M.A.C. (Marion) Farrant is the award-winning author of seventeen works of fiction, memoirs, and two plays. She has published eight books with Talonbooks, the most recent being her trio of miniature fiction: The World Afloat (2014), The Days (2016), and The Great Happiness (2019). She lives in North Saanich, British Columbia.
One Good Thing: A Living Memoir is a collision of memoir with the living, exuberant, and vulnerable natural world. Written in sixty-four short epistolary chapters, M.A.C. Farrant’s latest offering represents a search for hope and appeasement in a rapidly changing and often perplexing society. One Good Thing is also an homage to gardening columnist extraordinaire Helen Chesnut of Victoria’s Times Colonist, each section of the book focusing and expanding on one of her gardening columns. With a mindful persistence that’s often hilarious, the book strives to find personal “calm abidance” through the practice of gardening as mediated by the universal and personal practice of writing.
Interviewed by Nancy Pearson
Nancy Pearson (NP): One Good Thing is a collection of 64 letters to Helen Chestnut, a gardening columnist in the Times Colonist. In one letter you write about a seed catalogue, the West Coast Seeds Gardening Guide, and you enthuse about how the “energetic wordplay” in the seed descriptions “presents a vision of tomorrow.” This was how I viewed your collection—I saw each chapter as a seed packet, a paper envelope filled with thought-provoking seeds that germinate and grow as you explore ideas and experiences, as you contemplate life. Can you tell me more about the epistolary structure you chose and how it came together?
M.A.C Farrant (MF): It’s one of those things that just fell on my lap. I was searching around for what to write next. When I’m in that sort of state, I just start writing. I write something every day. I wanted to write nonfiction and so I started in April, 2019. It had to be one complete daily composition and had to be short, it had to be intact. Not just random thoughts or a fragment of something. So, I started in April and, meanwhile, the world was carrying on and, like most everybody, I got hooked into the news media about what was going on–climate changes, extinctions of species, the U.S political scene– and I was feeling overwhelmed. So, in this state of mind, I was writing every day. We get the Times Colonistdelivered every morning and I happened to read an article by Helen Chestnut, and as I say [in my first letter], I’ve never really paid any attention to Helen Chestnut’s articles before because I don’t consider myself a gardener. But reading her column gave me such a sense of calmness and relief that I wrote the first letter in the book—”Cucumber”. And then I read her column the next day. I had the same kind of experience, and I was really liking the way I could riff on them, use them as a platform to explore the specifics of gardening and other things.
And that’s how it happened. All 64 letters are written in sequence. The book developed organically. That was in August. When I got to eighteen letters, I sent them to Talonbooks to see if they were interested in my carrying on and writing a book. They were enthusiastic. The next step was to ask for Helen Chestnut’s permission to use her name and her columns in the way I envisioned. I sent her an email explaining what I was hoping to do and sent her the same eighteen letters I sent Talon. I asked her if she would be agreeable. The stars must have been aligned because she got back to me right away and said yes, she’d be delighted if I would do that. So that was a green light. (Otherwise, I was going to have to figure out what I was going to do. I thought, if I can’t have Helen Chestnut, what am I going to do? Would I have to make it fiction and change the person to Mary Acorn? So, it was wonderful to have her permission.)
That’s how it came about. I wrote it from August until the start of the pandemic, probably April. It was about eight months. And then there was eight months of editing and copyediting and everything else to get it into shape.
NP: You said in a promotional video that you started writing this book in the spring of 2019 and finished it in the first month of the pandemic. To my mind that was a very short writing period. Do you often write so quickly or did the intense political situation at the time and then the pandemic motivate you to write fast as “a welcome antidote to fearful thinking”?
MF: No. I typically write quickly. But then there are spaces when I don’t write quickly. [laughs] I write well to a deadline, too. For example, right now, I’m not particularly writing. I’ve got a chapbook coming out, but that’s sort of off the side—it’s not a full book. I have no idea what I’m going to do next, if anything. My plan is to do what I’ve always done, which is to start in the fall and start writing. Something will come or something won’t. I’ve done this in the past. I did this with a series of miniature books I wrote—books of miniatures, a trilogy. It was the same thing, waiting for things to somehow coalesce.
