On narration and presence in Night Farm:
an email exchange

By Maria Anderson and Jessica Buchleitner

We all love reading formats that make us feel like we’re a fly on a wall. It’s part of our nature. One of the many formats that creates this feeling for the reader is an epistolary exchange, or letters between two people. We thought that for Night Farm – which is so rich in meaning as it explores family relationships, politics and our relationship with nature – it would be really interesting to get an insight through this format into the author Maria Anderson’s mind.

We asked Maria if she was up for someone ‘writing’ to her to draw her thoughts out – and she graciously agreed. So we invited Jessica Buchleitner, a journalist and writer, who also understands the themes in the story, politics particularly: She’s served as a diplomat in several United Nations-facing roles. Their conversation shed some fascinating light on Maria’s writing process. We hope you get us much from their exchange as we did.

Subscribe to our newsletter Formats Unpacked for more such exploratory formats. Our work for Turner Contemporary in Margate is another project you might enjoy learning about, where we engaged over-65s in art via email-based formats. Of course, these types of formats aren’t limited to a specific kind of organisation – it could work for you, so get in touch!

17 September 2021

Dear Maria, 

I finished reading your piece ‘Night Farm’ and have to say it was refreshing to read fiction for a change! My world is generally steeped in non-fiction and it is a kind of new breath in my lungs, like that first breath taken after jumping into a cold lake.

Let’s kick this conversation off by discussing your narration approach to ‘Night Farm’ as I found it to be interesting that the unidentified narrator communicates my own unfolding action to me. It has an almost Matrix feel, as though I have surrendered my thoughts and actions and am in full agreement with another entity thinking for me. This approach offers a sense of beingness that I don’t see too often: one that feels as though I am simultaneously living in the present and past. This narration appears to also echo the entire experience of living at Night Farm: where factual memories are interwoven with dreams, then tangled in what is supposed to be a present, ethereal way of life. Can you elaborate on why you chose this narration approach? Why am I as the main character, living an immediate reality that has already happened, has never happened, and is happening? I’m curious to understand this on a deeper level.

In a state of suspense, 

Jessica

Narration is something which arrives … the second person conveys – or imparts – a sense of inclusion. Feel this with me. Be with me.

20 September 2021

Hi Jessica,

What a great question. The assignment was to write in second person, but there’s more to the choice than that. 

Narration is something which arrives. I try not to think about this choice too directly. To me, the second person conveys—or imparts—a sense of inclusion. Feel this with me. Be with me. This is you, and me, at the same time. We’re each getting through the day, surviving, one step at a time. 

Or, if readers prefer some distance, they could consider the ‘you’ to be another person as their mind forms the words.

I’m with you, as a former teacher, the editor Gordon Lish, liked to say. Be with me a while. 

Here we are. Together. Let’s feel what there is to feel here. Let’s work through this life moment by moment, connecting with each other in whichever way feels good to us.

Looking forward to the next one,

Maria

23 September 2021

Dear Maria, 

‘Here we are. Together. Let’s feel what there is to feel here. Let’s work through this life moment by moment, connecting with each other in whichever way feels good to us.’

That quote is pure power. And so visceral. Such strong presence! And it is quite effective at making me feel part of everything.

Let’s talk about me, or ‘you’ as she’s called in your piece. (I will call her you, the main character.) She appears at a crossroads – of grief, of suspense, of solitude. She’s participating jointly in hard labor and meditation- two opposite activities but activities that many seek for healing. Meditation fortifies while hard labor expels pent up energy and imbues a sense of purpose. What do you think would be this character’s end journey at Night Farm? Who will she be when she leaves? Will she ever leave? 

Wondering what’s next,

Jessica 

25 September 2021

What a fun question! Beautiful description of the balance between things like hard labor and meditation.

I think there will come a point where she outgrows this community. We all outgrow our homes at some point, I think. The novel I am working on deals with this. I think of Siddhartha, the Ballad of Mulan (on which the film is more or less based, to my understanding), Bashō, Odysseus, even Kaleesi in Game of Thrones and others. I think of the most common shape of stories throughout time, the journey story; to home, away from it, to countless homes. I think that she’ll link up with her sister again, and that she will continue to build a relationship with her brother after his death and continue to heal herself.

What about you? I’d be curious to hear what you think this character does after the story ends, and please feel free to disagree with me. 

M

Night Farm’s purpose is a place, a setting to pause.

27 September 2021

Her healing journey you describe is exactly how I picture it: she will leave Night Farm once she has healed herself. I don’t see Night Farm as being the generator of her healing. It is, as you describe when she jumps into the lake about Nick, as if she put herself into herself to heal. I hope that makes sense. Night Farm’s purpose is a place, a setting to pause. I don’t see her as a devout follower of the founder. It appears she tolerates him more so to continue living there, but is very turned inward. The sister is an interesting contrast. She is not healing, rather masking. You describe her as a ‘hard lawyer’ and beneath this demeanor is a compassionate but somewhat in denial person who has not quite found her healing journey because she is still trying to figure out how or what to heal. 

