Q. Every book has its own story about how it came to be conceived and written as it did. How did Threading The Labyrinth evolve?
A. Way back in 2009, it started as a research proposal for a PhD in Creative Writing. I wanted to study the history of English gardens and write a novel that span 400 years in a garden with an analysis of space and time in gardens in fantasy fiction. I wrote that novel, passed my viva, and then set about trying to publish the book. It underwent some big changes, though, to get it from PhD to bookshelves!
I love multi-generational stories, so I wanted several time periods represented in the novel; there are even some time periods and stories I wanted that didn’t make it to the pages. The stories inside it each evolved individually, set to feature certain gardening styles and some ideas springing from specific things I discovered on my research. For example, Joan the weeding woman was named for two weeding women I found in a record of Hampton Court’s garden laborers from the reign of Henry VIII, and Mary Hill’s aunt Madeline was inspired by the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. It was only when I finished the novel that I realized Toni, the American who comes to England to find her heritage, was—in a very small way—me, an American returning to the land of her ancestors. It was about halfway through writing it that I also realized that it was an adult version of the trope found in a lot of fantasy books for children in which the garden is a time travel device, though in Threading’s case it isn’t as overt. Once I realized that, a lot became clear, so I took it and ran with it!
Q. Do you write with any particular audience in mind? Are there any particular audiences you hope will connect with this story?
A. I teach creative writing, and I honestly don’t believe in “writing for yourself” in the sense of writing but never intending to share it; I think writing for yourself is writing for those people out there like you who are on the lookout for stories about witches or ghosts or interstellar orchids or whatever. So I wrote this because I’ve always loved multi-generational books and historical fiction that is about real people but messes with the history a bit and inserts fantastic elements. I hope this appeals to fantasy readers and historical fiction readers—I think it has enough for both audiences without necessarily alienating either one. Gardeners might like it, too, but hopefully they approach it as fiction and not as written by a professional horticulturist!
Q. It isn’t often that we read a novel like Threading The Labyrinth where gardening is shown to be a form of art, ever evolving and often needing the commitment of generations to perpetuate and expand upon the work of the original creators. How has your own connection to gardening and art influenced your writing of this book?
A. I grew up without a garden of any type in the American Southwest. I was a weird teenager who read magazines and books about English gardens, historical costumes and furnishing and art, and how to make flower and herb-based concoctions à la Crabtree & Evelyn. I didn’t have a garden to take care of until I grew up, moved out of the Southwest to the Midwest, married, and bought a house from a landscape designer; I was suddenly responsible for a half dozen lilac trees, over a dozen peonies, countless irises, hostas, lily-of-the-valley, bleeding heart, and a wisteria that wouldn’t stop climbing up of the neighbor’s house and Would. Not. Flower. I had to learn how to take care of it all, plus plant veg and herbs and deal with pruning shrubs, as well as try to finally find the source root of a poison ivy that I pulled each year but came right back (and left me with weeping blisters on more than one occasion). My relationship with that garden was a difficult one; I loved to see what came up each spring, but by July I was sick to death of the mosquitos and humidity and weeds. So I truly appreciate the work that goes into something that looks like it should be relaxing. Writing this book let me have the dream garden I wanted as a teenager and the one I worked—but mostly failed—to create as an adult.
Since moving to the UK, my appreciation for gardens is external only—I don’t have a garden but absolutely love to visit gardens at historical houses, especially formal ones or walled ones. And that’s where art and gardening overlap; I see gardens as living things, not just in the sense that they are full of living plants but in the sense that they are constantly changing from what was intended and they undergo changing interpretations of them. You plan a garden and one random Tuesday at 4pm it looks like what you imagined, and then it changes; they are not static. Gardens are also art: this is an old argument and one that has influenced gardening styles for centuries. Is the garden a functional space, or is it there to show man’s power over nature; we grow vegetables in neat rows because they are easier to care for that way, but why do we cut topiary into fantastical shapes, which is not easier? Because we can!
Art also had a huge influence on Threading, with some version of creation existing in nearly every section of the book: early landscape drawing in the 1770s, photography and painting in the 1860s, film in the 1940s, and the 2010 frame about a gallery owner. For me, art and gardens are a constant push and pull between pleasure and politics. They are physical manifestations of our dreams and desires, but they also have historical contexts and reasons for being: there are reasons for plant X and statue Z that are linked to politics or social history of the time. Knowing the stories behind the piece of art or the existence of a certain plant adds to the pleasure for me, too, because I like the layering of ideas. This is how, for example, the painter in the Victorian section of Threading ends up painting the way he does: it is directly inspired by the story about Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent, who rigged up fake flowers to create summer in the autumn. It can be argued that a painting is already a fantasy re-creation of a scene—made prettier, more perfect, more colorful, or even more drastic or dark or tragic—and here Sargent took that one step further, creating a sort of time machine for himself. Which, to come full circle, is what gardens are: us trying to make nature prettier, more perfect, to make them bend to our will and to capture time in a bottle.
