Traverse City People: “Hilarious.” “Heartwarming.” “Irreverent.” “Triumphant.” Just some of the ways reviewers are describing Traverse City author Mardi Jo Link’s new book Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm.
Garrison Keillor writes, “A heroic-comic saga of single motherhood, pure stubbornness, and the loyalty of three young sons. And more than that, an honest account of the working poor, the people who buy day-old bread, patronize libraries and don't need your sympathy. Just a break now and then.”
This beautifully written memoir describes a brutal year in the life of a woman who, while coming to terms with the loss of her marriage and the near-loss of her land, finds a new affection and respect for her three brave children and the Northern Michigan landscape. She also discovers her true inner “bootstrapper” in the process.
I met Mardi at The Bear River Writers’ Conference in the summer of 2006. We were both beginning work on our first books. During our time there, we created the Bear River Swim Club at 2 a.m., burned sage to cleanse our souls, and had long talks about our writing and our lives by the bonfire on the shores of Walloon Lake. We have remained friends ever since. We both agree Bear River was a life changing experience and gave us the inspiration to pursue the life of a writer. We both ended up getting book deals shortly after we left the conference.
MEG: You started out your writing career as a journalist.
MARDI: I graduated from Michigan State with a degree in journalism and agriculture. My goal was to be an environmental writer for the Free Press or some other Michigan paper. I graduated in 1984. There weren’t many jobs for people like me back then. So I took the only job that was offered to me: to be a police reporter for a New England daily family-owned newspaper in Dover, New Hampshire. I just drove out there alone in my car with my student loans and headed out East. I was 22. I was at that paper for 5 years. That’s how I met “Mr.Wonderful” (note: that’s what Mardi calls her ex-husband in her book.) That’s where I got married. He was a teacher and I was a reporter.
MEG: How did you get to Northern Michigan?
MARDI: We were both from Michigan and when we had our children, we realized we wanted to raise them in Northern Michigan. We both got jobs in Traverse City. And thank goodness for that because I love it here! It has become part of me.
MEG: When I met you, you were working as a freelance editor for Paul Sutherland’s FIM Group in Traverse City and you were working on several books. Your first published works were When Evil Came to Good Hart and Isadore’s Secret. You won several awards including the Michigan notable book award. Why did you shift from the genre of true crime to writing a memoir?
MARDI: During all that time writing true crime books, I was writing essays about what it felt like to be a single mother with three sons. I had an opportunity to write a third true crime book. And I realized it wasn’t just a regional story … that it could be a book for a national audience. I started looking for agents, and on a whim, I included one of my parenting essays that I thought was probably the best one. I got a call from an agent in New York who said, “ You are not a true crime writer. You are a memoirist. And if you want to write a memoir, I’m your agent.” It was a neat moment. But an unusual moment … since I was sitting in the Gaylord court clerk’s office doing research for my third true crime book when she called me on my cell to tell me I wasn’t a true crime writer! But I put that book aside and got busy writing a memoir.
MEG: What was it like to switch from writing about other peoples lives to writing about your OWN life?
MARDI: I was daunted. I also had this incredible sense of freedom. I made a deal with myself while I was writing: I said, ‘this book is being written for an audience … a reader … of one. And you, Mardi, are that reader.’ So I essentially wrote the book for me. I made a promise that if there was anything in it when I was finished … anything I wasn’t comfortable about … that I would take it out. And that is what allowed me to turn a reporter’s eye on to my own life. But there are times it was grueling. In retrospect, you see your mistakes. But in the end, it also made me realize that my sons are heroes. And the satisfaction of being able to communicate that is impossible to quantify. It’s huge.
MEG: This is a very personal book. And it is brutally honest. Has anyone threatened your life since it came out?
MARDI : (laughs) No. But my parents have asked me when I’m going to write some fiction.
MEG: How about your sons?
MARDI: When they read it, they said, “Mom, we knew all those things were going on! But that was just our life. We just thought it was fun. It was an adventure. We didn’t realize how dangerous our circumstances were.” That made me feel good that they said that.
MEG: That means you were a good mom. You protected them.
MARDI: I did protect them. And now they can see that year through MY eyes.
MEG: There are so many beautiful passages in this book that crystallize the love, the struggles and the loneliness of a single mom. I’ve known you for a long time. But I didn’t know the hardships you faced after your divorce. Why did you hide it from all of us, even from your mom and dad?
MARDI: I felt like I needed to deal with it on my own. I created that life. I needed to deal with the reckoning of that life. In looking back on it, although I am proud of the way we handled that year, I feel like that is something that happened to us, but that doesn’t define us—who we were then, or who we are today. I didn’t want to talk with people about it because I didn’t want people’s sympathy. I didn’t want people to think less of me.
MEG: There’s a poignant moment in the book where you sign your kids up for the government school lunch program.
