Best-selling New York Times author Amy Stewart is no stranger to the perils and pleasures of the natural world. To date, she has written nine books, including “The Drunken Botanist,” “Wicked Bugs” and “Flower Confidential.” Beyond putting pen to paper, Amy travels the country as a highly sought-after public speaker whose spirited lectures have inspired and entertained audiences at college campuses, corporate offices, museums, gardens and libraries nationwide. She currently resides in Portland, Oregon, with her husband Scott with whom she owns an independent bookstore (so independent that it lives in California) called Eureka Books. One of Amy’s best-sellers, “Wicked Plants: The Plant that Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities,” is the inspiration behind The North Carolina Arboretum’s widely-popular traveling exhibit, Wicked Plants: The Exhibit, on display at the Arboretum’s Baker Exhibit Center September 20, 2017 – January 7, 2018.
Amy will be traveling to the Arboretum later this month to host a special book reading and signing on Thursday, September 21, as part of the Wicked Plants exhibit. We decided to get to know Amy a little better and learn more about her passion for writing, natural science and uncovering the “wicked” side of plants.
1.) Your books tend to focus on history and natural science. What led you to write about these topics?
My first book was a memoir about my first garden in Santa Cruz, California, called “From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden.” At the time, I just wanted to write, and planting a garden was the only thing happening in my life that I could think to write about. From there, each book has led to the next. For instance, there’s a chapter in “From the Ground Up” on earthworms, which led me to my next book, “The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms.”
2.) Why did you decide to focus on the “darker” side of plants for “Wicked Plants?”
I was fascinated with the idea that there are evildoers in the plant kingdom, and that horticulture has a dark side. So I went looking for villains, criminals, lowlifes, and miscreants of all kinds. “Wicked Plants,” includes plants that have been used as murder weapons, plants that are illegal or immoral, plants that have started wars, plants that inflict pain and plants that are badly behaved. They explode, they burst into flames, they smell terrible or they destroy other plants in particularly diabolical ways. These are plants you do not want to meet in a dark alley.
3.) What do you hope readers will gain from reading “Wicked Plants?”
I just want them to be entertained! I write books for fun, and I read books for fun. I want my readers to have fun, too.
4.) The Arboretum’s Wicked Plants exhibit is inspired by your book. Do you feel it’s important to combine tangible interactives and examples, like in the Wicked Plants exhibit, with reading?
It’s definitely a remarkable and unexpected turn of events! In some ways, it’s even better than having a film or T.V. show made from a book because it’s a real-world experience, a form of interactive storytelling. But, it’s very much like a book in that people come away with their own opinions and impressions – they draw their own conclusions. They’re not just looking at an object in a glass case and reading a panel that tells them what’s in the case. They’re wandering around, opening drawers, flipping through books on the shelves and stumbling across odd little surprises.
5.) You have done many talks as part of the Wicked Plants traveling exhibit. Has anything stood out to you when visiting other museums?
The best part about the exhibit, for me, is that I get to go and see it when it travels. It’s been interesting for me to learn how museum exhibits work. For instance, museum staff are always very interested in how long people spend at an exhibit and how it appeals to different age levels. That’s been the most fun part of this exhibit: kids are fascinated, but teens and adults are, too. In fact, there are definitely little “inside jokes” that only adults will get. I like that it works on so many levels. It’s a wonderful thing to get kids interested in science, but adults are the ones who actually do science and who lend public support to scientific endeavors. For that reason, I love to see science museums put on programs that actually entertain adults, too.
6.) Are you working on any new projects or endeavors?
I’m writing a series of novels based on the true story of one of America’s first female deputy sheriffs, Constance Kopp, and her two sisters. I’ll be telling the real story of their fascinating lives over the course of several books. The first, “Girl Waits With Gun,” came out in 2015, and the third, “Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions,” comes out in September 2017.
Visitors and members to The North Carolina Arboretum will have a chance to learn more about Amy and experience an evening of “botanical horror” at a special reading and book signing on September 21, from 6 – 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 for Arboretum members and $12 for non-members and must be purchased in advance here. Parking is included in the ticket price.
Wicked Plants is on display daily inside the Baker Exhibit Center September 20, 2017 – January 7, 2018, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Ticket holders to the Arboretum’s Winter Lights holiday light exhibit, November 17 – December 31, 2017, will also enjoy a special viewing of Wicked Plants as part of their ticketed entry to the event. For more information on Wicked Plants, please click here.