Thursday, October 3, 2013

Inkpot Interview: Jackie Briggs Martin

Today's Inkpot Interview features Jackie Briggs Martin and her book, Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table (illustrated by Eric-Shabazz Larkin), which was published by Readers to Eaters in September, 2013.
Please describe the book.
mer Will Allen and the Growing Table is the story of the life of urban farmer Will Allen. He purchased a couple of city lots in Milwaukee in the 1990s and has transformed them into a thriving urban farm that raises food for neighbors and restaurants. He travels the world sharing what he has learned about vermiculture, aquaculture, and intensive farming with others who want to farm in the city.  
As the story progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about? When did you first begin work on it? When did you finish?
I first visited Will Allen’s Growing Power Farm in Milwaukee in the fall of 2010. I had wanted to do an urban farming story since early in that year, wrote a draft or two, and finally settled on the story of Will Allen as a great story to tell. The work of the story was trying to figure out how to tell it in a way that would be interesting to readers.

And the final piece was what Phyllis Root calls the “clothesline,” the on-going spine that all the other parts of the story are hung on. I found that piece when I heard Will Allen talk about his mother’s table and how people would come to their house at mealtime and sit around that table.  I realized he had spent twenty years re-creating that table—using his farm for a huge “table,” that others could sit at and eat good food.

I finished the manuscript in early 2012. But then this year I went back to it and cut out hundreds of words. So I guess it would be more accurate to say I finished it in 2013.
What research was involved, and how did it affect the story’s development?
The first research was to visit his actual farm. Then I searched the web for everything I could find about Will Allen. I frequently visited the Growing Power website to learn what was going on at the farm. I corresponded by e-mail with Will Allen  (occasionally) and with his assistant (more frequently). And earlier this year I read his book, The Good Food Revolution.
Watching the interview I mentioned above was a late piece of research but really gave me that “aha” moment regarding what the story was really about. 

Without naming names, tell us who your first readers are (e.g., live-action writing group; online writing group; editor; agent). When do you share a piece of writing?

I don’t share a piece until I have a whole draft. Before that it’s too fragile, likely to crumble, or evaporate. There’s a “spirit” to a story and it’s a fragile thing. It has to be nurtured, and coaxed into strength, maybe to becoming a world that a reader—or the writer—can stand in and walk around in. And that nurturing and coaxing for me is a private thing.
Once I have a draft, my sisters are early readers. And I have a couple of writing friends whose opinions I trust. If they say, “More work,” I know I need to do more work. 

What books do you love to teach or recommend to students?

Because of Winn Dixie
is a perfect book, in my mind. I often recommend students study it for voice, for character, for plot. I love the family feeling and the words in Phyllis’s Rattletrap Car. I also love Franny Billingsley’s Big Bad Bunny. It’s a wonderful example of building a character and a plot with very few words. And the ending is so satisfying. Marsha Chall’s One Pup’s Up is amazing for the rhythm and romp of the language. Ron Koertge says we should read a poem before starting each writing session. One Pup’s Up is a poem to get the mental gears whirring. 

What widely-loved or acclaimed book is one that didn’t work for you?

 can’t think right now, but I will tell you of a book I wish I had written. And that is Mary Logue’s Sleep Like a Tiger. Mary’s text and Pamela Zagerinski’s illustrations combine to make a magical work.

During the January 2013 residency Emily Jenkins lectured on “How to Be Funny,” and one of her suggestions was to “use jolly words.” A good idea even if one isn’t trying to be funny. Do you have a favorite jolly word?
Lisa Jahn Clough’s  character  Alicia’s “lugubrious” is a jolly word about an un-jolly state. I’ve always like to say “appendectomy.” “Wisconsin” is quite a good word. I once named a character (a cow) Blanche Wisconsin.

To learn more about Jackie and her writing, please visit her


  1. Can't wait to read Farmer Allen's story, Jackie! Also, thank you for sharing Phyllis's "clothesline!" Best wishes to you as you share Farmer Allen's story with the world!


  2. Thanks Mell. I'm enjoying traveling with "Farmer Will."

  3. I like how you looked for a story to tell on this subject and found this one. I'm glad to see that's possible. So many good stories to tell. This looks like a great one.