Growing for a living in “Marijuana Valley,” new novel by Maine author Crash Barry

crashbarrybwIt is hard to make Crash Barry blush. The journalist, author and Maine gadfly has little qualms when it comes to writing about just about anything — be it the rough and tumble world of a sternman on a lobster boat in Matinicus, the excesses of life on the blueberry barrens of Washington County, or sex. Lots of graphic sex. Barry, who’s previous books include “Sex, Drugs and Blueberries” and “Tough Island: Stories from Matinicus Maine,” has a new novel out, though as he puts it, it’s really a work of creative non-fiction: “Marijuana Valley,” a tale culled from hundreds of hours of interviews with pot growers both legal and illegal in western and central Maine. It’s equal parts a portrait of the working man and woman, and a funny and freaky story of a very real subculture found all over the state. I caught up with Barry earlier this week, as he took it easy after a very busy weekend at the Homegrown Maine 2014 conference in Bangor, and celebrating April 20, the holiest of high holidays for potheads.

First the blueberry harvest and oxys. Then Matinicus and pot. Now medical marijuana in central/western Maine. Where does your fascination with drug culture in Maine come from? Why does this still hold such sway over your imagination?

Drugs? I don’t write about drugs. I write about work. My 23 years in Maine have been spent on media gigs, interspersed with many different types of hard labor. No matter the occupation, though, practically everyone used drugs. Some legal. Some illegal. So, as a writer, to witness the oxycontin abuse epidemic in Washington County or to experience the hard living lifestyle of the sternman on a lobster boat, was a weird sort of blessing. Thanks to my time in newspapers and radio or working on farms or in bars, or as a demolitionist or janitor, I’ve been presented with ample fodder linked to work and drugs. And sex. I like to write about sex too.

PrintPast novels have taken your real life experiences as inspiration, though in this case, you actually interviewed people. Where did you find these people? How close to the truth does this hew?

These people found me. I was invited to do a reading from my novel “Sex, Drugs and Blueberries” at what turned out to be sort of a New Year’s Eve party for western Maine pot growers. From there, introductions were made. “Marijuana Valley” is a true story. There are nine main characters in the book. I interviewed seven of them extensively. Hundreds of hours of discussions – on tape — and hundreds more hanging out and socializing. Every major character — except one — agrees the book is remarkably accurate and true-to-life. The lone dissenter’s perspective is understandable, though. In the book, he comes off looking like a jerk. And no one wants to be known as a jerk.

Your writing style is very casual, often gleefully profane. Who has influenced you over the years as a writer?

Oh my! Gleefully profane. Thanks for that. Charles Bukowski. John O’Hara. Carolyn Chute. Alice Munro. Raymond Carver. Zora Neale Hurston. T.C. Boyle. John Updike. Toni Morrison. Phillip Roth. And for her ability to capture Maine, Ruth Moore. Some people – because I write about drugs — think I’m influenced by Hunter S. Thompson. I admire the good doctor and his gonzo world, but don’t feel a literary connection to him. I’m also very influenced by my obsessive love of old time radio theater from the 1940s and 50s.

As someone who’s been very vocal about marijuana legalization in Maine, what are your predictions about future efforts to fully legalize it?

Eventually, marijuana will be legal. I’m concerned about out-of-state interests trying to take over the industry, though. We need to keep America out of Maine. For over forty years, we’ve had a robust underground cannabis economy, populated by Mainers, mostly renegades, rebels or old hippies, whose cash and profit are spent locally, having a giant trickle down effect in the western and central counties. If the corporatists get their hands on the pot industry, it’ll be a disaster. Soon, though, we’ll be seeing a citizens initiative intent on protecting Mainers and local growers.

The end of pot prohibition is near. Before that comes, however, we’ll witness more propaganda from supporters of the failed War on Drugs who are in danger of losing funding. The reality is that marijuana is a gift from Mother Nature and been used by humans for millennia without triggering the collapse of society. Last Saturday I was in Bangor for the third annual Homegrown Maine 2014, a medical marijuana trade show. Over 4,000 people attended. A huge increase over the first two years, which shows Mainers are hungry for honest information about cannabis.

Think you’ll ever write a novel that’s not about stoners and pillheads in Maine?

I’m just trying to follow the flow of what the universe presents me. I’m pretty booked for the next several years. This fall, a collection of my pre-Internet undercover journalism, mostly from my days at the Casco Bay Weekly, will be published. Next year, “Crazy Island Alpaca Farm,” detailing the six months I spent working with camelids, comes out. Followed by “Coastie: Confessions of a Drunken Coastie” based upon my current series of columns running in The Bollard.I’m also contemplating an erotic mystery set behind-the-scenes of a Portland bar.

What are you working on next? I hear tell about a movie.

With the help of an unruly cast and crew, I spent last summer turning “Sex, Drugs and Blueberries” into a full length indie film starring my pal Dave Gutter of Rustic Overtones and the up-and-coming Natalie Johnson. We’re still editing, so I’m not yet predicting a release date, but I imagine that within a year, we’ll be sharing the movie with Maine and beyond. I’ve been busy, so I’m taking a little break this summer. Planning to spend most of my time raising pigs and giving speeches and readings at libraries and music festivals. And swimming in the lake down the road. Lots of swimming.

Emily Burnham

About Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native, a UMaine graduate, a proud Bangorian and an arts and lifestyle writer for the Bangor Daily News, where she's worked since 2004. She reports on everything from local bands to local food, from media and the Internet to theater and dance. In her quest for stories, she's seen countless concerts and plays, been lobster fishing, interviewed celebrities, hung out with water buffalo and played in a ukulele orchestra, to name just a few. She's interested in everything -- especially if it happens in Maine. She welcomes any and all feedback or suggestions for stories.