Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Q&A with Molly Williams




Molly Williams is the author of the new book Taming the Potted Beast: The Strange and Sensational History of the Not-So-Humble Houseplant. She also has written the book Killer Plants. She is a professor of writing in New England.


Q: In your new book's introduction, you note that you were inspired by seeing a listing for a $500 philodendron. Can you say more about why you decided to write Taming the Potted Beast?


A: I’ve been in the houseplant game for a long time - but I really got involved while I was completing my MFA in Boston. I started working at a local plant shop in an affluent area - and I couldn’t help but to start tracking the conversations that I was having with customers.


Most of the time folks were dropping serious money on plants that they didn’t know or care about the origins of  - or how to care for, for that matter. It was all about ascetics and/or wanting something living in their homes. 


Of course, that was all pre-pandemic. But in the year leading up to the onset of Covid-19, the houseplant industry started to spike. This was mostly to do with social media and “rare” plant scene exposure - folks showing off their expensive collections of hard-to-find plants. Then, it all started to snowball. 


I started asking people I knew, who were collectors, what they knew about their plants. Most of the time it was just basic care instructions - but no knowledge of how those plants ended up as “house plants.” 


My goal is always to make difficult to access information readily available to the every-day reader, so that’s what I set out to do with Taming the Potted Beast. A micro-history was the perfect vessel.


Q: The book includes so much fascinating information about houseplants through the centuries--how did you conduct your research, and what did you learn that especially intrigued you?


A: I did a ton of research - way more than I had anticipated, because I thought “Oh, I know quite a bit - so what I find will just validate what I already know.” 


Instead, I ended up deep diving through the ages. For more than a year I shifted through libraries and online collections, looking for the smallest details.  


I was very excited to be awarded the Catherine Mooney Fellowship at the Boston Athenaeum last year - the access to their special collections was so valuable in my research journey. I spent a large chunk of time with the Victorians - which might have been my favorite time period to dive into. 


There is a snippet in the book about plant-con men in New York City during the 1800s that were selling fake blue roses and created quite the outrage - for me that was extremely validating. That type of bogus behavior is one of the things that drove me to write this book - except these days it’s the online houseplant con-market.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: Using the word “beasts” to describe houseplants was a very specific choice for me. By definition, “beast” refers to something that is difficult to control or contain. And that, at their core, is what houseplants are. It’s what plants are. Nature is uncontrollable - no matter how humans try to contain or restrain it. 


No matter how many different ways we keep plants in the home, they’re still wild things that really cannot be tamed. 


Q: What are your favorite houseplants?


A: Oh gosh. That changes on a weekly basis. If I had to choose one - I’d have to pick my Begonia aconitifolia. I got it for $1 at the estate sale of my grandmother’s best friend that had moved out of state (whew - that’s a mouthful). It’s a tried and true survivor that’s now 5’ tall! 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve got a few projects in the fire! Next spring my first children’s book, How to Speak Flower, will be hitting the shelves from Running Press Kids. I’m currently in the research stages of a project about Jane Austen and the botanical references in her work! 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment