(This interview was first published in GrowWrite! Magazine, in their February/March 2012 issue.)
Is there anyone out there who is not in awe of Amy Stewart? In twelve years she’s went from fledgling memoirist to New York Times Bestselling author—of her last four books (The Drunken Botanist, Wicked Bugs, Wicked Plants, and Flower Confidential). She’s won numerous awards, she’s a highly sought-after public speaker, she’s a co-founder of the wildly popular group blog on gardening, “Garden Rant,” and the co-owner of a to-die-for antiquarian bookstore in Eureka, California. (And, dear readers, this is the short list. )
All of this is impressive enough, but what endears Stewart to us is that she is unpretentious and, even better, she knows how to have fun. Her lectures incorporate humor (lots of it); Stewart-watchers have had a blast laughing through her faux-newsy video for Wicked Bugs and her horticultural homicide trailer for Wicked Plants; and we’ve felt like a special guest, just hanging out with the girls, at the occasional delicious Garden Chat Cocktail Hour video. One video features Stewart, in her garden, drinking raspberry-infused vodka out of a Mason jar, joined by her chicken, Bess—who, in a later post is captured snatching a bit of peach out of a bourbon/peach cocktail).
What’s not to love?
I considered it not only an honor to be able to ask her questions about garden writing, but a selfish pleasure. I learned a ton, and you will, too.
Knauf: When did you start writing? Was your first writing project your first book—From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden?
I always wanted to be a writer—I was one of those kids who wanted to be a writer when she was five. But yeah, apart from the kind of writing that all aspiring writers do when they are young, FTGU was my first book. I’d been writing a garden column by the same name for a local paper, but the goal was always to write a book. I was very inspired by a food column I used to read in the Austin Chronicle (when I was a student at UT in the late 80s/ early 90s) by Petaluma Pete, the nom de plume of rock critic Ed Ward. He was writing about food, but from the point of view of a fictional character who had this complicated personal life. So it was about food but it was also this sort of interesting running soap opera. I thought, “You can do that? You can write like that?” I always wanted to tell stories, and that’s what he was doing.
Knauf: You created your first garden after you finished grad school and moved to California from Texas (I’m calculating that this was in your twenties?) Did you come from a gardening background? Is your family from Texas? Please tell me a little about your gardening background.
Yeah, early 20s—I was 22 when I finished grad school. I’m from Texas and I’m a fifth-generation Texan on my father’s side. I have no family gardening background. I grew up in the suburbs, and people did go out in the miserable heat and do something called yardwork, but I never wanted to.
Knauf: Who are your favorite garden writing authors? Your favorite writers?
I was very inspired by Carl Klaus, a writer who founded the nonfiction program at the University of Iowa. His My Vegetable Love and Weathering Winter are two beautiful meditations on gardening. And of course I love Katharine White, and I love her husband (E.B. White, best known as the author of Charlotte’s Web) even more. He actually wrote quite a bit about small-scale farming. And I am not just saying this because she’s my friend, but I truly think that Michele Owens is an absolutely brilliant writer and that Grow the Good Life belongs on everyone’s shelf. As for other writers—I’ve never known how to answer that question. It’s like asking somebody what their favorite food is. Well, what are you in the mood for? Having said that, a partial list of authors I adore would include: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, E.B. White, Joan Didion (especially the early stuff), Geoff Dyer, David Foster Wallace. I adore Nick Hornby, I love PD James and pretty much any female British detective novelist. . . oh, and every week I try to keep up with the New Yorker, New York Magazine, The Atlantic, Harper’s . . .
Knauf: I have to put in here that Grow the Good Life was my favorite gardening book last year. Your latest book, The Drunken Botanist, is scheduled to be published next spring. [Editor’s note – it came out in March 2013 and became a NY Times Bestseller this year.] What are your ideas for your next book? (Hopefully this question won’t cause a groan of exhaustion!)
Stewart: You mean after Drunken Botanist? Not saying! I’m going to be a writer-in-residence at Portland State this spring, teaching a nonfiction writing workshop in their MFA program, so I get the luxury of a couple of months in Portland to lounge around and explore my next topic at my leisure. At least, that’s how I’m imagining it will go. I hear they just started allowing liquor sales at food trucks in Portland, so maybe I’ll just see how much good food and drink I can consume in a ten-week period. That could be fun, too.
