Am I Writing Another Kopp Sisters Book?

After over a year of not writing a book…I’m writing a book. I just made a deal with Random House to publish THE TREE COLLECTORS: Tales of Arboreal Obsession, which I am going to both write and illustrate.

About ten years ago, I met a man who introduced himself to me as a tree collector. He lived in Pennsylvania, where he had some acreage. He planted every kind of tree that struck his fancy, and crammed them in together as closely as he reasonably could. He told me that he had 150 different species and cultivars, growing in rows the way a book collector would line up books on a shelf.

I remember thinking at the time that trees were an odd thing to collect. They are large and difficult to move. Most collectors like to trade up, swapping out a better version when they can afford to. A collector’s taste might change over the years, and they might get rid of more common items to make room for the rare and unusual. But how do you do that when your collection consists of enormous living, breathing organisms?

I thought at the time that it might be an interesting idea for a book, and I even met a few more tree collectors over the years, but it just never came together in my head. Then, over this last year of being stuck indoors with not much to do, I picked it up again. When I thought about it as an illustrated book, it just made more sense. The idea of including some art seemed to breathe more life into the idea.

Anyway, I’ll be profiling about 50 tree collectors, and talking about other ways of thinking about the idea of “collecting” without actually owning a large parcel of land and filling it with trees, such as projects to catalog urban trees and so forth.

It feels good to be getting back into a project, after taking a longer break than I’ve ever taken in my life. I certainly wanted a break, after twenty years of writing books, doing book tours, researching books, and generally being on the treadmill of endless tasks that self-employed people find themselves on. For that entire time, I always worked seven-day workweeks. I never gave myself an official day off, apart from those days off that happened by accident, if I was sick or on an airplane all day (which doesn’t count as a day off, really) or actually traveling on an actual vacation, but even then I was always working, a little bit.

So now I’m back at work, but at a much more livable pace, with actual days off and no guilt trips about uncompleted tasks or unanswered emails. I’ll be at work on this book for a couple years, and I intend to make very few other commitments so I don’t go back to my old overscheduled self. Wish me luck.

Oh, and if you happen to know a tree collector, send them my way!

So That Means I’m Not Writing Another Kopp Novel Right Now

I’ve put off saying this out loud, because it felt weird, but…yes, it’s true…I won’t be writing another Kopp Sisters novel anytime soon. When I started down this road, I said that I could see myself writing 7-10 of these books. At the time that sounded crazy–how on earth was I going to write seven whole novels?

But here we are. I won’t give away the ending of Miss Kopp Investigates, but if you read that far, you’ll see that I’ve left them in a good place, a place that is based on their true story, and a place that I could easily pick up again down the road.

I was sad to step away from their little world, where I’ve spent so much time over the last decade, but it was time for my brain to have something different to do. Ten years is a long time to think about one thing. Thanks to all of you who have been cheering me on, and who loved the Kopps as much as I did. That’s all I ever wanted from these books, for people to love them.

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Donate to the International Rose Test Garden, Win Some Paintings and a Book



I live just down the street from the International Rose Test Garden in Portland and I visit it so often that I think of it as my backyard. It’s a very nice backyard.

I’m usually there with my sketchbook, so when the time came for a fundraiser to do some important work at the garden, the staff asked if I’d donate some paintings to sweeten the deal.

So. Read all about their fundraising campaign and make a donation here. You’ll be entered into a drawing to win these four paintings, all original gouache 5×7 paintings on 7×10 paper, signed on the back by me, PLUS a signed first edition of Flower Confidential, my book about the global flower industry.

Even better: Donations are being matched by a private funder!

Get over there by January 31, 2021 to make a donation.

An Author and Bookseller’s Perspective on Banned and Challenged Books

This week, David Goldenberg wrote a piece on the FiveThirtyEight blog about the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged books. I’m a writer married to a bookseller, so you can imagine the kinds of discussions that an article like this stirs up around our dinner table! My husband responded with this post about why our bookstore doesn’t celebrate Banned Books Week, and a second post on what a banned book really is. (warning: it’s disturbing.)

The topic flared up again at breakfast when we read about a doughnut shop partnering with Random House to give out free copies of The Kite Runner in response to that book being challenged by a parent who questioned whether it was appropriate for a 10th grade classroom.

It’s been a while since I’ve read The Kite Runner. I know that it’s an extraordinary, amazing book that everyone should read. I also remember a pretty brutal rape scene that I couldn’t get through.

