It was Valentine’s Day, of course—but as I sat in the chair where I usually wrote my fiction, rather than ruminating on romance, I was studying up on swine. Heritage breed porkers to be precise—Berkshires, Large Blacks, Tamworths, Mulefoots. I was also reading a lot about chickens—traditional and trustworthy layers such as the Barred Rock and the Rhode Island Red as well as that freakish broiler bird known as the Cornish Cross.
I had no experience raising livestock of any kind. But my decades-long career as a journalist had recently disintegrated beneath my feet, I was having no luck interesting an agent in my most recent novel, and at the awkward age of 52, with no professional prospects in sight, the single, desperate course that occurred to me was to create an organic farm on our 22 acres of midcoast Maine. So there I was on that Valentine’s Day: unshaven, unshowered, no valentine for my valentine, and curled up in my well-worn chair, poring over books with titles like, You Can Farm, and Pastured Poultry Profit$.
I am proud to say that all that spring, summer, and fall, I gave the farming thing an honest go. I acquired piglets, began shoveling their tides of sloppy shit from the concrete floor of our barn, and eventually pastured them on our property behind portable electric fencing.
I hatched a couple dozen Rhode Island Reds in an incubator, bought dozens of Barred Rocks and Cornish Cross pullets from a hatchery, and brooded them all in a spare bedroom until they were ready to move outdoors. When the broilers hit seven weeks of age, my wife and I began “processing” them—a set of bloody, less-than-pleasant procedures with which the neophyte processor nonetheless becomes almost disturbingly comfortable in a surprisingly short period of time.
It was a long summer, a long fall. But by November, all the pigs had gone to bacon, the broiler birds had all been broiled, if not frozen, and the layers had begun producing the occasional egg. I already knew that, as vital a calling as farming was, I’d never do it again.
By then, although not one job offer had come my way, almost as an act of defiance I’d resolved to continue using my writing and editing skills, regardless of how little the world seemed to value them. Valentine’s Day 2009 found me preparing to launch a website on the subject of endangered species, having previously plunged myself into the details of website construction with the same intensity which, a year earlier, I’d immersed myself in swine. To my surprise, the new website grew rapidly and made a modest but regular amount of money—and before long I’d started another one, which also did well.
In 2010, a nearby college offered me an adjunct job teaching writing; it was a gig I might not have gotten without the websites to make me look like something other than a fifty-something washout. That job planted the seed for a second career, and by 2012 I was earning an MFA degree in order to make myself reasonably competitive in the academic market.
I’ve now been a full-time college instructor for the last couple of years. I also recently published a new novel, American Ghost, after a decades-long drought. My editor tells me that one of his primary reasons for buying the book was his fascination with a character: Fred Muttkowski, a fifty-something “failed” novelist turned pig farmer.
American Ghost, Paul Guernsey’s third novel, came out from Talos Press in August, 2017. It is scheduled for trade paperback publication in October. His other novels are Unhallowed Ground, which was the runner-up in the 1985 PEN/Nelson Algren Fiction Award, and Angel Falls, which was inspired by his experiences as a foreign correspondent in Venezuela during the early 1980s. He is also the author of Beyond Catch & Release: Exploring the Future of Fly Fishing, a non-fiction book published in 2011.Guernsey currently is editing a two-volume anthology of short fiction for Wyrd Harvest Press (Durham, U.K.) 21st Century Ghost Stories—Volume I, is scheduled for publication in August. Volume II is expected to appear in 2021. All profits will be donated to projects of the Wildlife Trusts in the U.K. All stories in the anthology will be winners or honorable mentions in either The Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award, or the Screw Turn Flash Fiction Competition. Both of these international contests seek the very best short fiction containing a supernatural or magic realism theme or element. Further information is available on The Ghost Story website: www.theghoststory.com
Guernsey lives with his family in Maine, and teaches writing at Unity College: America’s Environmental College.
Paul encourages you to contribute to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC is dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. Using litigation, education, and other forms of advocacy, the SPLC works toward the day when the ideals of equal justice and equal opportunity will be a reality. Visit www.splcenter.org.