I wanted to ask about the wolves. There could be significant symbolism there. Can you elaborate on why you chose wolves? They have deep spiritual significance in many cultures. 

Curious, 

Jessica 

28 September 2021

Hi Jessica,

Yes, the wolves. Here in the western United States, laws are shifting, and have been for some time, to my admittedly limited knowledge, about wolves. To me, wolves represent the unknown, integral parts of our psyche. Wolves are a keystone species, meaning that the ecosystem in which they live depends on them. A keystone is an interesting word. It means, that which holds together other parts. I believe that the unknown (or mystery, or divine presence) holds us together in the same way that wolves hold an ecosystem together. They move prey through the land, they help plants by preventing deer and elk overpopulation, they disperse nutrients through carcasses and they provide fuel for scavengers, to name a few functions. Unknown parts of our brain-the parts dealing with dreaming, for instancepotentially perform similar functions for our bodies, minds, souls. 

Is this why I chose them? I chose them because of the news I’d been reading, articles on wolf derbies, which seemed illogical and enraged me. But on a deeper level, maybe, I chose them because they represent parts of me I wanted to consider more, in my own healing journey. 

xo,

M

… the transformative power of fiction can shed light on issues … a kaleidoscope of pain being transformed: family trauma, trauma from the exploitation of nature by humans, her personal trauma.

30 September 2021

They are indeed very spiritual animals, representing strength, freedom and the sheer wildness of earth. I did not realize the derbies were a real thing. That is unfortunate, but the transformative power of fiction can shed light on these issues, especially in the scenario you’ve presented where the involvement of the protagonist’s brother in protecting the sacredness of wolves resulted in his own death. In this sense, he is a sacrifice and when ‘you’ jump in the lake to feel him inside her skin, there is a kaleidoscope of pain being transformed: family trauma, trauma from the exploitation of nature by humans, her personal trauma. Your visceral descriptions of hot and cold pockets in the water are, in my humble view, symbolic of many compartmentalized wounds that in some ways are part of the same grand picture but so unique in their source. 

Inspired,

Jessica

30 September 2021

Hi Jessica, 

Yes! What a fantastic interpretation. Sacrifice, transmuting pain, moving with the body through heavy wounds. And the brother, as a sacrifice to these creatures, who carry aspects of the divine, like all of us, in such a specific way. Singing their songs to the night, howling together at the moon, enforcing social order among the pack, working together to survive. Most of the details about wolves I took straight from reality; night-hunting with scopes, obliterating packs; all of these practicesI don’t know if I’d call them inhumane just because, what is inhumane? They are such human actions. They are no surprise at all. Long has a battle been waged between settlers and animals, back when humans were prey in this area to shortnose bears and sabertooth tigers. I would call these actions illogical, when it comes to keeping a balanced, thriving ecosystem. I hope that this wanton slaughter can be reversed. I don’t blame hunters or politicians, who are hurting people. I hope that together we can heal. The alternative? Joy Williams, the fabulous Joy Williams, whom I had the great honor of studying with at the University of Wyoming, recently wrote a book called Harrow which allows us to imagine what might occur if we are unable to heal. 

Best,

Maria

30 September 2021

Thank you Maria, it was a gift to correspond about this piece! I’ve spent most of my time on non-fiction and getting into a new world is exciting and soul cleansing. 

With honor, respect and gratitude to you. 

And second person is my new favorite now! 

Jessica

30 September 2021

So glad to have had this opportunity to further digest this story.

ps. Here is one of my favorite second-person stories by Jamil Jan Kochai, in case you have a moment to read more. 

Maria

Maria Anderson’s fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly, Sewanee Review, and Best American Short Stories 2018. She has been awarded residencies from Jentel, Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and Joshua Tree National Park. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram. She grew up on a cattle ranch in southwestern Montana.

Jessica Buchleitner is an American Journalist, Communicator, and Gender Equality diplomat. Her journalism features and books tell the stories of unsung global heroes while attacking hard-hitting issues of gender-based violence, policy, technology, and power structures. She is the author of the award-winning 50 Women anthology series – a dual collection of personal stories chronicling world events told by 50 women from 30 countries. For ten years, Jessica has served in United Nations interfacing roles, first as an NGO delegate for Women’s Intercultural Network and now as an NGO representative for OneMama.org. In addition, she collaborated with diplomats, politicians, and civil society stakeholders as part of the “Cities for CEDAW” campaign that encouraged U.S. city mayors to adopt CEDAW, the international women’s bill of rights. Inspired by her communications strategy consulting with global companies for brand dissolutions, divestments, mergers, digital transformation, and regulatory matters, Jessica created the CEDAW for Companies framework. The framework enables private-sector firms to implement CEDAW’s provisions to benchmark diversity & inclusion efforts. Jessica is based in Munich, Germany.

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