That’s no reason not to read it, and it’s no reason to pull it off the shelves. But surely there’s a valid, reasonable conversation to be had about age-appropriateness, right? I don’t have kids, but if I did, I’m sure I would have my own ideas about when my kids should be required to read a rape scene so painful that I, as the hypothetical mother, couldn’t get through it.

I probably would want them to read it at some point. I just can’t say for certain what that age might be, and I don’t find it at all upsetting that a parent is asking that question. After all, surely a parent expressing an opinion about a child’s schoolwork is owed the same freedom of speech protection as the book under question.

What I’m getting at is: Should a parent or community member be labeled a book banner (or a book “challenger”) just for raising the issue? I mean, the books are in no danger. These banned and challenged books are widely available everywhere books are sold. We can all rest easy about that. (again, go here to read about what an actual banned book looks like. You won’t like it, you won’t want to celebrate it, and you won’t want to defend it.)

Some of these challenges are easier to understand than others. For instance, I can certainly understand why a parent might question the age-appropriateness of a book with explicit sex and violence. At many of the events I do for Wicked Bugs and Wicked Plants (which were written for adults), I meet science teachers who tell me that they love to use those books in the classroom. When I ask them what grade they teach, I’m often surprised to hear how young the kids are. Are fourth-graders really reading my chapters on pot, cocaine, and opium in Wicked Plants? Wouldn’t it be weird for a kid to read my description in Wicked Bugs of the African bat bug’s “traumatic insemination,” in which the male pierces the female’s abdomen with his “horribly sharp little penis”?

I thought it was funny line, but there’s an age cutoff for insect -related sex jokes, right?

As an author of books written entirely for adults, I would be completely, perfectly, 100% okay with a parent deciding that their kids are too young to read my books. I’d be perfectly fine with them having a conversation about that with the school. (In the case of the Wicked books, teachers are using the excerpts that they find appropriate and not sharing the more “adult” sections with the kids.) I would not mock them for raising the question, and I would not try to rally the public against them. Let them have their say.

Now, some of these challenges are made for ideological reasons that I oppose. I would not like to see a book removed from the school library or curriculum just because it accurately describes the horrors of slavery, or explains a scientific fact like evolution, or celebrates LGBT relationships. Lots of parents would like to see books taken off the shelves for those reasons. I disagree. Lots of people disagree, and I’d expect to see them down at the school board meeting too, voicing their objections to the objections.

But since when do I get to decide whether someone’s “challenge” is valid? One of my books (The Earth Moved, about earthworms) talks quite a bit about Darwin. I suppose there are parents who would like every mention of Darwin stricken from the curriculum. I don’t agree with them, and in fact, I think my book does a nice job of describing the reconciliation between Darwin and the church that happened around the time of his death. Religious leaders at that time set aside any objections to his theories, and I think it’s useful for all of us to look back at that piece of history and ask what has changed.

Instead of publicly shaming parents for raising these questions (even when that shaming comes with a delicious doughnut), I’d much rather have a free and open discussion in which even the evolution deniers get to have their say.  Let’s celebrate the fact that these conversations are happening! If people are gathering together at schools, libraries, and school board meetings to talk about books and education, and to express their deeply-held beliefs about the power of the written word, and to hold a vigorous debate, that’s a world I want to live in.

I’ll even bring the doughnuts.



Calorie Counts on Menus, 1915 Style

As I’m working on my next novel, I’m spending a lot of time in 1915–and it turns out that absolutely nothing has changed in 100 years.  Here, for instance, is a big announcement in the New York Times about a brand new idea:  Put calorie counts on menus!

It’s only one restaurant–the lunchroom at the Department of Health–but the hope was that the idea would spread.

“It might not be possible to state the food values in a large restaurant where there was a varied menu,” admitted Dr. Bolduan, the director of public education, but in “a chain of lunch rooms throughout the country…it could be done with great success.”

One important difference between then and now:  the emphasis seemed to be on getting people to eat enough food.  The “food value” or calorie count was seen as a way to get people to eat a substantial enough meal. Clerks and stenographers need 2500 calories a day, while mechanics and artisans needed 3000-3500, and laborers and longshoremen needed 3500-4500.

You need food, the article advised, “So that your body may do its work. This is done mainly by starches and fats.” Protein and mineral salts (vitamins?  I’m thinking?) are also necessary to build muscles and organs, and restaurants should ensure their patrons that they are providing adequate quantities of both.

A sample lunchroom menu shows that even the lower-priced lunch meets those requirements:

1915 menu with calorie counts


As evidence that the educational program was working, one boy was quoted as saying, “I never knew before that you should not take too many acids at a meal. I had tomatoes today, so I didn’t take lemon pie for dessert.”







