Zibby interviews debut author Amanda Peters about her award-winning novel, THE BERRY PICKERS. The story, influenced by Peters’ Mi’kmaq heritage, revolves around a family from Nova Scotia who travels to Maine each summer for blueberry picking and the four-year-old daughter who goes missing from the fields. The novel, which took four years to complete, was part of her Peters’ MFA program. Now an associate professor, she emphasizes the importance of perseverance and feedback in writing. Finally, the podcast touches on Peters’ upcoming short story collection!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Amanda. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Berry Pickers: A Novel.

Amanda Peters: Thank you. I just got my books yesterday.

Zibby: Let’s see. Oh, they’re so beautiful. Oh, my gosh.

Amanda: Yes, they’re gorgeous.

Zibby: Wow, gorgeous cover. For those who are listening, it’s a close-up of a blueberry bush, plant, whatever you want to call it, and looks just so immersive and amazing. I’ve actually been to Maine twice since I got this ARC and since I’ve talked to you. I literally held the book up to my husband last night. I was like, “Guess where this book takes place?” He was like, “Maine.” We never would’ve known had we not gone. Tell listeners what The Berry Pickers is about.

Amanda: The Berry Pickers is a book about a Mi’kmaq family. That’s the indigenous peoples of Nova Scotia/New Brunswick, the Atlantic Canadian area, who go to Maine every summer to pick blueberries. While they’re there in the summer of 1962, their youngest daughter Ruthie goes missing. Then the novel is a dual narrative told from Joe, who is the brother who’s six and is the last person to see Ruthie — it follows his life. Then it’s told from the perspective also of Norma, who is a young girl being raised in an affluent family in Maine.

Zibby: The mom’s pain when Ruthie goes missing was tough to even read. I mean, not really. I felt that so deeply, especially when the other women were like, it’s so hard to lose a child. They were all talking about her. When she had to leave and go back to Nova Scotia and it was the howls or whatever it was, I felt that so deeply. It really resonated.

Amanda: Oh, good. I’m so happy when people have a visceral reaction to something that I write.

Zibby: That’s the whole goal, getting other people to feel deeply. I felt very deeply. I also felt really badly for Joe. Then you see the lasting impact of any one action and how it can just reverberate through an entire life. It’s just amazing.

Amanda: Yeah, and it does. It really deeply impacts him, being the last person to see her. The guilt he feels for that just haunts him through the rest of his life.

Zibby: It’s hard not to put yourself in that situation and think, what if?

Amanda: What would I do? What would happen?

Zibby: Just hearing the calls of her name over and over and can’t get them out of his head, oh, my gosh. Where did this novel come from?

Amanda: Good question. I always say this is the book that I didn’t want to write, which is kind of funny. When I started writing seriously, my dad, who is Mi’kmaq, he said to me, “You should write about us berry pickers.” I said, “No, Dad, I don’t write nonfiction. I write fiction. I make things up.” He kept at me, and he kept at me. I kept saying no. Finally, he took me on a road trip to Maine, the two of us. He showed me everywhere where they used to pick berries in Maine. He told me how it was done. He told me all these amazing stories on our three days down there. The first line of chapter one came to me down there. For the next couple years, the story just revealed itself.

Zibby: Here, I’ll read the first line. You probably know what it is. In the prologue or the actual first chapter?

Amanda: Chapter one.

Zibby: Chapter one. “The day Ruthie went missing, the black flies seemed to be especially hungry.”

Amanda: That came to me there. I think I must have had black flies around me or something. I don’t know where it came from. I just said, okay, maybe this is a story I’m meant to write. Thank you, Dad.

Zibby: This makes me think I should do a whole podcast where I just read the first sentences of different books.

Amanda: That’d be very cool.

Zibby: Wouldn’t that be really interesting? Or an article or something. It’s so important. It sets the tone. Your sentence, for example, specific setting. So many things can be conveyed in such short words. Why? Why did Ruthie go missing? This is such a good example of interest and intrigue.

Amanda: A lot of people have said, you give the story away in the first line of the first chapter, basically. Then they said, but it’s still a good story. I say, thank you, I guess.

