Debra Prinzing

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Into the Garden with Charles

Friday, 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

Skip in his garden in Orient, New York. Rover is seated on his lap.

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┬ástory 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

Charles and Skip in their pork pie hats. Skip printed note cards from the original watercolor.

 

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!

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