This spring we've made it our mission (even more than usual) to celebrate new releases in the wake of cancelled launch parties, book festivals, and reading series. With 49th Shelf Launchpad, we're holding virtual launch parties here on our platform complete with witty banter, great insight, and short and snappy readings to give you a taste of the books on offer. You can request these books from your local library, get them as e-books or audio books, order them from your local indie bookseller if they're delivering, buy them direct from the publisher or from online retailers.
Today we're launching Alexis Kienlen's debut novel Mad Cow, the perfect literary fiction debut for a published poet who spends her days working as an agricultural journalist.
The Elevator Pitch. Tell us about your book in a sentence.
Mad Cow is a novel about how bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease, devastates and nearly destroys a beef ranching family living in rural Alberta in the early 2000s.
Describe your ideal reader.
People who want to learn more about the BSE crisis, people who care about life in rural communities, people who want to appreciate the prairies and stories of women, and people who enjoy tragic books with a bit of comedy.
What authors/books is your work in conversation with?
I was heavily influenced by the work of Sharon Butala because of how she writes about rural women. Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By was also influential. There are direct references to the TV show Friday Night Lights in the book (mostly as Easter eggs), so I would say that had an impact as well. My book is set in rural Alberta, but there are lots of pop culture references. I did that on purpose. I have never read a book about rural people with a lot of pop culture in it.
What is something interesting you learned about your book/yourself/your subject during the process of creating and publishing your book?
Well, I learned a lot about BSE, rural Alberta and farm life. Writing a novel is really hard, but it can be so rewarding. I had a hard time finding books to compare to Mad Cow. I’ve also learned that the books that I want to write are usually about subjects that no one has tackled before. (I’m low-key researching a second novel). One day, the idea for Mad Cow came into my head, and I knew I had to write it, partly because no one else had.
I found the journey to publication for Mad Cow to be challenging and painful, and I wasn’t expecting that, especially since I had published 2 books of poetry.
What can you tell us about the depiction of prairie life in the novel, and also the amount of research that you did to write the novel?
My dad was the first person to read the novel in its published form, and he didn’t read any earlier drafts. He commented that I had put in a lot of words and phrases that are common on the prairies. People wear bunny hugs, talk about the Roughriders and the Esks, drink rye and coke, go to bush parties and say, “Get ‘er done” and “Cowboy up.”
I guess I’d also like people to ask me questions about BSE, and how much research went into the novel, because I did a lot of research, and actually used stories ranchers had told me.
An important part of any book launch are the thank you’s. Go ahead, and acknowledge someone whose support has been integral to this project.
I could not have written this book without Canadian ranchers. I work as an agricultural reporter for Alberta Farmer Newspaper, and it was my encounters with Canadian ranchers and their conversations about BSE that led me to write this book. While writing it, I asked people for stories, and I asked questions on Twitter, and read farm papers. I conducted some one on one interviews with ranchers. I dedicated the book to ranchers. I might have screwed up a few things or made some mistakes in my storytelling, and I’m scared of disappointing ranchers. I really feel strongly about ranchers and what they went through with BSE. Few people know the story.
What are you reading right now or next?
I recently read Bernadette Wagner’s book The Dry Valley, which is a beautiful collection of prairie poems. Bernadette is a Regina writer, and she and I met at Sage Hill in 2014. I was working on Mad Cow and she was working on The Dry Valley.
Told from two points of view—a mother and her daughter—Mad Cow examines farming life in small-town Alberta, a life fourteen-year-old Allyson wants only to escape. Meanwhile her mother, Donna, dealing with her own assortment of problems and setbacks, soldiers on through the daunting days. But when a strange affliction starts picking off the local cattle, everything changes, and when tragedy strikes the extended family, life as they know it is seemingly over forever. Now Donna and Allyson must work together to keep the family and the farm intact, all while dealing with overwhelming grief and the fact their once thriving livelihood is failing.
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