Hello! Today I’m excited to welcome Brenda Marie Smith to my blog. It’s her first time visiting, and boy does she have a story to share. I “met” Brenda last year when I read her highly-unique post-apocalyptic novel If Darkness Takes Us. To see what makes this book so different from most stories of this type, see my 5 Star Amazon Review. And then check out where some of the inspiration behind the book came from by reading Brenda’s amazing personal experiences below!
LIVING OFF THE GRID:
MY LIFE AS RESEARCH
By Brenda Marie Smith
In my novel, If Darkness Takes Us, a solar pulse destroys the U.S. grid and also takes down the cars, phones, and running water. The characters must survive without modern conveniences and learn to farm their urban subdivision.
Readers regularly comment on how much research I must have done to make the details of a powerless world authentic. But the fact is that my life was my research.
In the 1970s when I lived off the grid for several years, I didn’t realize I was also building a treasure trove of experiences that would later fuel my fiction. I was an idealist, part of the Back to the Land movement. We were “getting in touch with Nature” and “finding ourselves,” which often involved living in the backwoods, ingesting psychedelics, growing veggies, and the actual hugging of trees.
The Arkansas Ozark Mountains
The first time I got married I was eighteen. Back then you could survive on odd jobs and cheap rent, but after hitchhiking across the country twice, we weren’t satisfied. When we saw the movie “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” about St. Francis of Assisi shunning worldly goods, we packed up our 1953 Chevy panel truck and headed out to live in the Ozark Mountains of Western Arkansas.
Oh my gosh, it was beautiful there—low mountains that seemed spectacular to us after being flatlanders all our lives—crisp air, uncut National Forests of oak and gum and pine. We drove around several counties where we’d heard that hippies lived, and finally found them in Newton County—one of the poorest counties in the nation.
An old man named Beecher Kilgore had moved to town due to poor health—he lived in a trailer that he called a “Prince Albert can.” He let us live in his mountain cabin for free, as long as we brought him huckleberries from the woods and potatoes from his garden.
Beecher’s place was a tiny tar-paper shack with a tin roof, but he’d built it himself from hand-hewn oak planks. He and his wife raised their kids there—one bedroom, one living area with a woodstove for heat. The biggest room was the kitchen—it had a kerosene refrigerator that we never used and a kerosene cookstove that we fired up when we got tired of cooking atop the wood heater or the hibachi grill. Everything we did, we had to learn from scratch.
There was an outhouse up the hill in the back—scared me to death to go there at night as there were panthers, but I got used to it. Out the kitchen door, a rock path led to a PVC pipe, where fresh spring water ran continuously to form a small pool and a smaller stream. We stored perishable food like milk and cheese in the pool, though not for more than a day at a time.
The spring water was so clean and clear that we drank it by the gallons—always cool even in hot weather. The spring was up a hill on the side of a house. Chipmunks and other small critters hung out around the spring, and I read Carlos Castaneda up there, trying to commune with the animals.
At the time we thought we didn’t have neighbors for two miles around us, but I now suspect that some people were closer if we’d known how to get to them through the woods and hollers.
We had a few acres of cleared land with two garden spaces that had once been pig pens. Otherwise, we were surrounded by miles of healthy forest. Across the chert road, we could hike a short way to a magnificent creek bed—a deep cut into the mountainside that had a lovely waterfall at the top end and a beaver dam at the bottom.
Our firewood came from fallen tree limbs that we dragged home to chop by hand. Never once did we cut down a living tree. I planted a veggie garden to mixed success, and studied local herbs and plants. I learned to make tea from wild mint or sumac, which was abundant and tasted like hibiscus. Huckleberries were everywhere the first year, but nowhere to be found the second and third. Persimmons grew wild, but we ate them too soon and never ate more.
Because we had no electricity, we used kerosene lamps and lanterns, learning to trim the wicks so they didn’t turn the lamp chimneys black. For bathing, we had a big tin washtub, and we heated water on the woodstove. It took a cooperative effort to keep the bathwater warm and to rinse one another’s hair.
