How to Be a Perfect Farm Wife: An Interview with Lorna Sixsmith
Many freelance writers have a broad and varied life, but few authors have taken quite the twisting route to print that ‘Irish Farmerette’ Lorna Sixsmith has enjoyed. After three self-published books, Sixsmith is about to have her first book printed through a standard publishing deal and so we sit down to discuss the twists and turns of a writing life less ordinary…
Teaching at second and third level, working in dental nursing, interior design, online sales, farming, social media, while raising a family, and writing, it’s fair to say Lorna Sixsmith has done a few things in life. However the rise of her blog ‘Irish Farmerette,’ and its expansion into three well-received books on rural Ireland, might just be the most impressive.
It wasn’t an easy road, even if it looks idyllic. Sixsmith’s life is currently based around her farm, the same where she grew up, situated in secluded and rural Carlow - Ireland’s empty heartlands. With the fierce dry wit that helped launch her blog ‘Irish Farmerette’ into TV appearances, books and public speaking roles, Sixsmith recounts her unlikely journey. You might see it as a road full of potholes; a varied and slightly inconsistent life in which Sixsmith hasn’t stuck to anything for all that long. To an extent, you’d be right, but it’s also been a great adventure.
“We used to renovate houses,” Sixsmith says of life her after meeting her husband Brian, and describing her unlikely route into writing. “We’d buy one that needed a lot of work, because we couldn’t afford a better one, and we’d do it up, get itchy feet and sell it. I started blogging after doing an interior design certificate, to support an online store. I only had it up about six weeks and I got my first bit of national PR from it. That led to using Twitter, and then the local business board got me teaching businesses how to use social media. I was farming, teaching, and then I wrote the first book. Eventually I had to stop the teaching as I couldn’t keep so many plates in the air.”
That slow morphing of the professional core of her life has been a theme. “Nearly everything’s evolved from something else. I would be the kind of person that gets bored,” she jokes.
Sixsmith’s marriage lies at the heart of much of her humour, with her first two books very much based on relationships in a rural - and comic - context. How to be a Perfect Farm Wife with its tongue-in-cheek title, is filled with lighthearted and jokey tales on about how to fix holey boots, or deal with the mother-in-law. An Ideal Farm Husband explores with how to propose impressively, and the tension that comes from working with silage.
“After I had the first book come out, people did ask me if my husband had read it,” Sixsmith jokes. “Of course he had. He was my first editor, but he has a brilliant sense of humour. Some of the lines he comes out with, he’s very dry. We slag each other all the time, and definitely don’t take each other very seriously. Obviously if it was something he didn’t like, I wouldn’t put it in. I’ve been quite surprised to find in the 21st century that a lot of women consider farmers a good catch. In the past, farmers weren’t really seen as a good catch, so that’s been interesting.”
There are difficulties with the busyness of farm life, though. “We’ve never really taken the time to celebrate things, we’ve just moved on,” she explains. “A lot of people talk about how they feel when they see their book finally in their hands. I’ve always been a bit like ‘so what, what’s the next one?’”
The quietness does, however, make for a good environment to put pen to paper. “I do like my own company. I really do like my own space, and my husband’s the same.”
“A lot of people would see farming and writing as quite isolating, but I like the solitude. One of the key differences with farming is that you don’t get that break from work. In a normal job, you can take a week off to decorate your house, or veg in front of the TV. I recognise that because of the books I get a more varied life than my husband, but I’ve always needed to have a couple of things going on.”
The same goes for the writing, which really comes together for Sixsmith when the pressure sets in. “It’s only ever been with a deadline that good things come out of me. With the books it’s often been the [Irish National] Ploughing [Championship]. With How to be a Perfect Farm Wife, it got to about May, and I had a lot of the book done, but I wasn’t really happy with it. I was sitting there late at night just doodling, doing some spider diagrams, and my husband said I suddenly went pale. I called my editor in the UK and said I was going to do 20,000 words and see what she thought. It was so much better.”
That caused a few panics, however. With the looser, self-controlled deadlines of the self-published author, Sixsmith did tend to push things right to the limits at times. “With a lot of authors, the book goes out for proofs, and out to the Irish media like [national radio presenter] Sean O’Rourke. I was having to send out PDFs and apologies ahead of radio interviews with that book. The books arrived on Friday, and I had to be at the Ploughing on Tuesday. It was that tight.”
Naturally, much of Sixsmith’s audience comes from those who romanticize farming - particularly Americans with a love of Ireland - something she understands, but doesn’t relate that closely to her own life. The witty take, perhaps, is a way of exploring the lifestyle without delving into that particular idealising of rural Irish life. “There is a ‘Good Life’ vibe about a lot of what’s written about small hold farming, a sort of romanticism,” Sixsmith admits. “Real life farming... we tend to be positive, but if the milk price drops, like it did last year, it can have a really serious effect.”
With Ireland increasingly urban, too, other issues have propped up that make rural life a little harder. “There’s rural theft, all that kind of things going on. I think people are not recognising some of the threats to farming. I think veganism and climate change are going to be threats. There are so many small problems that could accumulate.”
“We have a few problems. The internet is terrible. My daughter walks up to the top of the farm to watch YouTube videos. I can’t do Skype interviews. It’s okay for blogging, but that’s about it.”
“Back a couple of generations ago, a lot of people either lived on a farm, or lived in the city but visited their family in the holidays. That’s going now. It’s going to happen more and more that people aren’t going to understand the farming way of life. It’s happening already. We hear of people from the city buying holiday homes, and then it’s bank holiday Monday and the farmer’s spreading slurry, and they’re going mad, and going to the newspaper to complain. Farmers are vilified as a result, and the reasons why the slurry has to be spread aren’t explored.”
A lack of knowledge stretches into a city-based publishing industry, too. “Traditional publishers have tended to see my books as for a farming audience,” Sixsmiths says. “I don’t necessarily think they are. They’re for anyone who has an interest in seeing what the life is like.”
Her comic perspective combines nicely with the positive outlook needed just to keep going in the industry. “You have to find the silver lining in situations,” Sixsmith explains. “The next challenge will be Brexit. We have no idea what’s going to happen. Nobody does. There are people making cheddar cheese, and nobody outside the UK is going to buy it. The French don’t want it. So nobody really know what's going to happen.”
Sixsmith’s first book to be released through a traditional publisher is on the way next year, and much like the future of farming, she’ll be heading in a different direction.
“The fourth book is a childhood memoir. I grew up on the same farm we’re on. I’ll be looking at themes from my childhood, and from my dad’s, and looking at how things have changed. Sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. But there’s a lot of humour in there. There’s a fun in it.”
As for the change in approach? “I’m intrigued by the difference between self publishing and this deal. There was talk for a little while of somebody taking the other three books as well, but I think I’d have found it very difficult to hand over control. I’m conscious that with traditional publishing, I might not know how it’s going for a couple of months. As a self published author, I see the orders come in. I know the reaction to a piece about them in the paper, if I’m going to get a surge, that kind of thing. Having run businesses, I’m used to being in control.”
The future, then, contains a different kind of challenge for the irrepressible author, blogger, farmer, social media guru and business chameleon: a more traditional route to market. All delivered from the unlikely literary hub of a family dairy farm in the sloping hills of County Carlow.
Featured image courtesy of Farmer's Wife and Mummy.