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Interview With Catherine Friend, Author of 'Sheepish'

Her way out of a midlife (and sheep farm) rut

We've all been where Catherine Friend was, yet not likely in such an idyllic setting.

See also:  Excerpt from Sheepish.

Fifteen years into her career as a Minnesota sheep farmer, Friend found herself in a midlife rut, questioning whether raising animals on 53 acres of pasture was for her. In her laugh-out-loud memoir, the 54-year-old author shares her struggles through mishaps in livestock mating, shocking encounters with electric fences and zealous pursuit by the "fiber freaks" who want her flock's wool. Amazingly, it is these freaks — and the sheep themselves — that ultimately dangle the yarn Catherine grasps to climb up out of the quagmire.

She explained how she did it in an interview with the AARP Bulletin. (Read an excerpt from Sheepish.)

Q. Your first farm memoir, Hit by a Farm, was about starting a farm, whereas this book, you say, is much more about "middles" — both your own midlife and the farm's. What's going on when we join you for Sheepish?

A. The farm was up and running, and my spouse, Melissa, and I were making fewer mistakes — like the time I planted 200 grapevines upside down. The story starts about the time of my second midlife crisis. I have one every 10 years, so I had one when I turned 40, and another when I hit 50. I hadn't quite reconciled the face I see in the mirror with the 37-year-old in my head.

Catherine Friend author Sheepish - sheep and wool

Courtesy of Da Capo Books

Author Catherine Friend, 54.

Q. And what started happening with the farm?

A. There was a slump: We lost customers, expenses got higher, staffing became difficult. Our finances were starting to suffer, and so Melissa and I thought, "OK, it might be the time for a change."

Q. Many people today are in that same boat.

A. Yet I was attached to the farm: We raise animals humanely, we make great meat, we take care of our property. So that's what happened to me when I turned 50; I thought, "Do I want to be on the farm? A writer? In this relationship?" It all sort of hit me at once.

Q. You also found yourself crying about Elvis Presley a lot. Why?

A. I didn't understand what was going on, because why, 30 years after Elvis' death, would I start bawling over him all the time? Of course, I finally figured out that my hormones might be a little out of whack. I went to the doctor to fix that, and I'm not crying about Elvis on a regular basis anymore.

Q. Why do you think it happened with him, specifically?

A. He's so beautiful, in voice and looks. My life was chaotic, and I was looking back at him with fondness, and with regret that I didn't pay more attention to him when he was alive. I really admired something about Elvis' story — the fact that he kept reinventing himself, which I found very inspiring.

Next: Finding a way to make life better. >>

Q. Speaking of reinventing, what else did you and Melissa consider?

A. We considered selling the farm and moving into an apartment; we considered a different animal mix, and even agrotourism — where people pay you to come stay and work on your farm. A lot of people's solutions to a midlife crisis is to make big changes. Self-help books are always telling people to take risks and follow your dreams, live the life you want. I didn't want to abandon my life, I just wanted to find a way to like it better.

Q. You fell in love with wool yarn and knitting. How long were you on the farm before this affair started to bloom?

A. At least 10 years. When Hit by a Farm came out, I'd had no contract with the people I gently call fiber freaks. We didn't sell our fleece, it wasn't part of my life. But a number of spinners, dyers and knitters read Hit by a Farm. They reached out and contacted me and said, "Hey, would you like me to spin up a fleece and see what your yarn is like?"

Q. And?

A. Even then, I was pretty skeptical. But I found myself with this great yarn, and thought that I'd better learn how to knit. I did a couple of scarves and that gets boring after a while, and so I moved on to socks, and now I'm working on other things. That was how yarn surprised me: To learn that there was something about the farm we hadn't explored yet. It was a gift my readers gave me.

Q. And that helped you fall in love with the farm again.

A. Yes, that's what's so amazing — my readers sent me in the direction that I needed to go.

Q. By the end of the book you are actively reclaiming sheep farming as a life for yourself. What advice do you have for anyone considering starting a farm?

A. Don't put it off! Our energy level at 54 is a little different than it was at 37. So if you have an interest in farming, don't wait until you are 65 or 75. Figure out a way to make it happen. Start slowly, start small, be realistic about what you can do, and make sure you have a lot of money in the bank.

Q. How many hours a day of physical work can a new farmer expect to put in?

A. The startup hours are very intense, but once a farm is up and running, it'll be less. Don't be afraid to ask or pay for help. And, again, don't put it off!

Next: Balancing farming and writing. >>

Q. What do the sheep mean to you?

A. Sheep are comfort, stability. If the world fell apart tomorrow, I'd gather up my sheep and be able to survive for a couple of years, because I'd have fiber and meat, and I just feel more connected to nature because I raise sheep. I also feel really good that we are helping keep sheep alive because their population numbers have dropped quite a bit. But I think eventually the world will say, "Oh, hey, wool is cool! We need more sheep!"

Q. You're a caretaker until the sheep renaissance.

A. We are like a little zoo here until the world is ready to get behind wool again. And it is getting better, actually. Wool fans are on the rise.

Q. Why should we wear wool?

A. It's a natural fiber, it's comfortable, it's flexible, and it's not plastic or made out of oil. Pesticides aren't necessary to grow it. The biggest thing is that its natural — sheep grow that fleece, it comes off, and they grow some more. It's a replenishable system.

Q. Do you like having both farming and writing in your life?

A. Yes — when I'm too busy writing, I push the farm away, because I am speaking and doing interviews. Melissa had surgery this winter after Sheepish was finished, so for 55 days in a row I did chores. Not that I was counting or anything. Doing the chores, I felt happier, calmer, more involved. People will tell you it was a horrible winter in Minnesota, but I had a great one. I got outside every day, worked with the animals. It totally changed my outlook on winter.

Q. How do you balance farming with your writing schedule?

A. Every morning by 7:30 or 8, I'm in my office. I give my writing about two hours, then I shift to farm chores and exercising. After lunch, same sort of thing: I give my writing a couple of hours, then I do errands, grocery shopping, things like that.

Q. What advice do you have for people writing their memoirs?

A. The thing about memoir is just to trust that your story has value. People think memoir is only for important people, and that is so not true. Everybody has a story to tell. You just need to tell it in a way that will interest other people, or that your readers can learn from. Also, it's really important to be honest with your readers.

Q. Was it hard to write about midlife since you are still in it?

A. Yes. It's really best not to write events as they're happening. Let the story sort of rest for a couple of years. You need to be able to get some emotional distance from what you're writing about. The first draft of Sheepish, I was writing it as I was living it, and it didn't work. My publisher gave me another year. In that year, I was able to step back, get perspective, go back farther, and tell more of the story.

Q. Anything else?

A. You want to figure out your motivation for telling your story. Do you want to educate? That's great. But is it for revenge? If so, you might want to reassess.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. Recovering! Now only did I write Sheepish in the last two years, I also wrote a middle-school novel that will be out in October. Pushing on two books at once was pretty intense, so now I am relaxing, dreaming about new novels and new directions.

Betsy Towner lives in California.