Midwest Book Journey - Part I: An Interview with Bonnie Blodgett(Page 1 of 2)










A Midwest Book Journey
Part I
An Interview with Bonnie Blodgett

by Catherine Petruccione

13 September 2010

For two weeks in late June and early July, Ron and I set off on our annual book scouting trip, this time across the upper Midwest. Read a summary of the trip or a day-by-day account of our experiences at our book shop blog (entries 6/27/10 through 7/18/10). In addition to visiting 18 bookshops, numerous antique malls and several libraries, and squeezing in a pleasant 5-day visit with my family in Minnesota, we met with three authors while we were in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area.

On our way home, we also re-connected with Mark Jordan, playwright, poet, and now the Manager of the International Youth Hostel at Malabar Farm in Mansfield, Ohio. You may remember Mark from my two-part article (Part 1 and Part II) on Louis Bromfield and Malabar Farm, which was published on BookThink in October 2006.

About a week into our travels we crossed from Wisconsin into Minnesota at Stillwater, Minnesota, a lovely historic town on the banks of the Mississippi River, close to the metro area of the Twin Cities. After we were settled in the cool old Water Street Inn, we telephoned William Souder, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author who lives in the Stillwater area and whom I interviewed for BookThink in March of this year (Part 1 and Part II) to discuss his book, Under a Wild Sky. He invited us to lunch at The Dock, a restaurant overlooking the river just a few blocks from where we were staying. We were lucky to catch up with him, as later this summer he is off to Southport Island, Maine, to stay at the property where Rachel Carson once lived and where he will be doing research for his upcoming biography on that iconic ecologist. Much to my delight, he brought with him a second talented author from the area, Bonnie Blodgett.

Photo by Ron Sollome

(Photo of us at lunch - photo credit Ron Sollome)

Bonnie brought me a copy of her new book, Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing - and Discovering - the Primal Sense (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, June 2010). This book, which took nearly four years of research to write, was inspired by her own experience with anosmia (loss of the sense of smell), contracted after taking Zicam, an over-the-counter cold remedy that has since been removed from the market.

Bonnie is also a well-known garden writer, publishing The Garden Letter for the past 15 years, a Garden Writers Association award winner for excellence in its first year. Her garden writing has been published in Garden Design, Fine Gardening, and Better Homes and Gardens. She is also the gardening expert for Midwest Home and writes a weekly gardening column in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Her books include Midwest Top Ten (Sunset Books), an illustrated guide to great plants and Jewel of Como, a history of a horticultural landmark. She has a fun and wonderfully helpful gardening gardening website and blog called "The Blundering Gardener."

Bonnie and I hit it off as soon as we discovered we both love the writing of Beverley Nichols and also that of Bill Bryson. It really flipped me out when she told me she "discovered" Bill Bryson! More about that in our interview below.

BOOKTHINK: Since returning home I've been visiting your website regularly for gardening tips. I'm crazy about your gardening website and blog. It's terrific. Tell me first about how you got started in gardening and garden writing.

BLODGETT: I started gardening when I was a parent for the first time and had these two little rug rats who needed a place to play. The house we bought had a yard that was a giant shady, muddy mess. I had no plan; I probably would have been happy if grass was growing, you know what I mean? But I had a neighbor who was a very creative guy and had Creeping Charlie growing all over and I thought that was just the prettiest thing! Thankfully he said, "Hmmm, no ..." and brought over some hostas for me. They looked about half alive, but I threw them in the ground and gave them up for dead. When I came back the next morning (you know what hostas do), they were perfect! A little water, a little soil, and they were perky, upright and still alive.

BOOKTHINK: That's better than my hosta story ... really not so happy an ending.

BLODGETT: You can't kill hostas, I don't think.


BLODGETT: Really? It would be tough. Here in Minnesota, this is hosta country. So that was it. I was hooked. I turned my back yard into this little wonderland and did the brick terrace and a water feature. It was supposed to be a play space for the kids, but not only did it turn into mainly bricks and plants, but also the water feature was a pond that they could have easily drowned in.

BOOKTHINK: It became your play space!

BLODGETT: Yes, and I was on my way. Beware kids, don't go near there. Then we sold the house and moved into one with a much bigger yard and a lot more sun. And I started writing about it because I loved the feeling of freedom that I had in the garden, and I was very frustrated in my work life. So I decided to put the two things together, the gardening and the publishing. Desktop publishing was making it easy to put out something of your own. I had a lot of friends from my magazine days who helped me with the design and gave me a document I could work with, and it has lasted 15 years. The first year it won a very big award, and that gave me a big boost. It was a Garden Writer's Award called "The Art of Garden Communications," which they sort of invented just for me - my newsletter didn't fit any of their categories. It was a very big deal then, I went out to Boston, and it was the last one they gave out. I was kind of overwhelmed because the big secret was, of course, that I didn't know beans about gardening. In those days, I just sort of walked around with my head down hoping nobody would ask me a question.

BOOKTHINK: Don't you think that's why the newsletter was successful? Because it was for the common person who was just getting started in gardening?

BLODGETT: Yes. And I admitted that I was a beginner. Mostly what it was about was all of my fumbling around. But it wasn't easy to pull that off ... you know garden people can be very persnickety.

BOOKTHINK: Well, yes, any group has their upper echelon (even antiquarian book sellers) that can be a little bit snooty.

BLODGETT: There really are sort of two worlds within horticulture that do intersect and get along, but they are two different personality types. There are what I call the plant collectors and plantsmen, people who just want to grow everything and make a real science of keeping plants alive, purists, with a real interest in why my plant grew bigger than your plant; and then there are the design people who don't really know plants in that way but like to throw a bunch of plants together to make a pretty setting. Sometimes those two worlds don't interact. It's really odd because they are just not interested in each other. I'm right in the middle. I'm getting more and more interested in the plants as I get to be a better gardener. That's probably a pretty common trajectory. I didn't really love plants back then - I didn't love them as amazing living creatures; I loved them as you would a nice looking slipcover! The plant and the pot - there wasn't a whole lot of difference. And I've definitely changed.