Zibby: Wow, that’s such an amazing experience you had with your dad. I feel like you can tell. So many details are in the book, obviously, of what it feels like to be doing all of it, even the drive. It makes sense why this is so .

Amanda: The entire time we were driving down, we were on the Trans-Canada until we got to Route 9, obviously. My dad was saying, “We used to take the old road. We’d stop at the river and have a swim.” He just told me everything the entire way down. It was so lovely. I’m so grateful to those stories.

Zibby: What does he think of the book?

Amanda: He loves it. He read it, and he loved it. He keeps saying, “I’m proud of you. I’m proud of you.” What do you want more than your mom and dad to be proud of you?

Zibby: That’s amazing. Why did you not want to write this book?

Amanda: I just thought he wanted me to write stories about the actual berry pickers. I was like, I have to write fiction. I write fiction. I don’t write nonfiction. I just couldn’t see what kind of story I would write because I wasn’t familiar. I think it just took that going down to Maine and seeing the fields and Dad telling me stories. I could kind of picture my grandfather there, and my grandmother. I could picture everybody doing their thing. That just gave me the kick.

Zibby: Was your dad’s whole family berry pickers?

Amanda: They were.

Zibby: Did they come down the way this family did, the whole thing?

Amanda: Yeah, except for there was fourteen children, not five.

Zibby: No!

Amanda: I don’t know if all of them came all the time because that would’ve been a trip for my grandparents, but yeah, they did.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Amanda: My dad’s ten of fourteen.

Zibby: How many is your mom part of? How many siblings does she have?

Amanda: My mom is five of six.

Zibby: Oh, my goodness. You must have crazy family reunions. That’s wild.

Amanda: Yes, I have a lot of cousins, I say. I don’t even know how many.

Zibby: Your mom is not from the indigenous —

Amanda: — No. I always say I’m a Mi’kmaq and settler because my mom is nonindigenous, and my dad is from Glooscap First Nation. I’m also a member of Glooscap First Nation.

Zibby: How did they meet?

Amanda: They met in high school. They were high school sweethearts. It didn’t last very long, but I have a lovely stepmother who’s been my stepmother for the vast majority of my life, who is also very proud of me. It made me very happy. Having three loving parents, hey.

Zibby: I have stepparents, step-grandparents, step-in-laws. I’m married again. We’re all about the steps. Actually, All About the Steps, that could be a funny title too.

Amanda: There you go.

Zibby: Something with exercise and stepparenting. I don’t know. Whatever. I have to stop. You got the idea for the book. You felt immersed in it. You saw the whole thing. Then tell me about what happened next in the process and how you went about writing it and how long it took and where you wrote it. Just let us see that whole thing.

Amanda: I actually wrote the first chapter kind of as a short story. I thought it would be a short story. I worked on it for two years thinking it was going to be a short story, so the first chapter took me two years. People kept saying, I feel like this is more. There’s more to this. It’s a novel. People who had read it. I was like, okay, maybe it is. Maybe it is. When I decided it was going to be a novel, I then wrote the next six chapters as part of my work at the Institute for American Indian Arts in New Mexico. I did my Master of Fine Arts there in creative writing. I did those as my creative work there and submitted them. They were workshopped. Then it sold to HarperCollins here in Canada. Then I was given three months to write the last eight chapters. It took three years and then three months to write the last half of it. I was very pleased. I knew where it was going, so it wasn’t as much a challenge as if I didn’t know where it was going. It was just a matter of having a deadline set so that I could get it out of my head and onto the page. It took me four years total to write the book. So many people helped. The faculty at the IAIA are just remarkable, and my classmates and my editor here, editors in the States, so many people, my agent Marilyn. Everybody was just so loving and helpful with this book. There’s so many thanks. I can’t even imagine trying to list them.

Zibby: Before you got your MFA and all of that, is this what you wanted to be when you were a little kid? Where was your life headed? Where were you living? Paint me a picture.

