Interview: Take Ten For Tea

Interview from the

May 2012 – Garden Tea Issue


Take Ten For Tea

by Linda French & Maxine Shear


• Babette, when did you know you wanted to make writing your career, and when did it become a reality for you?
I first considered writing as a career in 7th Grade. My English teacher assigned a poetry project then helped to have it published in the local Houston, TX newspaper. My father wasn’t happy about the thought of me struggling to earn a living with poetry so I was encouraged to study something more practical and keep my writing as a hobby. After one career, I became more serious and finished my English degree in Creative Writing. I loved both writing and teaching writing and like being able to offer schools the options to have a tea themed author visit or an author theme. My two worlds are finally coming together happily.
• What inspired you to write the Emma Lea books?
Emma Lea inspired me. She is a very strong-willed fictional character. The more I thought about her and developed her as a fictional character, the more important her tea-themed stories became. Then, when I started doing book signings and bookstore presentations, the reactions of the readers were encouraging. Everyone seemed to have their own important memory of how someone had shared tea with them in a meaningful and memorable way. Once I was in the hospital being prepped for surgery and the nurse assigned to me had read the books and thanked me for writing them. There are also wonderful emails from children who like the books and like sharing teatimes with their family. I try to remember moments like that when things are difficult.
There has been criticism from other writers and editors that writing so much about tea for such a small niche market is a bad thing. Emma Lea and I like to think that the stories may encourage more people to add an element of tea to their lifestyle. When I hear from readers that it’s true, I feel even more committed to finishing the entire series.

• Was the character of Emma Lea inspired by a real little girl?
No. She is not based on a human but, as a muse, she is very real to me.
I had written a series of screenplays and stage plays with very little commercial success when I decided to take a break and write fiction again. I started work on a novel and created a character who owned a magical tea room. That novel is still unfinished but I “met” Emma Lea during that time. I wrote her first short story and submitted it in a fiction contest. It won and almost immediately after that I sketched out a dozen more stories which included the vision of Emma Lea growing up in the series. One of the mind-bending things for me now that the second series is almost out is that she still exists as a little girl. She’s become timeless.
• Did your passion for tea begin before or after you began writing the Emma Lea books?
My real passion for tea began several years before Emma Lea as a private practice because I didn’t know anyone else who was interested in tea. It became part of my creative writing and inspiration for my art. Gradually it became increasingly more important in my daily life and something I shared with my family. It changed when my oldest son was in high school he came home asking me to tell him more about “real” tea because the other kids at school were all interested in learning more. He attended STI certification classes with me and we considered opening a tearoom together. But, in college he knew his passion was to be an English teacher and is now preparing to go to China with the Peace Corps this June.
• How did your interest in tea begin?
After my creative writing degree, I stayed at San Francisco State working on a ceramic sculpture art degree. The idea of making physical representations of my characters always intrigued me and I loved having the physical side of creativity to balance the mental isolation of writing. As a ceramic grad student in the early ’80s, we were constantly challenged to interpret tea ware in both a functional and sculptural sense. I had to learn to make perfect wheel-thrown teapots with spouts that didn’t drip and teacups that related to the way tea was enjoyed. It was the culture of tea that opened the door but, being in San Francisco then was a blessing. I could wander through Chinatown and sneak into the shops where I would find the most amazing teas. The smell of the tea and the stories fascinated me. It took more than a decade after that to start the Emma Lea Books. . . aging like a fine puerh.
On the other hand, I was born in the South where the table was never set without a pitcher of iced tea. It was usually Lipton with lemon and lots of sugar, of course, southern sweet tea. We grew our own fresh mint and I loved to decorate the glasses with sprigs. And we’d add special touches like frosted glasses. My grandmother had a complete silver tea service and there were special teacups I coveted.
It made me think of myself as a tea drinker vs. a coffee drinker. I feel like I was a part of tea history USA with Constant Comment as our fancy loose-leaf tea that came in the little square boxes. That would be our special Christmas Tea. Then other brands like Celestial Seasonings became available at the grocery stores and restaurants like Good Earth created their own signature blend. I used to choose that location for a meal because of the tea.