Tales of the Cocktail Notes


This post will only make sense to you if you were in the talk I gave at Tales of the Cocktail called The Drunken Botanist:  A Preview. It was a sneak preview of my new book, coming out in March 2013, called The Drunken Botanist:  The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks.  I promised to share links to a bunch of sources, so here they are:

Handbook of Alcoholic Beverages — this new two-volume set covers a wide range of research and technical information that I referenced throughout my talk.


Poisonous Plants.  (This is not a comprehensive list of every poisonous plant in the world; just the ones the FDA is keeping track of.)

Flavoring agents that can be added to food (or liquor)

Everything Added to Food in the US database

GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) database

Medicinal plants, and a great book on plant resins: see a list here.


Mind-Altering & Poisonous Plants of the World

North American Guide to Poisonous Plants & Mushrooms

Poisonous Plants — handbook


Order Cuban ‘mojito mint’ from Richter’s, Territorial Seed

‘Redventure’ celery from seed at Territorial.  Garden centers can order plants from Log House (wholesale accounts only)

‘Roman Beauty’ rosemary also available at Territorial and in the new Sunset plant collection under the name ‘Chef’s Choice.’


From the Independent:  A good general description of specific anosmia.

From NOVA:  A good discussion of taste and perception.


Genetic Determinants of Cilantro Preference

Characteristic Aroma Components of the Cilantro Mimics

NPR:  The Cilantro Divide


Specific Anosmia Observed for β-Ionone, but not for α-Ionone: Significance for Flavor Research

Handbook of Phytochemical Constituents of Gras Herbs and Other Economic Plants — Compounds found in violets

 Phytochemical composition of Viola


Gentian Research Network at Rutgers

EU report on gentian as medicne


The Encyclopedia of Herbs is a good place to start. Chemistry of Spices is also useful.

Conservation of wild-harvested plants

Plantlife International: Conservation of wild-harvested botanicals.

CITES:  Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora

Traffic:  Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network

Senegalia senegal (Gum Arabic)

Gum arabic report from State Department

Excellent NPR story.

Great blog post summarizing the debate over the name change.

Near East Foundation gum arabic program.


Thesis on malting & fermentation of sorghum

SABMiller: Sorghum, cassava, local barley in Africa

Sweet sorghum producers & processors (US)

US grain sorghum producers



The Portland Diaries, Part 4

This was me the very moment I woke up this morning:

I do not like my state of mind;
I’m bitter, querulous, unkind…
I am not sick, I am not well.
My quondam dreams are shot to hell.
My soul is crushed, my spirit sore;
I do not like me any more.
I cavil, quarrel, grumble, grouse.
I ponder on the narrow house.

Except that unlike my drinking buddy Mrs. Parker,  I had no excuse. I was not due to fall in love again.  I was just a foul, miserable creature for no good reason. I woke up with a nest of hornets in my head and the buzzing just got louder as the day went on. If you had come near me today, I would have bitten you.  Biting somebody might have cured me, actually, if I ever got the chance.

Everything pissed me off today.  Starting with the rain–the insufferable goddamn gloomy cold miserable rain, which only let up long enough for it to hail.

Yes. I got mad at Portland over the rain.

And then I got pissed off at my bank over their aggressively, willfully stupid “have you tried reinstalling Windows” version of tech support.

Again: Yes. I got mad at tech support for their inability to fix the thing they are supposed to know how to fix.

And then I almost lost it over a badly designed conference registration website, and then–this really happened–I yelled at my in-box over the amount of spam in it.

That’s right.  I am the person who, today, got mad at spammers for sending spam. I did that.

So then I realized that as long as I was going to be such a terror, I might as well give up and make today Shit Day.  Shit Day is the day I set aside, about once a week, to deal with all my shit.  Unanswered emails, unpaid bills, unsigned contracts, unrun errands, all that crap.  (If you’re a freelancer, and particularly a freelancer who works in the arts and needs long periods of uncluttered creative time to work, I highly recommend that you institute Shit Day.  Just put all your shit off until your next regularly-scheduled Shit Day, which will fall on the next day that is already so messed up that you’re not going to get any good work done anyway.)

So I went at my dumb little to-do list like the enraged-for-no-reason beast I was today, not just crossing things off the list as I finished them but actually stabbing them, actually running my pen like a knife through the spleen and liver and lungs and heart of my list until it was just about dead.

Then–oh, god!  Then I realized that it was already four and I had better catch a bus and get to campus for my class.  The one I teach, I mean. The one where I am expected to be–if not wise, helpful, useful–at least appropriately dressed and decently behaved and not on a killing spree.

