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Success Story: Ruth Kassinger

This is a photo of Ruth Kassinger, an author of Where Books Begin

The author
Ruth Kassinger

In the spring of 2010, William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins, will publish Ruth Kassinger’s Paradise Under Glass: An Amateur Creates A Conservatory Garden. A starred review in April’s LIBRARY JOURNAL describes her new book as “informative and extremely entertaining.” Carol Haggas in BOOKLIST says this indoor garden memoir is inspirational and instructional, while LJ calls it “a surefire antidote for a midlife crisis or the winter blues. Highly recommended.” Subtitled An Amateur Creates A Conservatory Garden, it is a memoir of the author’s unlikely desire to build, stock and tend to a small conservatory in her suburban Maryland home, interwoven with the history of conservatories from Renaissance orangeries to Victorian glass palaces to cutting-edge “living walls” of today.

One winter afternoon five years ago, Ruth Kassinger was walking down Independence Avenue on Capitol Hill in a gloomy frame of mind. Her three teenage daughters were soon to leave the nest, her younger sister and best friend had recently died of a brain tumor, and she was recovering from arduous treatment for breast cancer. It was with change and loss on her mind that she was struck by a sweeping view of the Conservatory at the U.S. Botanic Garden, its rounded glass roofs gilded by the setting sun and gleaming against a darkening sky. She decided to take a quick look inside before the buildings closed for the day. When the doors to the Palm House closed behind her, she immediately fell in love with the vibrant tropical life inside. Warm and humid, lush, and ever-green, a conservatory, she decided, would be the perfect antidote to the losses and changes of middle age.

Brushing aside all objections — that she had no gardening experience (and in fact hated outside gardening with all that sweating and all those bugs) and had killed every houseplant she ever owned — she plunged into the project. Digging into the history of conservatories, she found the structure of what would become Paradise Under Glass. She would tell two personal stories — the evolution of her tropical garden and the evolution of her perspective on mid-life losses — while simultaneously weaving in the history of conservatories. The approach was a natural one for Ruth: the history of science and technology had been the subject of her eight previous books.

In fact, as she progressed in her research and as an indoor gardener, she discovered an almost eerie entwinement of history and memoir. When she was ready to branch out beyond the offerings of her local nursery, it was time to write about the intrepid plant hunters of the 18th century who sailed the world in search of exotic species. Just as she discovered that her quiet green refuge had metamorphosed into the social center of her household, she found herself writing about how 19th century European nobility transformed the first conservatories — the orangeries that were essentially winter warehouses for trees — into graceful buildings for entertaining. Then, as she researched today’s cutting-edge conservatories, she invented an easy “vertical garden” system (which she details for readers) for growing plants on an indoor wall.

Ruth emerged from her unlikely adventure re­in­vigorated and re­in­vented. That re­invention didn’t re­quire up­ending a fa­mily or start­ing a new ca­reer or ven­turing far­ther a­field than the lo­cal gar­den cen­ter. She found an answer to mid-life malaise in learning to care for tropical plants, plants that have beguiled denizens of cooler climes for five hundred years and inspired a glittering architecture, plants that anyone can make flourish, under a skylight or behind a window pane, at home.

Ruth Kassinger began her writing career as a journalist. Her science and health writing appeared in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Health magazine and Science Weekly. Twelve years ago at a writer’s conference in Washington, D.C., Ruth submitted a book proposal about the history of inventions. Ellen E. M. Roberts, who was critiquing book proposals for the conference, recommended that she expand her book concept into a series. Soon afterwards, Ruth called Ellen at Where Books Begin to set up an appointment that would begin a long partnership between editor and author.

The book cover of Ruth Kassinger’s “Reinvent The Wheel”.

Ruth Kassinger’s book
Reinvent The Wheel”.

The book cover of Ruth Kassinger’s “Material World Series: Ceramics”.

Ruth Kassinger’s book
Ceramics”.

The book cover of Ruth Kassinger’s “Material World Series: Dyes”.

Ruth Kassinger’s book
Dyes”.

The book cover of Ruth Kassinger’s “Build a Better Mousetrap”.

Ruth Kassinger’s book
Build a Better Mousetrap”.

The book cover of Ruth Kassinger’s “Material World Series: Glass”.

Ruth Kassinger’s book
Glass”.

Ruth Kassinger has found that the secrets of success in writing for adults are no different from writing for children. “One of Ellen’s most important pieces of advice,” she said, “is that a non-fiction writer has to have her eye on a potential audience as well as her heart in her subject. She helped me understand how to think about that audience.” An old hand at writing materials for institutions, Ruth has worked for the National Portrait Gallery, the World Bank, and the National Institutes for Health. Ruth put her foot in the door of children’s book publishing with a book about the U.S. Census. Ellen thought that schools and libraries across the country would welcome a book aimed at middle-graders showing how the U.S. decennial censuses reflect the evolution of American history. Editor Walter Kossmann bought the idea. Hers was the only unsolicited manuscript he had bought in a decade! The book went on to be a success in school and libraries.

While Ruth enjoyed writing about the census, she still had her heart in a project on inventions. The project that she had first shown to Ellen back in 1997 refused to die. Ruth worked with Ellen to reshape her proposal for a children’s book on ancient technologies, which she presented to editor Kate Bradford at John Wiley. The two-book series: Reinvent the Wheel, and Build a Better Mousetrap, explored the creative process behind such inventions as ink, magnets and batteries. In both of these books, kids peek into the minds of real inventors as they recreate the inventions they use everyday. Ruth found the expertise of Ellen and the staff at Where Books Begin extremely helpful as she strove to explain the complex ideas of physics and chemistry in clear, simple terms aimed at a middle school reading level.

The book cover of Ruth Kassinger’s “Material World Series: Gold”.

Ruth Kassinger’s book
Gold”.

The book cover of Ruth Kassinger’s “Material World Series: Iron and Steel”.

Ruth Kassinger’s book
Iron and Steel”.

Around the same time that she sold the two-book series, Ruth also sold a five-book series called Material World. In it, she tells the stories of how people learned to make useful things out of gold, glass, iron and steel, dyes, and ceramics, while incorporating the science of the materials in her tales.

Ruth was able to sell her children’s books without an agent. She worked hard to create strong query letters that reflected her painstaking research and her genuine interest in technological subjects and leveraged Where Books Begin’s knowledge of the publishing industry to help her market her books effectively to editors. This is not an approach for all authors, as juvenile nonfiction may be the only genre left where a direct pitch to an editor will be considered seriously. When Ruth branched out into writing for the adult trade market, she engaged the services of agent Michelle Tessler at Tessler Literary Agency to sell her book. Michelle’s expertise with books related to natural history, as well as her marketing savvy, was just what Ruth needed. She sold Paradise Under Glass to HarperCollins as both an engaging memoir and a history of conservatories. It took no time to find the right editor for the book so that Ruth could continue her research, confident that the book would reach its audience.

Today Ruth lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland with her husband Theodore Kassinger. They have three daughters, a conservatory filled with tropical plants, and a devoted dog, Scotia.

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