Tag Archives: Amy Stewart

Spring Dreaming With Amanda Thomsen

Illustration by Laura Chilson

Illustration by Laura Chilson

I was surprised a few days ago to learn that not one, but two, friends were starting tomato seeds. Could it be possible? Yes, indeed, it’s that time again. Time for gardens to begin sprouting in our winter consciousnessif not on our kitchen windowsills. These days, I’m fighting that impulse as I’m buried (almost literally, you should see my office) in paperwork. But it matters not. The seed beckon. Soon I’ll be happy to jump in, too. I’ll buy some more seeds, as a girl can never have too many seeds, and I have had my eye on a very nifty soil block maker.

Today, though, I thought I’d share an interview I did last summer with Amanda Thomsen, author of one of the best books out there for brand new gardeners (I’ll tell you about it in a moment and Dan Murphy shares his review at the end of the post). These days Amanda is busier than ever with work, her daughter Hazel (one of the most entertaining and adorable toddlers in the land), and, of course, a multitude of other projects. In fact, she just told me this morning that her garden was to be a part of the soon-to-be-published book by Niki Jabbour, Groundbreaking Food Gardens: 73 Plans That Will Change the Way You Grow Your Garden. The book looks great and Amanda is one of the 73 “superstar gardeners” featured. (Amy Stewart, Barbara Pleasant, Dave Dewitt, and Jessi Bloom are also included.) You can check it out here, and pre-order!

Now to the interview! Originally Published in Greenwoman Magazine Issue #5 this summer.

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Gardeners in the know, know Amanda Thomsen.

She’s the lady with the cool blog, Kiss My Aster!, who also blogged for Horticulture, who now blogs and writes articles for Fine Gardening. and who has published her very first book on gardening named, you guessed it, Kiss My Aster, (subtitled: A Graphic Guide to Creating a Fantastic Yard Totally Tailored to You). Her Facebook page has thousands of “likes,” and she’s the one behind those sexy-fun Ryan Gosling gardening memes (one of my recent favorites: “Hey girl, I think we should start composting with worms . . . but only if you’re into it . . .”)

Thomsen is retro-chic-zany-slightly naughty-witty-brainy. Think Lucille Ball meets Dorothy Parker.

Amanda-Thomsen

With her star on the rise, it’s not a surprise to learn she just left a large Chicago landscape architecture firm. She attributes that to possible “mid-life crisis,” but I’m thinking garden celebrity/writing career trajectory. This summer she’s in much-needed chill-out mode, hanging out in the home garden with beautiful just-turned-two cherub Hazel and her dapper and supportive husband Dan, figuring out what’s next. She says she’ll definitely be writing and entertaining and she may start a business.  As she puts it, “I just need some time to decompress from the last few years of crazy. . . But I might take on a few small gigs.”

Greenwoman: My first question is how in the heck have you been able to balance all of thiswriting, gardening, toddler, marriage?!?

AT: This balancing act has been tough. I literally got the okay on the book the same day I peed on a stick and found out that I was going to have a Hazelnut. From there it’s been a race. At the job I just left, the hours were incredibly long and unpredictable. Seventy hours a week was not uncommon. And then it just never left my mind; it was just landscaping, but it was one of those always “on call” situations. 2013 has been pretty intense with speaking gigs, interviews, and whatever else that has come my wayDan has been great at taking care of Hazel while I’ve been distracted, and it’s brought them close together. Hazel goes to daycare and that’s hard. But I went to daycare and look at me now. HA. I know that glorifying busy isn’t a great thing, but being busy is my default setting. It actually brings me tremendous peace to always be moving forward.

Greenwoman: Let’s backtrack. Who or what inspired you to become a gardener?  A writer?

 AT: When I was little I wanted to do three things when I grew up, 1. Be a writer, 2. recycle and 3. wear red lipstick. Happily, I have achieved these three goals. Although I always wanted to be a writer, I did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to make that happen, growing up. No one pointed me in the right direction. I’ve taken a few writing classes but overall, nothing that was memorable. I have always been super creative and have just looked for ways to demonstrate that!