Knauf: To what do you attribute your success (aside from writing great books)? I know a lot of your time is spent in traveling and promoting your work through speaking tours and other events. How big a part do you think that work plays in sales?
Stewart: Well—I guess I would just say that I do this full time. I don’t do anything else. I don’t have kids, my husband also works all the time so he’s pretty self-sufficient, I don’t have any other kind of job—I just literally work on writing and selling books all day, every day, seven days a week. I don’t take days off. I spend the evening in front of my iPad or my laptop, doing work-ish stuff. (Fortunately, my husband does the same. This is our way of at least being in the same room together!) I barely garden—you would not believe what a terrible garden I have—and I take a little time out to paint, but not enough. Today, for instance, I woke up thinking that I would paint for sure, and it’s 4:00 and I haven’t gotten up from my computer yet.
The other thing is that I aim for a non-gardening audience. I mean, I write about plants and bugs and the natural world, so I know gardeners are going to read that. But with a book like Flower Confidential, I want people who never thought they might be interested in flowers, or the flower industry, to read it and go, “Wow, that was fascinating. Who knew?” So really, I’m just trying to tell stories that would be broadly interesting to anyone.
But really, whatever success I’ve had I owe to Algonquin. They work so hard on every book they publish, and they only publish one or two books per month, so each book gets a lot of attention. They really know how to engage the national media, and they are willing to invest in book tours and big promotional campaigns. That strategy is definitely paying off for them—Water for Elephants, for instance, is a major bestseller thanks to their efforts. They’ve published every one of my books and I adore them.
Knauf: Algonquin sounds like a dream-publisher—how lucky you are! I have to disagree with your “terrible garden” statement, though. I’ve seen it in your Garden Rant videos—it looks like a real garden, a “garden with soul,” as you described your first garden in FTGU. Lush, diverse, and with adorable, friendly chickens in residence! When did you decide to raise chickens, and why?
Stewart: My husband and I moved to Eureka in 2001, right when FTGU came out, and—I don’t know. I guess we just thought it would be fun to have chickens. We bought an old house, we had a decent-sized yard, we were both working from home—seemed like a good idea at the time!
Knauf: What advice would you give to authors who are about to publish a book to maximize sales/promotion?
Well, I think most people know what they should do, it’s just a question of whether they can, or want to. Sometimes I’ll have an idea for an event I could do with another author, and I’ll call them up and say, “Hey! Let’s go on the road together! We could do this cool thing!” and they say, “Um, you know I have a job, right? I can’t just go on the road with you.” So some things are just not possible.
Here’s a hint: Make sure your book (as in, a clickable image of the book, maybe with the title underneath) is right up top on your website/blog/internet presence. Just last week I was talking to my editor at Algonquin about a couple of authors and she Googled them as we were talking. She said, “Seriously? This is supposed to be a blog about the book? Where exactly is the book?” She never could find it.
Your website/blog should be so professional that a producer for Good Morning America could look at it and know that you’re organized and professional and worthy of their time. It should look slick and cool. This does not have to cost a lot—I did a pretty simple WordPress site for Drunken Botanist and spent less than $500 on design, using people I found on eLance. I’ll redesign it a bit when the book is done and I know what the cover looks like, but at least I’ve got something that looks presentable.
And please do go to independent bookstores and try to do wonderful events and help them make sure lots of people show up. No matter what city it’s in, take it upon yourself to invite area garden clubs, master gardener groups, native plant societies, tell your friends, ask them to please bring their friends, whatever. And encourage everyone to buy their books there, not online or from the trunk of your car. I own a bookstore, and I can tell you that your local, independent bookseller can stand behind a counter and hand-sell your book all day long if you give them a reason to. Especially if your book is regionally-focused—you need to go make friends with the booksellers in that region! Bring them cookies! Be easy to love! Send thank-you notes! I hear garden authors say “Oh, it’s not worth it to go do bookstore events, because I only sold like five books and that’s not worth my time.” Well, the question is not how many books they’ll sell that day. It’s how many they will sell that year, and next year, and the year after. It’s about your whole career. Same goes for independent garden centers and botanical garden gift shops, by the way.