And here’s the thing–last night, we all attended the Church of Junot Diaz, who, since I last saw him 14 years ago on the book tour for Drown, has become such a distilled perfected version of who he was put on this planet to be that those of us who went to see him last night did not not bask but actually baked in his presence–I swear, when we left we were all slightly roasted, we left with a little tan, a little radiation burn–

and after a night like that, I’m going to drag my miserable, angry, pissed-off-at-tech-support self to class?  So writing students at MIT get to sit in a room with Junot Diaz and try not to get singed by the sparks flying off him, and writing students at Portland State get–what?  Bitter, querulous, unkind me?

I promised myself the following as I got on the bus: a venti nonfat chai, a large hunk of whatever baked good was left in the case at five o’clock, and, when I got home, some sort of bourbon-based consolation.

You all know what happened next.  Everyone in class was so clever and witty and thoughtful and generally willing to show up in a windowless room on a Tuesday night and actually give a shit for over three hours straight that all I had to do was sit there and watch in amazement and suck down my chai.  We are starting off every class with a story, and two people told sweet and funny stories and by the end of story time I was OK.

But I still came home and had that drink. I mean, that was the deal, right?  There were good peaches at the store this week, and we all know that the highest and best use of a peach is to soak it in bourbon.  So.

I think a Consolation should be a category of drink, like a Sling or a Flip or a Fizz.  A Consolation is a warm and indulgent drink served at the end of a trivially difficult day.  Here, then, is my:

Peach and Bourbon Consolation

2 oz bourbon

2 tbsp sugar

1 peach

Optional: orange or peach bitters, Luxardo cherries

Mix equal parts sugar and water in a heatproof glass. Nuke it for just under a minute, until the sugar melts.  In a tumbler, muddle bourbon with a couple slices of peach.  Strain but do not discard the peach remnants; that is a lost opportunity. Just slurp them down while standing over the sink.  Don’t worry, nobody’s looking.

Now add to the tumbler a little of the the still-hot simple syrup to taste (or just a little hot water), plus a few drops of bitters if you have them.  Stir well.  Garnish with another slice of peach.  Or just eat the peach.  Add a Luxardo cherry if you want to, or–hell, it’s your Consolation, so add whatever you want.  You could drop a chocolate chip cookie in there and I wouldn’t tell anybody.

Drink it while it’s slightly warm and lovely.  If you sneak back to the kitchen and add a little more bourbon later on, I won’t tell anybody about that, either.

The Portland Diaries, Part 3

Add this your list of great last lines in literature:

“When I hung up I felt as if I was an astronaut who had completed his orbit of the earth and now I was pulled by some new gravity into a cold clean darkness.”

That’s Walter Mosley at the end of A Little Yellow Dog.  I stood in my pretty little Tin House apartment this morning after I read that and said it out loud three or four or a dozen more times.  Saying it out loud made me feel like I should run around the block, so I put on my shoes and went outside and ran around for a while.

That’s what Walter Mosley will do to you–he’ll make you feel like you have to go run around until you shake it off, or to take it in, one or the other.

Thank you, Mr. Mosley.

A few years ago he wrote a book called This Year You Write Your Novel.  He filled it with lines like “You will find yourself in the cell with more than one murderer,” a terrifying but useful piece of information. I love books on writing written by household name-type authors.  Theirs are the only how-to books I really trust.  (sorry, Natalie Goldberg.)  Mosley advises first-time novelists to write about a thousand words every day, to tackle a short novel their first time out, and to write in the third person because it’s easier. The first draft will take about three months. It’ll be a mess. There’s more work to do after that, and he will tell you how to do it.

This is practical, useful advice, which is why I collect these sorts of books. Elmore Leonard’s gifty little hardcover 10 Rules of Writing includes this gem:

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

You have no idea how useful this is for nonfiction writers.

I also have books on writing by E.B. White, Stephen King, and Anne Lamott. But my favorite might be Janet Evanovich’s How I Write, in which she gives such (perhaps unintentionally) hilarious advice such as her strategy for working out difficult plot problems by opening a bottle of Champagne and popping a bowl of popcorn and then just thinking of something.

Which turns out to be a good way to solve any sort of problem. Drink enough Champagne and eat enough popcorn and something will occur to you.

(When asked by a reader whether her characters sometimes do things that surprise her, she says something like, “Of course not! I’m the one writing the book–you understand that, right? It’s fiction. I decide what they do.”)

