October 31, 2013. Chatham, NJ Marta McDowell at home.

ReadMe_06.15_shot 1_24This is my interview with Marta McDowell.

What were some of the most important moments when writing this book? Working with the head gardener at Hill Top one drizzly November morning (I helped cut back the border). Tromping around the woods, pastures and fells above Near Sawrey, where I nearly always got lost. Going through boxes of garden- and plant-related watercolours in the archives of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Bliss. Holding the actual picture letter of Peter Rabbit in the Morgan Library reading room. Paging through her photo album in the Beatrix Potter Gallery of the National Trust. Be still my heart.

Which are your favourite images in this book? The photographs of Beatrix Potter. She is so expressive. There is one of her, post rheumatic fever, with her hair shorn, holding her pet dormouse. She looks forlorn. Then the one that was vignetted on the jacket cover in her deerstalker hat, and later still, the ones in her garden. Potter’s drawings and paintings were a joy to select. What riches. Her paintings of flowers and gardens made me feel like I was there with her, inhaling the dewy fragrance of an English morning. I think her pansies are brilliant.

What was the most interesting thing you discovered when writing this book? Potter’s illustrations are so realistic because she painted actual garden scenes and then inserted her characters into them.

What was one of the best things that happened because of this book? I’ve met so many interesting people.

What do you admire most about Beatrix Potter? That she reinvented her self so many times: naturalistic, children’s book author, farmer, preservationist.

What would you most like to ask Beatrix Potter? How she grew such big snapdragons.

Can you tell us about your involvement with The Beatrix Potter Society? This is an amazing group of people: academics focused on juvenile literature, museum curators, teachers, librarians, and a motley crew of people like me who just get bitten by the Beatrix Potter bug. When I decided to pursue this topic, my ever-supportive husband said, ‘Okay, let’s go see her house.’ So I booked two tickets from the States, then serendipity struck. I found out that something called The Beatrix Potter Society was having a conference that same week in Ambleside, a little city just north of Potter’s farm in the Lake District. I wrote the Society’s general email box, asking if we could come, and got a prompt and positive reply. We showed up, two strangers from America whose knowledge of Potter didn’t extend much beyond the intro level, and they couldn’t have been more welcoming. I could not have written this book without their help. They are tireless in their efforts to promote Potter and her works in various ways, including ‘Reading Beatrix Potter’, a program to read to children, and ‘Introducing Beatrix Potter’, for presenting her life and work to adult audiences. I do mostly the latter, as I find large groups of children terrifying. The Society has wonderful conferences, tours, and publications, including an electronic newsletter. And I’ve made some wonderful friends there. Why don’t you join?

Have you been on any garden tours? In America, we have the Garden Conservancy, which has wonderful ‘Open Days’, modelled on the program in the UK, and I go to as many as I can. I’ve also taken two trips with the New York Botanical Garden, one to northern Italy and another to Japan. It is such a treat to see gardens with other garden geeks, if you’ll pardon the expression. Whenever we are on holiday, I try to fit in at least one garden visit.

Do you have a favourite museum or art gallery? The Astor Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is a Chinese scholar garden, the first permanent cultural exchange between the United States and China in the 1970s. A lovely space, often deserted, that takes me to a walled courtyard, in a small coastal city in China during the Ming Dynasty.

What are you working on next? In October I will get galley proof for my next book, ‘All the Presidents’ Gardens’, which is a fun look at American gardening through the windows of the White House, 1800 to the present. Obviously my editors at Timber Press want to get it out during our American election year. And I’m starting on a book about Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the ‘Little House’ series for young adults, and her nature-garden-farm interests. That is quite different for me, because it is a book about the Midwest. In fact, as I type this I am on a plane home from a research trip in Iowa, where many of her papers are housed. That will hopefully be out in 2017, also from Timber Press.

Portrait photo by Marco Ricca.

Read my review of ‘Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life’ here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *