A few weeks ago, I debuted as an author. Just me, no one else. I’d read in public many times, but I had always read alongside other fellow writers, never on my own. This was the first time I would give a talk and read from The Forgetting Flower, solo. People were coming, if any came at all, to see me and no one else. I was the sole entertainment for about an hour. And it scared the sh*t out of me.
Don’t Panic, Yes, Panic
To stave off the panic beforehand, I focused on being as prepared as possible. I emailed the Third Place Books contact and made sure all was ready and that they would order the books in time, I politely asked for a promo poster when every author’s in June and July was made except mine. I registered the talk with all of the local newspapers and blogs, and lastly, I figured out what I would talk about.
That last task was more difficult than I expected. The store had asked me to give a short talk and do a reading. I figured I could do that but how to make it not boring? How to break the ice? I wrestled with my brain in an effort to figure out a joke to start off the speech. While eating lunch with my husband, I’d say, “How about this,” and then lay a joke on him. Silence. Or he’d say, “I don’t know. If you want.” I’d frown. Nothing impressed him. So, I kept working on it.
A couple of days before the reading, I nailed down what I wanted to talk about. Three things the book covered: plants, Paris, and Poland. I had a little story to share about each, so I wrote out what I wanted to say word for word. I told myself I could read from it or just use it as a guide. Then I decided I’d read a few pages from The Forgetting Flower, enough to hopefully get people interested in the book. I was done.
My Other Angst
During the days leading up to the reading, I worried no one would show. Yes, I had close friends in Seattle but more were scattered across the U.S. and Europe. They weren’t able to make a global trek for my one evening. At the last minute my sister, thrilled at my publishing my novel, asked if I’d feel better if she came from Chicago. I said yes. So she did. Just like that. And I thought, okay, that makes an audience of seven people.
On the night before the reading, in a fit of desperation, I lay in bed and told my husband my last idea for a joke. He laughed. Thank God.
And a Party?
I have trouble managing my calendar sometimes. I doublebook myself and forget about appointments. Sometimes I literally don’t know where one of my three kids is at any given moment. So, in my pre-reading launch haze, I thought it would be a good idea to throw a party at my house, which was two minutes by car from the bookstore. Really? Well, guess what? That adds a layer of tidying and cleaning and window washing and cat box scooping and lawn mowing that I hadn’t thought about! How dense am I?
Well, thanks to my family and friends, I got all of that part done. And by the time the reading came around, I knew some of my neighbors were coming so I knew I’d have more in the audience than seven people. But I didn’t know how many would actually show. I mean, people get busy, right? Well, a lot showed. They and my outer circle of friends and fellow writers and even some folks I didn’t know! I was delighted to see the bookstore add chairs. The total was 40 plus people. Whew.
All Eyes on Me
It’s strange for everyone from your sister who’s known you since you were kids to your newest fellow author friends to be waiting for your words. So before launching into my stories, I gave them my most honest feelings about the whole thing. I told everyone that I had tried to get on top of this event by writing out an agenda. I showed them the paper. But I told them that for some reason the first item I’d put at the very top was: “hide in bathroom and wait until everyone leaves.”
It got a laugh. I felt relieved. Then I realized that I hadn’t brought my glasses to the podium and couldn’t see a spec of what I’d written, unless of course I crammed the paper at my face. So I launched into the story of plants and fragrance, then searched for the highlighted, bolded sentences. Those bolded sentences saved me. I got through the talk, I read the first pages. I even got through the book signing. And before I knew it, I was at home drinking a cocktail and laughing with friends. Turns out I could handle being a temporary book “star” after all.
Good morning! Today I begin a series of Saturday posts on my garden of bliss (and torment). It’s a big garden, a garden on the edge of a ravine and creek, and a garden that’s made me both extremely happy and incredibly depressed. I’ll tell you why I was depressed in a future post. For now, I’ll tell you about the garden and its various growing areas.
The Front Woods
When you arrive at my property, you can’t see my house from the street. This was the first characteristic of the land I fell in love with. It creates an anonymity and privacy I love. The woods are a horizontal rectangle of firs, cedars, dogwoods, and a not-so-healthy Pacific yew that the driveway curves through.
