While authors often draw on their own lives and experiences when brewing their fiction, it's less common to hear of an author borrowing from the lives of their parents. And though The Lost Garden is set in 1941 -- about 20 years before Helen Humphreys' birth -- she says that, of all her books, this one is the most autobiographical.
The Lost Garden opens during the time of the blitz in London, an event both of Humphrey's parents lived through. A lost RAF [Royal Air Force] pilot figures prominently in the story and one of Humphreys' grandfathers disappeared in 1941 and was never found again. The other grandfather found a lost garden on the English estate where he was living at the time. He worked with the garden: brought it back to its own fullness and, after his death, the estate was sold to a condo developer and the garden was lost again: this time forever.
"I thought that whole idea of something that was lost, briefly found and lost again was a good metaphor," says Humphreys. "That was how the book started."
As The Lost Garden opens, horticulturist Gwen Davis is leaving London, the city she has come to love, partly because she can no longer bear to witness its destruction. "Every day the landscape is radically altered," Gwen tells us. "Houses become holes. Solids become spaces. Anything can disappear overnight. How can love survive this fact?"
Gwen has secured a position heading up a group of Land Girls who will spend the remainder of the War on a neglected estate in rural England growing potatoes and other food crops for the war effort.
Gwen is not entirely comfortable in the company of other living humans, but she adores the writing of Virginia Woolf and she dotes on the work of Ellen Willmott, author of The Genus Rosa, an encyclopedic work on the family of the rose, so large and heavy, its weight almost echoes that of a human. On the estate Gwen discovers an intricate but hidden garden and she becomes obsessed with reclaiming the garden itself along with the stories she feels sure are hidden there.
The Lost Garden is an almost impossibly beautiful book. The characters are sharply drawn, the story compelling and -- ultimately -- touching and unforgettable. It's hard to imagine that Humphreys could pack so strong a charge into such a slender book; something this is, perhaps, less surprising when you realize that this author has come to fiction by way of poetry: The Lost Garden is her third novel and four books of poetry preceded them.
Humphreys' first novel, Leaving Earth, was a New York Times Notable Book in 1998 and won the Toronto Book Award the same year. Her second novel, Afterimage, won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. The author, 41, lives in Kingston, Ontario with Hazel, her Hungarian Viszla. She is currently working on her fourth novel.
Linda Richards: The Lost Garden is such a carefully detailed book, did it involve a lot of research?
Helen Humphreys: Yes. Because I didn't know much about the gardening part.
Well, that completely surprises me. I'd just assumed you'd be like this amazing gardener. So even more research than I thought.
And usually I research before I write, but this book I wanted to write it before I finished the research. So actually I was researching while I was writing and had this stack of flower books and was looking things up the whole way as I was doing [the book].
That amazes me because, as I read it, I imagined you'd be a hardcore gardener.
I've never really gardened before in my life, actually. [Laughs] So now I garden literally.
Does that surprise everyone?
Yeah, I think so. I think I got away with it. I was really afraid about the gardening part because so many people are good gardeners and it's an area of expertise for many people. I had a real gardener check it out for me at the end to make sure I hadn't made any really bad errors, but so far so good.
And not just the flowers, either. All the stuff with the potatoes was quite intricate and would have demanded a lot of research.
Yeah, there's lots of research. Because all the sort of factual information in the book is true. Like everything about what the Land Girls did and what was going on in the War at the time and everything that was going on with the Royal Horticultural Society. Everything I mentioned about that was stuff that was going on at that time, so I researched all of that.
And the period detail felt very accurate. I felt like I was there. Do you have an interest in that period?
I wasn't alive in 1941, but this book is more autobiographical. Both my parents were in the Blitz in London. I was born in England and moved [to Canada] when I was small. My father's father was in the RAF and he disappeared in 1941 and they never found him again. So I used a lot of details from my parent's life.
Very interesting, Helen. Appropriating stuff not from your own life, but from your parents.
The estate [in The Lost Garden] is named after a house where my father used to live when his father was alive. Also, the whole metaphor of the garden was from my other grandfather -- my mother's father -- who lived to be 93. He just died a couple of years ago. But the last few years of his life he lived in this mansion that had been converted to apartments for elderly people who didn't need any sort of nursing care. And while he was on this big former estate he discovered this garden on the grounds -- a lost garden -- that had been neglected. He spent three years bringing it back. It was quite an intricate garden: a set of stairs and a pond and different levels and he restored it all. Then he died and, a few months after he died, they sold this whole mansion and razed it all to the ground to build condos and so they completely destroyed all this work he had done. I thought that whole idea of something that was lost, briefly found and lost again was a good metaphor. That was how the book started.
And here I was thinking of The Secret Garden. That you'd been inspired by -- or perhaps paying homage to -- Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic book.
Did you ever read it?
Yeah, it was good. I liked that.
I haven't read it since I was a child, but I remember being enchanted by it. And The Lost Garden made me want to read it again. Like you said: the whole concept of things lost and then found again. It's sort of magical.
But I think that's kind of a very human metaphor. All of us have some sort of a lost garden. There's always something that's been untended and has grown wild. You know, emotionally or something we used to be or something we used to do that we've let go. I think psychologically it works on an individual level.
Tell me about that metaphor: the garden metaphor. What does it represent for you?
Lots of things. I think it's a metaphor for the generation of people that go to war. Both the people that go off and are killed or the whole life is changed for the people that are left behind. So it works with that, I think.
