Into the Garden with Charles
April 13th, 2012
Read about the 10-year journey of a garden memoir – from the seed of an idea to its release by a top New York publisher
Many garden writers whose work I greatly admire have privately shared their disappointment that our genre isn’t seriously viewed as a literary subject when compared to, say, sports or food. Every twelve months we witness the publication of an anthology titled something like “The Best American Sports Writing, 2011” or “The Best Food Writing, 2010.” There are books of “bests” for Science and Travel writing. Yes, even Nature and Environment writing has been compiled by publishers, but those topics aren’t the same as the subject of the garden. Sadly, garden writing rarely receives credit for its importance as an art form.
And yet, there is wonderful work in our circles. And one of the very best pieces of literary garden writing I’ve ever read was just published this week and released by the venerable imprint Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It’s a memoir called “Into the Garden with Charles,” by the late Clyde Phillip “Skip” Wachsberger, an award-winning artist twice honored by Garden Writers Association.
Skip’s book is beautiful both for its language and for the 14 full-color watercolor illustrations interspersed through its 224 pages. FSG’s press material describes this work as a “sweet and inspiring story about art, love, and gardening set against the backdrop of New York City and the author’s noteworthy garden outside a three-hundred-year-old house in the tiny village of Orient, Long Island.”
For those of us who knew and admired Skip, his book can be viewed as one man’s life work. It’s a highly personal and yet universal story of love, friendship, and the way the garden can nurture a lonely soul.
When I spoke by telephone with Jonathan Galassi, FSG’s president and publisher, and asked what prompted him to acquire Skip’s memoir, he said: “I thought it was a very genuine and beautiful piece of work; very touching and real and unlike anything else I’d read.”
As I listened to those words, tears welled up in my eyes. I thought: How pleased Skip would have been to hear them. We lost Skip last November, when cancer took his life. That his writings, paintings and garden survive is to be cherished by those who loved him and by anyone who reads this memoir.
For fellow garden writers, Skip’s creative story is an inspiring one, much of it documented in the pages of his memoir. His manuscript took a decade to be cultivated – from an original garden book idea to its release by one of the publishing world’s very best imprints.
Skip and I had many conversations over the years about how he reshaped his writing — from descriptions of plants and place into an intimate narrative of his own life. To better describe the story of this special book, I turned to the people closely involved with “Into the Garden With Charles.” In addition to interviewing Mr. Galassi, I spoke by phone with Charles Dean, Skip’s surviving husband, and Karen Braziller, his friend, neighbor and longtime writing coach/editor. They graciously shared details of Skip’s writing journey with me.
GARDENING, WRITING AND PAINTING
In theatre, someone who sings, dances and acts is called a “triple threat,” so I guess you could say that as a creative individual, especially in garden writing circles, Skip had his own remarkable set of triple talents — gardening, writing and painting.
His gifts converge in and enliven the pages of “Into the Garden with Charles.” From the opening lines when he wonders if all that makes him happy is just a dream – his beloved but antiquated home and garden, his always-cheerful dog Rover, and his charming, Southern-born partner Charles – Skip draws the reader into his magical world in which the impossible is always possible, if you only believe.
“Into the Garden with Charles” tells of a wonderful life filled with a love for opera, art, plants and friends. That Skip yearned for a companion with whom to share all of it is a familiar narrative. And just when it seems like he’ll never find the love of his life, living as he does in a remote Long Island village populated with couples and having just passed his half-century birthday, Skip meets Charles.
“Every garden tells a story. Ours tells a love story,” he wrote. And you will fall in love with both Skip and Charles, as well as Rover, their loyal Havanese, and all of their plant-obsessed garden adventures. Gardeners will especially relate to the ends to which these two men go to develop an otherworldly backyard where every tree, vine or flower has its own back-story!
For those who love to read lush (but not flowery) language, you will find the narrative delightful. And like a child’s storybook from days gone by, this one is adorned with beautiful watercolor illustrations, painted by the author. Allow yourself to be drawn into Skip’s dream world. You will be touched by his wisdom, kind spirit and optimism — all of it a gift from him to the reader!
What began more than ten years ago as a book about gardening — starting in January and taking the reader through December, complete with a map to illustrate the location of every tree, bulb and pathway — evolved through Skip’s many rewrites. In 2010, four years after a prostate cancer diagnosis, Skip thought he had finished his manuscript. Members of his writers’ group assured him it was ready. But Karen felt one more revision was needed.