As you pass another monstrous Pacific yew on the right and a tall rhododendron on the left, you emerge into the open where my house, an old colonial sits. There’s a square of lawn before the house, a square of lawn to the left, and part-sun borders. While I planted a mixed border at the edge of the woods, I’ve mostly neglected the other areas. But it is a partly sunny area that needs more attention.
The Back Yard
Behind the house is a large, long rectangle of space with a garage where I cultivate ornamental plants. This is my playground. The previous owners arranged the curving borders that I’ve since kept though I’ve removed all of the boxwoods they planted. Boxwoods are kinda boring and let’s face it, smell like cat urine. Instead, I went a little nuts and have put my stamp on each border, which I regard as four main areas: the island bed, the east oak border, the west driveway border, and the sunny woodland border.
Behind this long stretch of land is a fence with a gate to the last section of land. It’s a natural ravine that was disturbed and now struggles against ivy, morning glory, and other pest plants. The land rolls fairly steeply down before leveling off and ending just across a small creek. It’s a sweet little creek that flows into nearby Lake Washington. Firs and cedars shade it, sword ferns and Oregon grape grow all around. Not many salmon are left here though. We’ve lost trees in the ravine due to high winds, and this is mostly because so many trees were removed decades ago. While I have planting more firs and cedars on my to-do list, the ravine, for now, is left to the mountain beavers and rabbits that inhabit it.
Tomorrow (Sunday) I’ll feature a plant I like from the garden. And next Saturday, I’ll share my island bed, a bed I’ve created to attract butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. Until then, happy gardening!
During these last few weeks, I shared two posts about the origins of and botany in my novel about a unique apple, Harvesting the Sky. The first article covered how I merged issues of an emotional past with plants and the second, my inability to eat apples and subsequent fascination with them. This week I’m posting the final segment of this series with an excerpt from the book’s first chapter. It takes place in Kazakhstan while the rest of the novel, as in The Forgetting Flower, takes place in Paris.
I hope you enjoy and thanks for reading!
Harvesting the Sky, Chapter 1 Excerpt
For months, Andre had imagined what the apple would look like and now as he crested the mountain ridge, he was about to find out. He doubted it would be truly white, the “pearl” Nes had described. He guessed yellow with hints of cream. That would be more realistic. Then again, what was realistic about a white apple that healed people in a matter of hours? He dragged his aching body through the rain, his heart beating with an excited tic as he followed Samal, the team guide. She seemed unaffected by her tall bulging backpack and heavy wool coat, ambling up the slope like a dragonfly zooming over grass.
In Kazakh, she said, “This way, soon, I think.”
Andre’s pack, heavy with equipment, pressed on his shoulder blades, bonier from walking thirty miles into the forest for three days. His stomach grumbled. He was ready for whatever ramen soup they had left and a good night’s sleep.
At the ridge’s top, Samal paused and pointed at a foggy light illuminating a cloudy opening, her black eyes alert. “Tengri!”
In the distance, the top of a tree, much broader than described, stood.
“Is that the tree? Are you sure?”
“Yes, very sure.” Her favorite tin cup for cooking and eating and washing bumped against her black braid.
He searched his mind for the Kazakh words to say the tree didn’t quite fit the description but failed to piece them together, glancing back through the dense crowns for Vlad. The translator was plodding along sixty feet below, too far for earshot, and Nes, well, he was bringing up the rear to make sure Vlad didn’t wander the wrong way again.
“Alright,” he said, trying to lighten his voice. “Let’s find out.”
Soon, the forest trickled away to a field of artemisia and herbs, rolling gently downward to an expansive field. About a quarter-mile off, the Tengri tree stood exactly where the old villager had said it would be, on a small hill between a cherry thicket and crooked stream. Good God, it was there. Out in the open. For anyone to study. They’d struggled through wind and snow and searing sun to find it. Paid bribes at highway checkpoints, even smoked dirty crumpled cigarettes and eaten sheep’s head soup out of courtesy for information. Now, he’d be part of the team that brought it to the Western world.
“Holy…” He dropped his head in relief. What a gift. He whispered his thanks: “Raqmet.”
As they wound their way into the field, he studied the tree. It grew sturdily with a wide trunk and sweeping crown, branches evenly spaced so it gained all of the light and air it required. No bare patches in the bark. No canker or cracking. Somehow it had survived decades of lightning and wind and late frosts without the protection of other trees. His dad would have clapped his hands and said, “Ah, what a lucky stick!”
