If you’ve seen the book trailers for Wicked Plants and Wicked Bugs, you know that Amy Stewart is not just a diligent researcher but that she’s wicked quirky and fun. She knows how to make anything (earthworms, weeds, bedbugs) a topic you want to read. That’s why her books continue to end up on The New York Times bestseller lists.
In her latest book, Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects, Stewart offers play-by-plays on the behaviors of some of the most devious, destructive and downright terrifying bugs in the world. As with her other books, she mixes the perfect amount of fact and whimsy to make for a highly entertaining and educational read. Like Wicked Plants, Wicked Bugs includes beautiful illustrations by artist Briony Morrow-Cribbs. They’re so realistic, they give you goosebumps. Leave this book out on a table and anyone within eyeshot will be enticed to read it.
Stewart, who also happens to own a bookstore in Eureka, CA, is currently on tour for Wicked Bugs and took some time to answer questions from Lindsey McGuirk, of Village Books in Bellingham.
How long did it take you to research Wicked Bugs? The Wicked books each took two years. I’d start by making a list of possible “suspects”—plants or bugs that I thought were probably the most dangerous, deadly, dastardly, horrifying, offensive, awful creatures out there. Then I had to find great stories to go with each one—which is really the challenge. It doesn’t matter that it CAN kill someone, I want to know WHO it has killed. Then comes a vast, insane amount of fact-checking. If I read from a very authoritative source that Socrates said something, I still go back to Socrates’ primary text to find the exact wording and context. So it’s a big job, and a lot of little bite-sized bits of information to keep track of.
You’re an avid gardener. Were the bugs you chose for The Gardeners’s Dirty Dozen section of particular bias to you? Actually, no. I honestly don’t care if a bug eats a plant. That’s how nature is supposed to work. I put that section in almost to make that very point—that gardeners may think about bugs in terms of an aphid on the cabbage, but that’s nothing compared to, say, the black fly, which is responsible for all kinds of horrors around the world.
What wicked bug would you most hate to meet down a dark alley? I guess I would say the mosquito—it’s the world’s most deadly insect in terms of the number of people it has killed. We’re lucky that, as a population, we’re generally quite healthy and free of infectious disease. But in so much of the rest of the world, the mosquito really is very, very wicked.
You seem to be pretty comfortable with bugs. Did writing this book change your opinion ofthem one way or the other? Yeah, I am more informed, and, therefore, more focused when it comes to my own fears and phobias. I tend to just find all bugs fascinating, but, like everything else in nature, bugs have a lot of power, and some of them can be quite dangerous in spite of their small size. I don’t think it’s wrong to be afraid of bugs. It’s just wrong to be afraid of the wrong bugs.
What got you into nature writing? I have always been a writer, and I’ve always written about what interested me, and that’s where it has led me. I could just as easily have gone down some other path, writing-wise. The writing always comes first for me, regardless of the subject.
What other type of writing, specifically, would you be interested in pursuing? All kinds of things. I’m also a painter, and it’d be interesting to write about art. I mostly read fiction, and I feel like I was meant to be a novelist. I can’t quite explain why I write nonfiction, except to say that I just keep getting ideas for another nonfiction book. But that doesn’t mean I don’t also have a drawer of fiction! I do have one novel that is available only in E-book form. It’s coming to Smashwords in a few weeks, called “The Last Bookstore in America.” It is, ironically, about this whole “death of the book” thing as it plays out in an antiquarian bookstore very much like my own.
Being an independent bookstore owner, how do you respond to the “death of the book?” Publishers and booksellers and writers need to get over their obsession with their own demise. You know the old joke about how the second book ever printed on Gutenberg’s press was a book predicting the death of the publishing industry? You can go back through The New York Times and find articles from the 1920’s about how bookselling and publishing are dead.
I think that all this hand-wringing over what a terrible state the business is in is just a bad habit, like picking at a scar. Which is not to say there aren’t changes afoot. My husband and I own an antiquarian bookstore—mostly used and rare, with a very small selection of new books. We do think about what will happen when the market for $8 used beach reads goes away, as it surely will as tourists come to town with their gadgets instead. But, you know, business changes for all kinds of reasons. The important thing is that we’re happy, we’re doing work we love, and we’ll figure it out as we go.
What are you currently reading? Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I have this weird tendency to not read great books when they come out. Then, once the hype is over and I do read them, I think, “Wow, I can’t believe I waited so long to read this!”
If it makes you feel better, I still haven’t read that one. It’s amazing. I find myself embracing it. Actually clutching it to my chest.
Any plans for other “Wicked” books? If not, any other books in the works? No immediate plans for another Wicked, but I am working on a new book, and here’s a hint: Next time I’m out on book tour, there will be a bartender standing next to me! Cheers!
Lindsey McGuirk began her career in books as the events coordinator for Village Books in Bellingham, WA. She took a two-year stint at Algonquin Books in North Carolina, where she learned about the publishing end of the business, but returned to her true love of bookselling at Village Books in 2009. She is now the Digital Marketing & Publishing Coordinator and handles the online marketing and working with authors to get their books printed on the store’s print-on-demand Espresso Book Machine.