What can our readers expect from your new novel Eden's Garden?
Eden’s Garden is a ‘time shift’, with the modern strand interwoven with one from Victorian times. It follows the intertwined stories of the Meredith family of Plas Eden, a dilapidated mansion with a collection of mysterious statues in its overgrown garden, and the servants who once served there. If you love ‘Downton Abbey’ and the novels of Kate Morton, this is the book for you!â¨
In the In the present day, 33 year old Carys returns home to look after her ailing mother and finds herself drawn once more to Plas Eden, the fading country house that is home to her lost love, David Meredith.
In late Victorian London, a woman wracked with loss and guilt stands on Westminster Bridge, preparing to end her life in the dark waters of the Thames. At the last moment she turns, making her way instead to the nearby Meredith Charity Hospital.
Slowly, the long-buried secrets of the Meredith family are revealed, while Carys begins to uncover unexpected family secrets of her own. And as she and David pursue the trail to the coast of Cornwall, Carys begins to realise that it is not only the fate of a long-ago love story, but her own future, that is at stake.
Eden’s Garden is a story of two women struggling with love, family duty, long-buried secrets and their own creative ambitions. What is Plas Eden’s connection with Carys’ own family history and what are the secrets of the statues in the garden?
Where did the idea for the novel come from?
The idea originally came from a Celtic myth of Blodeuwedd, a woman made out of flowers to be perfectly beautiful and a perfect wife. In the story, Blodeuwedd is punished when she stops being simply what other people want her to be. She does something terrible but – unlike her husband – she is never given a second chance. As I’ve grown older, it seems to me that it’s the experiences we all go through that teach us understanding and empathy, and make us truly human. But while men are admired and rewarded for maturity, women are still expected to seem young and pretty and pleasing.
So I wanted to write about women growing older and wiser and changed for the better by the things they go through and the choices that they make. And I also want to show how women’s experiences like caring for children and elderly relatives – which are still largely invisible or seen as irrelevant – can challenge you to the very core, and teach you so much that you can take on to other things in life.
The idea for the garden was inspired by a real garden, Brondanw Gardens in Southern Snowdonia, the home of Clough Williams-Ellis who created the famous Italianate village of Portmeirion. I pass by both often when I go to visit my family, and both are life-affirming, magical places. As I wandered in the wilderness gardens of Plas Brondanw in all weathers and seasons, a story began growing in my head until I could no longer ignore it….
Are your main characters of Carys and Ann inspired by someone in your own life or are they purely fictional?
Both Carys and Ann are fictional, but they are both inspired by the lives of women I know, whether friends or in my own family. The choice that Carys has to make early in the story, of following her own career or taking responsibility for her mother when she needs her, is a choice that women face all the time, and it’s a really difficult balance to strike. It’s certainly not one with easy answers. As a nineteen-year-old, Ann - the Victorian heroine - is spoilt and completely self-absorbed in her own beauty. What happens to her changes all that, and sends her on the longest inner journey of all. I’m sure anyone who has been a teenage girl can identify with that!
What was your attraction to writing parallel stories?
As part of my ‘day’ job, I work on oral history projects, writing down the stories of people in their 80s and 90s before they are lost forever. I love history, and I love seeing the connections between life now and life in the past. Sometimes it’s the contrast - so the way Ann’s life in Victorian times is so restricted compared to that of modern-day Carys, who has a career and is able to earn money and therefore has choices. Sometimes it’s the way that the past can affect the present, such as Ann’s secret having huge consequences for the Meredith family.
And then there is Dickens. I love his storytelling and the way his plots twist and turn and characters seem to have no connection at all and yet, in the end, are all intricately connected. I wouldn’t ever claim to be anywhere near Dickens, but the challenge of writing two stories in two different times that gradually begin to make sense of each other was a real exhilaration – and a huge learning curve.
How did teaching English help you develop your own writing?
I didn’t teach English for very long, but I think the way it helped me develop was in seeing the energy and lack of self-consciousness in children’s creative writing. I loved doing my English degree, but in many ways I had to unlearn much of the analysis and the worship of ‘great writing’ to be able to start writing myself and especially to find my own voice.
So in many ways, it has been all the other jobs I’ve done that have helped me develop as a writer – although I didn’t realise this at the time! I’ve worked as a ‘temp’ all over London, and ran my own stall at Covent Garden craft market, so I was always mixing with different people and different environments. More recently, the oral history work has definitely taught me an incredible amount about just how extraordinary so-called ordinary lives can be. I also work with an amazing social enterprise that makes films with people who have often really hit the depths through drug and alcohol addiction, and whose stories can be humbling and a real eye-opener. As Ann discovers, too, the resilience of human beings in the darkest of places is stunning.
If your dream career was to write, why didn’t you pursue this earlier in life?
