Talking to Alyssa Archer is always a balm for my soul. In this conversation, we veered from homesteading, the Enneagram, her childhood love of fairy tales, and books that can be a form of healing from trauma. Play close attention to Alyssa’s accent, and how she gets more Texan every time she talks about her homestead!
Trigger warnings: this book does have a rape scene, and Alyssa and I discuss the scene and its aftermath in our conversation. If you or someone you know is a sexual assault survivor, please contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline for help at 800-656-4673.
Support the Best Book Ever Podcast on Patreon
Books discussed in this episode:
Deerskin by Robin McKinley
The Magical Language of Others by E.J. Koh
Best Book Ever Episode 023 (guest Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello discusses E.J. Koh’s book)
The Small Scale Poultry Flock by Harvey Ussery
The Wisdom of the Enneagram: The Complete Guide to Psychological and Spiritual Growth for the Nine Personality Types by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson
The Black Stallion by Walter Farley
The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
Sunshine by Robin McKinley
Dracula by Bram Stoker
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Wheel of Time Series by Robert Jordan
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
Crimson Bound by Rosamund Hodge
Seer of Sevenwaters (Book 5 of the Sevenwaters Trilogy) by Juliet Marillier
Murder, She Goat by Lucy Jackson
Discussed in our Patreon Exclusive clip:
(Note: If you shop using my affiliate links, a portion of your purchase will go to me, at no extra expense to you. Thank you for supporting indie bookstores and for helping to keep the Best Book Ever Podcast in business!)
EPISODE 031 TRANSCRIPT
ALYSSA ARCHER ON “DEERSKIN” BY ROBIN MCKINLEY
Hello, Bookworms, welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where we talk about your favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, And today I’m so excited to talk to my friend Alyssa Archer. Alyssa is a homesteader, a homeschooling mother of three, a novelist, a degenerate poker player, (her description, not mine), and a little obsessed with personality typing systems. She lives on a five-acre homestead in a tiny town in the Texas Hill country with her husband, three children, three dogs, two cats, 15 chickens and several thousand bees. She writes the Hill Country cozy mystery series under the pen name Lucy Jackson.
When I invited Alyssa onto the show, I knew she was going to choose a fantasy book because we’ve been friends for a long time, and I know epic fantasies are her jam. What I did not expect was how much I would like her choice. I’m so excited for you to hear Alyssa tell me why “Deerskin” by Robin McKinley is the Best Book Ever.
The indie bookstore spotlight of the week is Alyssa’s all-time favorite: Powell’s for new and used books in Portland, Oregon. Powells is the largest indie bookstore in the world, and also one of the most popular in the United States. Since we can’t visit right now, go to their website, powells.com, and check out the tab entitled “What I’m Giving” for a really fun roundup of what some of your favorite authors are gifting their friends and family.
This year, the Powell’s website also has a fantastic staff pick section. One of the picks happens to be “The Magical Language of Others” by E. J. Koh, a book that was the topic of the Best Book Ever podcast episode 23, which I highly recommend you listen to, if you haven’t already. Powells has a literary book club subscription box, which would be a great gift, a kid’s book subscription box, and so much more. As always, this is not a paid ad or sponsorship. All of the book links in my show notes support independent bookstores. Please consider doing your holiday shopping at a store run by real book people, not one run by algorithms. Now back to the show.
Julie Strauss: Hi, Alyssa. Welcome to the Best Book Ever Podcast.
Alyssa Archer: Thank you, Julie. It’s so great to be here.
JS: It’s always so fun to talk to you. I’m going to start right off with one of my favorite things to talk to you about, which is that you are a homesteader. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about what you and your family have done?
AA: So, the story goes back a little bit to when I met my future husband. And within a few days he had let me know that one of his lifetime dreams was to have 10 acres, goats and peaches in the Hill Country of Texas. And we were living in Austin at the time. My accent is going to get deeper as I talked about this! And, uh, then I was like, Oh my, that sounds like a lot of work. So that was 13 years ago. Three years ago, I was realizing that Austin had gotten a lot bigger and I was not enjoying city life. I actually had tickets to Austin City Limits one year and I drove down to go and I was so overwhelmed by the cars and the people that I just turned around and went home.
