Last fall, a few days before Thanksgiving, our oldest Scotch Highland cow had a calf we weren’t expecting.  There was very little snow,

One day old

One day old

although it was cold, and the cows were trekking down the hill below the barn to the far end of their pasture.  Maybe they thought they might find some green grass.  Joyce, the mother cow, had the calf down there, and when the cows came up the hill again, she didn’t know whether to stay with her baby or go with the herd.  She went up and down several times, and then Bill carried the baby to the barn.  He thought Joyce would follow, but she got confused.  She followed almost all the way and then ran back down to where the baby had been born.

Finally, after a lot of running around, we managed to get Joyce shut into the barn and alone with the baby.  Joyce is a good mother.  We thought the baby would be fine once everyone had a chance to settle down.  But the next morning, it was obvious that she had not been on her feet and so she had not had any milk.  She was getting weaker.

We called the vet to come and look at her.  He said the baby couldn’t stand up because she had a selenium deficiency.  That is a common problem in Vermont,

Joyce and her baby

Joyce and her baby

although it is more often seen in sheep.  We have mixed minerals available to the cows all the time, but perhaps Joyce didn’t get enough or was too old to absorb them properly.  The vet gave the baby a selenium shot, and we began to feed her from a bottle.  Joyce would have been glad to feed her, but she couldn’t do anything for a baby who couldn’t stand up.  In a day, because of the shot, the baby was able to stand up while she drank from the bottle.  Our granddaughter named her Precarious.  Her life certainly seemed precarious.  The vet said she had about a 10% chance of surviving.

We made her a warm room of hay bales with a heat light in the middle.  She got stronger, but it was sad to see how lonely she was.  She had us, but only when we came to feed her.  After a week, when she could walk, we showed her how to get to the other cows.  Bill built a little pen, so she could be near them, but protected.  We were afraid the cows might knock her over, although they are always gentle.

After about a week, we opened the gate so she could go in with the other cows

A week old

A week old

while we stayed nearby in case of accidents.  She was hesitant and afraid at first, but then she must have realized for the first time that there were other creatures like her in the world.  At first she walked around, but she got more and more excited, until she was galloping and bucking in pure joy, thrilled to find that she wasn’t alone in the world.

With the herd

With the herd

After that, we let her out to spend time with the other cows every day, and soon we were able to fix a gate partway open so she could go in and out as she pleased.   Now she has a friend, a calf who is about five months older than she is.  That calf has learned how to use the opening in the gate to go to Precarious’ room where there is always hay and a heat light.  So they spend a lot of time together, and the other calf has learned from Precarious to be very tame.  They both love to be brushed and patted.  We are also teaching Precarious to wear a halter and to walk and whoa and gee and haw.  It’s always tricky to lead the cows to a new pasture, and we’re hoping that we can use Precarious as a leader.

Trying out the halter

Trying out the halter

Drinking milk

Drinking milk

Precarious at four months

Precarious at four months


A Great Cartoon


A Writer of Vermont

Until I moved to Vermont I thought I would always be a reader of other people’s stories. But after I had lived here for a few years, I began to want to show people what late twentieth century Vermont was like in all its wonderful complexity. What I try to do is to write the story so that you feel as though it’s something that’s happening to you, that you are there in the place I have described. I take Hemingway as my model. No one would guess that, because my subject is so different. But the method is the same. It’s what people mean when they tell you to show not tell. I try to get myself out of the middle, so there’s nothing between the reader and the events that are unfolding in the story. That’s what Hemingway did. He said that after you finish reading, you feel “that all that happened to you, and afterwards it all belongs to you, the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.” That’s what I try for.
I sent THE SIMPLE LIFE out to agents and to publishers and got no response. I sent it out perhaps fifty times, and I probably should have sent it out five hundred times. I stopped when an agent said that I would never find a commercial publisher unless I had a book that would sell 50,000 copies. Clearly a quiet book about rural Vermont wasn’t sensational enough to do that. A small university press might have taken it, but I was afraid the book would have to be changed in ways I didn’t want it to be changed, and I knew small presses hardly ever had budgets for marketing. So I decided to publish it myself, not with a vanity press, but through a company that Bill and I started for that purpose. If we had realized how much more difficult it is to market a book that is self-published, we might not have taken it on. But we made a beautiful book, so I guess I’m glad we did it. And we did all right. We sold more than a thousand copies and came close to getting our money back. So when I finished ORDINARY MAGIC, we never really considered publishing it any other way. But by that time, there were e-books on the scene, and it was much harder to sell print books.
I feel as though I have learned how to do every step in the making of a book, from the writing to the distribution. There is one thing I still need to learn, and I hope I can, and that is how to get people’s attention for my book. Everyone who reads my books seems to like them a lot, but how can anyone read them if they don’t know about them? Almost all reviewers have a policy of never reviewing self-published books. There is one wonderful exception—Vermont. I have gotten great reviews in lots of Vermont newspapers and in Vermont Life Magazine. It’s just one more example of the independent-mindedness of Vermonters. It’s one of the things I love about Vermont and one of the reasons I want to write about it.

