Helen Peppe is the author of Pigs Can’t Swim (Da Capo Press), a memoir of childhood by the youngest of nine children in a hardscrabble, beyond-eccentric Maine family. Her debut title has been praised for being outrageous, hilarious, and touching.
Peppe is the former editor of Eastern Equerry and Wordplay Magazine, and her short stories, articles, and photographs have appeared in myriad anthologies, books, and magazines. She placed first in the 2009 Word Worth Essay and Fiction Contest and twice won The Starving Writer Literary Contest. Peppe lives in Portland, Maine, with her husband, children, dogs, and horses.
What inspired you to write Pigs Can’t Swim?
Helen Peppe: I was working on a memoir-type book about weight loss and exercise when author Debra Marquart suggested I examine my childhood for a food-issue source. Once I began trying to figure out why I wanted to eat only chocolate and pasta, I realized that my childhood wasn’t just the source for food habits but for other mind-paralyzing issues. I decided to put my exercise memoir aside and begin at the making of my identity with the hope that this work would inform all of my writing.
What do you hope readers take away from your debut title?
HP: I hope that readers see that we are all like the pig Waterboro trying to swim across the lake to freedom. Freedom from the past is mythic because the past is part of the self. We can’t escape, but we can gain new perspective and personal enlightenment by looking back and by forgiving ourselves and those people who are tied to us.
How did you come up with the title Pigs Can’t Swim?
HP: The title sums up the mentality of those people who don’t have the time or the desire, or possibly even the means, to examine the world as it is but accept what they hear without question, despite proof to the contrary.
Were books an important part of your childhood? If so, what book had the greatest impact on you?
HP: Books were an integral part of my childhood, of my well-being. I read every second I could, focusing on animal-centric books, such as those by James Herriot and Jane Goodall, but also on books that offered complete escape, such as those by Stephen King. I loved reading books where the animals talked; however, I wasn’t always happy with what the authors had them say, which is why I began to seek out books by naturalists who studied animals in their own environment. The book that had the greatest impact on me as a child is one that I did not enjoy reading and that is Animal Liberation by Peter Singer.
Are you working on anything now?
HP: Yes. I don’t think I could not be. The words are always pushing to get out. I am continuing Pigs Can’t Swim in a second memoir with the working title Chasing the Light, although that might morph to Light Lessons. I have photographed animals for 20 years, primarily horses, which means I always need to schedule my photography days based on light and shadow. This professional requirement is ironically also the requirement for my personal well-being. I have never learned to be happy, or even comfortable, in the dark, and I am certain that has to do with living where I did and how I did as child. I am also in the last stages of a YA novel, I Name You Rock Star, a story that stars two 11-year-olds and a rescue horse who needs them.
When you travel, do you stop at bookstores? Any particular indies make a lasting impression?
HP: I am only just beginning to travel now that my children are older, but yes. We always stop at bookstores although the smaller ones are harder to find than they used to be. I sorely miss Books Etc. in Portland and Falmouth, Maine, but I frequent Nonesuch Books, The Book Review, and Gulf of Maine Books when I am in Brunswick.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
HP: The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller, Dr. Sleep by Stephen King (reading this with my husband), The Water Castle by Meagan Frazer (reading this with my daughter), Going Home by Jon Katz, and All Things Bright and Beautiful by James Herriot (a book my husband is reading to my daughter).
If you were a bookseller for a day, what book would you want to put in every customer’s hand?
HP: 11/22/63 by Stephen King.
If you were snowed in for the winter, what three titles would you want to have with you?
HP: This is a terrifically difficult question, but winters are long in New England so I will use length as a deciding factor: 11/22/63 by Stephen King, The Outlanders by Diana Gabaldon, and A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, but I would miss Bleak House by Charles Dickens, The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy, and All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot very much.
Pigs Can’t Swim, by Helen Peppe (Da Capo Press, Hardcover, 9780306822728). Publication Date: February 4, 2014.
Learn more about Helen Peppe at helenpeppe.com
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