My parents were the prototypes for yuppies. For some reason, and I think it was my Dad’s Indiana upbringing, they were SUPER into Crockett’s Victory Garden on PBS and did, literally, everything he did. We have a 30’ x 50’ Victory garden each summer and I just grew up in it. They had a greenhouse added to the house, canned up everything from applesauce to giardiniera. It was a delicious way to grow up and I didn’t realize that EVERYBODY didn’t have that until I was, like, 20. Maybe older. I didn’t realize there were jobs in gardening and horticulture.

Greenwoman: I love your style (and I’m not just talkin’ about the plants). Who are your style icons? Not only in gardening, but fashion, writing, film, whatever comes to mind.

A.T. : I’m obsessed with Betsey Johnson, Elsa Schiaparelli, old movies (preferably with Edith Head as the costumer), John Waters, David Lynch, Francesca Lia Block, Hello Kitty, Amy Sedaris, Pearl Fryar, 90s Riot Grrrls  and Frida Kahlo.

Greenwoman: You have this funny, sassy, sexy, free-spirited, curse-word-strewn, delightfully naughty blog for a few years (also titled “Kiss My Aster!”), and you’re a landscaper, and suddenly you’re blogging for Horticulture magazine’s website (which lasted for several years) and now you blog for Fine Gardening (and write articles). I don’t want to disrespect these fine publications, but, well, they can be at times just a bit, shall we say, dry. How did you get together with them?

A.T.: Horticulture asked me to join this contest they were having for a blogger. I did and I won. It was hard on me to blog exclusively for them and not on my personal blog at all, not even about personal stuff (I was pregnant and had shit to SAY) but that was the deal. Fine Gardening has been a great, laid back home for my more horty things to say. I leave the eff-bombs at the door and get my freak on over there and I’ve loved it. AND they’ve given me a chance to write articles, which is seriously one of my happiest achievements in life. Like, “Hi. I’m not all fluff and Ryan Gosling. I can talk to you about biennials like a badass.”

All these magazines KNOW that if they are going to survive, they have to get new, younger readers and I’m happy as a salami at a mustard party to help do that for them.

Greenwoman: I got to read your book, Kiss My Aster: A Graphic Guide to Creating a Fantastic Yard Totally Tailored to You, before I sent it to Dan Murphy, who reviews it in this issue. I found it charming, witty, and a great primer for the beginner gardener who wants to dive in to creating their own landscape but who needs a helping hand. How did the idea for a book come about?

A.T.: I was dreaming about how to make books more interactive when I thought of the idea. Originally it was going to be SO comprehensive that I thought I’d need help writing it. You know, a backyard bible of sorts. Then I got this wack-a-doo idea of having this hipster gardening book that was illustrated with, you know those terrible IKEA instructions with no words and very vague symbolism? I wanted to do it like that. Carleen Madigan at Storey literally found me in a dumpster and asked me if I had ideas for books, we met up in Boston while I was there speaking and I just LOVED her.  She was totally the midwife of this book (to which she would reply that that is disgusting).  I literally wrote the whole book for her and if I could make her laugh then I was golden. I wrote the whole book and then they found the illustrators, which completely adds everything. The illustrations are WAY better than the writing!

Greenwoman: What was the most fun part of writing your first book?

A.T.: Hands down, the funniest part was the timing. I had a year to write the book and 10 months to make and give birth to a baby. Simultaneously. I can say, with confidence, that even those closest to me didn’t think I could do it.  TAKE THAT, HATERS!

Greenwoman: What was the least fun?

A.T.: For the most part, the book was a breeeeeeeeeeeze to write. I just talked out loud to myself about what I’d say to someone asking the questions and wrote it down. People ask, “Oh, isn’t it hard to write a book?” Ah, not this one.

But when it came to researching the height and widths of trees and shrubs for the whole country and not just my area? I remember having to dye my hair pink to just have a diversion. It was tedious stuff, and I hate tedious!

 Greenwoman: Another thing I am highly impressed with is your treasure trove of kitschy-fab garden imagery (See Kiss My Aster’s Facebook photo hoard). You have well over a thousand highly share-able, comment-able visuals from zombie gnomes (also gnome tattoos and murdered gnomes) to vintage garden cheesecake images, and everything in-between. Could you talk a little about your love of imagery and vintage?

