by Amy Stewart, September 10, 2015 11:00 AM
Amy Stewart is the author of the novel Girl Waits with Gun and six other books, including The Drunken Botanist and Wicked Plants. Some of her earliest research for the novel happened right here in Portland, and Tin House editor Masie Cochran was there to witness it all. We've brought them back together to reminisce about those early days. Stewart will be at Powell's City of Books on September 22 to talk about her novel.
Amy: Let's start with how we met. Portland State University invited me to teach in their MFA program as a writer in residence, in partnership with Tin House. That meant that I was lucky enough to get to spend almost three months living in the little apartment between your magazine office and book publishing office. It was like being in a little Tin House sandwich! I loved it.
One night, you and I were having dinner with Janet Parker, who was Tin House's art director at the time. Somebody asked me what I was working on. Usually I don't like to say anything about a book idea until I've committed to it, but that night I told everybody around the table about my research into the Kopp sisters. Your reaction that night was absolutely inspirational. It was the first hint I had that other people might love the Kopps as much as I did.
Masie: I'd met you a few weeks before at a block-party-progressive you hosted, with a different drink at each of the three Tin Houses. But that night at Janet's was the first time I'd heard of the Kopp sisters. I couldn't believe their story. There was so much there already and I'm not ...
by Amy Stewart, March 21, 2013 2:00 PM
1.5 oz. House Spirits Aviation gin
.5 oz. Clear Creek Distillery loganberry liqueur
.5 oz. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
.5 oz. simple syrup
1-2 oz. IPA (your choice — I'm not going to tell a Portlander what beer to drink)
Shake the first four ingredients over ice and strain into a short tumbler filled with ice. Top with IPA to taste, and give it a good stir.
This cocktail, like Powell's, is seriously committed to Portland and offers something for everyone. I happen to think it's a lovely drink, light and fizzy, the perfect balance of tart, sweet, and bitter. But when I make it for friends, everybody wants to tinker with the ingredients, adding a little more fruit liqueur, dialing back the lemon juice, or adjusting the ratio of gin to beer.
So go ahead — customize it. Just as a certain enormous bookstore on Burnside caters to everyone's unique needs, this drink does, too. If you can't stand the thought of even an ounce or two of beer in your cocktail, use soda water instead. And if you're one of those beer aficionados who is offended by the mere suggestion of polluting beer with other ingredients, then just leave the rest out and drink the beer. See how easy that
by Amy Stewart, February 16, 2007 11:20 AM
One advantage to being on a book tour is that I feel no need to work. Just getting from hotel to radio station to bookstore is work enough. So I don't bring any of those, you know, factual books with me on the road. I forget all about research and the serious nonfiction tomes piled on my nightstand that I've got to read as background for my next project. Instead, I pack everything I haven't had time to read in the last few months, and those hours on the airplane become a real luxury. No e-mail, no cell phone, nothing to do but read.
First, I round up a stack of New Yorkers. The damn things keep coming every week, and they haven't published a dud yet, so I don't dare skip one. I'm perpetually behind with my New Yorkers ? and if you're not, please don't tell me about it ? but they are the perfect companion on the plane, and I can toss them as I go, lightening my load.
And I read fiction ? delicious, engrossing, luxurious fiction. Something to distract me from the tedium of the airport. Something welcoming to get into bed with at night. (And this last bit is especially important since my usual personal comfort item ? my husband ? is at home.)
They have to be paperback because I'm traveling light. So I get to catch up on books I meant to read a few years ago ? or a few decades ago ? but never did. Here's the list for this tour, but at this rate I'm going to run out of books before I run out of tour dates. Got any other recommendations?
The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
The Haunted Bookshop, Christopher Morley
If Morning Ever Comes, Anne Tyler
Drop City, T.C. Boyle
John Henry Days, Colson Whitehead
The Book Borrower, Alice Mattison
Three Junes, Julia Glass
Where I'm Calling From, Raymond Carver
Nobody's Fool, Richard
by Amy Stewart, February 15, 2007 12:08 PM
People in the floral industry have been showing up at my bookstore events and for the most part, they're quite happy to have the complexities of their industry explained to the general public. One night last week, I thought a couple of audience members were going to come to blows. A woman raised her hand and asked me why it was so hard to get a florist to arrange flowers according to her instructions. "I told her no baby's breath, no ferns, no fillers," the woman complained. "But she did it anyway. This typical arrangement with all those fillers. Are they just throwing in cheap greens to make it look like more than it is?"
The florists, all seated together on the other side of the aisle, stiffened. "Those greens aren't cheap," one of them said tersely.
"A good florist will always work with you and give you what you want, as long as they have it in their shop," another said.
"Maybe that shop just had a different design aesthetic than you do," a third said.
I somehow managed to get everybody settled down, and I recommended a network of upscale florists that I profiled in Flower Confidential ? they never do the baby's breath and fern thing ? but the conversation pointed out this great contradiction the floral industry struggles with. On one hand, our standards are very, very high, and on the other hand, we're not willing to pay much.
In some ways, florists and booksellers are in the same boat. They're facing competition from mass market outlets like grocery stores. They find it hard to compete on price and still pay the rent. They struggle to hold on to customers who still place a value on good service and a quality selection. (There is such a thing as a higher-quality rose ? one that was bred to last longer in the vase, grown under better conditions, and handled properly from farm to florist so that it will stay fresh. You might pay a little more, but you get a little more, too.)
A good florist can give a human face to the very intimate act of sending someone flowers. I called a florist a couple months ago and said, "I need a bouquet to hand to someone at a retirement dinner, so it can't be too big and flashy, and she's very elegant and sophisticated but doesn't like anything too frilly or feminine. Can you do that?"
