Janis Hallowell is the bestselling author of two critically acclaimed novels, The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn and She Was. She is a MacDowell fellow and a two-time Indie Next author. She has taught writing to individuals as well as in classes at Denver’s Lighthouse for Writers. Janis has been a clay artist since 1973. Now, she owns Fig Pottery and makes functional and decorative majolica dinnerware secondary to writing. She lives and works on a farm with her husband, Howie Movshovitz, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. In recent years she has become a climate crisis activist.
A Note From Janis
I’ll just say it: my last published book, She Was, came out in hardcover in 2008 and in paperback in 2009. In the publishing world that is a long, long time ago, maybe a couple of lifetimes ago.
For me, novels arise from the deepest core of my psyche. I have learned that it takes time to absorb my life before I can write my best, next book. And life has been rich. It has been full. It has been challenging. Here’s what the last twelve years has looked like for me.
She Was came out during the 2008 election. Remember 2008? The presidential election dominated the media. The economy was tanking. Publishing was struggling and my publisher, Wm. Morrow/HarperCollins was regrouping so fast that every week there were new people in high and low positions trying to make sense of it. No wonder that my book, just one of many projects there, didn’t get as much attention as we wanted. For me, the underwhelm was devastating. I had been working on She Was for five years. It had been a difficult book to research, write and publish. By the time it came out I was exhausted, depleted, depressed, and sick.
To recoup and research a non-fiction idea, I went to Tuscany and worked on a cashmere farm for a while where I learned that people in other countries were living in a more sustainable and low carbon footprint way than we were, even in my town of Boulder, Colorado which prides itself on being enlightened about all things environmental.
Right after I got home I took a fateful walk in the foothills to the west of our home in Boulder and overheard a guy talking on his phone about farms in the county being the best kept secret in local investments. I wondered if we could live closer to the land, make a smaller footprint, maybe get involved in organics somehow. At the same time our daughter went off to college. The precious Victorian house where we’d raised her felt constricting all of a sudden and too empty nesty. I called a realtor who showed us a charming farmhouse on ten acres.
The short version is that in 2010 we sold our Victorian in Boulder and “bought the farm.” It was a good move financially, but it was twice the house and ten acres of land to take care of. Everything needed fixing or replacing. So, we got to work and learned about septic systems, water rights, hay farming, fences, pack rats and voles, painting, repairing, how to make a dining room table out of an old barn table, and the endless piles of trash and rocks everywhere around a farm. There was room for a clay studio and that was exciting, but there was so much sun and wind and sky and land, it was all unnerving. I became depressed and got treatment but it took time to feel better. It was a couple of years before I was convinced we hadn’t made a terrible mistake.
In 2012 my mother died and I began sorting out the difficult relationship we had in a way that I had never been able to while she was alive. I started to see how my depressions were tied to early childhood. I started to understand that I was sexually assaulted just before I was three years old and that the worst part of it was that it had never been acknowledged by my parents, who knew it had happened.
I started working on a young adult fantasy novel. The Moth Queen was a departure for me, after two adult “literary” novels. It was satisfying to invent a world and make a story about innocence and mothers who are either blood suckers or blithely neglectful. Like all of my books, this effort took about five years of my life.
During the writing of The Moth Queen our daughter, Zoe, was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia. Two days later she was diagnosed with acute e-coli.
It’s hard to describe the devastation of that time. At first it was a week in the hospital with either Howie or I on the cot in the room at all times, wondering if she was going to die. It takes you to a new place when your beloved child and asks you, “Am I going to die?” We had never lied to her and I wasn’t going to start, so the honest answer was, “I don’t know, but I’m going to do everything I can to keep that from happening.”
Two wonderful oncologists and a lot of great nurses later we learned that her particular form of leukemia, CML, was the one for which they have the right-out-of-a-science-fiction-novel DNA treatment. No chemo, no hair loss, no loss of fertility, no bone marrow transplant. Just a class of drug which shuts off the one damaged chromosome. She began the treatment and started to feel better. She also met the man she would eventually marry. Within a year she started working as a fundraiser and event planner for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in Denver. Eight years later, Zoe has been off the cancer drugs for two years and is still in deep remission. She married Josh and had a baby, Max, making me an ecstatic grandmother.
I needed a new agent for The Moth Queen, as my agent on She Was and I had parted ways. I realized I needed a YA agent and a YA publisher. In 2015-16 I couldn’t make either one happen. I thought maybe it was time to retire from fiction.
In September of 2013, ten months after the leukemia diagnosis, we were hit by a major flood. The amount of rain and creek water was terrifying. Our basement filled up with ground water and one by one the electricity, gas, and water went out and stayed out for several weeks. We pumped water out of the house for six weeks. We burned wood in the fireplace for warmth and cooking. We took showers outside with solar showers from our well. Everyone in our valley was damaged by the flood. People in the mountains were left homeless from it. Some are still rebuilding seven years later. The flood changed the ancient paths of rivers. It also contributed to big changes in my life.
Though I had sworn not to write another book, I started thinking about a novel set in a flood. It showed up in dreams and I wrote notes about it, but mostly, I focused on the health of my daughter, my farm, my pottery, my husband, my mental health, and the growing understanding that these floods, fires and disasters weren’t rare and random anymore. They were a result of global warming. It began to dawn on me, as it did with a lot of us, that we, as a species, had to up our game on fighting climate change. 2016 came and with Trump in the White House, cutting funding for environmental causes every day, it was important to get active.
2017 was the year that it really hit me. That was also the year that I started writing Hundred Year Flood in earnest. I read that the Greenland ice had melted. That information felt like a tipping point in the fate of the planet. I was grieving. I didn’t know what to do or how to get involved. Climate change contributed to my chronic depression so much that I tended to stay away from learning more. We met a young couple, a lawyer for the Environmental Defense Fund and an engineer in wind energy. They reassured us about the crisis. They said it was changing, that through law and science in the private sector, even if the politicians didn’t get on board, it was going to change, and soon. This gave me hope enough to start learning more. I called 350Colorado, my local grassroots climate change organization, and got involved. I began writing letters, signing petitions, showing up for state legislative sessions and county commission meetings. I began to speak at these events as my knowledge increased. I got involved with local politics to support candidates who are climate defenders and to out politicians who pretend to defend the climate but don’t really.
In our area the front line of the climate crisis is fracking. It’s a well kept secret that the air along the front range in Colorado has been given an “F” from the American Lung Association. Now, studies are coming out that link the carcinogens in the air to fracking and oil drilling specifically. It’s a big fight with the oil and gas companies but we are gaining. We have gotten laws passed to increase restrictions and to put the health and well being of the people of Colorado back in the hands of the people, not the oil and gas CEOs. We are calling for a complete ban on fracking in Boulder County and other counties. See my op-ed in the Colorado Sun for more information.
But back to my novel, Hundred Year Flood. The book insisted on being written. My emotional work about the assault at two and a half mixed with the story about a major flood, turning sixty, and my growing education in climate crisis. The novel that emerged was deeply satisfying to write, as it came out of some mysteriously complete place in my unconscious. Finally, the skills to write it matched the challenge of such an ambitious premise and plot. Everything seemed to line up and each draft of the book has brought a better rendition, a deeper healing for me, and greater delight in the process of crafting the novel.
Now, it is early in 2020 and I will soon be going out with Hundred Year Flood to seek representation and a publisher. I’ll keep you posted.