This week Pearse & Black’s clients The Handmade Apothecary – Kim Walker and Vicky Chown – have their first book published by Kyle Books. It’s the culmination of a lot of work.
Kim and Vicky are not primarily writers: not the I-have-to-write-today-or-I-will-not-function-properly kind anyway. They are medical herbalists and they have that kind of relationship with their plants, and the woods and gardens where they work and forage for health giving and beautifying herbs. So for them first-book writing was a real stretch. Pearse & Black interviewed them about the process.
What were your first reactions to being asked to write a proposal?
Kim: Elation & excitement that subsequently turned to an icy fear along the lines of ‘shit we actually have to move our asses and write, now’!
Vicky: We had always spoken about writing a book but I did think it would be much further down the line, after thirty years of practice, perhaps. So the second thought was ‘oh god can I actually do this?’
Tell us about meeting the publishers for the first time.
Kim: We had no experience of anything like it, and no idea what to expect or what we needed to do other than look smart, eager and nod at the appropriate moments.
Vicky: We had no clue about the process, no clue as to whether they would accept our proposal. But they were very friendly.
Where did you begin in the writing?
Kim: Research to begin with – we thought about all the Herbal Medicine books we knew and what we liked best & least in them.
Vicky: And we asked ourselves what we wanted from a herbal when we started out. Something with foraging, a holistic view of the body and a practical guide for using herbs. I remember sitting at the front of the boat in the summer and writing page after page of ideas of what we wanted to include.
Kim: Then we made a master plan – like a contents overview – and worked down from there.
How did you figure out how to organise the book?
Vicky: It was a bit tricky at first. We could have gone seasonal – but then with the book potentially being sold in other parts of the world, we realised that might not work. So we went for a first-things-first approach. Foraging, medicine making, then the body’s systems and the individual herbs after that. We wanted people to feel they could use the book as a reference or read cover to cover, whichever they prefer.
Kim: Mostly we thought through what we would have liked as students, we imagined ourselves as first time readers. Or tried to.
Did you develop a voice as you went on with the project?
Kim: Yes. We each took sections to write, then would edit them together and then move on bit by bit.
Vicky: We wanted the book to be scientific but we also wanted a friendly sounding book. Occasionally we had to remember that we weren’t writing an academic piece but something that everyone who picked it up would need to understand.
By the end of the book we would go back to earlier text and have to completely re-write – shouting ‘WHO WROTE THIS F*/!@ing GUFF???’
(Ed: So it’s true that you learn to write by writing)
How was it juggling work and leisure and writing the book?
Kim: AHAHAHAHAHA leisure? What leisure? It was an intense 6 months because we had to work full-time alongside writing the book. Of course we loved the research part and so in a way that was a pleasure, but there is no getting away from the fact that you do have to devote a lot of your time to making a book – I’ve no idea how it compares to fiction writing, but it felt like an extra difficult process because you really need to fact check and double-check everything you have written, questioning how it might be interpreted both for practical and safety reasons, so I was constantly waking up in the night wondering about a sentence.
Vicky: It was a crazy task – big life things happened for both of us during the writing. We’re refubishing our narrow boat so most of the time it’s been an empty shell and we were staying at other people’s houses. Being a herbalist comes with lots of equipment – it was difficult to find space to work, and even to get together what we needed for photo shoots. Then there was the complete lack of time we both had, working full time in at least 3 jobs each and organising our usual Herb Walks and events for the Handmade Apothecary.
What was it like writing with your business partner?
Kim: I think we saw and spoke to each other during that period more than our partners got to!
Vicky: And it was very hard to find time to work together, through our crazy schedules and our lack of space. We wrote and edited sitting on my bed in the box room at my mum’s house or in busy cafes. When time just wasn’t on our side we would do Skype calls and work on google docs so we could both see changes. We did drive each other crazy at times but ultimately we got through it and helped each other out. We each have different strengths and weaknesses and we do work well together.
Kim: I think we both felt we needed a break from each other for a while afterwards. Luckily we have been through so much together that we only have temporary divergences and soon came back to work on our projects again.
How was it working with a photographer? Who found locations and were you happy with them?
Kim: We worked with a fantastic photographer, Sarah Cuttle, who had great vision and was able to put together beautiful shots with whatever plant materials and remedies we would bring along to the shoot. It was really fun unpacking all the gorgeous props at the beginning of the shoot and choosing the most beautiful pieces to work with.
Vicky: It was – the props were well organised by our editor at Kyle Books and we had a lot of creative input. It was great working alongside some very talented people.
Kim: We chose the locations as we needed to ensure we could snap as many plants as possible.
Are there any stories associated with places now for you?
Kim: Every location will be integral to my memories of this book. We had wonderful summer – we were quite lucky with the weather – it was particularly lovely to sit at Diane & Peter Anderson’s herb farm and eat freshly baked bread and scones in the sunshine surrounded by beautiful plants. I particularly admired Sarah’s determination to get a good shot, even if that meant lying full-length in a nettle patch!
Do you feel happy with the book?
Kim: It’s a strange question. The book is the end-result of us planning something we would want to be proud of. But at the same time, after having your life so completely dominated we literally felt that we never wanted to see the book again. You get sick of reading and re-reading it. But then when our editor finally delivered the book to the house one night and I held it in my hands I had a rush of euphoria and I literally danced and jumped around the living room like a small child because this beautiful physical thing, this fruit of nerve-racking long-term effort was finally real. I hadn’t realised before that point that I had existed in a state of subconscious disbelief that it was really happening.
Vicky: I’m really happy with how the book turned out. We are both perfectionists and perhaps we could have written some things differently but given the intensity and our lives being crazy during the writing process I think we did well and have delivered a book that both of us would ourselves.
What would you do differently (process wise) second time around if anything?
Kim: The experience was definitely a learning curve. One thing would be not to fear starting. Sometimes we didn’t want to start writing a section until we had it perfectly planned in our heads, but actually the trick is just to start writing, even if its crap – it’s the getting the ideas on paper and editing them after that matters – the text grows from there. So I wish we had less writing time and more editing time.
Vicky: I would change life! It was juggling life during writing the book that made things hard. I hope by the time I write another book I will have a more stable home life – and more money in the bank!
What would be your advice to first timers?
Kim: Just do it – write up a schedule for the time period so that you know what you need to get done by what time. Equally, don’t beat yourself up if things come up and you have to adapt it. Don’t be afraid to completely start again on a section that isn’t working. Return to it another day and start afresh and ignore previous text.
Get an agent, and one you like. They are invaluable when times are really taxing and you need a fresh eye. They work as a mediator for the business side of things, even sometimes between you and your writing partner – and as an ass-kicker when you are feeling less motivated. Josie’s help was invaluable.
Vicky: Yes, go for it. Even if it seems impossible. Embrace and enjoy the process. Get an agent.
Kim: After writing this book I thought NEVER AGAIN but I’m already I am planning the next few ideas! I imagine it’s comparable to childbirth – not the physical pain levels – in that, though it is a bloody harrowing experience, the end product definitely makes it all worth it!
The book will be available from Amazon . You can order it HERE