And that year, the following spring, I took my daughters to an art camp in the Hill Country on the Guadalupe River. And it was so peaceful and beautiful and you know, it’s just gorgeous country out here. And it reminded me of my husband’s dream. And I got home that weekend and my property tax bill was waiting for me in the mail. I realized how much we were spending to live in Austin. And I started looking for real estate. It took us about six months, but I found five acres in the Hill Country that we could buy outright. And so now we are a mortgage-free in a ramshackle little mobile home that we’re renovating room by room.
And it’s, you know, it’s taken two years longer than I thought it would at this point. Um, but it’s been great. We started with bees. That was our first addition to the property, so I’ve got beehives. And then we started doing broiler chickens, which was, um, meat chickens. Chickens that you process so that you can have chicken dinners. And then we added laying hens. So now we have chickens on the property that are given us eggs every day. And, and then in March, when the pandemic hit, we had been planning to start a garden in the fall of 2020, but in March, my little brain said, we’re starting that garden right now. And so that’s been a lot of my time. That’s where my time’s been going lately is to those gardens into learning about gardening. And, oh boy, I thought I had a black thumb, but it turns out all you have to do is learn stuff and apply it.
JS: When you say broiler chickens, you’re not talking about a chicken, one chicken a month or anything like that. Like you have a, what do you call it? A crop? A flock, of course.
AA: Oh, I don’t even know. We have a tractor full. We have a chicken tractor. That’s it’s this mobile coop and we buy 30 birds at a time. They arrive when they are two days old, they’re shipped out the day they’re born and they arrive in the mail. And you take these little darlings out and you dip their beaks and water, so they know how to drink. And that’s the first food or water they’ve had since they were born. Um, they’ve just been living on their resources from the egg, and then you raise them. We’re currently doing Cornish Cross, which is a very fast growing, very stupid bird that does not live very long. They’re a hybrid and they don’t live long in the wild. They’re not a heritage breed. So they grow up really quickly. They put on a lot of gorgeous meat and then I don’t feel as bad killing them. The very first time that we raised chickens, we raised a heritage breed and it broke my heart to kill them. They had so much personality and they were so engaging. In fact, we ended up saving two of them and they are now egg layers. We call them Lucky and Camilla.
JS: Okay. I have to ask what, what makes a chicken dumb and what makes the chicken have a good personality?
AA: Those heritage birds were super curious. They would come up and look at you and kind of like engage with you a little bit. They knew how to figure out which water to drink out of, because there are different kinds of waters. There’s like a trough water or a nipple water where they have to peck at it and they could figure that out. If you had the door on the tractor open, they were going to try and get out and escape and go live their happiest life in the wild. Now, these Cornish Cross they’re like bowling balls with little head that just pecks all day long. They will lay on the ground. In fact, with our last, our last batch – that’s what we call them: a batch of chickens – our last batch, it was a super hot summer match. And again, this was my pandemic panic buying. I bought chickens to raise and in Texas, in July and August, which was really dumb, but I know that now. So those birds, they just want to sit around. And my daughter accidentally left the tractor or open overnight once with that last batch. And when I went back in the morning, thank goodness, no predators have found them, but every single bird was still in that tractor. Every single one, just sitting there waiting to be fed. That’s the difference.
JS: Your kids were not raised on a farm. So is it tough for them to all of a sudden have these fantastic pets? Cause we did have chicks once through our homeschooling and it was a blast, but that’s what made my kids vegan. They got to know chickens and absolutely fell in love with them. Did your kids adjust to the notion that now we have a whole bunch of pets, but we’re also going to eat them?
AA: Well, I think we made it real clear that they weren’t pets from the get-go. We told them from the beginning what that those animals purpose was for us. We helped them understand the economics of how much money we would be saving if we could raise our own chicken meat. They knew we ate chicken and they understood that the chicken they were eating came from a bird. And I do not have any vegetarians in my family anymore. So it hasn’t affected them the way it affected your family. They get it. In fact, um, those broiler chickens, they are all named “Dinner,” and eventually we’ll get pigs and that’s going to be Bacon and Carnitas.
JS: What was harder to learn? Was it harder to learn about bees or chickens?