NP: Do you find that the autumn is your writing season?
MF: Yes, autumn and winter. Because I like the summer so much. If at all possible, I love to have the summer.
NP: To pick up on the gardening theme again (sorry, it’s hard to resist!), you chose seeds of information that Helen Chestnut wrote about and mulched them into your memoir. Seeded throughout the letters are several themes, such as life cycles, political upheaval, and the pandemic. A recurring theme is hope. Could you expand on that theme and whether you see it as the thread that binds the narrative together?
MF: I think it does. Hope is something that seemed to be on the back burner for many of us, especially consumers of media, because the news is always bad and it’s always ‘breaking.’ It’s always breaking our hearts. What really annoys me is being manipulated or allowing myself to succumb to that kind of mindset. I wanted to celebrate the flip side of that. Yes, there’s a part of life that’s a struggle and difficult and challenging. But there’s also joy and family and love and merriment and so on. That’s basically where I’m coming from.
NP: Your reflections also include very amusing anecdotes, like the one in letter 34 about how you strung garlic around the doors to encourage house guests who had stayed far too long to leave. It didn’t work, but you drank champagne in celebration when they finally left. Humour is scattered about like fertilizer in the book. How do you find that balance between serious narrative and life’s funny moments and thoughts?
MF: I don’t look for it. I think my world view is essentially one of merriment. I write from a long tradition of merry misfits. Humour bubbles up in most everything I write. I find it very difficult to be sombre all the time.
NP: Your memoir My Turquoise Years was adapted for the stage. Do you see a similar possibility for One Good Thing?
MF: I haven’t even thought of it. But then again, I never thought of adapting My Turquoise Years either. I don’t know. In My Turquoise Years there’s an arc, there’s a story. It’s a condensed sort of novelistic memoir and it concerns my thirteen-year-old self who does not have a functioning mother and what transpires over a six-week period of the summer when this person, my mother, decides she’s going to visit after eight years. There was a line to follow.
I don’t know that the line in this book, which is to embrace my lack of passion about gardening and feeling okay about it, would work as theatre. Still, I can actually say to people, No, I don’t garden! I know nothing! Nothing grows for me! I’m a failure. [laughs] Isn’t that wonderful? Before, I came to this realization it was a game of shame-hiding. Everybody around me was so knowledgeable and so successful in their gardens, and my poor efforts were constantly failing. This year, I simply announced I’m not growing anything except flowers, things in pots. We’ve got lots of access to fresh fruit and vegetables in the neighbourhood so I can rationalize it by supporting local farming. But really, it’s me ecstatically not having to carry that burden anymore. I don’t know if you could make a play out of that because each of the letters trampolines into thoughts about how to live. I don’t mean that monetarily. I mean that in the Taoist sense: how to live your life with acceptance and humility and openness to whatever comes your way. That is living well. That’s another of the book’s threads. I don’t know how obvious it is, but it’s certainly something that preoccupies me and has for many years.
NP: Lots of seeds of wisdom in there, Marion. One final question: Do you feel more like a gardener now?
MF: [laughs] No, for years, I never called our yard a garden because it seems so pretentious. Although it’s very pretty out there. Terry and I have managed to keep it minimalist. I’m not speaking for him as a gardener because he loves to grow peppers in his greenhouse, and he grows garlic and onions, and he put in raspberry canes this year. And that’s great. But I don’t feel I have to be equally enthusiastic.
NP: Those are all my questions, Marion. Is there something else you would like your readers to know?
MF: What I would hope everyone would do is try to learn to celebrate the positive, the rosary of joy that we have in our lives. Because we can neglect that. It’s the glee that goes with living alongside all the awful things that happen to us personally and then all the awful things that are happening to the world. We still have to cope, we still have to find the strength to live in this world, to say what we can and carry on for our sakes, for our children, for our grandchildren, for future generations. Really, that’s where I’m coming from.