Amy Stewart stands at her purple front door with the neighbor's cat in her arms. The flowers alongside the entry seem unable to contain themselves and rocket toward a cloudless sky. Stewart, author of seven books, (four are New York Times bestsellers), makes her home in a yellow Victorian on a quiet street in downtown Eureka.
Stewart grew up in Texas, and after grad school headed to California where she and husband Scott Brown lived in a beach cottage across the street from the Santa Cruz boardwalk. It was there that she planted her first garden. Then she wrote a book about it. From the Ground Up, begins with her first half hour in her Oxalis-infested yard and chronicles in tender, humorous detail the struggles and triumphs of becoming a gardener.
Stewart and Brown moved into their Eureka home in 2001, almost on the publication date of that first book. In the years since, she's found a strong community in Humboldt County. "It's very easy to make friends here, and that's not true everywhere." She says in contrast to city life, there's a "frictionless existence" to living in Humboldt, "a wonderful simplicity to it."
The mild weather is another plus. Stewart appreciates being "someplace where I can be outside in December and January just much as I am in July." She also likes the walkability of her neck of the Eureka woods. "Neither one of us needs the car most days." The cafés, shops and galleries of Old Town are close by, and Brown can walk to work at Eureka Books, the rare book store they co-own.
Stewart has written since she was a girl, and was "a freakishly advanced reader." She recalls being "very shy, in the corner with a book — and a cat." In the years since, she's published six works of non-fiction and a slew of magazine and newspaper articles. Writing her first novel, Girl Waits With Gun was, was "hugely fun," says Stewart. "I've always wanted to write fiction," she admits with an honest laugh. "Between many of those nonfiction books was a failed novel."
Girl Waits With Gun is based on the lives of the Kopp sisters, whose story Stewart discovered while researching a gin smuggler named Henry Kaufman for her sixth book, The Drunken Botanist. Deep in the New York Times archives, she found a 1915 clipping about a man whose car collided with a horse and buggy driven by three sisters. Stewart says, "I abandoned Drunken Botanist for the day and thought, 'I think we have a story here.'"
Two years of intensive research ensued. Stewart gleaned all the information she could from digitized newspapers, then hired a genealogist who was able to get courthouse records. She traveled to New Jersey and hung out in library basements scouring microfilm. "Thanks to Ancestry.com," she says, "I found family members and was able to talk to people who have memories of the Kopp sisters."
All of that fact-finding paid off. Released in fall 2015, Girl Waits With Gun is generating rave reviews in national and international media. Stewart is on a roll with the Kopp sisters. Book two is nearly finished and set for release sometime in late 2016. The story may well expand into a series of seven books or more. "There's definitely room to grow," Stewart says.
Once the research is done and Stewart decides it's time to actually write a book, she sets a timeline and just hauls off and writes. Her approach to writing is no nonsense — almost mathematical. She shoots for 1,000 words a day for 100 days, totaling 100,000 words. That takes a little over three months. "It's not a spiritual practice" she insists. "There's a start date and I'm going to keep going till the finish date and if Thanksgiving or Christmas falls in there I'm going to be extremely annoyed."
When she's home and "in her groove," Stewart often paints in the early mornings. In contrast to her writing (which she considers her job), painting is her escape, a time to clear her head without pressure. "I can literally throw them away or wipe them off. But if they work it's like, 'Oh look, great! That's done!'"
One of Stewart's paintings hangs in her living room — a simple, vibrant urban streetscape. With high ceilings and walls in celery and butter and pumpkin hues, her house is airy and soothing. The Echium in the side garden is massive, and the occasional hen stalks past the window. It seems the perfect space for this writer, gardener, gardening writer, painter and novelist who, if she had to do it again, might just be a singer.
Meet Amy Stewart at Eureka Books local author event
Arts Alive • December 5 • Old Town
More books by Stewart:
From the Ground Up, 2001
The Earth Moved, 2003
Flower Confidential, 2007
Wicked Plants, 2009
Wicked Bugs, 2011
The Drunken Botanist, 2013
Girl Waits with Gun, 2015