The whole story really is a parable about reading and the garden represents the book and Gwen, as the gardener, is sort of the reader. The person who originally made [the garden] is the writer and there's that sort of link or connection between the reader who is trying to find out about the writer through the book. The book is sort of the contract of intimacy between those two people who are essentially strangers and who really don't and can't know each other. So, a lot of the story is about reading.
And then there's the whole Woolf connection. Actually, come to think of it, one of the reviews I read compared your voice in this book to Woolf's. I'm paraphrasing, but he said your tone was deliberately Woolf-like.
I didn't think it was deliberately Woolf-like. I mean, if it's Woolf-like, it's not deliberately Woolf-like. Maybe accidentally Woolf-like, but I don't even think it's Woolf-like, really.
Are you a big fan of Woolf's?
Yup. I think she's really an excellent writer and I think structurally she's almost perfect. Especially a book like To the Lighthouse. Structurally it's almost a perfect book. And I like structure in writers. Some writers are really good at structure and some writers are really good at texture and all that detail in the characters and that sort of thing. Woolf I think is a writer who is very good at structure.
You came to novels as a poet, didn't you?
Four books of poetry published?
And The Lost Garden is your third novel?
I found it interesting and somewhat refreshing that you didn't have 72 fine arts degrees to bring you here.
No. I was kicked out of school, actually [Laughs] and I didn't go to university.
As I said, I found that refreshing. Because, in Canada, there's this path that leads to success in CanLit now.
Totally. It's all institutionalized now.
The path involves these steps. And so the fact that you took a different path strikes me as refreshing.
Yeah. I think it's hard to find writers now who aren't in some sort of academic program.
Because they think they have to.
Yeah. I was kicked out of school. I worked pumping gas, I worked those kinds of jobs for a long time. Which, in some ways, is better than going to school, I think. Going to school gives you a community, right? That's the sort of thing you lack when you do it my route. That is a deficit. Other than that, writing is just reading and writing. You can do that on your own.
How old were you when you were kicked out of school?
End of Grade 10. I went to alternative school just to finish my [high school].
How old are you now?
So you were in your 30s when your first novel was published?
Yeah. It came out in 1997. I was 36.
But you've been a writer for a long time?
My first book of poems came out when I was 24.
Are you working on anything right now?
I'm working on a novel set in the Arctic in the present day. It's got a historical component, but it's mostly contemporary. And it's funny. I hope, anyway. [A smile.]
There's a book that figures prominently in The Lost Garden. Not a novel, not the Woolf. But a book about roses. And, speaking of metaphors, Gwen falls asleep sometimes lying beneath it. Is that a real book?
Yes. The Genus Rosa by Ellen Willmott. It's quite a rare book now. There are only two copies in the library system in Canada. One is in the National Library in Ottawa and one is at the University of Calgary and they actually -- even though it's worth a fortune -- they lent it to me on an interlibrary loan from Calgary. So I actually had it for most of the writing of the book and I would do that: I would lie underneath it every day just to get the feeling of it. This was like my little ritual.
Are you still writing poetry?
No, I've kind of stopped. I kind of went off poetry. I did this thing where I had to read all the books of poetry that had been published in one year and I completely got so disillusioned that I haven't been able to write it. I got really depressed by it, actually. Poetry used to be a place, I think, where you could, as a reader, kind of enter and take on the experience of the poem. Now I think that happens much more in fiction. As a reader you enter a book and live inside there. And, in poetry there's no place for you: it's all about the poet. The "I" voice was supposed to be the voice of the reader and now it's always the voice of the poet.
I also couldn't figure out, in my own poetry, how to do anything different from my last book of poems. And I thought, if I was writing poems it would just be those same poems and I don't want to do the same thing over again. I wanted to evolve and do something differently and I couldn't figure out a way to do it in poetry. So I just moved it into fiction, really.
So it's fair to say that fiction has sort of taken poetry's place for you?
Yes, though I'd like to one day go back to poetry, I think. I'd just like to be able to remove the "I" from poems. Completely. Until I can figure out how to do that in an interesting way... [a shrug]
Are you reading anything that you love right now?
I loved Atonement by Ian McEwen. I loved Jamie O'Neill's At Swim: Two Boys. I really loved that. I loved Lovely Bones and I've been rereading Jean Rhys, I don't even know why, but I love her, she's great. All those short novels that are so tragic and perfect. I haven't read much Canadian stuff this year, but I will.
Are you deep in research reading for your next book?
Kind of, I'm reading all this Arctic stuff.
Will you go to the Arctic?
I went already.
Oh, how wonderful.
Well, it was and it wasn't. I had a bad reaction to the Arctic, I have to say. I found the landscape kind of terrifying, really.
In a bleak way?
In a very bleak way.
Where did you go?
The high Arctic, up through the Northwest passage. I found it a difficult landscape.
Was that a research trip or the trip that spawned the book?
It was supposed to be a research trip for the book. I was supposed to write that book before I wrote [The Lost Garden]. But I did the trip and I got really depressed and I thought: It's so bleak, I can't deal with that landscape. The subject in my book then was a lot of death and I thought: I'll just get too depressed writing about that. So I got the idea [for The Lost Garden] and just did that instead. But now I'm going back to do that. But I'm going to make [the book] funny as well and that will save me. | October 2002
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.