Oh, and I would say: Don’t make a video if you don’t have a really cool, preferably funny idea and you know you can pull it off. Will people who don’t know you, and don’t care about gardening, watch it and forward it to their friends? That’s the question.
Or, if you are going to do something that’s just a narrated slide show and your voice saying, “Hi, I’m so-and-so and I’m the author of. . .” then just really think about why you’re doing it. That sort of video can be useful for interviewers who don’t have time to read your book, or maybe even didn’t get it in time, for your radio/TV/newspaper interview. So do you expect to do interviews like that, and do you hit a lot of good points that will give them interview questions? And are you or your publicist sharing it with media people when the interviews get set up, so they’ll know to watch it? And if it’s for potential readers, how will they find it? Last time I checked, Amazon charged $1,000 to post a video with a book listing (I honestly am not sure if that’s still current information), so is your publisher going to pay for that? Will the video even be distributed where people can see it?
I’m just not sure if a video is always worth the time and money, that’s all.
Another tip for authors with a book coming out: Reach out to your publicist shortly after your book is turned in and “accepted.” Most publishers hold a sales conference in spring and another in fall where they pitch the next season’s books to their sales reps. For some reason, authors are generally not told about sales conference. I don’t know why, because I think they could help. Try to find out when your book will be at sales conference and ask if you can help supply anything to them—a short (usually two minute or less) video clip, or a sheet of “fun facts” about the book.
And about those fun facts—your publicist may or may not even read your book, and they really might not understand what’s so unique about your book. Contact your publicist and ask if they would like you to write up a Q&A (you ask the questions and answer them), as well as a page of interesting facts/talking points. In my case, I wrote a list of interesting facts, sent it to them for corrections, proofreading, and final approval, then sent it to my web designer and had them make a nice design for it. I’ve done this for every book except my first one.
You can see an example here: http://www.amystewart.com/docs/WickedBugsFactSheet.pdf. My publisher was really impressed with the design and ended up covering the design costs. Otherwise, it probably would have gone out as a Word document on their letterhead with some bullet points.
Also, let your publicist know how available you are to tour (and remember, you don’t get paid to go on book tour), ask them for feedback on your website, and ask them what else you can do to help promote the book. Some of this communication happens through the Author Questionnaire they send you, but it doesn’t hurt to reach out in addition to that.
You can also offer to help write catalog copy, press releases, etc. You may have more clever catchphrases, and you might have a better sense of what interesting quotes should be pulled from the book.
I mean, don’t be obnoxious about this stuff, but offer to help, and if they say yes, get them what they need quickly, make sure it’s proofread and professional, and try to do it without sending them a hundred emails in between. Also, make it clear that you won’t be offended if they don’t use what they send—you’re just offering them options.
Knauf: Fabulous information; Amy, aspiring writers everywhere will thank you for those tips! You are very active in social media and are a co-founder of the popular gardening blog, “Garden Rant.” I have to know how “Garden Rant” came about? Who had the original idea?
We were all kind of doing the same thing on our own blogs, which is that we were not talking about what we did in our gardens that weekend. We were taking about politics, culture—anything and everything that might be vaguely related to plants. And we had the kind of off-the-cuff opinions that garden magazines didn’t want to print. We were writing all the kinds of things we couldn’t get published anywhere else. So we knew each other, we were reading each other’s stuff, and we just decided that if we joined forces, we could get more readers. It’s nice to have partners so we don’t each feel obligated to post every day. I really recommend a group blog. There are lots of them now, of course, but I’d like to see more—if you write about container gardening, or edibles, or whatever, why not contact the other authors who do that and create one mega-blog and build a big audience?
Knauf: What is your favorite book out of the six you’ve worked on so far—and why?
Stewart: Oh, the latest one is always my favorite, so Drunken Botanist will be my favorite until I start the next one.
Stewart is the author of From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden, The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms, and the New York Times bestsellers Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers; Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities; Wicked Bugs: The Louse that Conquered Napoleon’s Army and other Diabolical Insects; and, her latest, The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks.
You can read Greenwoman Magazine‘s review of The Drunken Botanist on our website. (Scroll down to the fourth book.)