Diane Wilson Q&A

May 2, 2022
Diane Wilson is an award-winning writer, speaker, and editor.

“I’ve discovered that my starting point for writing a book often ends up somewhere in the middle. Then I write back in time to figure out how it arrived at that point, and forward to see what happened next. Then it all gets rearranged.  I have a big table in my writing studio for the purpose of shuffling pieces around, treating the overall story like a quilt that is pieced together. I’m a huge fan of using juxtaposition to carry meaning beyond the words on the page. I also use 3×5 recipe cards that represent each chapter, color-coded by character, so I can see the story as a big puzzle, observing the way tension rises and falls, the movement between time periods, the arc of each character.”

You open the book with the poem “The Seeds Speak.” Did you always know you would open the book that way?

No, the multi-voice form for the book, including the voice of the seeds that is expressed in the poem, evolved as the story revealed itself to me. As a writer, I often feel that my best writing, my deepest insights, sometimes come from a place outside myself, or maybe it’s from a deeper collective consciousness. To connect to that source, I developed an exercise of listening to each character and writing their voice in first person. When I applied that exercise to the seeds, the poem emerged. That’s when I understood the seeds as a character, framing the story of the four Dakota women who share their respective lives.

When you write do you find the elements arrange themselves or do you constantly shuffle them around?

Creating a unique form for each book is one of my great joys in writing. I’ve discovered that my starting point for writing a book often ends up somewhere in the middle. Then I write back in time to figure out how it arrived at that point, and forward to see what happened next. Then it all gets rearranged.  I have a big table in my writing studio for the purpose of shuffling pieces around, treating the overall story like a quilt that is pieced together. I’m a huge fan of using juxtaposition to carry meaning beyond the words on the page. I also use 3×5 recipe cards that represent each chapter, color-coded by character, so I can see the story as a big puzzle, observing the way tension rises and falls, the movement between time periods, the arc of each character.

You’ve said that The Seed Keeper is inspired by Dakota women sewing seeds into the hems of their skirts while being removed from their land in 1863. Did you have an immediate creative jolt when you heard that story?

I felt more of an emotional jolt, imagining the fear these women must have felt at being removed from their homes, not knowing where they were being sent, or how they would feed their children. Their story carried a powerful teaching about the way these women cared for their seeds, knowing that their survival might depend on them, and the same was true for the seeds. It was such a powerful, poignant lesson about reciprocity, that if we take care of the seeds, then they also take care of us. That teaching attached itself to my heart so that years later when I started writing the novel, it came back to me.

The Seed Keeper almost reads like magical realism in that you show the magic of the natural world as experienced through four generations of characters and their connection to seeds. Were you thinking of writers like Marquez and Bolano when you wrote the book?

I am a fan of Marquez but the real inspiration for writing in a way that blends the magic of the seen and unseen worlds comes from an indigenous way of knowing everything as related, so there isn’t the same kind of separation that you might find in other forms of writing. The question I’m raising in this book is about the relationship we have with seeds, plants, animals, water, earth. If you feel kinship with the plants in your garden or the water that sustains life, you are more likely to treat them well. I also believe that our intuitive selves, our dream minds, carry a kind of knowledge that we are sometimes reluctant to trust or to listen to. One of the great gifts of story is making the connection between those intuitive truths and the reader.

You get up early to write. Do you stop for the day when you get on a roll so you can pick up the next morning or do you like to exhaust the muse?

I love the early morning before sunrise when I can come straight from the dream world to the page. I write until my mind gets tired, which depends on whether I’m editing work or creating new, which takes more energy. I stop wherever I am, knowing that my subconscious will keep thinking about the work I’ve just done, so that I’ll most likely bring new insights the following morning. In a perfect world without Zoom meetings, I like to write until noon or 1, and then get outside for hiking with the dog, gardening, reading a book on the porch with a cup of tea.

A lot of people find our ecological crisis overwhelming. What is one thing you share with young people about what they can do in their lives to advocate for seeds and ethical farming?

To quote my hero, Robin Wall Kimmerer, the best thing you can do is to plant a garden. If you don’t have space for a garden, keep a tomato or herbs in a container. If you can’t do that, then simply thank the seeds when you’re outside, or grocery shopping, or enjoying a meal. Gratitude is a gift that people sometimes underestimate.

What is next for you?

I’m working on a memoir about a restoration project on the 10 acres where I live, hoping to provide a real-life guide to decolonizing land using indigenous practices and beliefs. I’m also thinking about a follow-up novel centered around some of the minor characters in The Seed Keeper, such as Rosalie’s son. I continue to write and publish essays about our relationship with seeds, land, food sovereignty.

Photo by  John Ratzloff