A. T. : I remember the year we got cable TV; I was going into 7th grade. My sister and I were OBSESSED with TCM and watched old movies (with an emphasis on Esther Williams!) all summer instead of playing outside.  That was the start of a lot of my hoarding, both images and stuff. I love glamour, I love fun. I love to keep it light. My house is an amazing shrine to me, filled with beautiful vintage tschotske next to a Darth Vader helmet, next to an inflatable Hello Kitty. Plus, I wear vintage just about every day.

Greenwoman: I’m wondering if there’s a serious gardener out there who has not seen one of your Ryan Gosling “Hey, Girl” gardening memes. I know I’ve shared a few! How did that get started?

AT: Oh man! I was at work, driving down Old Elm in Lake Forest, Illinois and the idea just hit me. I pulled over and took notes in my phone. When I got home, I begged Dan to watch Hazel while I made the first crop of them. I posted them and then immediately went on a totally extravagant, totally unlike me and unaffordable, girls’ weekend with my bestie in New Orleans. My phone was going bazoinkers the whole time I was there! It was very cool.

I clearly did not drink enough while I was there if I remember all that. A certain unnamed bestie DID drink enough to not remember it, though.

Greenwoman: Finally, what’s germinating for you now? Do you have another book in the works?

I’m in love with a new book idea that’s in my head right now, I hope they’ll let me do it. It’s the kind of book I’d shit myself over if I saw it for sale and that’s what I aim for! Mainly, I’m taking 2013 to trick out some rad new gardens at my new house.

 Greenwoman: I’d love to pry for details on the book idea but I won’t—I’ll eagerly await the surprise instead! Thanks so much, Amanda, for having a chat with us today!  

* * *

Now, here’s Dan Murphy’s review:

Kiss My Aster

by Amanda Thomsen

Storey Publishing, LLC (December 2012)

The title alone should clue you in pretty quickly that this is not your typical book about gardening and landscaping. Indeed, Amanda Thomsen’s Kiss My Aster: A Graphic Guide to Creating a Fantastic Yard Totally Tailored by You is a novel approach to landscaping 101. Most of the information is not necessarily new, but the presentation is quite unique, making it appealing for those that are looking for a book about gardening that is different, fun, and also informative.

Kiss My Aster is a graphic novel as well as a choose-your-own-adventure book. Each page features illustrations by Am I Collective that accompany her writing, and at the end of each section, the reader is presented with the option to skip ahead or back in the book depending on what they would like to learn. A common option is to skip to the section entitled, “Hire a Guy,” for any readers who may be feeling overwhelmed at any point in the process.

The scope of this book is broad, briefly covering all aspects of designing, constructing, and maintaining a landscape. The titles of each section are as amusing as the title of the book, including “Not Your Stepping Stone” which is about creating a stone pathway in your garden, “Drip It Good” concerning drip irrigation, “To B&B or Not to B&B” discussing the various ways that trees can be purchased, and “Soil, Yourself” which explains the inorganic components of soil. Games like bingo, word find, and mad libs appear throughout the book in order to keep the wandering minds of readers entertained.

While the artwork is fun and the information is useful, the humor can be a bit distracting and over the top at times. Still, this book is meant to be useful while simultaneously entertaining, and it accomplishes both well. After all, where else are you going to find illustrations of pink unicorns and tips for warding off vampires while also learning about how to keep your lawn green without the use of synthetic chemicals?

Dan Murphy

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Okay, I couldn’t help myself. Ending on a (at least to me!) highly inspiring note. One of my favorite Kiss My Aster-Ryan Gosling memes:

If this doesn't get you excited about spring planting, I don't know what will!

(Now, if this doesn’t get you excited about spring planting, I don’t know what will!)

Sandra Knauf

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Filed under DIY, Garden Writers We Love, Gardening is Sexy

Amy Stewart’s Writing Secrets

Best Selling Author (and gardener and chicken raiser) Amy Stewart. Photo by Delightful Eye.

Best Selling Author (and gardener and chicken raiser) Amy Stewart.                              Photo by Delightful Eye.

(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.)

—Sandra Knauf

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