Still, the leaves had turned a reddish-orange color. Late-season color, about-to-drop color. And where were the apples? He scanned the branches. None. A lump of worry solidified in his gut. The tree was going dormant. If it was going dormant, that meant it had dropped its fruit. If it had dropped its fruit, they’d have no apples to bring home and the project was screwed.
As he neared the hill, its size grew, looming 30 feet in the air. The slopes sharply surged up, covered in tangled dense shrubs. They reminded Andre of the chaparrals near his family home in California. As a child, he would roam the countryside beyond Suntime Orchards, coming across brambles where he’d peer into dark silent holes. He always expected a vicious little animal to jump out and snap his hand. “Great. A hill of rocks and thorns,” he said, wiped his forehead with a sleeve. At least the rain was letting up. They picked their way through boulders to the stream. Samal ploughed into the water. Andre paused. It was a foot deep, about eight feet wide. Fast-moving. He stepped in the freeze and it soaked his boots as he hobbled across, the creek’s bottom a scattering of slippery stones. He leaned forward, worried about keeping his pack dry…
I’m happy to share some exciting news about Harvesting the Sky and 2021!
Last week, I wrote about the origins of my apple novel, Harvesting the Sky. I covered my resistance to putting plants in my fiction, how I developed a main character who was a composite of plant people I knew, and why I decided to set the story in Paris. The next step I needed to decide was the novel’s botany, what plant my main character, Andre, would be discovering.
A Fascination With a Fruit I Can’t Eat
As an adult, I’ve never been able to eat apples. While I know they’re good for me and certain cultivars like ‘Honeycrisp’ and ‘Red Delicious’ are tasty as heck, I have trouble digesting them. I get an instant stomach ache. My abdomen feels like it’s been tied in a knot. I’ve tried to overcome this by eating apples with cheese, eating apples after a protein-based dinner, etc. but I always end up in sharp pain.
It may be that apples have too much raw fiber for my body, I’m not sure. Regardless, because of this, I’ve always been fascinated with people who can grab an apple and happily munch away. The idea that this portable, hardy fruit keeps a long time on a counter until you’re ready for it seems so pure and beautiful. The facts of how healthy they are is amazing. And Biblically speaking, apples play a huge role in the creation story. All this tumbled around my mind. I started thinking about what if I could not only eat apples easily, but what if they could give me an exagerrated boost to my immune system?
The History of Apples
The history of apples is long and interesting as well. Grown mostly for cider in the 19th Century, most varieties of apples weren’t sweet. They weren’t appealing to eat until breeders started grafting and growing cultivars specifically for culinary pleasure. That’s when they exploded in popularity. Michael Pollan wrote a great chapter on this in his book, The Botany of Desire.
What’s even more interesting is the earliest apples grew in Kazakhstan. I won’t go into too many details, but scientists genetically mapped out various cultivars and traced the earliest trees to the Alatau Mountains in Kazakhstan. In fact, the only forest of apple trees in the world grows there. A professor named Aimak Dzangaliev mapped and recorded many of the trees. And unfortunately, development has destroyed much of the forest. Still, there are a few groups working to protect this amazing area of the world.
Because there are hundreds of varieties of apples in this Kazakh forest, I started thinking about plant mutations. Plants naturally cross-pollinate to form new plants all the time. And in the Kazakh forests, it’s happened in spades. So, because I was thinking about how I can’t eat apples and how apples are incredibly healthy for you, I began wondering what would happen if a naturally mutated tree occurred that could seriously boost the immune system. Someone, maybe a plant explorer, would discover it, and afterward Western botanists would discover it too. The plant I wanted Andre to discover was a medicinal apple.
Plant lovers are always in search of that “special” plant. They crave the unknown plant, the rare plant few others have, the plant that only grows under certain conditions. It’s an addiction, this quest to attain the unusual. We plant geeks are fascinated by all the mutations, natural and bred. We want the blueberry that actually produces pink berries (Vaccinium ‘Pink Lemonade’). We want the hydrangea with purple leaves (Hydrangea aspera ‘Plum Passion’). I could easily name a hundred even rarer examples. And so, it also occurred to me this medicinal apple would be extra valuable and extra interesting if it were an unusual color. And as far as I know, no one has discovered a truly white apple yet.