“Karen called the other four members of the workshop and said to each of them, ‘I know you think it’s ready to go, but to me, it’s not finished,'” Charles recalled. “They knew he had worked so hard and had been so sick, and they didn’t want to make him go through one more rewrite.”
But Karen told Skip what she thought he needed to do. “He understood what was lacking,” Charles continued. “I didn’t think he would do it. I figured he would give up. But lo and behold, he went back at it. If Skip hadn’t done the work on the last two chapters this would not be the book it is now.”
Later that summer, Skip completed his final version of “Into the Garden with Charles.”
Within two weeks, Karen, not an agent but an editor of Persea Books, her own imprint, convinced Skip that they should publish the book privately. “We decided to make a perfect fine-art edition of only 150 books, and include Skip’s watercolors and botanical illustrations,” Karen explained. “That way, it wouldn’t interfere with what a mainstream publisher would do in the future.”
While she shopped around for a domestic printer willing to handle a small print run, Skip emailed friends to invite them to “invest” in the publication of “Into the Garden with Charles.”
I received that email from him on July 29, 2010. “Some exciting news! My memoir, after ten years of workshops, is finally ready to be sent to publishers,” Skip wrote. “But more exciting is that Karen Braziller is going to produce a pre-publication Special Edition of 150 or 200 copies, with full color illustrations, the book I had always imagined but that might be too expensive for a publisher to consider.”
He went on to invite me to purchase a copy of the book’s special edition for $100, and of course, I sent him a check immediately. I only regret that I didn’t send him $500, for 24 very fortunate supporters who contributed at that level also received one of the book’s original watercolor illustrations. Those funds helped pay for the book’s printing costs.
It makes me happy to picture Skip painting each of the autobiographical scenes, working on his back porch that faces his garden. Before he signed off, he wrote this postscript: “I have been painting from 7 AM to 7 PM almost every day! I am so thrilled that I will actually see this book printed, just as I had always imagined it!”
When we spoke last week, Karen reminded me that the summer of 2010 was a good one for Skip, health-wise. “It was the best summer ever. Charles took three months off work, and he and I did everything possible to help Skip, so he had nothing to do except his writing and his painting, and also work on the garden,” she said. “At one point, I said to Charles: ‘Isn’t it fun being an assistant to an artist?'”
Would that we all had an editor like Karen and a nurturing writing group like those dear Orient friends – journalists, poets, artists, fiction writers and others – who together formed a safe, creative environment in which Skip’s early efforts evolved into a beautiful story of love, life and the garden. “His final manuscript is very clean and straightforward,” Karen said. “It’s charming, and it’s unaffected. It’s like he was.”
The Studley Press of Dalton, Mass., printed the book, a lavish first edition, with heavy paper stock and vivid color reproduction. In early December 2010, it arrived in the mail: My own signed copy, No. 90 out of 150 numbered, Special Edition copies, its evergreen book jacket embellished with Skip’s watercolor painting of ruby-red hollyhocks in his garden. Skip’s personal note of love was inscribed on a page in the front.
Last year Skip earned his second Gold Award for Illustration from Garden Writers Association, for “Into the Garden with Charles.” He was too ill to attend our national symposium in Indianapolis, so he asked me to accept the honor on his behalf. He was so pleased to have his work recognized by his peers. (GWA first honored his botanical illustrations in 2002 for Persea Books’ “Of Leaf and Flower,” which he co-edited with Charles.)
IT GETS BETTER, ALTHOUGH BITTERSWEET
You might think that’s the end of this publishing fairytale, but yet another amazing thing happened. A copy of the book made its way to Jonathan Galassi of FSG.
“I was hoping to find an agent to handle (selling) the book,” Karen said. “But I also felt that FSG would be the right place for it.” She sent a copy to Jonathan, whose reputation is absolutely huge – he publishes writers like Scott Turow and Michael Cunningham. “I knew him only slightly over a long period of time, and I didn’t know that he was a gardener who also edited all of FSG’s gardening books,” Karen said. It didn’t take long to learn that indeed, Jonathan wanted to publish Skip’s memoir.
