Frequently Asked Questions:
The Measure of Everything
1. Is The Measure of Everything autobiographical, based on something that really happened?
A. Yes. Whitehall Farm, approximately 1,000 acres outside the village of Yellow Springs, Ohio, was auctioned in February of 1999. Stunned at first, the community, historically accustomed to activism by, among other things, the presence of Antioch College, rallied to fight what it perceived as the possible encroachment of urban sprawl, which could forever change the face of the town. I moved here in 1981, following a painful divorce, because I found the town magical: its diverse architecture, wonderful eccentrics, living arts community (library, indie film theatre, classical music series, poetry readings)-and most of all its adjacent open spaces. From downtown streets, I could be walking Glen Helen’s sacred forest paths within minutes. Antioch’s nature preserve got me here, but the village kept me here; both retain their magic after a quarter-century. I’d hate to see my town become just another bedroom community, where folks drive everywhere for everything, where there’s little neighboring going on. So when the auction signs went up, all of us who felt this way began holding rallies, public meetings and trying to raise enough money to purchase the easement rights to Whitehall to insure that it would remain a working farm, never become housing or businesses and keep Yellow Springs our funky little town. No one, it seemed, was against saving the farm, and though it seemed David against Goliath, the fight proved what can happen when a community is willing to sacrifice blood, sweat, tears and money to maintain its values. We raised one million dollars in about six weeks and, in a breath-taking conclusion, partnered with a pair of “ecological angels,” two Dayton lawyers who lived at Whitehall, and bought the farm at the auction, purchasing the easement to insure its agricultural character forever.
2. How did you go about turning an actual event into fiction?
A. By imaginative transformation. When writing autobiographical fiction, it’s never enough to simply transcribe real events onto the page, merely changing the names and a few events. Transformation means it’s a process of complete alchemy, putting what really happened through the fire so that it emerges reborn as an entirely new thing: not memoir or journalism, but fiction. The basic plotline mirrors the real events: six weeks’ of rallies, behind-the-scenes negotiation, council meetings, climaxing with the auction itself. Onto that canvas I painted characters with lives-including pasts-that I could believe in: Billy, the half-orphan ne’er-do-well who, in the process of saving the land, tries to save himself; Seth Abel, the beautiful, mysterious stranger who, in redeeming the land redeems her past; and Bonnie, Seth’s complete opposite and rival for the hero’s heart; Ira Flint, Billy’s alter ego, who, older and more jaded, might join the fray, if he will; and Woody Freeman, the wise elder who’ll only fight if it’s clean. Once those focal characters came clear, I lit the fuse-a month till the auction-and threw these flawed but well-meaning folks into the fire, along with some whose motives were less pure. Though I knew the outcome of the real farm fight I’d participated in, I reserved judgment on the fictional one. Who knew whether they would win or not? No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. And these people told me their stories, over and over.
3. How does a political novel like yours avoid becoming propaganda?
A. I hope that it’s the willingness to examine-and articulate-all sides of an issue. Though mega-developer John Schuyler is the novel’s antagonist, he scores important points against the protagonists’ position, is manipulative but openly so (whereas it is the anti-developers who’re infiltrated by eco-terrorists), and does, in the end, fight fairly. The farmers, too, verbalize the controversial and complex nature of land usage, especially easements. But the central characters provided my best insurance against preaching. All except Woody Freeman are seriously flawed. Especially Billy Acorn walks the edge between good and evil in his actions. And ultimately I leave it to the reader to add up the pluses and minuses regarding the people and issues. For some readers, land usage itself might be secondary to whether Billy, Ira, Bonnie and Seth can face their demons, accept and move on to the rest of their lives. I hope the reader can relate to these serious “middle passage” issues, whether it’s protecting land, finding one’s identity or raising one’s own children.
4. What made you decide to develop two parallel stories of urban sprawl, one in Ohio and one in West Virginia?
A. Rather accidentally! The book had gone through several drafts before it became clear that Billy would go “home” when he felt defeated in the farm struggle. For him, as for me, it turned out that “home” means West Virginia. Raised in Toledo, Billy’s Appalachian grandfather’s farm was, in his early years, an Eden he and his parents visited. His return to his roots in the book’s later chapters grounded my protagonist and the book in a way I hadn’t anticipated. Discovering Billy’s Aunt Della, a pivotal character like no other strong Appalachian woman I’d ever included in my fiction, was, for me, a delight; and, for Billy, a challenge. When my publisher suggested I move the West Virginia journey to the front of the book in order to balance Billy’s character, I realized it as the structural key to the book. Flip-flopping between Ohio and West Virginia energized, expanded the story and provided Billy’s major epiphany.
