it to last.
Q: What differences do you see between writing fiction and nonfiction?
JCD: Nonfiction is a really different muscle for me. When I was a journalist, I really thrived on deadlines. I got a rush out of deadlines. I could always do it. I could just find it in me to do that thing really quickly. However much time you give me is how long it's going to take. I will take up the entire amount of time.
Book projects are long and big projects. I have a harder time with deadlines. It's not that I don't meet them. It’s just that I have a harder time breaking a big project down into small tasks. With an article, I could do the research and get the notes. It's a defined small piece of writing and it felt very controlled, whereas a novel is a really unwieldy beast. Some authors write very chronologically. They start at chapter one and they write through to the end. Both of my books have alternating timelines so I tend to be all over the place. I'll write a chapter from the childhood timeline and then I'll write a chapter in the middle of the book from the adult timeline based on what part of the story I need to tell. That makes for a really complicated mess in my head when I’m trying to think about it as a whole project. I’m working on getting better at that. I'm still developing the skills at managing my time as a novelist whereas I totally had it down as a journalist. I'm still working on the novelist part.
Q: Are you a big reader?
JCD: Yes, yes.
Q: Have you always been a big reader?
JCD: Yes, I was that kid that would go to the library and check out 20 books and couldn't see over the top of the stack. I've always been a reader. There's a subplot in Waiting for the Night Song about these two young girls in a boat who see a boy appear on a pier. They make up the story about this mysterious boy in their head. They start delivering books to him in secret. It's the only communication they have with this boy. The list of books I chose were my favorite books from when I was a kid. They're all the books that formed me as a reader and made me love literature. It was actually really hard to narrow down which books to include.
Q: What were the titles you included?
JCD: Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, The Outsiders, Are You There God? It's Me Margaret, and Pippi Longstocking. Oh, and The Dark is Rising was one of my favorite books as a kid. These were the books that got me really excited as a reader. It becomes like a form of communication between the kids. That all came out of my passion for reading as a child.
Q: What do you hope readers will get from your book?
JCD: Primarily, I hope readers enjoy it as a story. That it's a good story. That it's compelling and it makes you want to keep reading. I hope they empathize with the characters and want to keep turning pages to see what happens. Beyond that, there are environmental themes in my story and I didn't write them in there intentionally necessarily. They are things that matter to me.
It’s not a book about climate change. It's a book about the relationship between two friends whose relationship is torn apart because of a traumatic childhood incident. Waiting for the Night Song is about them finding their way back to each other. It’s really a story about a fierce friendship, secrets, and redemption. However, there are things in the book that might change somebody's mind about some small things, if they open their mind to it. Primarily, I want people to enjoy it for being a really good story.
Q: Can you tell me about some of your favorite books? I know it's a tough question so you can list as many as you want.
JCD: How much time do you have? Haha. I would say right now my current obsession is the author Charlotte McConaghy. She’s an Australian author. In 2020, her first novel, Migrations, came out. It was a huge international bestseller. Benedict Cumberbatch is making a movie out of it soon! It's brilliant and so beautifully written. The language in the story is so tender and lovely. It’s also a story that deals with climate. She has another book that came out more recently called Once There Were Wolves. It's about the rewilding of wolves in the Scottish Highlands after they've been eradicated and hunted out of existence. They're both really about our relationship with this planet that we share with other creatures and what our responsibilities are. I love The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. That is a classic. I also loved Richard Powers’s The Overstory which came out a few years ago. The Kindest Lie which came out this year. It is a debut novel by Nancy Johnson who happens to be one of my best friends. I’m a little bit biased, but it's a really fantastic story about race and class right at the dawn of the Obama administration. She was writing this book for years and it came out right as our country was having a racial reckoning. It's the perfect book to read right now. My final recommendation is The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner. It's set in eighteenth-century London and focuses on a female apothecary who brews up concoctions to kill off men who are harming women. It's so good! Lots of good books!
Q: What are you reading right now?
JCD: I just started a book called Appleseed by Matt Bell. Another book I just finished a few days ago that I loved is What Strange Paradise by Omar El-Akkad. I loved it. It is a story about a boat of Syrian immigrants that capsized and a young boy who washes up on the shores of this island and he doesn’t speak the language. It is really a story about the moment we live in. Everyone should read it.
Waiting for the Night Song is currently on sale for $2.99 on all major platforms this week. It's usually $13.99 for the ebook and $26.99 for hardcover. The sale ends Sept 5.