Vermont Woman Review November 2009

This isn’t a new review, although it was new to me. I only found out about it a month ago. I have only included part of Amy Lilly’s review. If you want to see the whole thing go to: Vermont Woman article

Novel Gift Choices That Won’t Be Returned to Sender
By Amy Lilly

Fiction lovers planning on gifting copies of Lorrie Moore’s or Hilary Mantel’s latest for the holidays would do well to look closer to home: Vermont boasts a slew of talented women novelists. Here are five new works of fiction that appeared in 2009, all by experienced authors. Delve into the world of dairy farming or small-town Vermont life; plow through a suspense novel or linger over a family saga. There’s something for everyone.

According to Kit
by Eugenie Doyle
Front Street, 2009
215 pp.

by Jennifer McMahon
Harper, 2009
423 pp.

Ordinary Magic
by Ruth Porter
Bar Nothing Books, 2009
451 pp.

Return to Sender
by Julia Alvarez
Knopf Books for Children, 2009
336 pp.

Two Rivers
by T. Greenwood
Kensington Books, 2009
373 pp.

Dedicated DIYer Ruth Porter of Adamant just self-published her second novel, Ordinary Magic. She and her husband created their own publishing company, Bar Nothing Books, to ensure that her debut novel, The Simple Life, met her artistic specifications. The new one has a similarly quiet beauty: Porter’s own photographs, of icicled eaves and snowy work horses, form a silent introduction to the novel and grace each chapter page, and the paper stock is luxurious. The whole effect renders the Kindle and its kin irrelevant.

Ordinary Magic is an extended-family saga set in 1977. George and his older brother Cal grew up on the family farm, but George left for the nearby, suggestively named town of Severance to become a lawyer while Cal stayed on. Cal is now a gruff old Vermonter who can smell snow coming and peppers his comments with such colloquialisms as “goin downstreet” – meaning, leaving the farm to go anywhere. When he gets shot through the foot during deer-hunting season, the semi-estranged brothers and their families reconnect in ways as various and tangled as the dark tree branches in the painting Porter chose for her cover.

What aids that process is that George and his wife Laurie’s younger daughter Nora has suddenly come home from her single life in Boston without explanation. Nora is in fact trying to keep her pregnancy a secret, and she finds solace in escaping regularly to Uncle Cal’s. But everyone else seems to have private struggles, too: George is an alcoholic in denial; Nora’s sister Lena juggles two small children and an aloof husband who’s been sleeping with “a friend”; Cal and his wife Ursela’s son Conrad wants to make it on his own as a logger but finds himself becoming mired in debt.

Such a summary makes the book sound depressing, but nothing could be further from the truth. Porter’s meticulous descriptions of the emotional fluctuations behind family members’ conversations, sentence by sentence, make for absorbing character studies with a ring of truth. Sometimes the detail overwhelms the forward drive of the story – there is something to be said for that intermediary in traditional publishing, the ruthless editor – but Ordinary Magic ends up creating a world unto itself that seems as familiar as the one downstreet.

Vermont Woman Associate Editor Amy Lilly lives in Burlington.

Blogcritics Interview

An interview by Ann Hagman Cardinal which first appeared on March 9, 2010, on the site,

When you hear of a writer who has a literary pedigree like Ruth King Porter — the granddaughter of Maxwell Perkins, editor to Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe — certain images come to mind. Oak-lined studies and writing garrets, or maybe cocktail parties and New York hobnobbing. Instead, Ruth Porter spends her day tending her beef cows, caring for her horses and harvesting vegetables. And somewhere in there she sits at her kitchen table and works on her novels in a not very glamorous, but in a comfy and cozy Vermont kind of way.

Ruth was born in New York City, but moved to Ohio when she was quite young. In 1964, she and her husband, journalist Bill Porter, moved to Vermont. She couldn’t even make coffee when she got married, so she learned what she could about cooking and farming from books (she cites Little House in the Big Woods as an excellent source for information, particularly about churning butter and curing meat). They raised four children — not to mention dozens of sheep, pigs, cows, horses and chickens. Though she grew up knowing of her famous grandfather — oft described as the most famous literary editor — she didn’t know him and was quite young when he died. Ruth wouldn’t start writing until after she began to raise a family. Once she got a taste of the struggles of the publishing world while shopping her first novel, The Simple Life, she found she shared her grandfather’s rebellious spirit (he had to fight to publish Fitzgerald and Hemingway) and decided to go rogue and begin her own publishing company, appropriately named Bar Nothing Books.

