Glittering Halloween horns on her head, she milks a goat. In another photo, she cradles a hen. Wait, am I seeing right? This couldn’t be true, could it?! What is that bulging out of her shirt belly? Could it actually be the head of a baby goat?
The photos are a highly glamorized version of Antonia Murphy’s current life. And however eye-goggling these are, they cannot beat the resonance of her prose. She is candid about the journey a ‘super-entitled’ citizen makes to the back of beyond and plants her roots. Here in conversation, Antonia recalls how Dirty Chick: Adventures of an Unlikely Farmer got written, amid the chaos of busy farm life that she makes seem very funny in hindsight (oh, we do love laughing at another’s mess, let’s admit it!)
If your animals could talk human, what do you think they’d say about Antonia Murphy?
She’s the nice lady who brings us food but I wish she’d stop eating our babies.
If you had a chance to be reborn as any non-human (individual member or species) in your brood, who would it be and why?
I’d definitely want to be a goat. They’re intelligent, curious, and they get to jump on cars with very few repercussions. Also they can basically eat anything that grows out of the ground. This would limit my options for gourmet food and sauces, but on the other hand—how liberating! Feeling peckish? Just bend over and have a bite of that shrub there. Delicious!
If you could experience life in any other form than the ones you’ve had, unrestrained by the bounds of time and geography, what would be your ideal existence?
Oh, probably a courtesan in Renaissance Italy, or maybe a priestess in Ancient Greece, both historical periods of great intellectual excitement and achievement. I specify the occupation because so often women didn’t get to partake of much of that intellectual excitement, but even in ancient times, the women who got seriously involved with God or sex (sex with powerful men, that is!) seemed to have more chance for a life of the mind. Plus, Italy and Greece—let’s face it, that’s where the food is.
Would you rather be a writer who didn’t farm or a farmer who didn’t write and why?
Absolutely, a writer who didn’t farm. Farming just happens to be what I enjoy doing right now; it’s just as likely I’ll be living on a sailboat in ten years. I’m also not a very good farmer, but I’m a pretty good writer, and at any rate I couldn’t live without a rich intellectual life. Baby ducks are cute, but they’re not much for stimulating debate.
What would be your one tip to anyone beginning lifestyle farming? And one for the first time writer?
For the would-be hobby farmer, rent first. Try to housesit or rent a rural property before you take out a mortgage and plunge right in. We made so many mistakes and learned so much in our first rental, so that when it came time to buy a property, I knew to look at things like water access, soil quality, livestock fencing. Also, I learned that cream-colored carpeting in a rural area where it rains a lot is just a really terrible idea.
For the first time writer: write. Write for pleasure at first, without expectation of success or publication. Then, when you’re ready to start submitting to agents or other professional outlets, and you inevitably get rejected, keep writing. My husband was hugely instrumental in launching my writing career. He helped me carve out three hours a day for writing that are inviolate, so that I started treating my writing like a serious part-time job, where I showed up and worked, even when I didn’t feel like it. Then, whenever I got dejected at the latest rejection, he’d kiss me and says “whoever gets the most ‘no’s’ wins!” So yeah—maybe my last piece of advice for writers is to surround yourself with supportive partners and friends.
What do you miss most from your life in San Francisco?
Fresh porcini mushrooms. Biosecurity New Zealand won’t allow fresh wild mushrooms of any kind to be imported, for fear of invasive spores damaging the fragile eco-system. Which I respect, I really do, but my counter argument to that is: risotto. Apparently there are some secret patches of porcini hidden around Auckland, which were started by Italian immigrants in the nineteenth century, but they’re a close-lipped secret and no one’s talking.
Also: museums, theatre, world-class restaurants, seared foie gras, and Mexican food.
Would you like to write fiction one day, something completely made up? Any wishlist of topics?
Yes. I’m sort of in awe of fiction writers—when I read a rich, twisting novel like All The Light We Cannot See or The Signature of All Things, I can’t believe one person kept all those ideas, plot lines and characters soaring through the story for hundreds of pages. I would love to be able to write like that. Maybe someday, I’ll find the courage to try.
Franz Kafka had famously said, “I need solitude for my writing; not ‘like a hermit’ – that wouldn’t be enough but like a dead man.” Does living in a bustling farm hinder your pen? Do you ever feel you could have written more or better without the unplanned interruptions?
Actually, I’m enormously lucky in that regard. I have my own office with a restful country view. My kids are in school, so it’s quiet during the day. Sometimes when my writing is very intense I do have to unplug the phone—people don’t seem to get that even a 30-second conversation completely knocks my out of my focus—but the animals are no trouble at all, especially now that we have adequate fencing. Some writers get up and do housework for a mental break; I go pet my alpacas.
Share your writing routine with us.
Three words: Ass In Chair. That’s actually pinned up above my desk. What it means is that after I get the kids off to school, feed the animals and water the garden, I sit in my chair for three hours and write. Sometimes, that looks like me sitting for one hour sulking with a bag of M&M’s and two hours writing, but I make myself push through the tough days, and eventually the pages come. I find that even when the writing is bad, just the act of writing fires up my brain so that I end up thinking about the problems overnight and I can usually fix them in the morning.
The other thing that helps is this: when I revise, I don’t delete. I keep two documents open, then when I want to remove a passage, I cut and paste it into the second document. That way I can be fearless about cutting: I’m not losing the writing, it’s just right there and I can put it back at any time.
What are you reading currently/read last and your opinion of it?
Reading now: Sweetness #9 by Stephan Erik Clark. This book got a huge amount of press when it came out, so I keep thinking I should love it more than I do, but I can’t help feeling that the guiding metaphors (artificial food leads to spiritual death!) are a little heavy-handed.
Read last: Pretty Ugly by Kirker Butler. Absolutely loved it—it’s a grotesque comedy about the southern child beauty pageant circuit. Sick, dark and absolutely hilarious.