Jill Lake is a lady with a fascinating history. I wish I could meet her in real life, but am privileged to host her today – we found each other through Facebook, when she “Liked” my book Breath of Africa. You can find her review of it HERE.
I wrote my first book when I was eight years old and have been writing ever since. That’s what writers do – they write. Sounds like a truism I know, but I am forever encountering people who tell me they want to write a book and ask me how to go about it. I have one simple answer for them: “Write!”.
I love to write. It’s my pleasure as well as my work and I cannot imagine not doing it. Those who don’t feel that are not “writers” in the truest sense of the word. They are just occasional wayfarers along the long, hard road of writing for a living.
Like most would-be writers I became a journalist. This honed my grammar and syntax, taught me to write succinctly (when necessary) and gave me sound, disciplined writing habits. Above all I learned to write what people wanted to read. I became accustomed to accepting the criticism and taking the advice of editors – an important lesson for any writer to learn. Then, when I became an editor myself, I taught the lessons I had learned to others.
In those days, journalists were not only expected to have good writing and editing skills, they were also expected to have a broad education in politics, current affairs, history and literature. The newsroom and, particularly, the sub-editors’ desk, provided an erudite post-graduate education for young journos. This all became obsolete with the advent first of visually-dependent television news and then the digitalisation of our society. When I realised that “all the news that’s fit to print” had become “all the news that’s shit to print” I decided it was time for a career change!
Like many a journalist before me, too much exposure to the sad and seamy side of life had made me both cynical and disillusioned about people. I desperately wanted to re-invent myself in some positive way and decided that the thing I loved most in life was plants – and growing them. Plants make the world a more beautiful place and to devote oneself to learning more about them and sharing this knowledge with others seemed to offer a possibility of the life well-lived. And so I studied horticulture, set up a consulting business and happily involved myself in all aspects of plant growing and marketing. I also began writing about plants, first for horticultural industry magazines and then for the gardening public. This was both fun and interesting and it took me all around the world.
Then one day I was asked to write a book about the horticultural/botanical area in
which I had decided to specialise – the rainforest plants which have been my passion for more than 20 years now. I was thrilled – I had a cupboard full of hopeful but unpublished novels and now a publisher – albeit a specialist publisher – was actually offering to publish a book that I hadn’t yet written! Several other books followed, on general gardening subjects and a second book on rainforest plants. They all sold modestly well but not enough to make a living so I continued to earn my bread-and-butter through magazine writing , plant photography, book editing and a bit of consulting.
One of the good things about being a published writer with a small but respectable readership is that you get asked to sit on committees, take part in forums, make guest appearances and give talks – and these can be surprisingly lucrative. I never let a chance go by to talk about my favourite subject – and get paid for it!
The problem with gardening books is that, unlike cookery books, they don’t sell all that well. And when they do sell, the author only gets a small part of the profit. What’s more, gardening book publishers are generally rather conservative. I’d shown quite a bit of flair in plant marketing and thought I’d bring this experience to the marketing and promotion of my books. Take a look at the cover of any gardening book and what do you see? – a plant! Or perhaps a garden! Booooring! On the bookstand, your book looks like every other gardening book because a rose is a rose is a rose, as Gerty Stein so incomprehensibly put it. Thus, when publishing my lovely big coffee table book Gardening in a Hot Climate back in the 90s I wanted a bright, cartoonish sort of cover with a girl in a bikini lounging in a hammock under a palm tree, with a trowel in one hand and a piña colada in the other! I knew it would attract attention on the bookstand – but my publishers (lovely people though they were) didn’t agree and though the book sold well enough (and I still get the public lending right fees from libraries even though it’s out of print) it could have sold a lot better if my idea had been used instead of a rather ordinary photograph of a clivia!
And then along came electronic reading and Amazon. This is a perfect medium for gardening books because what readers/gardeners/consumers want is short, pithy, easy-to-read documents packed full of useful information. So I came up with the GardenEzi method which offers a simple five step program for developing gardens or growing and caring for particular plants. All my gardening books are written to this plan because I don’t actually write for gardeners. Gardeners know it all anyway! I write for ordinary consumers – homeowners who want attractive gardens but don’t actually enjoy gardening and don’t have the time for it anyway. Of course, I am always trying subtly to get across the message that gardening is a wonderfully healthy, relaxing and creative activity because my secret aim is to turn gardening-haters into good gardeners! The best way of doing this is to show them just how easy it all can be.
Having written gardening books for 20 years now, and with seven books now in e-format on Amazon, it’s hardly surprising that when I decided to try my hand at fiction again I put a garden firmly at the centre of my book A Garden in Africa. This is a real garden that actually existed; a garden created out of sorrow and loneliness and betrayal. It stands as a metaphor for the colonial experience in Kenya – first the taming of the wilderness through sacrifice and hard work, then the years of flowering and abundance, then the loss of it all. The garden, like Kenya’s colonial society, exists no more. But as my grandmother – on whom this story is based – used to say: “A garden is an act of creation, not of completion”. In this way, gardening is like writing, for a REAL writer it’s the doing that counts!
My latest book has nothing to do with gardening. It’s a fictionalised account of the 19th century Australian explorer, pathfinder and sometime-outlaw Christie Palmerston – an enigmatic figure with whom I fell in love a long time ago. In fact the original manuscript is one of those that has lain in the cupboard for years and I’m now reworking it in the light of my better knowledge and experience. It does have some rainforest in it and the other lead character is a journalist so I’m not straying totally from my usual path.
Oh, and by the way, I still have that first book I wrote when I was eight. It’s called Sadie and Dave On the Island and is about two children who are shipwrecked on a South Pacific “desert” island. Maybe I’ll try and rework that one, too, when I’ve used up all my other ideas!
You can find details of Jill’s Gardening books HERE
And you can find my review of Jill’s A Garden in Africa HERE.
I recognise the banner photo as Maili Saba Nakuru.
You’re wrong there, muzunguking! I took the photo in Shaba game reserve…