Meet Jeannie Ralston
For more than 23 years, Jeannie Ralston has been writing for magazines, both on-staff and as a freelancer. She has been a contributing editor for Parenting magazine for the past 8 years. She now lives with her husband and their two sons in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The Unlikely Lavender Queen has been optioned for film. Visit her website.
Read Becky Lane's review of An Unlikely Lavender Queen for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Becky Lane & Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 07/11/2008
Memoirists have many different reasons for telling their life stories. What prompted you to write An Unlikely Lavender Queen? Who were you writing for? That is, who were you imagining as your primary audience?
I wrote the book because I thought I had something out of the ordinary to say. I had seen quite a few movies—Baby Boom is one—and read several books, such as I Don't Know How She Does It that tie up all the loose ends by sending the heroine off to a life in the country, which we are meant to assume is blissful. After my experience living in the country, having kids, running a lavender farm, I knew that this wasn't necessarily true. The book offers a different, more realistic—but ultimately happy—take on life in the country.
But probably the main reason I wrote this book is that whenever I told my story to the visitors at our lavender farm—which was very often—people seemed truly fascinated, not only by the agricultural aspects but by the major life changes, struggles and compromises I made. What I think people were responding to was the idea that you can't plan for happiness. You can think you know what you need to be fulfilled, but when life takes you down a completely different track, even if you're far from where you thought you'd be professionally or personally, you can still find contentment.
So in a way the audience I was writing for were the many people I had met at the farm—mostly women who were interested in transforming their lives in some way. I guess mainly it was women who held out the hope that they could grow and change and create something wonderful in their lives, no matter how old they were.
You left Blanco in 2006 and Lavender Queen was published in 2008. When did you start writing your memoir? How long did it take? Where did you work on it?
I started working on the book in the summer of 2005, after what I suspected would be my last lavender season. It seemed to be an ideal time to reflect on the lavender business—how I got into it unexpectedly and how it had changed me and my worldview. I could see a real arc to the story, and I thought that the ending was not what a lot of people would expect. Most people who pick up this book, I believe, will presume that it will end when I'm happily busy with my thriving lavender farm. But of course real life isn't always like that. In the end, my husband pushed me once more—testing my resolve and our marriage again.
In the fall of 2005, I took an online course on how to write a non-fiction book proposal. I had written magazine story proposals for years and had no problem with those. However, a book proposal seemed like a weird, mysterious science. The class really helped me understand what I needed to say and also got me cracking on actually getting everything down on paper.
We moved to Mexico in January 2006 and by that summer I had finished the proposal, which was 60 pages long. I found a good agent by the end of the summer and by November I had a book contract. Once I had the contract, I finished the book fairly quickly. That's because I had spent so much time thinking through the proposal and had a very good map for myself. I turned in the manuscript in mid-May 2007, three weeks ahead of schedule and I have to say I'm almost never ahead of schedule!
Some parts of the book are deeply self-exploratory and must have taken courage to write. What aspect of it did you find most difficult?
I think the most difficult things to write were about my sadness when I wasn't getting pregnant and my post-partum depression. Writing about those things was like living them over again in a way. Especially when I was writing about the post-partum depression, I got very agitated and didn't sleep well. I couldn't wait to get through those parts.
Our personal stories almost always include the stories of other people. How hard was it to write about your husband? About the people in Blanco—both those who supported you and those who sometimes seemed to work at cross-purposes? When you were writing about them, did you have any concern about the way they might react when they read the story?
It was hard to write about my husband in many ways because like everyone he has his flaws. The question became how much did dare I reveal. I worried because a) I have to live with him and b) he has a creative career himself and I didn't want my revelations to in anyway hurt his reputation. I didn't show him the proposal and sample chapter until after I got a contract to write the book (and I'm not sure why that is). He just told me to please not be too hard on him, and I wasn't writing this to get even or cast him in a bad light. I really just wanted to show how difficult it can be to stay true to your own self within a marriage—especially a marriage to a very forceful, passionate man.
He was the first one to read my manuscript and I remember coming into the house one day and he had finished it and was crying. My first reaction was, "Is it that bad?" He told me, "I'm so glad we stayed together through all of this."
He can be very funny about the whole thing. Right before the book came out, I had a moment of nervousness, hoping reviewers or friends wouldn't think badly of him. I expressed my concerns to him and he said, "I don't care what people say about me, as long as it does well for you." I said, "But what if it doesn't do well?" "Oh well then," he replied, "you're out of here."
As far as other people in the story are concerned, if I felt that my representation of them might hurt them in some way, I changed their names and often a few identifying characteristics. I really didn't want to hurt anyone, but I couldn't write a book in which everyone was nice and considerate and nothing bad ever happened. The truth was that I did have problems with other people and I think that I had to show that for the story to feel authentic.
I did soften some representations of people, however, knowing they would read it and recognize themselves. And on the final edit, I deleted some lines that—when it came right down to it—didn't move the story along enough to justify the hurt they might cause.
