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How the Savage Garden Came to Be by Peter D'Amato

The Savage Garden 1998Usually when new writers want to publish a book, they create a query letter that is sent either directly to a publisher or a literary agent.  The query letter is one of the most important things the writer can create: it's supposed to grab the attention of the publisher who then, if interested, asks to see a few sample chapters.  
None of this happened in exactly that way when it came to my writing and publishing The Savage Garden.  Way back in 1995, when California Carnivores was just six years old, I got a call from an editor at Timber Press, the largest publisher of horticultural and garden books in America.  He said if I ever decided to write a book about carnivorous plants, he wanted to see it first.  He had a copy of my "California Carnivores Growing Guide."   
When I started the nursery in 1989, there had been only two decent and informative English language books on cultivating carnivorous plants. (There were a few written in Japan.)  The best was Adrian Slack's "Insect-Eating Plants and How to Grow Them", but it had gone out of print soon after Adrian's stroke.  The other was James and Patricia Pietropaulos' Carnivorous Plants of the World, which was published by Timber Press.  It was a very informative book, but the text was rather dry and there were few photos.  The authors were the owners of PeterPauls Nursery, which was actually boycotted by carnivorous plant growers due to their having advocated the removal of CP (carnivorous plants) out of the wild, and they had removed many endangered Sarracenia oreophila from their disappearing natural habitat.  
When I opened California Carnivores I wrote a tiny four page "Growing Guide" for our customers that basically had a couple of paragraphs on cultivation for each of the most popular genera of carnivorous plants.  In the early 1990s I expanded this to a 16 page booklet that had a few nice illustrations by Judith Finn of the Berkeley Botanical Gardens and a few black and white photos.  We sold about 10,000 copies of this booklet over a few years at two dollars each. 
It was in January of 1996, after one of many storms that winter had damaged the old nursery in Forestville, that a man and his wife and baby came in to look around.  There wasn't much to look at since most of the plants were in dormancy, and the place was a mess after the storm's damage.  This gentleman asked about books on carnivorous plants, and I showed him some ruined,  water-logged display copies I had for folks to look at.  The only book in print that we sold at the time was Don Schnell's Carnivorous Plants of the United States and Canada.  This fellow bought a couple of dormant plants and said nothing further, and he and his family left. 
About a week later the guy calls me on the phone.  He said he had come up to the nursery because that previous month he had been at a holiday party and a few people were in a corner laughing over something they were reading.  It was my 16 page Growing Guide booklet, which had a few jokes in it.  That's what prompted him to visit California Carnivores.  He said his name was Tom Southern and he was an editor at Ten Speed Press in Berkeley.  He wanted me to write a book for them.  He considered my Growing Guide like an outline of sample chapters.  He said he wanted to visit again and discuss a contract.  I had never heard of Ten Speed Press but when he returned, Tom brought a sample of books they had published.  I was surprised that I owned a few of them, like cookbooks and "What Color is Your Parachute?", a mega-bestseller on finding a career you would love. 
Ten Speed Press was actually (and still is) a phenomenon in the publishing world.  Phil Wood, the creator of Ten Speed, was an editor for the New American Library.  He was constantly frustrated that there were many books that were rejected because they wouldn't sell enough copies to make it worthwhile (over 10,000) even though Phil thought that even if they had limited sales, they were important.  One such book New American Library rejected was a book on how to repair bicycles.  Phil decided he would finance the publication of the book himself, and called the company Ten Speed Press.  That book sold over one million copies.  Phil was able to do this and make the book affordable cheaply by inventing the "quality paperback", which changed publishing history.  Instead of hardcover books selling for $40 he was able to do high quality paperbacks and sell them for less than $20.  
Tom Southern told me all of this, and that in a few months they would have a contract for me.  I waited patiently, then Phil Wood himself visited the nursery that spring.  He was an impressive character, a sort of cross between Ernest Hemingway and Burl Ives.  The nursery amazed him, and he said they'd like a book about 200 pages long with 100 photographs, but I would basically be free to write whatever I wanted.  In fact much later, as I stated in the acknowledgements of the first edition of The Savage Garden, while writing the book I'd call them and say things like, "I can't do this book in less than 300 pages," and "I'm going to need over 200 photos."   Phil and my editor, Donna Latte, simple said "Okay!" 
When it came to the actual writing of the book, I was at first intimidated since I wanted an easy-to-read book that contained as much information that was easy to find among its pages.  I found it at times frustrating going through previous carnivorous plant books to find some simple answer to common questions, such as "Can I grow a Venus Flytrap on my windowsill?" or "How cold hardy is this purple pitcher plant I just bought at the local nursery?"   I must admit that I'm very proud of the way I handled that dilemma.  At the end of each genus chapter I had the green-tinted pages listing such questions, under headings of "Soil Recipes" and "Climate" and "Terrariums" and "Fertilizing".   The later reviews of the book in both magazines and newspapers and on Amazon acclaimed this format.  It made such answers easy to find and quickly.  One reviewer wrote "If only all plant books could be written like this!" 
My late friend Randy Shilts wrote several bestsellers.  One was his mega-bestseller "And the Band Played On", about the history of the AIDS epidemic.  I asked him how he organized such a complex story, and he told me he wrote down all the important facts chronologically on index cards.  So when he sat down to write the book he would just follow the events written on the cards.  I thought this was rather brilliant.  
So I wrote two outlines.  One was a longer outline that listed chapter and section titles only, such as "The Water Tray Method" and "Pottery and Containers" and "Natural Light".  These sections were more detailed and could be referenced for more information from the green-tinted parts at the end of the genus chapters.  
The second outline was for the genus chapters.  It listed information that needed to be covered in a systematic way:  A catchy opening paragraph, when the genus was discovered, where they grew, the climate, what the plants did to catch and eat insects and animals,  and so on.  It made each chapter easy to write by just referring to the outline as to what had to be discussed next.  It was like following a formula or recipe.
To make a long story shorter, it took longer for me to finish the book than the contract called for.  They had wanted the manuscript by the end of 1996 for publication the following summer. That was only a few months!    It took me until the end of summer of 1997 to finish the book for publication in 1998. Ten Speed didn't mind.  On top of the writing, I took only one photograph that appeared in the book.  I had tremendous help from many friends and a photographer Ten Speed hired and paid for, Jonathan Chester. 
Usually for a first printing of a book by an unknown writer, Ten Speed would release 7,500 copies.  When Phil Wood saw the first galleys of the book, he doubled the first printing to 15,000 copies.  In 1998 the book won the American Horticultural Society's book award, and the Garden Writer's Association of America's Quill and Trowel Award.  It went through about a dozen more printings.....before the Revised version was released in 2013.  But that, as they say, is another story.
~Peter D'Amato
Peter D'Amato

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  • Mark on

    Mr. D’Amato: Great book. Thanks for writing it. It was a pleasure meeting you last summer when I visited California Carnivores with Stewart McPherson and you signed my first edition of Savage Garden. I was wondering what type of Flava is shown on the cover. I looked through the credits but didn’t see any reference. I saw that you have the same Flava growing in your nursery but I didn’t get it identified. Thanks.

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