The Berry Pickers

By Amanda Peters


Interview by Diane Slocum

Joe and Ruthie are the youngest children in a Mi’kmaq family in Nova Scotia. While the family is on their annual trip to Maine to harvest blueberries, four-year-old Ruthie disappears. The family is devastated, especially six-year-old Joe who was the last to see her and is affected by it his entire life. For decades, Joe and the family continue to hope to one day find Ruthie.

Norma grows up in Maine with strange dreams of a different life that are amorphous yet seem too real. Her affluent parents are emotionally distant, yet over-protective. As she matures, Norma realizes that there is something her parents have never told her. Sometimes hindered, sometimes helped by her beloved Aunt June, she struggles to unravel the mystery.


AUTHORLINK: What gave you the idea for this story? What was the first scene you imagined?

PETERS: My Dad and his family were Mi’kmaq berry pickers who travelled from Nova Scotia to Maine in the 1960s and 1970s. My Dad always thought I should write about them. I told him I wrote fiction and not non-fiction, but he was persistent. So, together in the summer of 2017 we took a father-daughter trip to Maine, and he showed me the fields and told me so many stories. That was the inspiration I needed. The first scene is the first chapter when Ruthie goes missing. The first line came to me when I was down there.

AUTHORLINK: What made it so difficult for you to continue the book after the first chapter? Did you always plan to alternate between Joe and Norma?

“I wasn’t entirely convinced it was going to be a novel.”

PETERS: I wasn’t entirely convinced it was going to be a novel. For the longest time, I tried to squeeze everything I wanted to say into a short story but my early readers kept telling me it was a novel, so I thought I would try. Initially I thought it was only going to be from Joe’s perspective, but Norma demanded to tell her story. I did write them separately: Joe’s chapters were written first and then Norma’s and I put them together like a puzzle. I wanted to make sure that their voices were distinct and their own.

AUTHORLINK: How did attending the Institute of American Indian Arts help you?

PETERS: I loved my time there, despite the fact that it was during the pandemic, and I only actually got to go to Santa Fe for the graduation residency, but my fiction cohort and our mentors were and still are remarkable. I feel that being there, where I didn’t have to explain myself as a mixed-race woman and writer was such a relief. I feel like I found my place and became a more comfortable version of myself.

AUTHORLINK: Did you want and expect people to realize almost right away that Norma is Ruthie?

“I wanted the reader to care for them and try to understand the impact one act can have…”

PETERS: Yes. I did have some pushback to make it more of a mystery. But I made the decision that I wanted the reader to know what happened but be invested in the characters’ journey. I wanted the reader to care for them and try to understand the impact one act can have on so many people for so long.

AUTHORLINK: How did your experience of getting an agent and selling your first book go?

PETERS: I feel I have been very lucky. When I started looking for an agent, I got a lot of “no thank yous” or no response. Marilyn, my agent, and I were kind of set up by a mutual friend. She signed me based on a few short stories and was extremely patient with me. She waited almost two years for The Berry Pickers. I wanted to make sure it was something I was proud of before I put it out into the world. Once she had it, she sent it out for consideration and a week or so later, we had an offer from HarperCollins Canada. I was so surprised and pleased.

AUTHORLINK: Besides enjoying the story, what do you hope people learn from your book?

…”there has been and continues to be an issue with missing and murdered Indigenous women…”

PETERS: How one action can have such incredible consequences.

That even amidst grief and struggles, there is also joy, hope and love.

That there has been and continues to be an issue with missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls that has largely been ignored. If people can think about that and consider the consequences of ignoring such a tragedy, and be compelled to at least think about it, then I would feel that the book has more purpose than just a story. Although, I also hope that people like the story, that people can relate.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

PETERS: I have a short fiction collection called “Waiting for the Long Night Moon” coming out in August 2024 in Canada and January 2025 in the US. I am also working on a new novel, but I like to keep that close. I have a fear that if I talk about it, the story might just go away. Silly, I know.

About the Author: Amanda Peters drew from her father’s Mi’kmaq heritage for her debut novel, The Berry Pickers, which was the 2023 Barnes and Noble Discover Prizewinner, the 2024 Andrew Carnegie Medal of Excellence in Fiction, and a 2023 finalist in the Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. She has been published in the Antigonish Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Dalhousie Review and more. Her work has also won the 2021 Indigenous Voices Award for Unpublished Prose. She participated in the 2021 Writers’ Trust Rising Stars program. She graduated from the Master of Fine Arts Program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico and has a Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto. She lives in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia.