Photo: Audrey Michaud-Peters
‘The Berry Pickers’ Examines Hope’s Joy and Pain After a Little Girl’s Disappearance
Nova Scotia author Amanda Peters drew on her Mi’kmaq father’s stories about working in Maine’s blueberry fields to ground her debut novel / BY Elizabeth Mitchell / March 31st, 2023
The Berry Pickers, the debut novel from Nova Scotia writer Amanda Peters, revolves around a fateful day in July 1962, when four-year-old Ruthie, the youngest member of a Mi’kmaw family from Nova Scotia, disappears in broad daylight from a Maine blueberry field. Her six-year-old brother Joe was the last to see her. Peters covers 50 years as she deftly toggles between two narrators, Joe in Nova Scotia, whose life has been devastated by guilt over his sister’s disappearance, and Norma in Maine, whose parents dismiss nightmares she had as a child and give vague answers when she asks about her early years. It’s an engaging and heartbreaking story of love and reconciliation.
Peters, who started writing after she signed up for a course with the University of Toronto’s Continuing Education program in 2012, has since participated in the Banff Emerging Writers and the Writers’ Trust Rising Star programs, got her Master of Fine Arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, N.M., and won the 2021 Indigenous Voices Award for Unpublished Prose.
In an interview with Peters, 46, from her home in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, she talks about how her Mi’kmaw father’s stories about berry picking in Maine sparked the story, she has claimed her Indigenous voice and how hope can be both joyful and traumatic.
Elizabeth Mitchell: Before your story begins, you thank your father for his stories.
Amanda Peters: My dad’s a storyteller. When he learned I was taking writing seriously he said: “You should write about us and the berry fields.” At first I said no, because I write fiction. In 2017 we went on a father-daughter trip to the berry fields in Maine. We spent three days there and he told me so many crazy, lovely and sad stories, and I recorded them all.
That weekend, the first line of chapter one just came to me. People say: “never ask a writer where their story comes from because they don’t know.” It’s that mythical space where creativity resides. I have a friend who says stories come from the ancestors so we can put them onto paper, so, I’m going with that.
EM: You hint at what’s going to happen before heading into your dual narrative. How did you harness this and make it work?
AP: When I started, it was just going to be Joe’s life without his sister. Trying to fit Ruthie’s story in while I wrote wasn’t working. Finally, Ruthie said to me: “Can I just tell my story please? I need to have a part of this.” [Laughs] For some reason, her voice didn’t come as easily.
EM: How did you get from a visit to the berry fields in 2017 to publication in 2023?
AP: I started writing the first chapter after the trip with my dad and spent two years on it. I wasn’t sure where it was going. I thought it might be a short story and I was obsessed with getting it perfect.
I used what I wrote for my workshop at the Banff Emerging Writers program in 2018. I was still working on it in 2020 when I started at IAIA. They helped me frame it better, and then the writing flowed. I wrote the first seven chapters there and HarperCollins bought my book based on these chapters. Then I had three months to finish.
EM: Plot-wise, did anything major change while you were at IAIA?
AP: The big change was adding Ruthie’s story. I needed her and she took her time coming to me. She’s stubborn that way. [laughs] There was also plot that wasn’t adding anything, and I learned that the delete button can be both terrifying and a writer’s best friend. I wrote chronologically and knew where I was going.
EM: Did all the work you did on the first chapter make it easier to create what you needed?
AP: I just thought it was going to be a short story. I didn’t know this was going to be the story I’d make into a novel, but through revising that first chapter, I knew it was a novel.
EM: Did you think short stories were your medium, or have you always wanted to write a book?
AP: I’ve wanted to write a novel my whole life. After I got a good job – I’ve been fortunate to work with First Nations since 2009 [and] I currently work as a capacity development manager for the First Nations Financial Management Board – I waited until I was comfortable financially before signing up for the Writing a Novel course at the University of Toronto’s Continuing Education online program in 2012. I thought I’d only do that one course and see if I could learn anything. I loved it so much I ended up doing the entire certificate, finishing in 2016.
EM: Did the work you did at U of T become the short stories you’ve published in various literary journals?
AP: No. Here’s a funny thing about my writing journey, it’s led me to be more comfortable with who I am as an Indigenous woman. Because I was not raised on a reserve – I was raised by my non-Indigenous mom, predominantly; my dad is a loving, wonderful dad, but I was raised in a household with my mom – I never felt I had the right to tell the stories I’m now telling. They weren’t my stories to tell because, in my mind, I knew there were better Mi’kmaq people who could tell them. I’ve received a lot of encouragement from elders and really wise friends who said: “This is how you are Mi’kmaq. This is your connection to your culture; your writing is your ceremony.”
I really hold onto this now. I’m hoping when Mi’kmaq people read my book, they see themselves. My short stories at the University of Toronto had no Indigenous characters in them, I was only pulling from my settler experience, and they’re not as good. They don’t have heart. In 2013, I did a one-week intensive Backstage course at the [Toronto] International Festival of Authors, and that’s where I wrote my first Indigenous story, “Pejipug,” that went on to be published in The Antigonish Review, but not until 2018, because I still wasn’t sure about it. An elder once told me that the colour of my skin doesn’t make me Mi’kmaq, so tell my stories. When I finally convinced myself I was allowed to tell these stories, both my passion for writing and telling them flowed out of me.
EM: Tell me about exploring racism and colonialism in your narrative.
AP: I didn’t really think about it. They came about naturally because of the content and being a member of the Mi’kmaq community. As a nation, it’s something we know exists and we live. They were in the back of my mind, but, ultimately, I just wanted to tell a good story.
EM: So, they came out through osmosis?
AP: Yes. Meghan Mujumdar, the editor at Catapult Books who bought The Berry Pickers for the American market, said “it’s so reflective of the stealing of Indigenous children and the situation of Indigenous women in North America” in our very first online meeting. When she said this, I realized it was, but while I was writing, in my head it was about a little girl who went missing. These themes just naturally became part of the story without me having to try to work at it. It’s just there by virtue of the topic, the people and the characters.
EM: Joe says hope is a good thing until it’s not. For him, that bird has flown, yet he cannot give up entirely.
AP: That’s my favourite line in my book, because that’s how you feel sometimes. It can be damaging. That’s part of what happens to Joe; hope got the worst of him. Joe couldn’t get past Ruthie missing because of his guilt.
EM: What’s happening next? Are you interested in continuing Ruthie’s story?
AP: The Berry Pickers is done, and a collection of my short stories – Waiting for the Long Night Moon – is forthcoming from HarperCollins. Since finishing The Berry Pickers, I find that if I talk about what I’m currently writing, the story goes away, like it doesn’t want to be told anymore. So, I’m not talking about what I’m working on. I’m 60,000 words in, and I’m not doing the whole “wait ‘til it’s perfect thing.” I’m just literally writing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.