Your husband seemed to play a life-determining role in the choice of a place to live and a way to live. Has the writing and the publication of your memoir changed that in any way?
Yes, he has played a huge role in determining how and where we lived. I used to be bothered by that. I didn't think I was really living up to the vision I had of myself—a strong woman, a feminist. I felt I should be taking an equal share in making these determinations. But I've come to realize that he's a restless person who likes new adventures. I'm an adaptable person who can, eventually, feel at home anywhere. So, why not go along for the ride? He's never really led us astray as a family. We've had incredible experiences and have lived in very nice homes, so we've never truly suffered. I do determine a lot about how we live—as far as how our children are raised and educated and the kind of life we build for ourselves in our community.
I think if anything the writing of the book has clarified this for me. I have more trust in him—and probably in myself. I can trust that he'll take us to an interesting place and I trust that I can make the most of where ever that is.
Robb is thinking about the next place we live, probably in the U.S., and my main stipulation is that it be near good schools for the boys. The one thing I won't do again is start schools or fret the way I used to about schools staying solvent. That was way too much pressure.
Sometimes the work of writing a memoir makes us aware of something in our lives that we had only vaguely understood. You write about the lavender fields and the house, very movingly: "I had achieved something remarkable, I felt. I had endured, toughed out the isolation, the demands of a perfectionist husband and had found real peace." Was that awareness something you were able to achieve at the time, or did it come clearer to you as you worked on your memoir? To what extent do you think that the act of writing a life story shapes that story?
I think what the act of writing the book revealed to me is the extent to which I can trust my husband. We ended up with a beautiful life in Blanco and writing about it made me appreciate that life even more. I also was aware that without him I would not have a book at all. I might have written another type of book, but it would not have been this book with this message.
The passage you mention in the question was something I was vaguely aware of at the time, but writing the book sharpened the awareness. Looking back and trying to put pieces together, I was able to say where those feelings of contentment came from. I was could look at the continuum of the story and see, from a more removed distance, that I had achieved a lot.
I do feel that writing a life story shapes the story. We all have interesting life stories, I believe, but as we go about our daily lives we aren't necessarily looking at the way the different strands are woven together, leading us to various events or revelations. For example, I don't think I understood how the post-partum depression led to my appreciation for Blanco until I started writing and thinking about the timeline and remembering the way little moments—how beautiful the fall color on the Spanish oaks seemed that year, for instance—played into the larger picture. I had always thought of the depression as this terrible black period and I hated to even go back there in my memory, so it wasn't until I wrote the book that I began to examine its effect on what came next.
Can you tell us something about your life in San Miguel Allende? Will you be staying there, or returning to the States?
Our life in San Miguel is beautiful. It's simply a gorgeous town and I love the kind of people I've met there and my access to restaurants and culture. I'm thrilled to be living in a city again. I know I can't persuade Robb to live in an American city again, so I'm savoring this time. (We might live in the American countryside, but not an American city.)
Our boys are doing wonderfully in this environment. They are completely bilingual now—reading, writing, speaking. They sometimes talk to each other in Spanish or tell jokes to each other in Spanish. It warms my heart and I know for certain that we've done the right thing in bringing them here. (Many people still think that Robb forced me to move to Mexico—even though I state otherwise in the book. But really, truly this was just as much my desire as Robb's.)
I've been working on my Spanish as well and have reached my own definition of fluency. The Spanish classes have taken up a lot of my time, and so has another construction project. After we moved here, Robb decided he wanted to buy land outside of San Miguel. We purchased 100 gorgeous acres ringed by mountains. We also renovated two large buildings—about 6,000 square feet—with Robb acting as the architect and me as the contractor. It was quite a chore but somehow easier than the barn we renovated in Blanco, mainly because we had so much more experience. Doing the renovation in Mexico, in another language, added just enough spice and challenge to make it really interesting.
We will probably return to the States in a year or so. The boys probably need to finish their education in the U.S. We'll be looking at different parts of the country in the next few months, trying to figure out where we should be. Knowing Robb, I'm sure it will be something a little wild and different.
What projects are you working on now? More lavender-related work? More memoir? Other kinds of writing?
The lavender related work I'm doing right now is in Mexico. I am involved as a consultant to a lavender project in a nearby pueblo. A U.S. charity called St. Anthony's Alliance has helped the community plant a lavender field down here to provide income since so many of the men are working in the States now. I've conducted a lavender growing and marketing seminar in Spanish for the community, found a source for their plants, and helped them with marketing connections in San Miguel. The community co-op is selling their lavender products to businesses in San Miguel. Also, when I recently had a book signing in San Miguel, a third of the price of every book sold went to the community for their lavender project. It feels wonderful to use my lavender experience toward such a worthy purpose.
I am working on another memoir—the subject of which was suggested by my editor. At the end of my book party in New York, my editor came up to me and said, "I have an idea for your next book." Let me tell you, there are no two sweeter words to hear from an editor than "next book." All I can say right now is that it's a memoir but it doesn't pick up where Lavender Queen left off. It's a different kind of memoir. I'm very excited.