So speaking of advice, I learned the most amazing thing in drawing class this week. Our professor had us draw a face, but leave out the eyes, nose, and mouth.

That’s right.  Everything but the features.

You have to understand that faces are incredibly hard to get right.  We are so tuned into them that it is almost impossible to really see them for what they are. Our idea of what a face is gets in the way. So that’s why she was having us draw everything but the parts we tend to focus on.

You wouldn’t think there would be anything left, but that was her point. A face, if you really look at it, is made up of all these lumps and hollows and flat planes. So she had us draw those. We started with the big planes–the forehead, both cheeks–and then did the smaller planes, like the bridge of the nose, the chin, the temples.  Soon we had all these rough shapes worked out, and when we stood back and looked, we realized that all that was left were these little spaces where the features go. Suddenly it was remarkably easy to put them in.

So.  Draw a thing by drawing everything but the thing. And then, in the spaces that are left after you’ve drawn everything else–that’s where the thing goes.

Huh.  I’m pretty sure there’s useful advice for writers in there, too. I haven’t quite worked out what that would be, but I’m thinking about it.




The Portland Diaries, Part 2

I went the wrong way at the Rothko exhibit at the Portland Art Museum, turning right instead of left, which meant that I saw his last work first.  I have an excuse, though:  when I walked in, I looked to the left and saw a bunch of stuff I didn’t recognize.  Nice paintings, but not Rothkos.  Must be some other exhibit. Works from the permanent collection or whatever.  But over to the right I saw some Rothkos, so I went that way.

You don’t have to do much label-reading to figure out when you’re going backwards in an exhibit and seeing the work in reverse chronological order.  It was then that I realized that all those other paintings I’d seen–those non-Rothkos?  That was him!  That was the artist as a young man.

Stuff like this:

and this:

Remind you of anybody?  Like, oh, I don’t know:  Chagall? Gauguin? Klee?  Picasso?  Matisse?  Miro?  Go see the exhibit and I swear you will see every one of them.

I couldn’t believe it!  What was he doing, painting like all those other artists?  He had Rothkos to make–didn’t he know that?  Time’s a-wastin’–get to it, son!

Then.  Then you get this point in his early forties when bits of Rothkos start peeking out from around the edges of these other dreamy, abstract paintings he’s doing.  You see a bit of a Rothko here, and another bit there.  It’s as if they’re trying to make room for themselves on the canvas.  It’s as if they are saying:

“Ahem.  Mr. Rothko.  We’re right here. Where are you?”

And then–there it is! At the age of 46, he does it.  For the first time, he paints a Rothko.  Holy shit!  It’s a little weird and imperfect, like a foal struggling to its feet, but there it is.

On the right is one of his earliest Rothko-esque paintings. On the left–after a few more years–he has it nailed.


At the age of, say, fifty.

And you know what?  Rothko is not a late bloomer. He had to paint all those other paintings before he could start painting Rothkos.  The Rothkos weren’t just sitting on a cloud up in Heaven waiting for him to say his prayers and have them delivered to his studio.  No, Rothko made that shit come to life.  He made it by painting all that other shit first.

He did that.

I love teaching (Dear Portland State University:  I love teaching, please invite me back someday because this turns out to be one hell of a way to live) because when I discover something like this, I can take it right over to a room full of really smart, eager, engaged people who will listen to me (because they have to) and write it down (because they’re writers, and they write stuff down.)

So here, class. Here’s what we learn from Rothko:

First, go ahead and write like the masters.  If you’re writing like some great author you adore, that means you’re learning.  You’re assembling a vocabulary, a took kit, a palette. And trust me–it is your own weirdly specific tool kit.  No one before you has ever put an iron button, a glass eye, a viridian crayon, a Q-tip, and an old Steve Martin record into one tool kit and made something out of it.  You would be the first.  That would be you.

Second, pay attention to that crazy shit that keeps creeping in around the edges.

Third, there are no late bloomers. You are not late for anything. You are right on time.

So. Go see the Rothko exhibit, and after you’re done, slip a tab of LSD under your tongue and go upstairs to experience the John Frame exhibit.  (I kid about the LSD–you won’t need it.  It is the LSD.)  This thing–this creepy, whispery, haunted, magical thing John Frame has done–came into being six years ago, when Frame, apparently frustrated and ready to give up on art just as a major retrospective of his work was opening, had a dream–A DREAM!–that steered him toward this entirely strange and utterly original new work.

At the age of, like, fifty-five.

I’m just saying.  We are all just on the way to our Thing. So go see Rothko’s thing, and John Frame’s thing, and then go home and get back to work on your thing.