Branching Out

Susan Branch’s latest memoir brings a charmed life full circle.

The cover of Susan Branch's Martha's Vineyard Isle of Dreams.

In the throes of heartbreak, Susan Branch ran away from home at thirty-four hoping to find her true self on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard. While floundering in a place where she knew no one, she read self-help books, refurbished her tiny cottage in the woods named Holly Oak, and began her efforts to write her first cookbook.

“I wanted a pamphlet, a recipe for life -– for a fulfilled life,” she remembered of her younger self. While she had no idea who she wanted to be, she knew what she didn’t want to be. “I didn’t want to be a bank teller; I didn’t want to be an airline stewardess.” And that, at least, gave her a place to start.

Now, three and a half decades later, Branch has built an empire of books, recipes, stickers, fabrics, and all things cute, all of which began after she moved to the Vineyard. It began with the cookbooks, which she wrote by hand because she wanted to add little watercolors between the words. As time went on, Branch began adding more and more anecdotal stories into the cookbooks, and her publisher, Little, Brown and Company, did not complain. She created a blog, sold her watercolors, and sent out “Willard,” a handwritten letter through snail mail. Today “Willard” is sent via email to 53,000 people.

Then came the memoirs. Self-published and marketed primarily to the built-in audience of Kindred Spirits (as Branch-fans are called), the third and final installment, Martha’s Vineyard, Isle of Dreams, is just out. This year also marks the thirtieth anniversary of Branch’s first cookbook, Heart of the Home. A special, updated edition will be available in time for Christmas.

“I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know if I was a writer,” she said of transitioning from cookbooks to narratives. Being a meticulous diarist helped. Her first diaries are more traditional, scrawled entries in messy handwriting. As time went on, she began illustrating the entries, pasting in pictures, drawing in borders, and using neat lettering. Those transformed into her finished memoirs, which are dotted with recipes, watercolors, and quotes.

Self-described as a late bloomer, Branch didn’t begin painting until her thirties. She bought a watercolor kit and sat in her kitchen, looking at a flower. “I painted a geranium and it looked like a geranium,” she said – success. These days her watercolors can be found in calendars, on fabrics, as stickers and stamps. All of which keeps her busy managing her empire, updating her blog, and creating new art and recipes for her fans.

“We keep the fairy tale alive,” she said a few weeks before she and her longtime partner, Joe Hall, packed their van full of books, filled a cooler with ice and cucumber sandwiches (bread, thin, thin spread of mayonnaise, sliced cucumbers, heavy pepper, no salt, leave the crust on for extra fortification), and took to the road for a two-month book tour. As with her previous tours, the plan is to stop at independent bookstores from Massachusetts to California and back, sign books, hug friends new and old, and end each night with a bourbon Old Fashioned.

Then it will be back to home at the head of Spring Street in Vineyard Haven for the summer. In the fall, she will pack up her books once more and ride an ocean liner to England, where she has invited her European girlfriends to a bring-your-own-picnic-basket meet and greet. She will, of course, keep a diary of the trip. These meet and greets are the physical manifestations of her blog, where her fans first engaged with each other. Her fans are mostly women and Branch said her struggles and triumphs in the books are a shared experience for many of them.

“I felt very connected to my girlfriends and women in general,” she said, looking back again to her early days on the Island. “It’s very personal, but it’s things we all are going through: I couldn’t figure out who I was and what I wanted to do.”

In the time of uncertainty, Branch turned to her heroes, women like Beatrix Potter, Helen Keller, Laura Ashley, and the Vineyard poet Nancy Luce. Quotes from these and other heroes dot the pages of her new book and a line of Beatrix Potter figurines stand behind her sink in her Vineyard Haven kitchen. She now knows that she is all the things she loves and that she is never that far from the lost little girl she once was. She is a Volvo-driving painter, cook, and writer who is fifty-seven years past twelve.

Comments (21)