Of course she could do it. The bouquet was perfect, filled with fragrant winter greens (it was just before Christmas), exquisite peonies, and a few other simple, gorgeous blooms. Florists can take what you tell them about a person and translate that into flowers. And then they will actually put those flowers in the car and drive them across town and place them in the hands of your mother or your sister or your lover. What other gift can you have personally delivered like that? A pizza?
Booksellers play the same matchmaking game between books and readers. You can tell them, for instance, that your father loves Alan Furst and goes to Paris every year, and they'll take you straight to the next author he should read. By the way, Dad's birthday is coming up. What is the next author he should
by Amy Stewart, February 14, 2007 11:33 AM
This is an interesting Valentine's Day for the floral industry. On one hand, supplies are tight because of the freezes in California. Many field-grown crops were damaged and simply won't be salvageable in time. Greenhouse crops suffered too. Growers had to decide whether to turn up their heat, which would raise costs so much that they wouldn't make a profit on the flowers, or to leave the heat at some lower level during the freeze, knowing that cooler temperatures in the greenhouse would slow down the plants so much that they might not bloom in time for the big day. Harvesting a beautiful rose crop on February 15 won't do them much good. And even though the U.S. produces only about 12 percent of all flowers purchased in this country, it's an important 12 percent. Some florists really prefer California roses.
So ? supplies are tight. On the other hand, Valentine's Day falls on a Wednesday, and florists know that sales peak when the holiday happens later in the week. People are at work, they're reminded that the holiday is approaching, and it's easy to pick up the phone and order flowers. When the holiday falls on a Saturday or Sunday, people make other plans and sales drop off. According to the calendar, this will be a busy day.
If you haven't ordered yet, make the call. And if you're looking for something different this year, try tulips or lilies. They're beautiful, they come in almost any color you can imagine, and they'll open gracefully all week long. She ? or he ? will love you for
by Amy Stewart, February 13, 2007 11:50 AM
OK, just one more Powells story. When I'm working on a new book, I gather up artifacts related to the subject and build a little nest around my desk with them. For instance, when I was working on Flower Confidential
, I started collecting vases that had some connection to the history of floriculture, like a hyacinth vase that allows you to force a spring flower indoors and watch it grow roots and bloom. I also bought a reproduction of an interesting old Delft tulip vase. I tacked up postcards from the Dutch flower auction and collected goofy diagrams of the human brain showing the emotional impact of flowers (this is something a floral association created to convince people that flowers will make you happy, as if you needed a diagram to remind you). And of course, I always had a bouquet of flowers on my desk. Always.
Just as I was beginning to research the book, I happened to be in Portland, so I stopped in at Powell's to look for flower books I might use in my research. I found a few things ? a lily-growing manual with some references to Leslie Woodriff, the creator of the 'Star Gazer' lily and the main character in my first chapter, and a good history of the bulb-growing industry in Washington State.
But here's what else I found: the entire library of some long-ago carnation farmer. These books were old and dog-eared and they were all shelved together as if they couldn't stand to be separated. I imagined that they had been shelved this way for years in someone's house, gathering dust until it was finally time to get rid of them. Now here they sat, waiting for their next reader.
I wondered about the farmer who owned them. A carnation is an inexpensive flower and it is also very durable, which makes it ideal for growing in Latin America and shipping to the United States. In fact, there are only 24 commercial carnation growers left the U.S., representing just 1.5 percent of the carnations we buy. Almost all the carnations we buy come from Colombia now.
I thought about what it was like for this farmer to watch his crop move south of the border. I wondered if the farm stayed in the family or if, like so many other third-generation flower farmers, the family that inherited the land had decided to grow condominiums, not carnations.
I bought all the carnation books. I couldn't help it. I didn't need them ? the information was outdated and fairly dry anyway ? but I just felt like they should go home with someone who would appreciate them and understand what they once meant. They are artifacts, too. I never did read them, but sometimes I would just open them up and press my nose into the pages and breathe their musty old book smell. Would a carnation smell as sweet
by Amy Stewart, February 12, 2007 12:02 PM
Tonight I'll be reading at Powells
. I've been thinking about the first time I came to Portland on a book tour. I was speaking at another bookstore that shall remain nameless, and it was one of those events that every author dreads, where nobody showed up except for a couple of distant acquaintances I had strong-armed into attending. I felt silly standing at a podium to address an audience of two, so I just sat down with them in one of the chairs the store had set up for my no-show audience. We talked about the book
for a few minutes, and then I asked them what each of them had been up to lately, and they told me, and that was it. They asked me to sign copies of my book, and then they wandered off to the cash register, probably glad to be done with that particular chore. I stayed for a while longer, signing stock copies for the store and chatting with the staff, and then I shuffled out, feeling quite forlorn and sorry for myself.
I like to go hear other authors read when I'm on a book tour. It's not always possible, but this time my own event was in the afternoon so I had my evening free. I headed over to Powells, where P. D. James was reading from her new book at the time, Death in Holy Orders. She was magnetic. She was riveting. She spoke to a standing-room only crowd, and afterwards, the line to sign books wrapped all the way around the room. I happened to be standing near the front of the line, so I grabbed a book and elbowed my way in. She was in a chatty mood, asking each person a little about themselves before she signed their book. So I handed her the copy I'd picked up and I said, "I'm a writer, too. I just had my own book signing across town. Only two people showed up."
She burst out laughing and looked around at the crowd of admirers pressing in around her. "Oh, dear," she said, reaching out and placing her hand over mine. "It will come, it will