AA: Bees. I still have so much to learn about bees. Bees are amazing. Oh my goodness. When you’re inspecting those hives, you’d have to kind of have a deep understanding of what you’re looking at. I still I’m two years in, I don’t know what I’m looking at. I can pick out honey cells. I can pick out pollen cells. I can find the queen, on occasion. They’re just such a fascinating, super organism. Like, when they’re overcrowded and there’s no more room for them to build in their current hive, that’s when a swarm happens. The hive will produce a new queen. The vast majority of bees are female. The only bees that are not female are the drones and their sole purpose is to crossbreed with otherhives to promote genetic diversity in the beehive world. All these women have diverse tasks that they learn and grow through over this course of their life cycle. It’s fascinating. They might be cleanup bees. They might be guard bees. They might be foraging bees. They might be scout bees. They might be nurse bees. They might be the Queen’s attendance. And so it’s just this complex, fascinating society. And I feel like, most of the time, I feel like I’m just a trespasser. I feel like I really just want to trust the bees to know what they’re doing. At the same time there are so many environmental pressures right now that they do need support. They need to have a water source, a food source. And we’re lucky enough. I mean, we have five acres of wild flowers that are constantly changing. I know what season is in Texas by what is blooming in my yard. And so that’s, you know, that’s good for my bees, but there are lots of bees that are in a lot of trouble.
JS: Have you actually harvested honey?
AA: It’s recommended that you give bees a full year to establish their hives before you attempt to take any honey. So this year was the first year that we would have been able to get honey and the hive situation was such that they just didn’t produce any for us. They produced enough for them to get through the winter. So I’m going to leave that for them, but our honey super did not have any honey in it. Is that normal? I don’t know. I don’t know. That’s my answer all the time with the bees. I feel like I probably know more than most people, but I don’t feel like I know anything.
JS: Where did you learn all this?
AA: YouTube? And then I buy books and I read books. Julie. I don’t know if you know that about me, but I like to read.
JS: I do know this about you.
AA: “The Small Scale Poultry Flock” is my favorite. It’s stunningly detailed. He’s a one on the Enneagram. So he’s got this belief that – he says has these strong visions for the world, for a more perfect world. But his visions are all based around chickens and I just adore him for it. And the whole book has just so much rich detail and good information. And I still aspire to be as dedicated and careful a chicken keeper as he is.
JS: That’s your other great love, of course, that you just skated by: the Enneagram. What’s your favorite Enneagram book?
AA: Probably “The Wisdom of the Enneagram” by Riso and Hudson.
JS: What is the Enneagram, for our listeners who have maybe never heard of it?
AA: The Enneagram is a personality model that describes nine distinct personality types with a whole bunch of variations. There are numbers one through nine. The Ones are the perfectionists and they’re kind of the, they’re the people who lead with anger, righteous anger. At their healthiest, they’re a John Lewis, they’re a Mahatma Gandhi. They are someone holding up a candle to change the world. Idealists. And at their best, they are encouraging us all to take great action.
Twos are the helpers. They are full of love and they derive pleasure from helping other people.
Threes are the doers. They’re the high performers. They’re the ones who believe that what they do, their work is really important. Their ego pleasure is derived from their achievements
Fours are the tragic romantics. They, um, they are the individualists of the Enneagram. They tend to be very creative people. And they like finding beauty and meaning in the world.
Fives are the thinkers, the analysts. They are the observers. They are fonts of information and knowledge. Their ego pleasure comes from being the expert.
Sixes are the loyalists. They are great troubleshooters. They are the glue in any community and they have a fantastic talent for looking ahead and understanding what might threaten their security and the security of their group. And they’re really good at defending that. And they also just really hard workers.
Sevens are the dilettantes. Sevens are the Peter Pans that just don’t want to grow up. By that nature, they have that wonderful, exuberant energy of youth, and big ideas. They’re often the life of the party. They are very charismatic
Eights are the bosses. They are the challengers. They have big energy.
And the nines are the counselors, the mediators, the people who are more likely to see other people’s perspective than even their own perspective. They are the ones that can bridge gaps.
JS: Does the Enneagram influence a person’s reading life? Does a certain number tend to be the reader, or can any number be an avid reader?
