Who is that superhero walking her little dog in a winter coat, knit hat and boots on a July day. Read on and find out more…
If you were to write the ‘origin’s episode’ of your writing what would be the most important scenes? What did your early efforts look like? Are they still around to be used as bribes and blackmail material?
Writing The Fairy Garden, began with my visit to Salisbury, England in 1975. I discovered in the cathedral close the North Canonry Garden. It was a tumult of plants then. I was taking photographs of the flowers when a gentlemanly voice called out to me. “You lady (I was young then) would you help me? She always goes for a walk in the afternoon and I cannot persuade her to come out.”
Helpful me – I found “she” was a huge white goat named Silene in a hay-muzzy pen in a little medieval stone barn off the garden. With the gentleman, who turned out to be the cathedral’s dean, I hauled Silene from the darkness to the sun and she took off at once.
“Don’t let her near the rose bushes!” the dean called as the suddenly lively goat took off, headed for the roses, uprooted a bush and ate it, leaves, branches, flowers, thorns and roots with slackening her gallop. When at last Silene came to halt at the verge of the Avon River at the garden’s foot, and I was able to untangle my hand from her rope, I staggered off as the dean, picturesquely hauling on the goat’s rope called, “Don’t you want to take a photo?”
The following winter I was looking through the garden pictures I’d taken before being swept off my feet by the dean’s goat. There were fuschias hung with spider web beaded with dew, leaves spangled with droplets, grass tassels like flags against the sky and tiny mosses like fairy pillows. I said to myself, “If there are fairies anywhere, they’re in that garden.” I wrote an outline then and there, and spent the next ten months writing the book.
All super heroes have their mild-mannered secret identity, what is yours? I promise we won’t tell.
My secret identity? Amanuensis to the fairies, of course!
Who are your partners in crime? What are their superpowers?
My great partner in this was the gentleman I’d met earlier in the day of my discovery of the garden. His name was Stephen Tennant and he was a friend of my friend with whom I was traveling. Stephen seemed to me quite mad when I met him. He sat in bed and clutched a stuffed toy monkey. His house was strewn with silk pillows over which a trail of glitter was distributed. Our fellow guests at luncheon were statues of Greek gods and athletes, with one statue behind a drapery perched as if he was eves dropping on our conversation.
But on later thought, I realized Stephen had the bravery to create a lovely world shaped by his own designing – as I was creating my own world of fairies. I made him, in the form of Lord Stephen Eddington, the hero of my book. Years later I discovered I was not the only one to find Stephen Tennant inspiring: he was Evelyn Waugh’s model for Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited (complete with stuffed toy) and, in his childhood, Stephen had inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett with the character of Colin and The Secret Garden came into being.
Where do you get your superpowers from?
I see, I hear, and write down what is given me. If that doesn’t happen, and one still insists upon writing, to quote Hemingway: Writing’s easy, you stare at a blank sheet of paper until droplets of blood form on your brow.
I’ve been fortunate, or perhaps my method is good – I never leave off the day’s writing unless I know how the next day’s writing begins. Work through the problems. Sometimes that means going back and making changes far back in the manuscript because that’s where the cul de sac you’ve got your characters into was started.
Where is your secret lair and what does it look like?
When writing The Fairy Garden I sprawled across the arms of a very comfortable orange velvet tub chair with my Yorkie nestled next to me and a pad of lined paper and very sharp pencil in hand. I had quite a few plants on the window sill of my New York apartment and I could swear little lights danced among the begonia leaves.
What kind of training do you do to keep your superpowers in world saving form? How do you insure they are used only for good?
I was writing at a time when my fine art print publishing company had just collapsed into bankruptcy – so in effect I was between jobs. I wrote chiefly at night because there were no interruptions. I wrote until I got tired, then went to bed and slept until I woke up, thoroughly refreshed. Following this regimen, I discovered I had twenty minutes more in my day than the sun did. So my work day, in the weeks and months of writing, flowed round the clock. Living alone, this was no problem. The only problem was that at some time I had to get up in time to get to the bank before it closed at 3:00 PM. It was an excellent work schedule that allowed complete concentration, but possible only for a hermit – although I was a very happy one.
As for insuring your powers are used for good – the best way is to unhitch your goal from meeting the demands of the market – or any temptation to imitate best sellers – and give yourself over to writing what your inner self knows is truly good.
Granted, you probably don’t’ get to wear your superhero costume a lot, but if you did, what would it look like?
For writing, comfort is essential. Since you’re going off into your mind you want as little physical distraction as possible. You want to be able to ignore your body and your surroundings – to be in the world that is shaping in your mind. For me, my outfit was a loose fitting long plaid skirt and a turtleneck sweater. But concentration was so complete that I once, while writing a scene that took place in winter, found myself bundled in winter coat, knit hat and boots walking my little dog on a July day.
What is your kryptonite? What are the biggest challenges faced with in your writing?
The magic needed is to not lose heart. The biggest challenge is of course publishers. And I didn’t know how to place The Fairy Garden. It’s a fantasy but not really a children’s book –yet it got shunted to children’s editors who objected that a main character was an adult – and “the fairies don’t die in the end.” (sic!)
What was the supervillian that threatened to stop your latest project and how did you vanquish it?
Supervillians? Publishers and their frightened editors who feel they must find or reshape a manuscript to reflect whatever the most recent best seller is. But we have self-publishing now made easy, and distribution to the world is a fact of Amazon.
What important lessons have you learned along the way?
Edit. Then edit again. There is no end to editing. Finding the unexpected yet more accurate word. Choosing a more imaginative turn of event. The first draft is a block of wood you’ve brought into being. Now you fashion it into something refined and exquisite — and if you’re brave, it will be unlike anything ever written before.
What have been the best/most memorable experiences along the way?
I sent my chapter about the relationship between fairy song, perfect plant growth and Fibonacci numbers to my cousin who then had the chair in microbiology at Harvard. My idea was greeted with distinct intrigue and seriousness by at least one member of his staff. After all, we know so little of the spirit world. Perhaps there really are fairies – the lights among my plants seemed to argue it.
If you did this again what would you do differently and what would you not change?
I would write a sequel right after writing “The End.” Life has never afforded me time such as I had then, and the delight of fairy land is hard to recapture so many years later.
What is the best (writing or otherwise) advice you have ever gotten and why.
I asked a writer how he got his intimate sense of his main character. He didn’t answer me but sent me a postcard of a Torii gate — a Japanese spirit door.
Do drop everything and get The Fairy Garden. Published at last! It is pure escape, with some glances at those things that trouble us: fear, guilt, rage – and a look at the many aspects of the world of spirit things. It’s particularly happy reading in the springtime.
What’s in store for you in the future? Do you have any other big projects on the horizon?
I’m gradually getting a collection of fantasy short stories that I wrote long ago into my computer for future publication.