Q. How did you learn to write?
A. I wish I could say that I learned from a particular person on a particular class, but for me it doesn’t boil down to such an easy answer. I mostly learned by doing it: trial and error. I never took a writing class; I was an English major for my BA and MA and only studied “professional writing” and, for a while, wrote computer help files for a company that built databases for government contracts and even wrote textbooks and assessments for an educational materials developer. I never really wrote much of anything creative, though, until I finished my BA and started writing a novel with one of my best friends (that shall likely remain unpublished forever!). Weirdly, it wasn’t until I finished that novel that I finally understood the Russian-nesting-dolls nature of writing a short story. That was 2008, so rather recent. I learned a boatload on the back of that at two writing workshops I was lucky enough to attend. I now teach writing at university, but I’m still learning new things about it all the time. The best way to learn how to write, I think, is to do it—read a lot, write a lot, practice giving and getting feedback, and be open to writing as many drafts as it takes to get it right.
Q. Do you adhere to any particular writing regimen?
A. I wish I did but my job eats a lot of time and brain. Teaching creative writing is one of the most awesome and fun and hard jobs, and it takes a lot of creative energy, so when I have time to do my own writing I am often pretty much toast. I have to save up time for when I can sit and totally concentrate with nothing else to interrupt, but that means that it might be months between writing bouts. So when I can do a solo writing retreat weekend I’ll hermit myself and get 20K written, which is good for me. I don’t have any particular totems, though—no coffee or tea or anything that I must have to be able to write. But I write on a computer because I can’t handwrite fast enough to keep up. And I tend to finish a whole draft of anything before I start editing.
Q. Are you a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants) or a plotter?
A. I think I’m a combo. I mean, I usually have an idea of the plot but I don’t tend to write it out first. I usually pants the first draft. But it often takes me a few drafts of a story to know what it’s actually about, so I tend to be a plotter after the fact. For the book I’m working on now, I recently got out a giant piece of paper and wrote/drew out the whole plot in sections, connecting them with arrows and circles. It’s a mess, but it helped me SEE the thing; I hadn’t worked on it in several months and I wasn’t sure anymore where it was going. Once I did that, though, I could figure out what was next and what to move where. Unlike Threading, it’s chronological, but like Threading it’s separated into sections and I had to make sure that things were happening in the right order.
Q. I personally found Threading The Labyrinth to be a really heartening read while self-isolating due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The book reminded me that productivity in times of duress is both difficult and time-consuming, no matter how beautiful the result may (or often may not!) eventually be. How have you been holding up yourself, and do you have any advice for people struggling to “Garden more! Art more!” in these turbulent times?
A. I am so happy that you found it relaxing—the ebook release date came smack-dab in the middle of shutdown (we had to delay the physical book until July), and so it’s a total coincidence that a book about gardening and time and even, dare I say it, hope has come out in the midst of a situation when people miss the outdoors and are unsure about their future.
As a teacher, I’ve been working non-stop since shutdown so haven’t really had any extra time to do much aside from work except a few afternoons when I’ve made masks (and make geeky ones to entertain myself—Wonder Woman, Doctor Who, etc. because I like feeling like a fancy bandit!). I’m looking forward to some leave time coming up, though, and that’s when I’ll get to rest and write and have some brain space to think. My closest colleagues at work have kids, and I’ve watched them run themselves ragged trying to work from home, homeschool, and keep things together. So that underlying pressure to be more productive in the middle of a pandemic? It can get in the damn sea. This is especially true for so many female academics who have suddenly found themselves expected to produce and publish more according to this ridiculous idea that they have more time when in fact they’re the ones working and housekeeping and childrearing more than before.
We all deal with stress in our own ways, and the pandemic—even now when things seem to be getting back to some sort of normal—is still stressful because we can see a possible second wave coming, and because of things like the Black Lives Matter protests (and subsequent posturing by racists that has just happened in the past couple of days) and attacks on LGBTQ+ rights, which are a major concern for a lot of us, and we will be dealing with the economic ramifications of this plus Brexit soon. It is all a LOT to process. Don’t feel like gardening or painting or writing? Sit outside amongst the weeds with a soda, zone out looking at nice art online, or pick up a comfort read. Want to binge What We Do in the Shadows? Open up some crisps and biscuits and go for it. Recharge the way you need to—it’ll all be there when you’re ready again.