I think, like everyone, I got caught up in making a living, buying a house and doing all the grownup things you’re supposed to do. I did try to become a writer in my early twenties, when I was living in London. I sent off articles and short stories and entered playwriting competitions. I didn’t get anywhere, so I put the dream to one side and took up a ‘sensible’ career instead. What I didn’t realise was that I had nothing to write about. I’d been at school or university all my life. I was stuffed full of lofty ideas and the novels of Charlotte Bronte and Dickens, but I hadn’t done any living on my own account. There was no inner fire driving me: just a love of books and writing.
I didn’t start writing properly again until I was about to turn forty. By then, I’d had the spots knocked off me, big time. I’d learnt about how cruel people can be, as well as how kind and generous, and that the injustices in the world do matter, even if they don’t affect you personally, and they don’t just go away. But it was fighting back from debilitating illness that gave me a real fire in the belly and passion to my writing and – in the most unexpected way possible – finally made my dream come true.
You are a member of the Romantic Novelists Association, why is writing about romance something you are passionate about?
I love the RNA. ‘Romance’ is so often looked down upon, but any story that has any kind of relationship somewhere within its pages is a romance. ‘War and Peace’, anyone? When I was twenty, I wanted to write worthy books full of deep thoughts (my own, of course) and where everybody died at the end. Now I’m older, I don’t want to read about unrelenting gloom, and I want to write optimistic books where there is a positive resolution at the end. Which, to me, means that I write romance.
The RNA is a wonderfully supportive organisation. Like so many published writers, I went through their ‘New Writers’ Scheme’ and gained an enormous amount from my reader. It’s really hard to get feedback when you are starting out, especially feedback from a professional working writer. The women (and men) of the RNA are incredibly generous with their advice and helping aspiring writers. And their parties are pretty good fun, too!
Where did your love of gardening begin and why do you use it in your writing?
I’ve loved gardens from when I was a child. My dad was a keen gardener and my brother and I had a little patch each where we grew simple things like radishes. But I only took up gardening seriously when I bought my cottage, nearly twenty years ago. It was the first home I’d ever owned and – a little recklessly – it was the garden I fell in love with. Because my cottage is two knocked into one, I have two gardens, so it’s huge!
I’ve always loved creating order out of chaos, so the challenge of turning a neglected wilderness back into a peaceful haven was wonderful. I suppose that’s where I really fell in love with gardening itself. Unfortunately, soon after I started I became ill with glandular fever, which led to years of M.E./Chronic Fatigue syndrome. That was when my garden became the most amazing place of healing. Being ill taught me to sit and appreciate the life going on around me. I’m well now, but I’ve learnt a passion for coaxing nature into doing the work for me and to sit quietly watching the beauty of the seasons as they change.
How did suffering from ME affect your perspective on life and your writing?
ME was my turning point. It was the thing that changed me forever. And it made me a writer.
When I first became ill with glandular fever, it was a truly horrible, frightening experience. Having been very fit and active all my life, within weeks I found myself hardly able to walk, or even to think clearly for more than ten minutes at a time. When you have that little energy, whatever you do in that precious short time is hugely important. It soon makes you prioritise, and so you have to decide what is really important to you.
It was sitting in the garden unable to do anything for nearly a year that gave me the time to think about what I really wanted from life. It made me realise that if I wanted to follow my dream of being a writer, I had to do it now or it would never happen. So I swore to myself that if I ever became well again that is what I would focus on. And that’s what I’ve done. I’ve managed to survive working part-time, with every spare moment concentrated on building up my writing career.
I knew that it might never happen – but when you’ve been that low you realise you have nothing to lose. I’m with Lady Macbeth here when her husband asks her what if they fail and she retorts: ‘We fail. But screw your courage to the sticking-place, and we’ll not fail.’ Not that I’ve ever plotted a murder, I hasten to add. Not in real life, that is.
Why did you want to use Wales, your home, as one of the setting in your novel?
I think initially I was following the old advice of ‘write what you know’. I’d originally started out being a historical novelist, so I was still finding my feet for the telling of the contemporary story. The village where I live now is the place I’ve lived for longest in my life. I live further north than the setting for Eden’s Garden, between Snowdon and Anglesey – and yes I really do share a supermarket with a duchess, and a prince flies regularly overhead when he is stationed on Anglesey!
Wales is a real hidden gem and the perfect setting for a romantic novel: beautiful scenery, with wild mountains, dramatic waterfalls and ruined castles. There are wide sandy beaches and rocky coastlines, and being so close to the gulf stream it’s not as cold or wet as many people think - we can even grow palm trees up here in the mountains. Pont-ar-Eden in Eden’s Garden isn’t based on a single place, but I hope it reflects the old-fashioned, close-knit communities that still survive in parts of Wales. It’s the kind of closeness that can drive you to distraction as everyone knows everyone else’s business, but I know from my own experience that when anyone is in trouble the community rallies around with incredible strength. The British newspapers are always saying how the people of Anglesey are very protective of William and Kate – maybe in just the same way that the secrets of Eden’s Garden are fiercely protected by the community of Pont-ar-Eden.
Interview by Lucy Walton
Eden’s Garden by Juliet Greenwood is published by Honno in paperback original on 30 March, priced £8.99