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Interview: Sophie Merkens talks about Grow

Sophie Merkens is a photographer, writer and foodie. To her amazement and utter delight, she has made eating and being surrounded by foodie folk her career, working as a recipe developer and food stylist.

For Sophie, morning coffee is a non-negotiable, she goes wild for anything with rose in it, and she’s partial to a glass of warm fermented horse milk (a Kyrgyz delicacy). In food and in life, curiosity is her North Star. When she’s not experimenting in the kitchen, she’s gardening, foraging, hiking, attempting to surf, or on roadies in her van Zephyr Florence. She happily calls Aotearoa home. Sophie talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about Grow.

Grow celebrates women, food and connection. It features photographs and interviews with 35 epic wāhine from all over Aotearoa, from hobbysists to experts in their fields. The interviews dive deep into how food connects us to ourselves, each other, to our communities, to our environments, and beyond.

Who are some of the wāhine that feature in Grow?

All the women are amazing and on their own journeys. Some well known wāhine who I had the pleasure of meeting are Fleur Sullivan, Dr Jessica Hutchings, Angela Clifford, Pania Te Paiho, Donna Kerridge and Kay Baxter.

What inspired you to write this book?

I wanted to see more stories in the media celebrating our women and also shining light on the everyday triumphs. It was important to me to tell local, empowering stories, like how gardening can help one's mental health.

When Covid19 hit in 2020 I lost all my commercial work. The idea for Grow had been brewing but suddenly I had time and space to dream, face my fears and begin.

What research was involved?

I follow many community facebook groups so I reached out to them. I also watched a tonne of Country Calendar episodes, read Kiwi magazines like New Zealand Gardener, and generally scoured as much local media as possible. I had a wishlist of wāhine for Grow but I also knew I wanted to meet inspiring hobbyists. Once I had a list of women to meet I researched their practises and work extensively, compiled questions and coordinated meeting times.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

The first few months were spent reaching out to women and researching. Once I had a list of interviewees I bought a big paper map of Aotearoa and marked everyone's locations. This gave me my route. I bought a self contained van, named Zephyr, and spent five months on the road meeting and interviewing everyone. That was a truly amazing experience! The interviews ranged in length from an hour to three days. I would take photographs and record an interview to transcribe later. No two situations were the same – it was a fun challenge to adapt to weather, people's needs, environments. On the road I collected as much information as possible, then I found a tiny cabin to rent on Aotea (Great Barrier Island) where I edited the book (which coincided with a long lockdown).

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

I listened to music everyday whilst road tripping! 'Grow' by FaceSoul is a wonderful fitting song.

What did you enjoy the most about creating this book?

Meeting inspirational epic women. I am so in awe of the wāhine in Grow, they inspire me everyday.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

That's a good question! Sometimes we're so focused on the next thing that we forget to celebrate but luckily I have good friends who remind me to celebrate all the wins. They celebrated with me the day I got the call from Sally Greer at Beatnik saying she was interested in the book, and also when it was sent to print. I'm organising a little gathering (a glorified potluck really) with close family and friends to take a moment to celebrate privately but also to come together to eat, connect and share stories – which is what I'm all about.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

'Wild' by Cheryl Strayed. I've probably read it half a dozen times but I just love the book! It's incredible how the author transcends her hiking journey and gives us a raw account of grief and becoming. I absolutely love it. No doubt I'll read it half a dozen times more over the years!

Another incredible book which I will reread soon is 'Braiding Sweetgrass' by Robin Wall Kimmerer. There's so much Indigenous knowledge to learn from. That book is a gift.

Do you plan to write another book in the future?

Absolutely. There are so many amazing wāhine all around us who should be celebrated. Whether the next book will be an extension of Grow or something different... I'm still mulling that over but it's an absolute privilege to do this work.


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