Amanda: I’ve always wanted to be a writer since I was little. I used to write these little books for my grandfather. My grandmother would knit them together with the iron. I didn’t know that. I didn’t remember that until she pulled them out of a drawer when I was twenty-two and showed them to me. I’ve always wanted to write. People tell you writers don’t make any money. I wanted to live a good life. I wanted to have my own home, that kind of thing, what you’re supposed to do. I went to school. I worked for years in indigenous governance and financial management and health policy here in Canada. When I got my footing, so to say, I decided to take some creative writing classes because now I’m ready. That was in 2012. I ended up taking one class. I loved it so much. I did the entire certificate in creative writing at the University of Toronto, Continuing Studies. Then I wanted to do more. I just had this appetite to learn and to write and to be amongst writers. Then I applied to the AIAI, and I got in. I’ve been very lucky, very lucky.

Zibby: That’s amazing. What a great story. Do you have ideas for your next project?

Amanda: My next project is actually my short story collection, which comes out next spring.

Zibby: So fast.

Amanda: That actually was written before The Berry Pickers was written. It’s just been sitting there for a while and mellowing. I’m working on editing that now. Hopefully, that’ll be out next spring. I do have another manuscript. It’s sitting right here where you can’t see it just looking at me. I don’t like to talk about it because I’m afraid the story will go away. I tried to start another book. I told people about it. I was excited. The story kind of just disappeared. That worried my head, so I said, no, I’m not telling anybody until this one is down on paper. I’m just going to keep it under wraps. It’s really intimidating because this book is getting a lot of attention. I’m like, can I write another book like that? I don’t know.

Zibby: Sure you can. You can just go through all the different fruits. We could line them up by season, all the different people who work to bring us all of the fruit. Then you could give fruit baskets out with a collection of your books. It could be a whole thing.

Amanda: That is very cool.

Zibby: If you run out of ideas.

Amanda: There you go.

Zibby: What is your short story collection called?

Amanda: It’s called Waiting for the Long Night Moon.

Zibby: That’s nice.

Amanda: That’s a short story I wrote. It actually won the 2021 Indigenous Voices Award for unpublished prose up here in Canada. We decided to name the story collection that. It’s a nice title. It seems to evoke something.

Zibby: I can picture a cover. Do you have a cover yet?

Amanda: Not yet. They’re working on it here at HarperCollins. We’ll see.

Zibby: Do you need a consultant? I should really offer that. I’m obsessed with cover design. I’m obsessed. That’s my favorite part of publishing books. It’s like, ooh, covers.

Amanda: They are nice. I just recently bought one based on its cover, the book Wayward, . I just bought it because I was like, what a spectacular cover. I bought it. It was a good book.

Zibby: There you go. At least if it’s a good cover you know people care enough to make a good cover.

Amanda: True.

Zibby: They say don’t judge a book on its cover, but maybe you don’t totally. This book I read recently, not to be rude about it, but has the worst cover, but it’s the best book. I kind of want to tell the author, can I just redesign the cover? I feel like it would find a whole different audience if it just had a slightly different look and feel. Anyway, it’s none of my business. Who knows? Maybe I’m wrong. I do love thinking about it. What do you do when you’re not writing novels and worrying they might jump out of your brains again?

Amanda: That’s a good way to put it, jumping out of my brains. I’m actually associate professor in the department of English and theater at Acadia University here in the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia. I just started that job. It’s really fun. I get to talk about reading and writing, and I get to read and write. It’s the dream, to be honest. It’s the dream.

Zibby: Wow. Which reader are you most excited to read your book? If this type of person could read the book or you could get a letter, who do you want to feel deeply the most, thinking about your readership?

Amanda: That’s interesting because I get about one or two emails a week from readers who tell me that they loved the story. I just love getting those. They’re so touching. I got one from a Mi’kmaq woman from Eskasoni, which is a First Nations community here, who I don’t know. She said she could picture her childhood. She loved the story. She could just feel it. That meant a lot to me that some members of the Mi’kmaq community are really embracing the story because it is part of our history and part of our story. Now I have lots of people who are coming to me and saying, let me tell you about my stories from the berry fields, which is so interesting because we’re natural storytellers. Getting to hear those stories from them is really exciting. When I wrote the book, I wanted my mom and my dad to be proud, I guess. I just want people to say — when they close it, I want them to say, that was a really good story. It does have some pretty serious themes in it. At the end, I think what every writer wants is people just to think that they wrote a really good story.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I love that answer. That’s so good. How do you write a really good story? What advice would you give as a teacher and everything as well?