MARDI: That was the worst. I was raised with a good work ethic: you don’t ask for help from other people, or for things that you can do yourself. And if you can’t do them yourself, you learn how to do them yourself. So that was just demoralizing, to have to do that. There were many other programs I could have applied for, but I didn’t. That is probably the one moment where I felt like a failure. And I wouldn’t have done that if not for my kids.
MEG: At one point you decide to start raising pigs for food and you also raise chickens. There are many hilarious parts of this book about the ways you dealt with the addition of these animals to your life. I love the chapter where you give names to the chickens that bear eggs. But you call the chickens you are going to eat “The Meats.” Do you still have them?
MARDI: They’re gone.
MEG: The relentless rhythms of life on the farm, the sting of poverty, and the sometimes unforgiving Northern Michigan seasons come through loud and clear in this book. And yet you wind up embracing the land and the life you’ve chosen.
MARDI: And I hope what comes through is my affection for this place.
MEG: During this difficult year, a man named Pete comes into your life.
MARDI: Of course I had sworn off men forever. Divorce will do that for you! But he … he kind of arrived on the property. He was partially through a remodeling of my century-old farmhouse, and I had to fire him because I couldn’t afford to pay him anymore. The house had been half-finished for a year. He would call me once in awhile. He would anonymously plow my driveway! Or we’d go see a concert together. He sort of wove in and out of my life that year. But I was much too absorbed in just trying to keep my family going to entertain any ideas of a romance. But let’s just suffice to say it’s a happy ending. And he’s still in my life.
MEG: How has your life changed since you finished this book?
MARDI: Well it’s so exciting to be published by Knopf … the same publisher that published Nora Ephron, Jane Smiley and some of my favorite writers. It’s an amazing feeling. These writers have made me enthralled by their work. And I hope my book can do that for other readers.
MEG: What’s next for you?
MARDI: My book is going to be in Elle magazine this summer. The New York Times is sending a reporter and photographer to the Big Valley (what Mardi calls her Traverse City farm) to do a feature in their home section, on what it looks like in the summer.
MEG: I remember the moment I met you at Bear River.
MARDI: I remember you too. I was late arriving to our first class. I leaned over your shoulder and I said, “What did I miss?’ And you said. “Don’t’ worry. And look! It’s Thomas Lynch!” (the Michigan author who wrote the award winning collection of essays “The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade”) And I remember sitting around the bonfire on the beach. And burning sage together. From that point forward, we were fast friends. And we called each other “the smudge sisters” because we burned sage together.
MEG: The first piece you read in Thomas Lynch’s class struck all of us. It was about your beloved horse being hit by a car. That piece is an important part of this book.
MARDI: It was so fresh in my mind. It had only happened a year prior. That was really the first environment where I felt safe enough to write about those hard things. I think it was a pretty major loss for me that year: the hardest moment in a very hard year. And it was pivotal because it made me realize it wasn’t fake. I wasn’t play-acting. I realized: “this is real.” Time to make this place what it CAN be instead of what I wanted it to be.
MEG: How important is something like the Bear River Writers’ Conference for writers like you?
MARDI: Thomas Lynch has such high standards for quality and for literature and in that class at Bear River he infused us with that. And he encouraged us to have high standards for ourselves and for our own writing and our own writing practice. And then the author Bret Lott talked about doing what you think you cannot do. I talked with him, and I told him, “I can’t write about love.” And he said, “Then you must. You must write about love. “I bought his book Before We Get Started, which is a wonderful book for writers and anyone interested in writing and literature. He signed my book and he wrote, “For Mardi; I’m so glad I could be of some help. I hope someday I can be of further help.” And he signed his name and underneath it he wrote, “Write about love!” And I feel like that’s what I did.
MEG: So: first, you wrote true crime books. Now you write about your own life. Are you still solving mysteries?
MARDI: I think I have always … in all of my writing … I have been trying to unravel what family is, and what family means. And in Bootstrapper, I do that for my own family.
Mardi Jo Link will be at the Bear River Writers’ Conference on Walloon Lake May 30th – June 3rd. She’ll be on the memoir panel with Rhoda Janzen (Mennonite in a Little Black Dress) and Bich Nguyen (Stealing Buddha's Dinner) Her book Bootstrapper hits stores shelves June 11th.
Bootstrapper Book Launch Reception
7:00 p.m., Saturday, June 15, Brilliant Books 118 E. Front Street, Traverse City
For a list of appearance dates, check mardilink.com.
If you are a member of the media and would like to cover one of Mardi Link’s appearances, contact Lena Khidritskaya Little, [email protected], or Brittany Morrongiello, [email protected]. Mary Ellen Geist is the author of Measure of the Heart. She writes from Chicago and Petoskey’s Walloon Lake.