Author Interview: Jessica Lander's Driving Backwards

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Jessica Lander is a busy woman.

In the past two years not only has she taught business entrepreneurship at a program for low-performing and often low-income students in Boston, she also piloted a program for ESL distance learners, enrolled in an M.A. program at Harvard for educational policy and, oh, yeah, she published her first book, Driving Backwards, something she's been working on for half a decade.

Driving Backwards is a tremendous look at small-town life, honing in on the details that make up a world many people wouldn't recognize.

Lander captures the feeling of living in rural New Hampshire. It's a really charming read, with a clear, easy tone and well-chosen words that are at once deliberate and graceful.

From the first chapter, you're pulled into a world through Lander's relationships with the people she writes about, such as her more-or-less guide to Gilmanton, David Bickford. Below, you can read a short excerpt from the first chapter.

In two months, David Bickford will turn 100.

One hundred is an age when memories have often faded with time, details become jumbled and lost, conversation turns repetitive. But, David has forgotten nothing. His memories are vivid pictures of the past.

When he tells of neighborhood dances half a century ago, he remembers the day of the week and who was feeling under the weather. When a story includes a rainstorm, likely as not he knows the number of inches that fell.

David re- counts stories as if they happened the previous day. Nearly one hundred years of yesterdays.

Now, David lives alone. He buys his own groceries, mows his own lawn and grows his own robust tomato plants in plastic pots next to the house.

David used to feast on tomatoes as a teen, eating them as you would an apple, but he has since developed allergies. Nevertheless, each year finds him checking fastidiously for hornworms and laying fertilizer.

Four years ago in 2009, David's roof developed a leak. He climbed slowly, methodically, up to patch it himself. He gathered sheets of asphalt roofing and caulking for the journey.

He took with him too a four-pronged cane that usually rests by the door. The cane is a precaution only, an occasional means of steadying against the slant.

In public, he never employs the cane. "It would," he confides, "make me look like an old geezer!"

You can't help but fall a little in love with David, and through him, Gilmanton itself.

I sat down with her to talk about writing and publishing Driving Backwards, how it came to be, and what the project meant to her.

Well, both of us were presumably sitting -- I know I was -- but since we spoke over the phone I really have no way of knowing.

Kate Cimini for Empty Lighthouse: How long have you been working on this book?

Jessica Lander: Five years. I started right after sophomore year of university.

I took a course the spring of my sophomore year with John McPhee, and I came out all jazzed up and wanting to write a book.

I came out to New Hampshire that summer with my family, and looked around for things to write about and started writing portraits about people and things in the town.

I would put it aside during the school year and about two years later had a draft of something I could call a book, and started sending it out and getting rejections, or not -- just not hearing from people.

I started editing: moving chapters around and cutting chapters.

Just when I had decided to give it one last try, I sent it to five small publishers and got two enthusiastic responses back.

E.L. How did you choose between these two publishers?

J.L. The two that responded were based in New Hampshire and in Cambridge and I just really clicked with the people at the publishing house in Cambridge. Our energies and enthusiasms aligned.

The publisher is called Tidepool Press, after the microcosms and microsystems that take place in the tidepool.

They focus on nonfiction works: biographies and historical memoirs and so on. Their average author is in his or her 80's, so I dragged the average down by quite a bit!

E.L. What was the impetus behind your writing of Driving Backwards? Were you hoping to chronicle the life of the town, or was it more of an homage to your friend, David Bickford?

J.L. I was first inspired to write about the town by listening to the stories of David Bickford.

He and his wife had come over on the day we unlocked our door with a pie, sat there and began to tell us stories.

He had a phenomenal memory and could place you in his stories, make you feel like you were there.

And here was this phenomenal man who was in his late 90s and when he passed on, all his stories would be lost.

I wasn't drawn to write about the past, but rather the color and this history and what had been going on and what was going on in the town today.

I became very interested in that duality, and of course I learned later that Gilmanton was once the most famous town in America as the infamous Peyton Place, and I wanted to capture what Gilmanton looks like today, being in that interesting crossroads.

E.L. What was your favorite part of writing Driving Backwards?