Where to Begin
So because I wanted Andre’s life to change because of a white, medicinal apple, I knew the story had to begin at the point when the apple came into his life. Of course, that had to be in Kazakhstan. Also, I decided that rather than sending him solely as a representative of his university, he’d have to have some monetary incentive in attaining it. And so, I decided he’d be beholden to a pharmaceutical company in Paris. Because I knew he’d need even more conflict than a corporation breathing down his neck, I created a mysterious villain. These ideas launched the first chapter and story arc. You can read the novel’s summary here.
Next week, I’ll post an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Harvesting the Sky.
Check out the exciting news about Harvesting the Sky and 2021!
Photo by Aaron Burden
When I look back on the origins of Harvesting the Sky, my novel about a unique apple, I can’t believe how long it took me to discover something that was an obvious fit. But at the time, I couldn’t see it.
For years, I resisted the idea of writing fiction about plants. By day, I worked as a gardener, designing and maintaining clients’ gardens and at night, I wrote gardening articles for fun. During graduate school at Goddard College, I’d written a thesis novel about an ethics professor with a dark twist. Though I liked the idea, the science fiction aspect felt daunting. I didn’t read sci-fi that much and I couldn’t resolve the issue of how preventing future events might affect the present. So, I bumbled around for months, feeling empty and like I didn’t have a fictional story to tell.
A Secret Conservatory of Dangerous Plants
Still, there was one scene in that novel that haunted me. It involved my character breaking into a conservatory to obtain a thorny plant he could drug himself with. It was a powerful moment in the story and one I loved. It was dark and creepy and cool. I had reveled in describing the alluring yet deadly plant that he was about to experiment with. I delighted in putting him in painful distress with it. There wasn’t a more compelling point in the book.
Mixing That Dangerous Allure With my Passion
Finally, I realized I could take the anguish from the sci-fi book professor and mold it into a new character more in line with my current life – a professor of horticulture. I imagined him as a young rugged guy who felt softly about plants but ardent about his cause. That he was physically strong and sharply intelligent yet vulnerable and cowardly when it came to his past deepened his soul for me even more.
So I tried reworking the thesis story with this new character. It clicked. Harvesting the Sky was born. Once I put difficult emotions into him, the story buzzed. I woke up artistically. My mind started rolling. I came up with a detailed profile. He was a composite of botanists and growers and sellers I’d known in the horticulture industry. It was easy to shape him because I knew him. I’d known him for years.
I named him Andre Damazy. The first name was a French name, the last name, Polish. He would be the one ethnicity I was, Polish, with the one ethnicity I wish I was (French). I knew what being Polish meant from my own background; I knew some of what being French meant after having lived and worked in Paris. And the last piece I knew he had to be?
Paris as the Adventure World
American. When I worked in Paris, I felt like a fish out of water yet also felt comfortable among the people. It was an incredibly influential time in my life to work in a French office. I grew and changed. I’d been mentally stuck in my job, getting physically heavier and more sluggish and more corporate. When I was in Paris, I realized how the French lived and wanted to live that way. Not as a sedentary slave to a company I didn’t believe in but as a moving, thinking, creative being who enjoyed life. So when I examined Andre, I didn’t see him as French and I didn’t see him as a Pole, I saw him as an ex-pat American with these cultural backgrounds. And, like me, he would experience a life change in Paris.
A Main Character, a Setting, and a Plot
Now that I had a main character and a setting, I needed a plot. Though I drew some on the thesis novel, much came from my own life. I was well familiar with plant explorers, both current ones and historic ones in the UK and Europe. In fact, one day, I read about a local plant explorer who, while in the mountains of China, had to split a package of ramen noodles among several people in his expedition because food rations were so low. I was impressed by how much they suffered to discover new plants. It seemed intense. I wanted my protagonist to be in the same intense place at some point in the book. But I still had a fundamental question: if he were a plant explorer, what plant would he be seeking?
That’s the topic I’ll address next week, and where the speculative aspect comes into Harvesting the Sky.
Update (Dec, 2020): To check out the exciting news on Harvesting the Sky‘s publication, click here.