Q. What is the first book you read that made you think, “I have got to write something like this someday!”
A. Oh, gosh. The first one that comes to mind is Waking the Moon by Elizabeth Hand. Now, I don’t write like her, but she’s a big influence on me in the way that the weird happens in real life in her stories—sometimes with no explanation or even any in-depth description. It just happens, and characters move on to the next thing. I love that—it makes me itchy to know what the hell is happening, but completely satisfied with the mystery that will always be just out of reach, the way they should be. I’m also a huge Diana Gabaldon fan because her Outlander series is so sprawling, which is something I wish I could do.
Q. What made you choose speculative fiction as your means of expression?
A. I always liked fantasy and some science fiction when I was a kid, but I never knew I was a spec-fic writer until relatively recently. In 2008, that same best friend I wrote that novel with told me to go look at John Scalzi’s Whatever blog where he talked about the Viable Paradise workshop coming up. I read it and thought, nah, that’s not for me because I don’t write SFF. But then I started thinking about the stories that I had written—stories about dark riders coming to take unhappy children away and the stork bringing questionable babies—and I realized that I WAS writing SFF. But I didn’t fully embrace it until I got into VP, and then into Clarion in 2009, and learned more about writing spec fic and how I fit into it. I love how it gives me the freedom to write about things that bother me or interest me but lets me come at them sideways; so instead of writing directly about middle-aged women and the expectations that are put on them, which would maybe sound like me moaning about things, I can write about fifty-year-old Maria Sibylla Merian in the jungle of Suriname in 1700 as she looks for a mysterious moth and deals with the oppression of a world run by men. I love the freedom it gives us to imagine things beyond the mundane. It’s ruined me for literary fiction, though; I start reading something non-SFF and I get bored waiting for the weird thing to happen!
Q. What can you tell us about your next project?
A. I started a book in 2009 that I had to set aside when I started the PhD in 2010, and I have only returned to it in the past year or so. I cut my teeth on apocalyptic fiction, reading The Stand when I was around 11, and so always wanted to write an apocalypse. I am also interested in the representation of bodies in apocalyptic fiction and wrote about it for a presentation at WorldCon in Helsinki: “Where are the Tampons? The estrangement of women’s bodies in apocalyptic fiction”, which I talk about on an episode of the Breaking the Glass Slipper podcast. I have become known as the periods/tampons in the apocalypse woman! Anyway, these two things have intersected in the current WIP. It’s about the women and children left behind after an apocalyptic event—I call it Little House at the End of the World (though it does have a working title, but I want to keep that secret for a while longer). I was curious about that saying that if the world was run by women, there’s be no wars; I wanted to call shenanigans on that (though currently Jacinda Ardern is showing truth to it!). Unfortunately, current events mean that apocalyptic fiction might be a hard sell for the next while, but I’m 75K along and want to finish it. After that I am thinking I might write about Nicholas Culpeper, to keep the gardening history thing going.
Q. What are you reading at the moment?
A. I tend read a bunch of things at a time. I just finished Grady Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires which was excellent (plus I love vampire stories), I’m about halfway through Alix E Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January (which I am loving), and am partway through both Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five and Lara Maiklem’s Mudlarking. After that, my TBR pile is threatening to topple shelves and explode my kindle!
Q. Are there any new books or authors in speculative fiction that have you excited?
A. AJ Fitzwater is a great new voice writing LGBTQ+ spec fic; they’ve just had two books come out—The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper and No Man’s Land—that I just got in ebook (I was so looking forward to meeting AJ at WorldCon in New Zealand, but we all know how that’s turned out!). I’m a bit behind on reading recent stuff and only recently finished 2017’s The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden and am looking forward to reading the rest of the series; I love the fairy tale feel of the novel—it’s something I like to play with in stories and would like to perfect for longer-form fiction. And I have a few students I’m keeping an eye on; their work will be sure to find audiences!
A. Well, I am biased, but I think it’s something different—it’s Tom’s Midnight Garden or Children of Green Knowe but for grownups. It gives us the opportunity to look at our gardens—at any gardens—in a new way and consider the time it takes to build them from nothing to something and to think about how time is layered in one space and how they hold on to time. Plus, there are ghosts and a garden spirit and Land Girls and a bit of witchcraft and an impostor and mysterious genealogy. And, finally, it’s hopeful: it’s about building instead of destroying, which is something we’re looking for these days.
Threading The Labyrinth is out in both physical format and eBook as of yesterday July 13th, 2020 from Unsung Press, and may be found at all good booksellers. My review of the book itself, in which I mistake Dr Angus for a homegrown Brit (a compliment!), may be found here.