Born in Kentucky and raised in Michigan, Iris Lee Underwood's connection with the Rochester area began three decades ago when she started a freelance writing career and a small lavender farm north of town. Recently, Underwood has released her first novel and is in the midst of writing her second book.
"I was born in a little region called Peter Creek, and then moved up here when I was four-and-a-half years old. I didn't like it at all," Underwood said. "We moved to a neighborhood in Detroit with Italian, Poles and Germans that didn't speak our language. It was interesting, but made for a lot of material. Later, we moved to the suburbs, and I wrote poetry. Bad poetry, and I sent it back to my cousins in Kentucky."
From poetry, Underwood learned to craft her writing, later attending Central Michigan University, where she met her husband. It wasn't until after starting her own family and being a stay-at-home mother that she decided to go back to school and finish her degree and began pursuing a freelance writing career. Her poetry also got better, winning her the 2010 Writer's Digest competition.
Among her inspirations was the book "Christy," by fellow Kentuckian Catherine Marshall.
"I loved the story of Christy," she said. "It gave me the idea that maybe someday I could write about my family," she said. "I raised my girls and went back to school. I got some encouraging words from the editor at the Oxford Leader – they gave me my first break."
Underwood went on to freelance for other papers, including the Tri-City Times, Romeo Observer, The Detroit News, Grand Rapids Press, Oakland Press, Appalachian News Express, Metro Parent and others. She was a writer-in-residence for Troy Public Library and is a past president of the Detroit Working Writers.
In 1996, Underwood lost her first-born daughter to the drug culture. The loss later derailed her writing career and sent Underwood on a journey of healing that led to her launching the Yule Love It Lavender Farm.
"I put my writing life on hold for 10 years. But I began a personal journal when she went to school, and that helped validate my life as a human and a mother, and my purpose in this world," she said. "I knew I had a purpose to raise my children, then she died as I was entering my writing life."
A visit to Seven Ponds Nature Center in Dryden led Underwood to lavender. As she learned about the plant's healing properties, she started her own lavender farm in 2005, on her 2.5-acre property. There, she produced more than a dozen different lavenders and lavender-related products. In 2013, she was awarded the Keep Michigan Beautiful Award for her work.
In 2015, she resumed writing and began a weekly column for the Tri-City Times. She also resumed a non-published fictional work that resulted in her first novel, "The Mantle." She is now working on a memoir cookbook that draws upon her southern roots and personal experiences.
The completed book tells the story of hardship and healing, faith and grace through the Mahari people and Prince Robin's journey to save them from destruction. The story stems from a fictional writing assignment years prior.
"I had never written fiction, and when I got permission to enter my mind and imagination, the character went crazy," she said. "I wrote seven pages and couldn't stop."
Photo: Laurie Tennent