Canadian Living: What was your inspiration for this novel?
Helen Humphreys: I initially wanted to write a book about reading, and about Virginia Woolf, but I wasn't sure how to approach it. At the time my grandfather was living in a converted mansion in England. It was a home for the elderly who didn't need nursing care. My grandfather spent some time exploring the estate and found a garden that had grown over. He and another man spent three years uncovering the garden, replanting it. It was a fairly complicated garden, with a set of stone steps and a pond. They did a fantastic job of revitalizing the garden, but after my grandfather died, at the age of 91, the estate was sold and the grounds razed to build condos. So the garden that had been lost was lost again. There was my metaphor for reading – the original gardener was the writer, the garden the book, and the person who discovered the garden, the reader. So I worked the story from that point.
CL: What, if anything, do you think makes The Lost Garden Canadian?
HH: Well, I am Canadian for one, and I wrote it. The soldiers in the novel are Canadian. But, I don't know. Does it matter if the story is or isn't attached securely to Canada? I don't think it matters. A story is a story. It stands or falls depending on how well it's told. It never matters to me, as a reader, where a story takes place, so long as it's believable, so long as I am compelled to follow the narrative.
CL: What is your favourite scene in the book?
HH: I am partial to the scenes where the land girls write on the blackout curtains, and also the scene where Jane and Gwen are waiting for the ghost.
CL: How do you find your characters?
HH: It seems trite to say they just show up, but it sort of works that way. I make a space for them by inventing a story, a place for them to be, and they move in to fill that space. Once I figure out that I want to tell a particular story the characters are not far behind the idea.
CL: When you started writing this novel, did you know what would happen at the end? How does your writing process work in terms of plot development?
HH: I wrote the last two pages first and then started right at the beginning and wrote toward those final pages. Usually I don't write the ending first, but for this book it just came out first, and was literally unchanged from first draft to finished draft. I generally have an outline for what I want to happen in a book, and I usually know how it will end up, and then I just start writing and see what comes to fill the spaces between the major action of the novel. I am a fairly methodical writer, working day by day from beginning to end.
CL: If you could, would you go back and change something about the book? If so, what?
HH: The writing can always be improved. In fact, on my reading copy, I continue to edit the book for readings, even though it's published in its final form. But I can't think of a scene I would change, just the language used to describe the scenes.
CL: If you were organizing a book club meeting about The Lost Garden, what would you ask people to discuss?
HH: How the war impacted the various characters in the book. How the gardens were tied to the main characters.
Click here to read an excerpt from The Lost Garden.