I had decided to throw the novel out. I’d struggled with it for four years. I had discarded an entire draft already, and the narrative seemed irretrievably lost. A hundred and forty pages was as far as the story would go. I’d begun not to care what happened to the characters, which is when you know a book is dead.
I phoned my editor to tell her. “I’m giving up,” I said. “This is the one we lose.”
She said no. The novel was under contract and already two years overdue. I had sold it based on one paragraph – a paragraph about a woman in New York who grew up on a peach farm. Over the years, peaches had evolved into grapes, and the daughter of this farming family narrated the novel from a cool, slightly closer distance—from Los Angeles. My editor insisted, “You need to get your protagonist involved in the story. You need to place her on the farm.”
“That’s not possible,” I said. “I don’t know anything about farming.” I had read histories of grapes in California. I had read textbooks on the different kinds of grapes, on how to grow a vine from seedling to maturity, on how wine is made. I had read all the books on Napa politics and the excellent books about the Mondavis and Gallos. I knew the nature of people, of parents and siblings, which I’d thought would be enough to get me through this account of a family struggling to keep their 4th generation ranch. But I did not know, for example, how a farmer’s daily routine would shift from January to July. I did not know, as I later would, that a big crop takes longer to ripen, or that in a surplus year, the large wineries tend to find reasons to downgrade your grapes, or that some varieties come off the vine in berries (merlot) and some in bunches (Ruby Reds). I didn’t know that what a farmer does is drive around all day and look for problems, or that if you have 160 acres of grapes, you’ll trap 94 coyotes in 30 days. I didn’t know that when farmers speak of love, they speak of mergers, not marriages.
I told my editor, “I would have to do so much research. It’s insurmountable.”
“Katherine,” she said. “Do your research.” The statement was so obvious it was humiliating. This is what writers do: they do their research.
I hung up the phone, got in my car, and drove directly from Hollywood to Fresno.
It was October, and the central valley was harvesting black grapes: Cabernet, Barbera, Ruby Reds. October weather in Los Angeles is brutal. We always forget this, but Octobers in Los Angeles have temperatures of 113 degrees. October is when air conditioners all over the city finally give up/give out. But fall in the central valley is one of the loveliest anywhere. Warm days shift into mild, chilly evenings. The air takes on that autumn smell: dying leaves and cut grass, the slight decay from dewy mornings and dry nights, a sweetness from the last of the Thompson seedless dehydrating in the sun.
From the car I phoned my father’s golf friends: farmers, farm brokers, wine guys. I phoned a woman I’d known as a child whose husband had, in the 1980s, been one of the largest producers of grapes in the world. There is no more magnanimous group than the farm people of Fresno. Everyone wanted to talk to me. Everyone wanted to help. “What do you want to know?” they kept asking. I had been writing this book about a grape & peach enterprise for four years and I knew so little about the business that I didn’t even know what I had come to learn. I didn’t know that grapes are picked at night, that labor contractors take up to 40% of a worker’s total wages, that all the picking is done by machines and that even if you own your own, there are never enough machines. I grew up in Fresno, and I didn’t know that almond orchards smell like almonds.
In these small details, in the specifics of place and of an industry and of a disappearing lifestyle, the novel began to breathe. The characters became real to me as they had not been before, and I cared what happened to them, and I knew—that first trip up for that first harvest in 2009—that the book was not dead.
Over the next four years, I went up during the fall. I rode around with my father’s friends in their clean white pickups. I ate lunch at The Vineyard, which is where all the Fresno and Madera farmers eat lunch, and I eavesdropped. I made pals with a constant patron at the bar, a retired farm insurance salesman called Jim who shared with me the gossip of everyone who walked into room. I started reading the Western Farm Press Daily and I still do. I’m invested in the narrative.
This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times