Beloved by women of all ages across the globe, Susan Branch truly does "keep the fairy tale alive." A devoted fan over the past thirty years, Susan has inspired my life in countless ways! Our cozy home, white picket fence garden, and so many wonderful family traditions began with lovely ideas in Susan's many books. Her handwritten, watercolored recipes, lifestyle inspiration, personal anecdotes, and uplifting quotations remind us to celebrate the small moments that bring joy to each day. Susan's illustrated memoir is an enchanting trilogy that takes the reader along on her journey as she grows into the wise, creative, inspiring woman that we admire today. Her most recent book, the NY Times Bestseller, Martha's Vineyard ~ Isle of Dreams is one of the MOST wonderful books I have ever read! Over the years, I continue to read Susan's books over and over again. They feel like old friends, bringing joy, comfort, and endless inspiration to our lives. Susan often reminds us that "The best gifts are tied with heartstrings".... and her wonderful books will always be among the best, most cherished "gifts" in our home! This article beautifully captured the warmth and charm of Susan Branch, along with some new insights her fans will really enjoy! ♡
July 10, 2016 - 10:18pm
Love this wonderful article on Ms. Branch. I've been a fan of her for 30 years when I received her first book as a gift from a smart loved one!!! Joe, her longtime husband a match made it Heaven for the ages...(was confused by the term used, longtime "partner" in the article.
August 24, 2016 - 1:11pm
I also was confused by the term partner...glad I wasn't the only one who noticed. I thought maybe I was just being nit-picky! Wonderful books, wonderful sharing of one's self, wonderful life...Susan is a treasure.
August 25, 2016 - 11:39am
I don't think Susan and Joe are married.
August 25, 2016 - 11:18pm
You are correct Debby. Joe and Susan are not married. So many fans of Susan Branch are confused about this. They are lifetime partners as stated in the article but they never married.
September 15, 2016 - 10:52pm
Susan Branch
That's not really true, Carla. We're married. And partners. ❤️
September 20, 2016 - 12:00pm
So glad to finally here it from the true source... for so many years articles have referred to Joe as your Partner, not your husband...thought maybe you were like Kurt Russell and Goldy Hawn! Live long and are a darling couple and an inspiration to keeping the magic in marriage for all of us!!!
September 27, 2016 - 5:49am
Bedford Pa
You are so right...they surely are!
October 2, 2016 - 9:57pm
Bedford, Pa
Oh glad to hear that 'from the horses' mouth"! So glad to know you and Joe ARE are such an example of wonderfulness to the younger generation coming up that I was indeed hoping you were married...and not just living together....
October 2, 2016 - 9:57pm
A girlfriend and I are in the cape cod area, where is the best place to purchase a autographed cookbook? Since learning you are out of country. Thank you in advance.
October 17, 2016 - 9:40am
Karen Hellier
Susan, It might be old-fashioned but I was so glad to read that the 2 of you ARE married. I was worried that after your first marriage you had given up on marriage and being able to be married and live happily ever after. I am so glad I was wrong!
June 22, 2021 - 12:28am
Bedford, Pa
No...not her husband,...partner. They are not married, I am 99% sure....the only disappointment I have about her.
October 2, 2016 - 9:55pm
Karen Hellier
Lynn, If you read through the comments above, you will see where Susan Branch has replied to "Carla" that they actually ARE married and are also partners. Yay, I was so glad to read that! So you don't have to be disappointed anymore!!!
June 22, 2021 - 12:25am
Lorna S.
Ukiah, California
The article is a delightful view of the Susan Branch this blog-reader has come to know and love. I definitely feel the kindred spirit reaches across the county to my own home. When reading a cookbook or one of her three autobiographical books, I feel as if Susan is sitting at my kitchen table sharing a pot of tea. As an artist, Susan's ability to use white space so wonderfully is an inspiration to me. As an author she writes as if sitting across the coffee table in the living room having a gentle conversation that brings laughter and tears in the storytelling. Susan Branch and her Joe, are the best friends a gal could ask for - without ever having met them. What a blessing and legacy! Thank you for capturing the authentic Susan!
August 24, 2016 - 6:40pm
San Francisco Ca,
I love and adore and appreciate Susan very much. I haven't know her for a long long time. Because I was sheltered it seems away from the world. She opened up a amazing world for me. A lot of the things I love she loves. This is a nice article about her. So glad to know her. One day I hope to meet her and tell her thank you personally for all she does for us girls... Love Janice
August 25, 2016 - 4:38pm
Karen Maston
Centennial, CO
I drove down to The Tattered Cover to see Susan and the room was packed to the gills. All the women (and a few men and quite a few kids!) were waiting and when she and Joe arrived she was so comfortable with all of us, so familiar. She's elegant, ladylike, youthful, warm and extremely KIND. Her work is joyful, gentle, and beautiful. I have every one of her books and I revisit them often. The revised first cookbook just came in the mail yesterday - gorgeous! Fans of Susan Branch are longtime fans because she cherishes them as friends.
August 26, 2016 - 7:47am
Liz Shields
Saratoga Springs, Utah
Susan is wonderful and makes me feel happy. Love her comments and recipes. I hope she writes another book for all of us to enjoy.
August 26, 2016 - 12:21pm
Joanne Wood
Hi Susan: I wish I had known about you when my daughters were growing up. You are so 'upbeat" and creative - choosing the best that can be in your life in spite of the sad things. At least two of your books will hit my Christmas list this year. My little window-sill vases contain black eyed susans, white garlic chive flowers, those pinkish fall blooming things I can never remember the name of, a few remaining Russian sage flowers, and fluffy asparagus fronds. Congratulations upon reaching the best seller list. A wonderful article about you. If I can't sleep at night, I head straight for your posts. Thanx
September 18, 2016 - 5:32pm
A tour bus of girlfriends are traveling to cape cod area this week and one friend and myself are interested in the best place to visit to buy some autographed cookbook while here in area. Since we have learned by reading this blog she is out of country. Thank you in advance
October 17, 2016 - 9:23am
John sclimenti
Agoura ca
Just wanted to say hi
March 9, 2018 - 8:37pm
Port Jefferson Long Island
Thanks you for clearing up the mystery about you and Joe being married. I was hoping to see wedding pictures and details of the wedding as I am sure it was a lovely time to cherish. I fell in love with Jie when I read "Lord make me a good boy" Precious man perfectly united with a lovely talented lady. Love you guys!!!
December 1, 2019 - 9:47am