J.L. My favorite part of the writing or the process?

E.L. Oh, let's go with both.

J.L. Okay, I'll answer my question first, and then I'll try to answer yours.

My favorite part of the process was the research. As background, I started when I was younger in fiction and poetry and took my first nonfiction course in high school as a senior. I fell in love with it because it's a field that allows you to focus on the writing itself. Here, you're capturing and elevating stories that have already existed, which made them feel all the more magical.

In writing and researching I just loved the research aspect, going out into the blueberry fields with Duncan Geddes and learning how to rake blueberries. It was so much fun.

You get to be a detective - you get to be a literary detective.

I tried to immerse myself in each chapter and in the players in each chapter. The four farms chapters were probably some of the most fun because I got to learn how to be a midwife to a miniature horse, or rake blueberries or make artisanal goat cheese. I was welcomed onto these farms and learning how they lived their lives.

I had known them since I was little and gotten my blueberries for years and years and suddenly I was in the field figuring out how to rake blueberries.

Just being welcomed into these lives and getting a glimpse of what these four farms were really like -- I don't know that I could choose.

Another chapter that stands out is the chapter on the river. The river played a large role in my childhood and allowed me to go back and explore this element in different ways.

E.L. This seems like a research-intensive project. Would you say you did more researching than writing, or did the work come in equal measure?

J.L. Obviously the research came first, but I would say that writing and research was done in equal proportions, though of course there was more research done later on when trying to create comparisons for readers since numbers don't have much meaning for people.

The amount of drafts this book has gone through -- as any good writer knows -- has been vast, as my dad, who has been my main editor over the years can attest.

I would say they came through in equal proportions.

E.L. Why did you choose David Bickford to be your way into Gilmanton, so to speak?

J.L. David was, of course, inspiration for writing the book because I had spent hours and hours of my life sitting in his living room, listening to his stories.

Initially his story was only in two chapters, but as I began chopping up chapters it turned out that David was the natural guide to the town.

It was a very late addition, having the book follow the course of the summer as I tried set myself deliberately into the book, and in the same way it became natural to include David as the guide.

And he's just an incredible man.

E.L. How did the book evolve as you worked on it? What came out of it that surprised you? What didn't change as you worked on it?

J.L. The chapter on the river was originally the first chapter of the book, and I was dead set on it being the first chapter.

Slowly I realized after the suggestions of others it shouldn't be the first part of the book. That was a big change.

The most surprising things were the roles of David and me in the book. I started out writing profiles, and, as I said, David was originally only in two chapters of the book.

As I began reworking the book and looked at it, realized that David was the guide in the book and needed to be in more than two chapters.

I began chopping up his chapters and moving [them] around. He became the way into Gilmanton because he became someone you care about.

Adding myself was a surprise, too.

I had initially included myself at times, looking at it as being vaguely ethnographic, as an anthropologist, really, chronicling the town's stories.

Because I had spent 20 years in the town I knew my voice was important to the town, but following the course of the summer gave the reader a way to see the modern history of the town, by placing the town in the 21st century.

E.L. Did you do the drawings as well, or was that something the publisher contracted out for?

J.L. Those were mine! My mom's a professional artist, and we've always had a studio in the house. In high school my work was showcased in different shows, and so I've always done art.

In the past couple of years, especially as I've traveled a lot, that black and white sketching has helped me take in everything.

I thought it would be a nice element, creating drawings that were my own interpretation of the space and placing them rather sporadically so you would happen along them as you went through the book.

The photo on the cover of the book is also mine.

E.L. Are you planning a sequel, or do you have something else in the works?

J.L. I definitely want to write more books. I love writing and have been doing a lot of freelancing between and since the book has come out and would like to write another book or multiple books.

I don't know what the subject will be but I think it will be on some teaching or education.

I wrote this book during a different time in my life, and I hadn't yet discovered I love education and teaching.

I write about education on my blog, Chalk Dust, and I'd love to explore education as a writer in more depth, particularly about my experience in Thailand and Cambodia.

I'm excited about this next chapter I'm able to fully dive into, and to write about education in the future.

Driving Backwards is available on Amazon and Tidepool Press.