Ruth’s latest novel — released this month — is titled Ordinary Magic. The storyline focuses on the Willards, a traditional Vermont farming family whose tale is told in straightforward but elegant prose that mirrors the personalities of the characters and the culture in which they live. The alternating points of view and voices provide pieces of an intricate puzzle that come together to create an understated but enchanting image of life in rural Vermont.

How do you manage to fit the writing of novels into farming life?

I’ve always done the writing first.  I would get the kids off to school and do the chores that had to be done, and then I would take the rest of the morning for my writing and jam everything else I had to do into the afternoon and night.  It all gets done if it has to be done, but if you try to get all the work out of the way first, you end up with no time left to write.

Though you never met your famous literary grandfather, do you feel the pressure of his masterful editorial hand on your shoulder?

I think I probably spent some time with him when I was a baby, because I lived in New York until I was two and a half.  I have one memory of him being in the next room talking to an uncle of mine.  I must have been about two.  But his editorial presence has been very helpful to me.  When I was working on The Simple Life, I knew I needed an editor.  I sent the manuscript to lots of publishing companies, but I couldn’t find anyone willing to advise me.  Then I thought that I could teach myself to edit myself.  It ought to be possible for someone who was related to Max Perkins.  And he always said that he never needed to edit Hemingway because Hemingway was good at editing himself.  So I studied the book of Max’s letters, Editor to Author.  I also read books about Max and his writers and while I was working on The Simple Life, my aunt, Bert Frothingham, and I put together a book of Max’s letters to his daughters.  I believe Max taught me how to write and how to edit.

You really capture Vermont and its residents beautifully in Ordinary Magic, were your characters inspired by real people?

Everyone’s characters are inspired by real people to some extent.  I think the difference is whether you take a person whole into your story, or whether you take certain portions of different people and put them together.  That’s what I try to do.  Sometimes I can find a photograph of a person I don’t know, and by looking at it long enough and hard enough, I feel as though I know the person.  I found the photograph that became Cal in a junk store.

The book deals with a sensitive subject with the one of the main characters wrestling with an unplanned pregnancy and the possibility of abortion.  Did you know how she was going to decide ahead of time?

I think I could say that I hoped she would choose the way she did.  It’s a funny combination of knowing and not knowing.  I am always puzzled when people say they have no idea how their story will turn out, and yet of course, it becomes dead if you force it to go the way you meant in the beginning.  I always think it’s like a road trip—you know something about the trip, roughly how long it’s going to take, where you are going to end up, maybe even what you hope to see along the way, but you don’t know what’s going to happen until you actually get on the road, and it can turn out to be very different than you thought it would be.  For me, it has to be both at once.

Even though it is clearly in present day (abortion is legal) the story and its characters have a timeless quality.  Is there a message in that?

I’m very glad if that’s true.  I tried hard for it to be that way.  I think it depends on what the story is about.  If it’s about things that are important to people no matter when they live, then it can have a timeless quality, if you’re lucky.

Several of the main characters of the ensemble cast are men and you write them well.  How did you get into the male mind in order to capture their voices?

My brother, who is an actor, told me something very important when I was working on The Simple Life.  He said he never played himself.  You have to be able to look at a person and make that person coherent, and you can’t do that about yourself, because you can’t see yourself.  I was struggling with Isabel at the time.  She turned out to be very hard, because I thought I could just write myself and so it would be easy.  Since my brother said that, I think I have found it almost as easy to write men as to write women.  I gave Cal lots of things that are important to me, for example.  But he’s obviously a very different person also.

You include photographs at the beginning of each chapter.  Can you share with us the story behind that concept?

I want a person reading my novel to feel that it’s an experience that person is having, so I want the novel to be very real.  A photograph is a proof of that reality. I always wanted photographs in my novels, not ones of people because that might get in the way of how the reader pictured the characters, but scenes that would make the reality even more real.  It’s one of the reasons I decided to publish my books myself.  I might have been able to find a commercial publisher, but I knew I would never find one who would let me put in a lot of my own photographs.

What are you working on next?

I’ve started a new novel.  This one is going to be about that strange and difficult country that is old age.  I hope it’s going to be about death and sex also, but it’s just the beginning.  Those are the subjects that I hope to write about anyway.

Tell us something that isn’t on the official bio.

I haven’t ever earned much money, but I’ve always been able to make good food.  A year and a half ago, I started taking about fifty pounds of food to the food shelf every month.  I raised extra food in the last two gardens, especially potatoes and carrots, things I can bring even in the winter.  I bake extra nutritious bread every month too, and I almost always can get together a lot of eggs.  My rule is that the food for the food shelf has to be the best, not the leftovers.