Amanda: Just keep going. I never thought I would write a book. Some of my early stuff, oh, you do not want to see that. It is really bad. I never thought I would write a book. I was like, you know what? I don’t care if it gets published. I just want to have the satisfaction that I wrote a story and that I finished it. I worked at it, and I worked at it, and I worked at it. Let people read it. Let people help you. Some people, they keep it really right to their chest. There are so many people out there who are willing to offer really good advice and help you. Take advantage of that because there’s a lot of generous people. I’ve been very fortunate to be mentored by some really remarkable writers. Take advantage of that.

Zibby: I like that. Maybe you should put something on your website called Stories from the Berry Fields and have the people who are telling you all these stories, they contribute, and then we can read the stories.

Amanda: That is a brilliant idea. I’m going to write that one down.

Zibby: I would be interested having read the book. What was it like? I’d want to hear more, even from your dad. You could have him start.

Amanda: That’s true. I could get him. He has lots of stories. There’s lots of stories. There’s ghost stories. There’s funny stories. There’s sad stories. There’s a little bit of violence, of course. Overall, it’s a lot of stories about family and laughing and sitting around the fire and hard work because it is hard work, back-breaking work some would say. Mi’kmaq people still go down. They take vacation and go down to Maine to rake berries in the summer just to keep the tradition alive. I’m too lazy for that. I want a cup of tea and a book.

Zibby: Then we just pop a blueberry in our mouth and don’t even think about it.

Amanda: We do that with a lot of things, don’t we?

Zibby: I know. Everything should be so cherished. Where did this come from? How did we get this? Who contributed to it? It’s not just sitting here in the grocery or whatever.

Amanda: Very true.

Zibby: All the people behind every item. Not to get all deep about this, but it’s true. It’s really important. There was some prize you won or something I wanted to ask you about, some sort of writing — hold on, what was it called? The Writers’ Trust Rising Stars Program, what is that?

Amanda: They take five established writers in Canada, and they ask them if they know of any writers who are just starting their careers who could benefit from exposure and mentorship. Katherena Vermette, who is an award-winning Métis writer here from Canada, chose my work in 2021. I was really excited. It was during the pandemic, so it was a little bit interesting how they did it through Zoom and everything. We got awarded a little bit of money to help us take some time to write work. We got mentorship from the person who chose us. We got national exposure. Funny enough, this morning, the Writers’ Trust Fiction Award finalists were announced, and I’m on that list this year.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, congratulations. Yay, that’s amazing.

Amanda: Barnes & Noble Discovery Prize finalist was announced this morning, and I’m on that list.

Zibby: Stop.

Amanda: It’s been a very good day for me. It’s not even lunch yet.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I’m sorry if I missed that. Did you post? I’m so sorry. I’m glad I asked that question. I feel like a moron. Congratulations. Totally well deserved.

Amanda: It’s full circle. I was chosen for the Rising Trust, and then now I’m shortlisted for the Atwood Gibson Award for the Writers’ Trust. Katherena Vermette, my mentor, she sent me a text this morning. She said, “Woo! Woo!”

Zibby: Aw, what a special day.

Amanda: It’s a very good day. I’m all smiles.

Zibby: That’s so great. Thanks for sharing a moment of this important day and spreading the joy. It’s totally well deserved. I’m not surprised at all. Congratulations.

Amanda: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Amazing. Amanda, thank you for chatting today. Thanks for talking about The Berry Pickers. Thanks for the great story that made me feel and I definitely thought was a great story, so mission accomplished.

Amanda: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: Congrats on all the accolades.

Amanda: Thank you.

Zibby: Take care.

Amanda: See you. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

THE BERRY PICKERS by Amanda Peters

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