AA: Any number can be an avid reader, but I think there are some numbers that are more likely to be avid reader.
JS: What is your reading life like?
AA: I read every day. I have for as long as I can remember. I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. I remember people, always my grandmother being just shocked at how quickly I would go through the books she sent me for my birthday. That’s all I ever wanted as a child was books. She, at one point, my grandmother, who was such a great encourager to me, she sent me the entire “Black Stallion” series, which I still have on my shelf. And I read it over and over and over again as a child. Nowadays, I have three children and I homeschool my children and I homestead. But I always read right before bed. I’ve had quite a bit of insomnia over the last 14 years. And so I typically would also get in there two or three hours of reading in between two and five in the morning. Which is ridiculous, but it’s what’s kept my reading up. I am someone who likes really big books. I like the big fat fantasies. I liked the door stoppers. I love long series. And once I find an author that I love, I will devour absolutely everything in that series, if not in their entire catalog.
JS: Can you tell me what you like so much about fantasy?
AA: I think as a child, I loved fairytales. My aunt gave me a two-volume collection of fairytales that were illustrated with these gorgeous oil paintings by really professional artists. And it felt like I was in this magical world where I wasn’t being pandered to with stupid illustrations. These stories were beautifully illustrated. And there were a whole bunch of stories in there that were not in your regular round table of story offerings. Right? So there were fairytales in those books that were my favorites, that I haven’t encountered anywhere else. I’m certain they exist in other places, but they just aren’t part of the standard set. And I think that love of fairytales grew into a love of fantasy. Like when I saw magical creatures on a cover at B. Dalton books at the mall, I was all over that. I love the idea of, I don’t know… When my father was alive, he used to talk about a more perfect world a lot. I lived in Germany for a year and he wrote me a letter every single day. And my favorite parts of those letters were the more perfect world part, where he would wax philosophic a little bit about what we might do to make our society and our world better. And I think that I see that in a fantasy world. I see that desire to make things better. And I like the idea of imagination giving us a portal for progress.
JS: Do you ever pick up a a domestic trauma or do you really tend to stick with these alternative worlds?
AA: I read a lot of mystery. Um, I read historical fiction. I read a lot of YA with my kids. I read nonfiction. That’s really the bulk of it. You know, I have a degree in English and I had enough depressing books in college to get me through the rest of my life. I really did. I love poetry. I absolutely adore poetry.
JS: Who are some poets you love?
AA: Tess Gallagher, Mary Oliver, Raymond Carver. I mean, I find poetry everywhere.
JS: How did you find this book that we’re talking today?
AA: I do not remember exactly. I would have read something else by Robin McKinley. I’m going to guess :The Blue Sword: is probably the one that got me into her. And then I started my, I will read everything this author has ever written. And this one is by far my favorite. I just, I love this one.
JS: How many times have you re-read this one?
AA: Probably five times.
JS: Will you describe the plot for our listeners?
AA: Okay. So this is an adult fairy tale. This is a story that takes a fairy tale and twists it a little. It’s the story of the daughter of the most beautiful woman in the seven kingdoms and her husband. It’s almost like it picks up where the happily ever after stops for most fairytales. And, and this is what happens to the daughter of the most beautiful woman in all of the seven kingdoms and her husband, who is a hero to the people, that description that I’ve just given to you, we learned is a very skin-deep description of these people. We start a story with a very lonely, very neglected princess whose mother is dying and the kingdom is shocked and the King loses his mind. And when she gets a little older and begins to look more like her mother and the King who is certifiable at this point, takes a look at her, having neglected and abandoned her for quite some time, and he sees his dead wife and decides that he’s going to marry his daughter. And it’s this, like it plunges you into this surreal, Oh my God, this can’t be happening kind of moment. And we might’ve had a few of those this year. Haven’t we Julie?
JS: We’ve had a few.
AA: She is terribly traumatized. I don’t know how graphic to get, but it’s not a pretty story. When her mother died, she was given the gift of a dog from a neighboring kingdom’s Prince. And that dog became her companion. And when she is fighting for her life after this trauma that she goes through with her father, it is the dog that helps her back to wanting to live. The story, I think, is a huge, visceral experience of trauma and healing. It is a story about what it is to be human. It’s a story about connection. It’s a story about perception – what is seen, what is shown and what is perceived. I find all of that really fascinating.
