Interview: 'Accidental' Cotswold publisher Lorna Brookes on her wild life

Lorna Brookes

Lorna Brookes: self-proclaimed slightly eccentric person with a corner in her garden set aside for ‘sacrificial cabbages’. - Credit: Lorna Brookes

Publisher Lorna Brookes talks about wildflowers and sacrificial cabbages, and the point where word-of-mouth becomes words on the page 

I often think that the path that has led me to my career in publishing is chance. I first began accepting authors for print about ten years ago, and it swiftly became very much one of those word-of-mouth journeys. I’d established a small book publishing company so that I could release one of my own titles after years of using the same skills in the corporate world. It turned out that a close friend was secretly facing a struggle to get into print. Would I publish her? It was a brilliant memoir so my answer was immediate. ‘Of course!’ 

Then a friend of hers got in touch – coincidentally, this was June Lewis Jones, old Cotswold Life favourite, journalist and local historian. Her children’s book was equally brilliant, so I published her too. And all these years later, a good 60 per cent of the authors I publish can still be tracked back through various degrees of separation to those first cheerful steps I made as a new publisher.  

Ragged robin will shortly be joined by red campion

Ragged robin will shortly be joined by red campion - Credit: Lorna Brookes

Well, they do say it’s all about who you know… They just don’t usually describe the process as being quite as amiable as this. 

I sometimes feel as if this whole journey I’ve taken has unfolded by accident. And that thought is being particularly reinforced this spring as I support new children’s author Dinah Mason Eagers with her debut. I think her manuscript first found its way to my desk after she searched for local publishers on Google, so no immediate connection there, but I didn’t even hesitate before signing her children’s picture book which is illustrated by Anna Platts.  

Bees love the variegated golden dead nettle, and so do I

Bees love the variegated golden dead nettle, and so do I - Credit: Lorna Brookes

Dinah is very kind, very gentle and just the sort of person you might imagine who would write a children’s story all about making space for wildflowers in the garden to help bees. It’s a stunning book, starring the lovable Lily Katinka (great name!). An elegant star lily gets very worried after the gardener Dudley unfathomably starts spending hours staring at the scruffy old weeds growing at the end of the lawn.  

He’s growing cornflowers and clover for the bees. In an era where so much gets written about nature’s struggle, for me it’s been wonderful to publish a positive story about something simple we can do. 

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And this is where the uncanny symmetry of my life as a publisher comes in. Dinah found me, and I – as well as being an editor and publisher – am also the slightly eccentric person who has a corner in her garden set aside for what I like to term my ‘sacrificial cabbages’. 

The bolting cabbage in bud

The bolting cabbage in bud - Credit: Lorna Brookes

A few years ago, I decided to start growing cabbages – but not for eating. Nothing much that is edible grows at our particularly high spot in the Cotswolds; or not when I’m involved, anyway. I decided I’d grow cabbages for the caterpillars – for them to decimate just as they used to do in the garden when I was a child. But it turns out that the good horticulturalists who develop strains of cabbages have been working rather hard in the years since the 1980s. Neither slug nor caterpillar has munched these leaves. But they do bolt wonderfully. And it turns out that cabbages throw out the most lovely bright yellow flowers in early spring, and the bumblebees adore them. 

The first of my present crop of cabbages is happily budding now. I also grow ragged robin in pots with the buddleia; night scented stock sprawls behind the pansies; and, in high summer, red campion will be found nestling prettily between the hawthorn and the rosemary. In fact, the red campion chose its own spot and I just take the credit for it – quite by accident, it’s lovely. 

Foxgloves rub shoulders with wallflowers and sweet william

Foxgloves rub shoulders with wallflowers and sweet william - Credit: Lorna Brookes

I think I almost universally find a connection to each of the books I publish. Perhaps I love the backstory this gives each title on my list. The history that grows between us becomes part of my motivation, when this job is always by its nature very personal.  

Logically speaking, as a publisher, I really shouldn’t be surprised about this. Storytelling was the lure which drew me here in the first place, after all. But I am surprised to find how much I form my own stories behind the books I publish. It’s eye-opening to take a step back and see my passion for narrative in action, setting my course. 

Lorna Brookes is the main editor at Crumps Barn Studio. Twitter: @crumpsbarnbooks

At the Bottom of Dudley's Garden, by Dinah Mason Eagers

At the Bottom of Dudley's Garden, by Dinah Mason Eagers - Credit: Crumps Barn Studio

Dates for your diary: Author Dinah Mason Eagers will be signing copies of her new children’s book At the Bottom of Dudley’s Garden during the National Children’s Gardening Week at Burford Garden Company in the Reading Room on Friday, June 3 from 11am, and at Octavia’s Bookshop in Cirencester on Saturday, June 18 at 11am.