Scary things happened: I rounded the corner of the house one day to find a bobcat staring at me; the brakes went out on our truck as we came down the mountain highway, taking a tight curve in the wrong lane; my visiting brother got lost in the woods for hours in the dark; the truck’s engine block froze and cracked, stranding us at home with almost no food. We had to hike four miles up the mountain in the snow, not knowing if the store would even be open. Luckily it was, and people fed us a meal and hot tea to boot.
Wondrous and beautiful things: The quiet, which unnerved me at first until the peacefulness settled in; dogwood flowers in spring that looked like white butterflies on the bare trees; hiking to the mountaintop to get above the clouds; the spectacular fall foliage; caves with sparkling white stalactites and stalagmites; witchers who found water with a willow stick; old men who played banjo and guitar and invited the hippies to sing along; huckleberry pie at the café where everyone knew us and the waitresses called us “honey.”
And on summer nights, tree frogs would serenade us from a pond in the woods under the magical moonlight.
The people of Newton County had been dirt-poor for generations. They hunted and fished for part of their food (which we never did—we were learning to be vegetarian). They survived by helping each other, and they helped us so much it was humbling. Beecher Kilgore loaned us his house; a mechanic named Smitty gave us a running car and wouldn’t let us pay him; folks gave us fresh honey and garden vegetables galore. I learned to make quilts that I pieced together by hand and gave them as gifts in return.
Putting Life into Fiction
Beecher’s cabin and the mountain creek show up in my first novel, Something Radiates. So does the time I spent in Louisiana and a mountain cave I hitchhiked to near Boulder. For the evil antagonist, I merged the worst aspects of my two exes and ramped them into overdrive.
For If Darkness Takes Us and its sequel, If the Light Escapes (coming out August 2021), I drew on my experience as mother and grandmother in a big step-family, plus my skills from life off-grid in the Ozarks. I also used what I learned in off-grid communal living, which I will tell you more about in a future blog post this coming summer.
The lesson to go with the standard advice to “write what you know” is that you can mix pieces of your life with your imagination to create something completely new.
All my thanks to Mae Clair for her kindness and encouragement, and for hosting this story on her blog.
Winner of the Southern Fried Karma 2018 Novel Contest for IF DARKNESS TAKES US, Brenda Marie Smith studied fiction in the UCLA Writers Program. Born and raised in Oklahoma City, she was part of the back-to-the-land movement, living off the grid in the Ozark Mountains, and then joining The Farm—an off-grid, vegan hippie community in Tennessee where her sons were delivered by midwives.
Brenda has lived in Austin, Texas since 1980, where she managed nonprofits for thirty years. She and her husband own and reside in a grid-connected, solar-powered home. They have five grown sons, two grandkids with a third on the way, and a self-assured kitty cat. Her first novel Something Radiates is a paranormal romantic thriller; If Darkness Takes Us and its sequel, If the Light Escapes, are post-apocalyptic science fiction.
IF DARKNESS TAKES US
Winner of the 2018 Southern Fried Karma Novel Contest
In suburban Austin, Texas, Bea Crenshaw secretly prepares for apocalypse, but when a solar pulse destroys modern life, she’s left alone with four grandkids whose parents don’t return home. She must teach these kids to survive without power, cars, phones, running water, or doctors in a world fraught with increasing danger.
If Darkness Takes Us is realistic post-apocalyptic fiction with a focus on a family in peril, led by a no-nonsense grandmother who is at once funny, controlling, and heroic in her struggle to hold her family together with civility and heart.
So are you as blown away as I am? What an incredible life Brenda has led! Now I understand how she was able to make the scenarios in If Darkness Takes Us so realistic.
Brenda will be back again with another amazing post when If the Light Escapes releases in August. In the meantime, this (moi) pampered, where’s-the-pool-bar-and-hotel-lounge girl is in awe. My husband frequently tells me I would have never made it as a settler or living in the Old West. Apparently, I wouldn’t make it in Brenda’s world either, LOL!
Drop her a few thoughts below. And, if you haven’t read If Darkness Takes Us, I highly recommend a quick jaunt to Amazon to one-click!