JS: It’s interesting because most fantasy just leaves me absolutely cold. And I was describing this book to a friend of mine who said, what are you reading? And I said, I’m reading this fantasy book, but it’s not really fantasy. Well, there are dragons, but they kind of live in the woods and you never really see them. And then I stopped myself and went, okay, it’s a fantasy. Like, why am I dodging that word fantasy? Even though there are dragons who live in the woods? I think it’s because it felt so realistic, which is a weird thing to say about a book with dragons.
AA: I have been thinking a lot about this because she becomes – at a point later in the book she has all kinds of dogs with her. She’s got a whole pack that they flow around her like water. They’re like an extension of her. And she is someone who is driven to help other people. She’s someone the town’s people see as Moon Woman. And she’s the one who finds lost children and connects people and things. She is the female archetype I want to see, not Wonder Woman. I love Wonder Woman, but I don’t need another woman in armor with a sword. I need the divine feminine. I need this kind of feminine power in the world. This power of connection, this power of finding and healing.
JS: I was really fascinated that it was, she was so connected to a dog. It always seems like the men get the dogs. Women always get cats and men always get dogs. I loved that. She had this pack of dogs spilling out around her all the time. That’s another thing I wouldn’t have predicted: liking that whole dog story so much. I actually stopped at one point and went, Oh, this is about an emotional support animal.
AA: She’s an amazing writer.
JS: We’re going to have to give a trigger warning, I guess, at the beginning of this, because I’m, I’m going to address this thing. But there is definitely – it’s not a graphic rape scene. I think if I did know that was coming, I might’ve skipped this and just said to you, we’ll meet and talk, but I’m not going to read it. You’re just going to tell me about it. I’m glad I read it anyway. I’m glad I went in not knowing that, although I would feel remiss if I didn’t warn people that that scene is there. It’s very much, usually a trigger point for me. But it was not in this book. And I think that’s down to the skill of the author who did not linger on the violence, but lingered a long time on the healing and the strength-building afterwards.
AA: This is a book that helped me to heal. As we know from the Me Too movement, there are a lot of women, more women than we want to admit, who had been raped. This book helped me heal. And I think you’re right. I think it is that it doesn’t linger in the act. You know that it’s ugly, but you’re not living it moment by moment with her, you are immediately in the aftermath. And then in the choices that she’s making, do I keep going after this? Do I, how do I deal with what has happened. And you see distinct phases and what she goes through: fleeing, hiding, finding a way to stay alive. To feed herself and reckon with what has happened by shoving it into a closet in her brain. It takes a long time. I think that’s the part of healing that is so disappointing. The trauma can happen in an instant and the healing can take decades. And I love that readers, we get to heal alongside this protagonist.
JS: Another thing that I really loved and recognized about the end was even though it does have what might even be considered a classic fairy tale ending, there is not a sense that everything’s gone. It never like, this never happened, and now we’re just happily ever after. There’s very much a sense of this is part of her forever.
JS: Not that it ruined her, but that it will never go away as part of the shaping of her character.
AA: Yes. I don’t know how much we want to give away. It’s a fairy tale. Everybody knows how it ends. So, the Prince, when he was a child, he tells Deerskin that he was in love with Moon Woman, the goddess, right? There’s this, this like layering of myth this book. That’s really fascinating to me because she could be the Genesis of the moon woman’s story. And yet there was a Woman in the story before her. I love that. As a child, he was in love with Moon Woman, but when the entire town and all the surrounding people see her as Moon Woman, he’s the only one who sees her as Deerskin, her the name that she goes by.
JS: I loved the very clear distinction between her and her mother as her mother was dying. All she could think about was, “Only marry someone as beautiful as me.” Her beauty was the only point. And then Deerskin, who has the exact beauty, becomes the Moon Woman, becomes this divine feminine myth. And her job then is the wellbeing of others. The wellbeing of the lost children, the wellbeing of these abandoned puppies, her own strength and wellbeing. I was afraid it was going to veer into that, where the Prince was going to start talking about she’s the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms. It’s not that it’s dropped, but her beauty is very much not the focus anymore.
