In 1998, novelist and journalist Jane Futcher and her partner, midwife Erin Carney, joined a Year to Live group in Marin. The impact was profound: based upon the writings of Stephen Levine, the meetings, during which everyone “dies,” is meant to focus your intentions on what you want-and then doing it, since none of us knows how long they have left.
Futcher, like many strapped with a full-time job, was worried about years dribbled away meeting deadlines and handling crises forgotten by the following week. One group exercise determines your top goals. To Futcher and Carney's surprise, each identified moving to the country as her first priority.
So they began looking for land. Therein lies the story of Futcher's newest book, the memoir Women Gone Wild. “I spent childhood summers at my aunt's very remote farm in Vermont,” Futcher says, explaining her own yearning for the pastoral.
“Those were the happiest experiences of my childhood. My cousins and I played in teepees in the woods, and my uncle had a beautiful vegetable garden. My idyllic vision was a two-story white frame house and a giant vegetable garden and a pond and an orchard. Of course, someone else would maintain all of this, because part of my vision was writing daily in a lovely, warm cottage off the main house.”
By that point, Futcher had published three novels and a nonfiction book about Marin. She worked for the Marin Independent Journal writing editorials, a job that paid her bills but offered scant time to work on fiction. “We wanted fewer neighbors and more space, a place where no one would call the police because our dachshunds barked,” Futcher explains; she and Carney lived in a tract house in Novato. “I didn't picture a whole life change.” She figured that she'd have the same friends, take an occasional vacation, and try to reduce that job to part-time. They just needed to substitute tract housing for that lovely two-story farmhouse. “Of course, we discovered that we couldn't afford a broken-down shack in West Marin or Sebastopol,” she says.
Meanwhile friends in the East Bay found land for sale in Mendocino County, at the recently subdivided Cherry Creek Ranch, between Willits and Laytonville. Futcher delayed mentioning this radical idea to Carney, who had spent her own idyllic summer in a tent at Elk. When Futcher finally mumbled something about land at Cherry Creek, Carney insisted they look at the property. “But it's so far!” Futcher wailed. Nevertheless, they journeyed up 101 in January of an El Nino year, and while they could hardly see a thing through the cascades of rain pouring down their windshield, it was clear that this rugged, steep hillside with a spectacular view was not the mild green hills of Vermont.
No matter. They bought the property, built a house, and put in a beautiful garden. Futcher's tale of their trials with a leaky pond, rattlesnakes, bears, and unruly neighbors is hilarious and sweet, much like Futcher herself. Big Changes, not all welcome, did attend the Big Move. She abandoned that job in Marin as well as the few friends who won't make the drive up 101, followed by six miles of dirt road to reach Futcher and Carney's single-story stucco rancher. (Sad to say, wood houses and fire country don't mix.) Writing time was hard to find, despite her city friends' predictions that she'd be bored and restless. “As we all know, living on a rural property means working constantly just to maintain things,” Futcher says. “Erin was gone for twelve hours in Ukiah every day. I was in charge of landscaping, putting in the garden, dealing with water issues, and the solar, as we're off-grid. It's a lot.”
It took several years to finish her first draft. Soon after, she realized that changing nearly everything in her life had also altered her perception of publishing: she didn't want to search for an agent or negotiate with a publisher for the paltry sums authors receive, especially for mid-level books. And to 60-some-year-old Futcher, self-publishing was the province of those whose books would never otherwise see the light of day.
Strangely-or perhaps not, considering the wealth of talent in Mendocino County-Futcher found the answer at the top of her own very long driveway. Longtime Cherry Creek resident Stephanie Chatten drove by just as Futcher hiked up to the road and stopped to chat. “I told Stephanie how discouraged I was about my writing,” Futcher recalls. “And she said, 'I'll help you publish your book online, and furthermore, we can publish your out-of-print novels online too.' It was a miracle. If nothing else before I die, my body of work will be available. And it's so funny; you're lucky if you see a car once a week on our road.”
It was a learning process for Chatten, whose company, Emerald Chasm Entertainment, usually deals with films. She worked hard on Futcher's books to ready them for several online platforms, and her efforts show. The online versions, which contain photographs, some by Chatten, are beautifully designed. Women Gone Wild and Futcher's novels can be purchased for nominal fees through iBook, Nook, and Amazon. The books are also available in a print version by Amazon's print-on-demand service.
“You're really your own boss this way,” Futcher says, “and it's nice not to have to deal with marketing departments. Mid-level authors end up doing most of their own publicity and marketing anyway. The negative spin around self-publishing is disappearing. Many successful authors go this route because they have more control. The New York Times even has e-book reviews now. E-books have the potential to reach so many more people.”
Futcher admits she still lives in the age of dinosaurs-she doesn't blog and rarely uses Facebook or Twitter. Yet she and Chatten accomplished what seemed impossible to Futcher only a short year ago.
The Willits branch of the Mendocino County Library will host a book party for Women Gone Wild on November 9 at 7 p.m. Take the opportunity to chat with neighbors and meet Futcher, who is both entertaining and inspirational. Achieving the top goals on your bucket list will do that for you. ¥¥
(Editor and writer Linnea Due is co-owner of Laughing Frog Farm, growing seed for Northern California gardeners.)