In our conversations, Charles, Karen, and Jonathan each mentioned the rare quality of Skip’s watercolor illustrations, which depict, among other things, his 300-year-old home on Village Lane; himself as a child in the garden; his rather dominating mother and her sisters; Rover, and of course, Charles, who feels that through the illustrations, “Skip was channeling a children’s book of the 1930s and 40s.”
His watercolors remind Jonathan of “those N.C. Wyeth children’s story books that my mother had — and that type of illustration fits beautifully into Skip’s book.”
Skip had several opportunities to meet with his new publisher. Jonathan visited Skip and Charles in their Orient garden and he worked closely with both of them, as well as with Karen, who continues to be Skip’s literary champion.
Last year, Skip reviewed and approved (or dismissed) the small changes FSG wanted to make to the original book. He saw the final galleys, but did not live to see the book published on April 10th.
“I so wish he could be here,” Charles admitted. “He actually said that he didn’t have any regrets in life. He told me, ‘I’ve done everything I wanted to do and I’m content with my life, but I really would have liked to see my book on bookstore shelves.'”
The ending scene of “Into the Garden with Charles” is one any gardener can understand. Well aware of his mortality, Skip describes sitting with Charles while paging through a favorite nursery catalog. Revealing his unbridled plant lust, he says, “There’s a new red banana being offered.”
“Where are you going to put that?” Charles asks, not looking up from his magazine.
“I guess you’re right. We don’t need it.”
“No! Get it!” he urges enthusiastically. “Put it in front of the woods.”
Many of us stumble into not-so-accidental friendships with fellow GWA members when we meet at a national symposium. That’s how I met Skip and Charles. Our friendship began in February 2002 when I received a personalized form-letter from Skip and Charles in a hand-addressed envelope. “Dear Ms. Prinzing,” they wrote. “We would like to introduce our book. It is an ideal gift for gardeners and for all readers who enjoy good stories and wonderful poems. . . .” They enclosed the publicity page about “Of Leaf and Flower,” a literary anthology they co-edited in 2001 for Persea Books.
The press material promised that their volume “summons up the profound passions and wild obsessions of gardening.”
When I got my hands on it, I read the entire volume of pitch-perfect stories and poems Charles and Skip had carefully selected. And I admired the botanical illustrations from Skip’s original Sumi ink paintings. I wrote a short but positive review for “Garden Notes,” the Northwest Horticultural Society newsletter I edited at the time.
Six months later, I was practically knocked over by two men who ran up to me at a GWA “first-timer’s” reception in Seattle. “You’re Debra Prinzing!” they exclaimed. “Thank you for reviewing our book!”
One tall and one short, but wearing his-and-his pork pie hats (Charles in orange and Skip in turquoise), this charming pair became my instant friends. I was smitten by their magnetic enthusiasm for everything horticultural, especially the Seattle gardens and nurseries we toured during GWA’s four-day symposium. Skip received his GWA Gold Award and he and Charles left Seattle extracting a promise that I visit them whenever I headed east.
That chance arrived in 2004 when GWA’s symposium was held on Long Island. I finally got to see the amazing garden upon which Skip lavished all of his love and creative energy both before he and Charles became a couple, and after, when they gardened there together.
Stepping into their abundant, charmingly-chaotic garden, I held my breath. Skip’s past career in theatrical set design clearly influenced his choices about the placement of specimens – either for the way their leaves caught the sunlight or how a higher branch provided scaffolding for a climbing rose. Escorted by Charles and Skip, who provided me with a running narrative about the provenance or genetic ancestry of each tree or shrub, I took the full circuit, moving from one verdant scene to the next. A masterpiece!
Over dinner, before they drove me back to the convention hotel, I met Karen, whose obvious love for and friendship with Charles and Skip somehow spilled over to me. Our friendship deepened and continued, despite my living on the west coast and the three of them living on the east coast.
The takeaway for anyone reading this (long, I know) piece is that you never, ever know who will influence you and your work. Knowing Skip made me aspire to be a writer whose work is personal, authentic and relevant. Through his wonderment and love for both the natural world and the cultivated garden, and through his purely joyous outlook, Skip enriched my life and taught me much about being a writer. I’m so glad I can read his words again, and again.
If you are interested in receiving a review copy of “Into the Garden with Charles,” please contact:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
18 West 18th Street, NYC 10011
Special thanks to Charles Dean for sharing his photographs of Skip and the garden. The group photo of Charles, Karen, Skip and me was taken by William Wright.