Few women wear as many hats as Cherie Colburn. Landscape artist, singer and published author are just a few roles Cherie maintains. Cherie’s first book, Our Shadow Garden was published last year with its profits benefitting M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. This year Cherie’s book, Heirloom Bulbs, hit the stores to rave reviews. Recently I spoke with Cherie about her passion for books, gardening tips and the difficulty in picking a favorite plant.
Where did you grow-up and where do you live now?
I was born in Houston while my dad was in dental school, but spent all my growing-up years in Athens, Texas, otherwise known as Black-eye Pea Capital of the World. I'm the oldest of five kids and married my college sweetheart. We have two daughters who were drug all over the Texas oilfield until we were transferred back to the Houston area in 1994. Guess I've sort of come full circle, haven't I?
What is a normal “writing” workday like for you?
Normal? I dare anyone to show me "NORMAL" when it comes to writers in general! But my normal "writing" workday is much like it was as a landscape designer for the past 20 years, except I don't have to sweat as much in the summer. I'm up at 5:30, with quiet time with my coffee and Bible after my husband leaves at 6. I exercise after that – either the elliptical trainer with an eBook or head out to my garden or ride my bike – depending on the weather and the time of year because the sun's as lazy as I am in the wintertime. I get busy on whatever my project du-jour is, usually by about 10 a.m. I whip back and forth during the day at intervals to do some things for the business part of being a writer, which I sometimes enjoy way too much, especially when I'm having a hard time deciding which way to go with a story. I try to tie things up by about 5 so I can get dinner going, but some days if I'm on a roll, my wonderful husband eats cereal or leftovers and never even complains about it. I do quit for a few hours of family time at night, even when I've got an impending deadline. By 9 p.m., I'm usually getting ready for bed and read for an hour or so. But often it's hard turning my brain off long enough to sleep. When the muse can't be silenced, my office light comes back on at about 2 a.m. Some of my best work is done then. Or at least it seems that way when I'm writing it. When I look at it again after I've had some sleep, I often realize I'm not as clever as I thought I was. On days my husband travels – which he does quite often – I rarely know what time it is and may never get out of my pajamas!
You’ve written both a picture book and a non-fiction book. How does your writing approach change for these different types of writing?
I believe good writing always tells a good story, no matter if it is fiction or non-fiction. I juggle a couple of magazine articles, a blog post and at least two book projects on any given day. On top of that, I'm working on either promotions or speaking engagements for my books that are already out or upcoming release. I often have a fiction piece I'm either actively writing or pondering, both for children and adults. (I've had poetry and short stories published, too.)
Your love for gardens is a huge theme in your books. Do you have a favorite plant that no garden should go without?
I had a professor that said asking a plant person what their favorite plant is akin to asking a mother who her favorite child is. I'll dodge the question like a politician by saying I like the right plant for the right place at the right time. In early summer, I love Turk's cap so I can watch the hummingbirds fight over the blooms. Just before fall comes, I love my fig tree just as the fruit ripens, especially when I beat the blue jays to it! In winter I love my river birch that is settled into the low spot in the backyard because of the unique bark. I just have to touch it! In spring, the fragrance of the 'Souvenir de la Malmaison' rose reminds me of the rose water my grandmother sprayed in her hair. What plant should no garden go without? The one that brings you joy.
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
1) Make sure you tell the story. I read articles or books that, when I'm done I think, "what a waste of a great story." Many people are decent writers. I am a DECENT writer. A few are great writers, although not many. But a decent writer can LEARN to tell a story in a way that does it justice that does not waste it.
2) Tell the story because you love it. There are two sides to this coin. You are going to RE-tell the story a zillion times if the book becomes popular, so you BETTER love it! Also, when I speak at schools, it never fails that a kid will ask "how much money do you make?" After their teacher turns every shade of red, I answer them honestly. "I'm very thankful my husband supports me so that I can be here with you today." I can make a living from writing, but it's increasingly difficult. My income was much better as a landscape designer. Unfortunately for my husband, I am not motivated by money either. And I think the advent of new technology has more people are writing, which probably makes my writing less valuable monetarily since there is a glut in the market. Yes, I might become the next JK Rowling. But that won't matter after I've won the lottery, which I actually have a better shot at doing.
3) Don't give up. Not only do you have to keep trying to sell it, you have to keep trying to make it better. Get involved with organizations or groups that challenge your writing and give you opportunities to learn from others. And for heaven's sake, READ! It's funny to me how many people who say they want to be writers also tell me they don't have time to read. That's like saying, "I'm NBA basketball material, but don't have time to watch any games." They are missing the point, in my opinion and I question if they are on the right path. We have to read to know what good literature looks like. Otherwise, how will we know if OURS is good enough for anyone else to read?
Do you have any advice for first time gardeners?
Read my blog! Seriously, one of the greatest things in my life was having a father and two grandmothers who were gardeners. If you can find someone to mentor you as a gardener, you'll enjoy it forever.
What are you working on now?
I've finished a project I've been working on for two years called 50 FAVORITE TEXAS ROADSIDE WILDFLOWERS. It's not specifically for students, but University of Texas is doing a website with companion curriculum to follow the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) for 4th – 9th grade. My illustrator and I have come up with a pretty innovative identification system and I'm planning to do an environmental series for all 50 states with the method. I also want to develop a phone app with geo-tracking to go along with the books. Then those two new books in the HEIRLOOM series which I hope will come out in 2013 and 2014. Also, I did a short story several years ago that I'm thinking would make a nice one-act play……
Do you have any upcoming appearances or events?
I'll be signing HEIRLOOM BULBS FOR TODAY at the Houston Bulb Mart October 15th, at Arbor Gate Nursery in Tomball October 22nd, and at Christmas Open House at Cornelius Nursery November 4th.
You can find Cherie at her website www.cheriecolburn.com. Her books are available at bookstores locally and online booksellers
This article also appeared in The Houston Banner newspaper.