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Powell's Q&A

Amy Stewart

Describe your latest book.
My new book is called Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers. It's a behind-the-scenes look at the global cut flower industry. As a gardener, I really had no idea that there was such a massive, mechanized industry devoted to producing something as simple as a flower. But then I visited a flower farm near my home in northern California, and I found out that flowers grow in factories, and that most of those perfect flower shop blossoms would be impossible to cultivate in my own backyard. It's a very different kind of horticulture, and that fascinated me.

I went around the world to see how flowers make it to market. Because almost all of our cut flowers are imported, I went to Ecuador to find out what's going on at Latin American flower farms. I saw millions of flowers go up for auction in Holland at the famous Dutch flower auction. And I visited florists, growers, and wholesalers all over the United States.

The flower industry is in the middle of a very interesting transition right now. There have been some serious labor and environmental issues on flower farms, and people in the floral business are just starting to realize that their customers won't stand for that. I hope that Flower Confidential will raise some awareness, but I also hope that I'm able to share my passion for flowers. I buy more flowers now than I did before I wrote the book, but I'm also a pickier consumer of flowers — I want them to be fresher, longer-lasting, more fragrant, and organic!

What fictional character would you like to date, and why?
Would it be wrong to pick Harry Potter? Of course, I'm thinking of a more adult, not-yet-written version of the boy wizard. Just imagine how much fun he'd be on a date. Failing that, I wish I could say it would be the introspective Nick Carraway, who barely remembers his own birthday, but no, I'm afraid I'd fall for his neighbor, Jay Gatsby, with his glittering parties and mysterious past and his penchant for going after other men's wives.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I do it all the time. New York City is a fantastic, but also very frustrating, city for visiting the past haunts of famous writers. I'll walk up and down some street, expecting to see a plaque or even a shrine dedicated to an author who once lived there, only to find that the building has been torn down. That's New York — it reinvents itself every day. Fortunately, the Algonquin Hotel is still a perfectly preserved literary shrine. I am never happier than when I'm sitting in the lobby of the Algonquin, drinking Champagne and muttering to the ghosts of Dorothy Parker and all those early New Yorker writers.

What is your favorite indulgence, either wicked or benign?
An ice-cold, very dry, gin Martini with two olives, please. E. B. White said, "Before I start to write, I always treat myself to a nice dry Martini. Just one, to give me the courage to get started. After that, I'm on my own."

I don't know what kind of gin White drank, but I like very botanical gins that taste of juniper and coriander. I'm always looking for a new gin to try, but so far nothing has displaced Beefeater as the everyday gin in my freezer.

Why do you write?
It's the only thing I've ever wanted to do. If you had asked me at the age of five what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said that I wanted to be a writer.

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
I've been taking an oil painting class once a week for the last few years, and I'm surprised by the similarities and differences between painting and writing. Oil painting, like writing, is all about revision. You sketch out the rough shape, then start working on the details, but at any point you might step back and realize you need to wipe the canvas clean and start over again. (And like writing, the canvas is never perfectly clean again. You're stuck with the faint outline of your first draft.) But unlike writing, painting has a life of its own. An accident with the brush can create a wonderful effect. Writing is much more deliberate — I never accidentally type the wrong words and then love how they look on the page.

So as a writer, I really love Georgia O'Keeffe's landscapes. Her paintings are all about making choices — about deciding what to leave in and what to take out. I have been to some of the very spots in the New Mexico desert where she painted, and I've held up postcards of her paintings and compared them to the landscape itself. She didn't paint every rock and every shrub, and she didn't need to. As a nonfiction writer, I deal with that issue all the time. I have to take what's really there and then decide how to make a story out of it.

Do you read blogs? What are some of your favorites?
Oh yes, I'm a blogger myself. I keep a blog on my own website and I'll be blogging from the road on my book tour this year. I also share a group blog called GardenRant with a few other highly opinionated gardeners, including Susan Harris at Takoma Gardener, Michele Owens at Sign of the Shovel, and Elizabeth Licata at Gardening While Intoxicated.

We felt that garden writers didn't have much of a forum for lively debates, rants, diatribes, or anything at all political or controversial. There's no good place to publish that kind of thing. Magazines and newspapers usually want how-to stories or whimsical little essays about the changing of the seasons, but we had something more to say. After all, gardening is important. It's how we interact with the plant kingdom. So we got together, wrote a manifesto, and now we're online ranting every day. I've found some great garden blogs through that process, and we've even encouraged some other garden writers, including the well-respected Graham Rice to get serious about blogging.

Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
Chickens! We have four of them, and they're all named after First Ladies: Eleanor, Abigail, Dolley, and Bess. We bought them when they were just a few days old and raised them in our bathtub for eight weeks. Chickens are surprisingly good pets, especially for writers who spend a great deal of time loafing around the house wishing something interesting would happen so they could write about it. Chickens are always up to something in the garden. They eat snails, they lay eggs, they produce manure, and we've even taught them a few tricks.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
I've always thought of fiction as the deep end of the pool — the place where all the serious artists hang out. My editor is astonished at this. "What's the matter with you nonfiction writers?" she says to me. "Why do you all think you have to write a novel to be a real writer?" I don't know how to explain it, but a great novel is mysterious and enchanting and somehow just beyond my grasp.

If I ever did attempt a novel, I'm not sure it would have a gardening theme. However, I love the books on this list because they are all about gardening without trying too hard. They're just great novels in which some of the characters happen to be gardeners or happen to find themselves in a garden.

Great Gardening Novels:
1. Rose's Garden by Carrie Brown
2. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
3. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
4. Quite a Year for Plums by Bailey White
and, of course:
5. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett spacer

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