Ellen Sandbeck – Green Barbarians

What is your most recent book? Tell us a bit about it.

Green Barbarians: Live Bravely on Your Home Planet(Scribner, 2010) is a book about fear and how to prevent it. The fears I am talking about are the ones that are heavily advertised and promoted by big business in order to scare us into buying their expensive, dangerous crap. For instance, the “Oh my god there are bacteria floating in the air in your living room! You have to use our aerosol antibacterial or your whole family is going to die!” ads. Or the “Oh my god! There are bacteria on the pump handle of your liquid soap! You have to buy our automatic soap dispenser so that you don’t contaminate your hands!!!” Now if people really stopped to think, they would realize that there have always been bacteria in the air, we live on planet bacteria. If the bacteria that are commonly found in the air were truly dangerous, we wouldn’t have survived. Breathing aerosol mists, however, is dangerous. AND, in order to fall for the “Oh my god there are bacteria on the pump handle of the liquid soap!” ads, one needs a gross misunderstanding of the arrow of time, which, in our dimension, only goes one way: thus, even if one does pick up some transient bacteria from the pump handle of the liquid soap while squeezing liquid soap onto one’s hands, one washes one’s hands AFTER this, and the bacteria wash off.

Tell us something about yourself.

I was born in San Fransisco, and raised in Marin County, California. I was a studio art major at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the College of Creative Studies program. My husband and I moved to Duluth, Minnesota in 1985. I started a small vermiculture business called “Laverme’s Worms” in 1988, and I have set up hundreds of indoor composting systems for households and institutions since then. My biggest project is a one hundred foot long vermicomposting bin in the Federal Prison Camp in Duluth, Minnesota.

There is almost nothing in the world I enjoy more than sinking my teeth into a nice, juicy project. I absolutely love problem solving and brainstorming. We did so much of it that my kids grew up thinking that everybody brainstormed at the dinner table every night. It was like our family sport.

What inspired you to write this book?

My publisher wanted me to write another book, and I was trying to come up with an idea. It was just after Thanksgiving. All our guests had gone home after the long holiday weekend, and my husband and I were sitting around a lovely outdoor lunch in front of a fire in our backyard. I was just about to wipe the capicola grease off on my pants, because my husband had forgotten to bring napkins out when he brought out our lunch. Then I decided I should wipe my hands off on his pants, because his were dirtier than mine, and he’d forgotten the napkins. Then I looked at the lovely homemade bread on my plate and realized that it was the perfect texture to use as a bread napkin. So I wiped my hands on my bread and then ate it, and as I ate it I had a sudden flash of inspiration: most modern Americans have gotten become quite fearful and finicky, mostly because of the very strong influence of advertising. This fear is making us quite sick: overcleanliness is believed to be the underlying cause of many debilitating chronic illnesses such as allergies, asthma, and autoimmune disorders. We should be the healthiest people in the world, yet we are being felled by our own immune systems. I decided to write a book to encourage people to cast off their fears and live a little more on the wild and dirty side of life.

How did you choose the title?

I got the idea for the book and the idea for the title at exactly the same moment.

What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them?

Apparently, I really stink at the kind of writing necessary to produce an acceptable book proposal (or grant proposal). Even though my publisher wanted me to write a book, and wanted me to write a book on the topic I was proposing, I simply could not come up with a written proposal that they would accept. They kept telling me that my proposal wasn’t good enough. After a year of rejections, I finally sat down with a good friend and went through the book idea. She wrote the book proposal for me and the publisher accepted it. The next time I need to write a book proposal, I think I’m just going to ask her to do it right away, rather than waiting until I’ve wasted a year attempting to write it myself.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?

I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer. I majored in art and graduated in 1979 with no visible means of support. I cleaned houses for a couple of years while trying to start a career in art. Finally in 1981, I started an organic landscaping business with my then boyfriend (we’ve been married to for 27 years now).

I did an enormous amount of research in order to learn how to landscape without using chemicals or machinery, and eventually, one of our clients called me up and told me that she’d joined a group of artists and scientists who were working on water quality issues, and that she thought I should join. The first time I went to one of the meetings, I was greeted with a chorus of, “Oh, it’s so nice of you to volunteer to write a booklet on nontoxic gardening and housekeeping for us!” I said “What” and Oh! Yes.” It turned out that my 15 years’ worth of notes added up to way more than a booklet, and about a year and a half later I finished the manuscript of “Slug Bread & Beheaded Thistles,” which I then self-published. Barnes & Noble ordered copies for selected stores all across the country, and I consequently had to acquire book distributors on both coasts and in the middle of the country.

Three years later, a literary agent in New York City called me, introduced herself, told me that she’d bought a copy of “Slug Bread” at a garden center on Long Island, and wanted to know whether I was interested in having her represent me and try to sell my book to a major publisher. I told her that of course I was interested. I expanded the book and my agent had an auction for it, because eight major publishers were interested in it. Slug Bread was published by Broadway/Doubleday in 2000. Three more books have followed: “Eat More Dirt,” (Broadway/Doubleday, 2003), “Organic Housekeeping” (Scribner, 2006 [“Green Housekeeping” in paperback)], and my latest, “Green Barbarians,” (Scribner, 2010).

Do you have any writing rituals?

I just go to my desk, turn on my computer, and do it. I don’t wait for the Muse to alight, if I did, I’d never get anything done. My books are composed of 100 percent perspiration and 0 percent inspiration. I guess it’s a good thing that I write nonfiction!

How do you come up with the names for your characters?

I write nonfiction. Most of the people I write about were named by their parents.

Did you learn anything from writing and publishing this book? What?

I learned some really harrowing stuff about the way that Big Business, especially agribusiness and the big agrochemical companies, does business. The average person is a dust mote as far as these companies are concerned, and they really don’t give a damn about us.

If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?

Not a darn thing. Just thinking about doing things over exhausts me. I try to keep moving forward—if I think too much about what I’ve done or not done, I bog down. I’m like a shark: I can’t breathe if I stop moving forward. As Satchel Paige said: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors? Why?

I read pretty broadly, lots of books about neuroscience, biology, natural history, agricultural history, botany… I read a lot of scientific articles—I particularly love reading about new discoveries in neuroscience, and I find behavioral economics extremely amusing. I’m absolutely fascinated by materials engineering—I love reading about new materials being developed (translucent concrete blocks, concrete that consumes air pollutants, glass that contains solar cells, light-bending materials that could be used to make objects invisible…

On the fiction side, I adore Mark Twain: the man was on the humane (and frequently the unpopular side) of every single issue of his time. I also love Jane Austen, Louise Erdrich, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Charles Dickens, Robert Graves, John Gardner, Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowlings, E.B. White, Jessasmyn West, Rumer Godden, Margaret Atwood, Harper Lee…

Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?

I’m mostly working on trying to publicize the book right now. I’m also doing a lot of artwork and gardening and I’m working on some really big vermicomposting projects.

What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?

Since I self-published my first book, and have also been published by major publishers, I think I have a pretty good overview of the process. When people ask me about getting published I tell them: “Write your book intending to self-publish it, and be willing to put your time, effort, and money on the line. If you don’t believe strongly enough in your book to put your own money on the line, why should a publisher?”

Who is the perfect reader for your book?

The perfect reader for my book? Anyone who wants to live a happier more carefree