• Was your recent trip to China specifically a tea expedition?
Yes. Many people recommended Dan Robertson’s World Tea Tour for my research. I originally wanted to go straight to a small village and make the entire book about life in a tea village. With Dan’s encouragement, I began to appreciate how important it was to develop a greater appreciation for culture. He helped me customize the tour, combining visits to multiple tea producing provinces with a week in one small tea village. We met with the heads of the huge tea companies, professors of tea programs in universities but also had cooking lessons in private homes, tai-chi lessons in large city parks, toured factories, fields and gigantic tea supermarkets. I learned more in three weeks than through any other tea experience and it opened possibilities for the story that I never imagined in my research. There are many scenes in the book that came from my experiences that weren’t part of the original outline of what I anticipated.
• I’m sure it was all very interesting, but what was the best?
Before the trip, I assumed that being in a tea field and meeting the pickers would be the most important moment to me. Actually, it was the last night and my last cup of tea.
It was arranged in advance that the guide who stayed with our tour group took me to his village, a small tea village, without the group. I stayed with his parents and was treated like a member of the family. He spoke no English and my Chinese was minimal. So, without words, he prepared an extraordinary but very simple tea service. I was so exhausted that my thinking mind shut down and it felt as if I was really tasting the tea for the first time on a broader sensory level. Everything was more intense. I ‘got it’, what tea meant to me, in a surprising new way. I tried to put some of that experience in the Emma Lea book, focusing on her first and last cups of tea in China.
• Emma Lea is getting older now and she has also traveled to China. Where do you see her going from here?
Emma Lea wants to go to Japan, India, Sri Lanka and other countries of origin with a unique adventure component for each one. Then, I’d like to write each of the books with her growing up through high school and into college.
• You’re often asked to speak on the subject of tea now. When you speak to school children and young adults, do you find a degree of interest in tea there?
Yes. Even in a very basic talk or tea tasting people are excited. Young children love seeing the whole leaf tea re-hydrating and coming back to life. They love having their own teacup and saucer or being the one chosen to pour from the teapot. The parents want to know more about the health benefits and how to inspire their children to choose tea over sodas. Grandparents like the idea of setting up regular teatimes with their children. Young adults want to hear all the travel stories and the legends. They want to know about how it grows and what people are like when you leave the U.S. I think almost everyone has a secret desire to travel and tea opens that door. From eclectic to the ornate, simply functional to fun and whimsical, teapots come in a myriad of styles and forms.Take your teapots down from the shelf and use them all!

• Babette, how do you propose we keep the tradition of quality tea alive with young people when there’s so much commercialism about the trendy coffee and soft drinks out there?
I’m old enough now to have faith in the way trends go back and forth. I see children and young adults turning away from commercialism and things that are unhealthy. They love the tea legends and appreciate the way in which they experience other cultures. The health benefits of tea are an added benefit. What I believe is that tea itself keeps itself current and held in high value. This has been true for thousands of years. It morphs into new ways of being processed and consumed but remains one of the few things that stitches the world together.
• What’s next for Babette Donaldson? More Emma Lea as she continues into adulthood? A different children’s series? Perhaps some authoritative books on tea?
I have outlines for the adventure part of the books for Emma Lea’s tea adventures in Japan, India and Sri Lanka. I’d like to be able to write those three additional Emma Lea books and allow her to grow up to High School age. But I would also like to finish the previous novel and write one more screenplay. And I have to confess that tea always seems to find it’s place in every one of my story — even the screenplay. I don’t believe that I’m knowledgeable enough to write a non-fiction, informative book on tea but I hope that my fiction is both interesting and accurate. I’d like to believe that the Emma Lea books and other work intrigues people enough that they will visit a local tea business or investigate online to try some of the teas from around the world.
• Babette, it’s been such a pleasure. Thank you so much for joining us this month. We hope to have many more shared times over tea.

Maxine Shear & Linda French

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