Behind the Book
In early October 2010, I was in Kansas to accept an award for a book. After the ceremony, there was a casual luncheon during which I chatted very briefly with a woman who mentioned that a family in attendance were custom harvesters. I’d never heard of such a thing. The woman explained that farmers often don’t harvest their own crops; they hire custom harvesters who travel through the heartland harvesting crops for one farm after another.
My family had moved a number of times before I was in fourth grade, so I’d been on the road a lot during early childhood, staying in cheap motels, speeding through grain fields on lonely but gorgeous highways. My first published book in 1989 was a collection of stories marketed as a novel, with many of the stories taking place on the road. There was nothing else I wanted to write about. To this day the road strikes me as dreamlike and mystic. So the idea of people on the road for several months, as they drive from wheat field to wheat field, seemed amazing to me. Inside my mind, the subject matter resided halfway between dreams and memories.
I’d taken a train from California, where I live, to Kansas. Late in the night as I waited in the Kansas station for my train home, I couldn’t stop thinking about custom harvesting. What a life that would be, driving to a different farm every few days, moving from Texas on up to the Canadian border as you followed the ripening wheat.
A month-and-a-half after visiting Kansas, my boyfriend and I flew back there to stay with the wonderful family from the luncheon. At their home I saw and rode in a combine—the hulking machine used in harvesting -- and I learned some about what the harvesting lifestyle was like. The days could be long—you drove combines beneath the sun, and, later, beneath the moon, sometimes putting in eighteen-hour days seven days a week. The combines have floor-to-ceiling windows, and when you’re in one you can really feel like you’re a part of the wheat you’re harvesting, a part of the fields and even the sky.
The harvesting process is a process of alchemy, the raw wheat a harvester cuts ending up months or years later in kitchens and breadboxes all over the world. What I wanted to achieve with the novel was to illuminate this alchemy and what it’s like to be a part of it. Paradoxically, the more hard details I learned about harvesting, the more the harvesting process seemed magical.
Writing is an obsessive endeavor. You spend months and years obsessed with your subject matter. I spent two and a half years obsessed with wheat, and now writing about the annual harvest has become one of my favorite memories, residing as it does in the same place as my childhood memories of the road. And then, just like in real life, you move on.