. AA: No, not at all. I love that. I love the romance in this story because it’s not, “Oh, and they met and they kissed and fell in love and it was happy happily ever after.” There’s a real development of that relationship in this story. And I very much appreciate that. It kind of, um, it takes all the criticism of that we have of fairytales and kind of just smash it.
JS: What age would you let your kids read this?
AA: I’m weird. I let my kids read whatever they want, whatever they’re interested in.
JS: Would you give him a warning?
AA: I don’t think this book would come across to them the way it is to you or I, I don’t think they have the frame of reference. God. I hope they don’t have the frame of reference to make this book as powerful as it was to me. So I would say, look, it’s got this in it. And judge accordingly, how old you think your kids should be? Kids mature at different ages, right? I would maybe start my nine-year-old with something different from Robin’s catalog.
JS: What should I read next from her?
AA: I mean, you’ve already read my favorite. So she like vampire stories.
JS: I mean, I liked the original, I like Dracula. I think. I don’t know. I haven’t read it since college. Maybe I don’t like it anymore.
AA: I think “Sunshine” is probably one that’s closest to this, but in terms of sensibility, it’s a more adult book.
JS: Well, I am. Delighted to have read it. And I’m delighted that you chose it. Would you say this is a good introduction into the world of fantasy for people like me who have very little experience with the genre of fantasy? Is this a good starting point?
AA: I mean, to this day, I think the genre still has this perception of, you know, when you think of fantasy, you think of Lord of the Rings, you think of The Wheel of Time you think of, you know, all these big, epic stories. I mean, it’s like saying is this representative of America? Which is really diverse, right? So, Hmm. I wouldn’t say it’s representative. I love it when I find a strong female voice in fantasy. I’m not a black and white thinker so I can’t, I don’t know. I can’t say yes, this is, or no, this is okay.
JS: But if you like this book and you’re not familiar with fantasy, who are some other authors that you might recommend?
AA: If you like this giant character driven, the “Outlander” series is fantasy. If wizards, magic missiles and giant dragons flying through the sky is a little more than your suspension of disbelief can handle then, yeah, something like Outlander. Um, Oh, I know! “Crimson Bound” by Rosamunde Hodge. That was also really good because it was a fairytale I was not familiar with.
JS: Oh, that sounds good.
AA: I’m recognizing even as a child, my favorite fairytales were always the ones where the princess had some kind of agency.
JS: So Alyssa, tell me what you’re reading now.
AA: I’m reading the “Seer of Sevenwaters by Juliet Marillier. The first book in the series was recommended to me. It is an adult fairytale. It’s a retelling of the Seven Swans. And now I’m six books later in a there’s no more fairytale. This is just the ongoing story of this family. And it’s just. Lovely. I’m really enjoying it. It started with one fairytale, retold it, and then created an entire series out of the one story. The first book is the retelling. The second book starts with a story from the following generation, from the characters in the next generation. And then the third book I believe is the third generation. And now we’re dealing with siblings and other people’s stories.
JS: Oh my God. That’s the best idea. You knew what book I want to read is Belle and the Beasts’ kid, because that’s a story. “How’d you meet, Mom and Dad? Oh, Dad kidnapped me and imprisoned me inside a library. But you know, I super love him anyway because of the library.” That’s going to be a messed up kid. I want that story.
JS: Can you tell it was not fun telling me fairytales when I was a kid.
JS: All right. Well, why don’t you tell our listeners all the places they can find you online?
AA: I write cozy mysteries under the name Lucy Jackson. So those are Texas Hill country cozy mysteries. The first one is “Murder She Goat” by Lucy Jackson.
JS: With recipes!
AA: That’s right. You can find those on Amazon. And I have audio books there available.
JS: Alyssa. This has been so fun talking to you. Thank you so much for joining me today.
AA: Thank you so much for having me.
Thanks for listening. Bookworms! for more information on this episode and links to everything we discussed, please go to our website, Bestbookeverpodcast.com, or follow us on Instagram @bestbookeverpodcast. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and you can find me everywhere @juliewroteabook. If you enjoyed this podcast, please leave us a review on whatever podcatcher you use. Reviews really help our visibility to new listeners, and we’re so grateful for everyone.
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