5. How did the novel change as it developed through early drafts?
A. Though the major events stayed much the same, I changed the point of view entirely. For the first few drafts, the book followed Seth’s point of view, dramatizing her troubles with her son, estranged husband and former professor, Dr. Lloyd Kieron. For a host of reasons, that didn’t work. Focusing the book on Billy released a lot of energy-his youthful, often wrong-headed, lustful voice will, I hope, remind readers of their own moral confusion and mixed motives. Also, the change made Seth more mysterious and let us watch Billy’s world-view mature. When Seth was the point of view, Billy seemed a lot less sympathetic.
6. To which character(s) in the book do you feel closest?
A. I’m a little bit of all of them, of course, but I’d have to choose Ira: the introvert, the teacher, the one who’s made a terrible mistake, for which he’s paying dearly. He’s bent and saddened but soldiers on, making himself of use to others. I would love to have the courage he showed by taking the fight to the farmers, speaking to their hearts more than to their heads. I’d love to be as loyal a friend as he is to Billy and Bonnie, as loving a father, as humbly helpful to his community. But too often I feel as confused, cowardly and selfish as Billy. I suppose I’m as torn between the two as Twain was between Huck and Tom.
7. How did your attitude toward the land issue-and toward activism in general-change as you wrote the book?
A. After participating in the real fight to save Whitehall in ’99, I was about as pumped as a novice activist could be. And no doubt when I began the book the following spring, I wanted to inspire readers to go forth and save the world. But I soon ran into walls-not all my early readers felt the way I did; the father of one of my earliest readers was a developer. So thank God my critics didn’t rain praise upon my head. Instead they raised many valid questions. So as I re-thought my characters, plot and conflict, I re-thought the land issue as well, researching as I always do when faced with something I don’t know much about. Luckily I’d saved all the newspaper accounts about the fight to save Whitehall, and the reporters did remarkably balanced coverage, teaching me a great deal about the complexities. While Yellow Springs was nearly unanimous in supporting the effort to save Whitehall, residents were quite divided on other land use issues, such as providing more affordable housing to insure our village would remain diverse rather than become a haven for MARPies (middle-aged rural professionals); attracting non-polluting industries to defray taxes yet maintain our infrastructure; balancing greenspace with other pressing needs, such as building a new college on the edge of town. I increasingly came to see land use, specifically urban sprawl, as complex, politically-charged and pressing. Of all the issues highlighted in the ’04 election-war, economics, medical care-I’ve narrowed my field of activism to the environment. If we don’t save the planet, nothing else much matters. And the planet is a beautiful living thing too precious to do otherwise. My literary and real lives merged in a mission to which I can direct my resources and my passion.
8. What would you hope the reader takes away from reading your book?
A. First of all the immense joy of waking up and hearing birds, feeling rain on your face, watching herons fly above the wetland beside the interstate; secondly, of knowing you can fight City Hall, corporations or bureaucracies; that, indeed, you must fight to save what you believe in. As for activism, I thought I’d be the last person in the world to hit the streets. That we have to fight for what we believe in, that governors and governments don’t automatically provide us what we most need, is not sad, cruel or unfair; it just is. One of these days you’re going to have to fight for something, and you’ll find you’re not alone and you can be more effective than you thought you could.
9. What are you working on next?
A. Since my first novel, I Was So Much Older Then was almost entirely focused on a mother and son, I’ve been chosen to do a father and son book. Israel Jones, an aging rock star in failing health and on his “eternal tour,” has gone from being engagingly eccentric to downright bizarre in his on-stage behavior. Enter his fortyish son Thomas, a Baptist pastor with his own scandals, wounds and losses to deal with. After receiving a mysterious, anonymous phone call, Thom journeys to his father’s side to see for himself whether his dad has indeed gone off the deep end. Enigmatic and uncommunicative, Israel Jones chooses actions over words, and Tom sees his presence on the tour as a chance to ask the questions he’s always had for his wayward father-and perhaps receive the belated blessing of his father’s strange life. As always I’m writing about things which interest me now: spirituality, rock and roll, self-mutilation, Psalms.
10. Any possibility of a sequel to Measure?
A. I’d say almost none. It’s tempting to want to revisit these characters, years later, when they and their town face some other crisis-environmental or otherwise- but I also like to move on to the next thing. However, it’ll be interesting to see if all the unused material that wound up on the cutting-room floor results in any spin-offs. That happened with my story “Starting Home,” which emerged from left-overs of I Was So Much Older Then.