Thrilled that Robin Farrar Maass has joined us this week to talk about her debut, The Walled Garden
Author Name: Robin Farrar Maass
Book Title: The Walled Garden
Book Genre: Women’s fiction/romance
Release Date: May 17, 2022
Welcome to The Spotlight, Robin! How would you describe The Walled Garden?
American grad student Lucy Silver comes to England to research Elizabeth Blackspear, a famous poet, but soon finds herself in a fight to save Blackspear’s historic gardens, hot on the trail of a decades-old mystery, and in danger of falling for a hot Scot. Along the way, she discovers that her true home—and inheritance—are more incredible than anything she’d ever imagined.
What sparked the idea for The Walled Garden?
As odd as it sounds, I had a dream about my characters more than twenty years ago! I don’t remember many details except that there was a young American woman who became my protagonist, Lucy Silver, and an old English gentleman (in early drafts, he was called the OEG) who became Sir Edmund de Lisle. There was also a young man who eventually became Sam McKenna—he was by far the hardest of the three main characters to nail down and went through multiple iterations before he found his final form.
England, and Oxford in particular, have inspired me ever since I first visited when I was 22. One of my very favorite novels, Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers, is set in Oxford, which made me want to write my own Oxford novel. The funny thing is, my novel turned out not to be about Oxford at all—except tangentially. Most of the action takes place in two fictional villages just outside of Oxford that I made up. Another major inspiration for the book was my fascination with houses, especially old houses, so creating my own English country house—Priory House, where Sir Edmund lives—was definitely part of the fun!
How long did it take for you to write the book? Did you do any research?
It took me almost 15 years to write the book! A lot of life happened along the way, including classes, travel, family stuff, writers’ conferences, and ultimately an MFA. Part of this was due to my mistaken belief that being an English major and a lifelong voracious reader had taught me all I needed to know to write my own novel. But I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so had to learn it in what felt like the most time-consuming fashion possible. I would also characterize myself as a “pantser” instead of a plotter, so that tendency cost me a lot of time too! I had to learn that recognizing the underlying structure and beats of a narrative was not the same thing as outlining (which I have a phobia about), and I’m hoping to apply those lessons to my WIP.
My research consisted of traveling to England as much as possible, lots of reading, and deep-dive internet searches into topics including English country houses, the Language of Flowers, the history of ley lines, life in post-WWII England, and of course, gardening. One of the most fun things I did for research was to take a class on the history of the English country house, which involved living in-college for a week at Christ Church College as part of Oxford University’s Continuing Education program.
What drew you to women’s fiction?
I’ve always been drawn to stories of women finding their way in the world, and what they have to overcome—externally, but especially, internally. Growing up in a small town in the 1970s, I took in a lot of messages about what women could and couldn’t do in the world. Women of my era weren’t conditioned to believe it was “worth it” to invest in themselves, and investing in hybrid publishing to get my novel—the dream of my heart—out into the world, has been an internal struggle for me. I hope things are changing for women now, that they’re being encouraged to believe in themselves, but I don’t know. Maybe it’s something we’ll always struggle with.
What’s your favorite part about writing/being an author? What do you find challenging?
My favorite part of being an author is writing—when it’s going well, it’s the best feeling ever! Creating characters and especially settings is really fun too. I also enjoy the research and reading, and of course (when we can), traveling.
The most challenging part for me is the publicity part. I’m a naturally reserved person and it’s been harder than I expected to put myself out there and say, look, my book is being published and you need to buy it!
If you were speaking to someone who hasn’t read your writing before, why should they want to read The Walled Garden?
The last two years have been incredibly hard on all of us. Even before the pandemic, I went through some very difficult times while I was writing The Walled Garden. Yet I felt (and still feel) that the world is a beautiful place and that, ultimately, all will be well. So I’ve always felt a calling to create a fictional world that would help readers sustain their sense of hope, no matter what they’re going through or what’s happening in the world. If The Walled Garden can provide readers with solace and comfort in the midst of the uncertainties of life—or even a refuge to return to when times are hard—I’ll feel that I’ve accomplished that goal.
What about the writing/editing/publishing process has been the most surprising to you so far?
I think the most surprising thing for me is just how long everything takes. Part of that, as I mentioned earlier, was my own long learning curve. But even once I committed to publishing with SparkPress, I’ve been amazed by just how long it actually takes to go through all the proofreads, edits, cover design, back cover copy, etc. just to get to the ARCs stage, and then there are the post-ARCs edits as well. And, of course, pandemic-related supply chain issues are making things take even longer than they used to. That said, I deeply appreciate SparkPress’s commitment to making the book absolutely the best it can be.
Any words of wisdom you could give your pre-published writer self (or to a new writer)?
I have to admit I’m not feeling very wise at the moment! It’s rattling me more than I thought it would to think of the book finally coming out after all this time. It’s like I’ve agreed to put my heart out there for the world to judge—and possibly stomp on. But at the same time, I know it’s something I had to do because I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I’d gotten to the end of my life and hadn’t written—and published—my novel. So, right now, for me, it’s all about having faith. Trusting the path I’m on and my calling to be a writer, which, despite everything that’s happened to me, and all the confusing detours and side-paths and rabbit holes I’ve tumbled into, has always been with me.
In The Right to Write, Julia Cameron says, “We should write because writing brings clarity and passion to the act of living. . . . We should write because writing is good for the soul. We should write because writing yields us a body of work, a felt path through the world we live in. We should write, above all, because we are writers whether we call ourselves writers or not.”
If I had any words of wisdom to share about writing, I’d say that if that’s your calling, then you have to follow it. Because, despite all the struggle and doubts, it’s worth it to find the thing you really want to say, and to work on your craft till you find your way of saying it. Toni Morrison said, “If you find a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” and that’s probably the best advice I could give anyone!
What are your interests outside of writing and reading?
I have a big, messy, wants-to-be an English garden, and I spend a lot of time out there, fighting a losing battle to impose some sort of order on it! But it also gives me a great deal of joy. In the summer, I love having tea parties with my friends in the garden. Also, during one of the periods in my life when I’d “given up” on writing, I took up watercolor painting, which feeds my love of color, and which I still enjoy when I have time. And, of course, I love to travel—especially to England—as often as I can.
Are you working on a new project? Please tell us about it.
Yes, I’m about a quarter of the way into a new novel, also set in England, about an American artist who’s been married to a Brit for ten years when she discovers that he’s been unfaithful. When she moves out of London to a cottage in the countryside for a fresh start, she finds a cache of letters and diaries from a young woman who was evacuated there during WWII, which starts her on a quest to find out who the people in the letters were. There’s a mystery about some paintings that were done during the war that have since disappeared, and an abandoned summerhouse that the artist claims as a studio, even as she wonders if she’ll ever paint again. There’s also a bearded estate manager (and she hates beards!) who keeps popping up at moments when she least wants to see him.
Where can readers find you?
I blog twice a month on my website, robinfmaass.com. I’m also on Instagram and Twitter @robinfmaass.
Thank you, Robin! The Walled Garden is available for pre-order NOW.
American grad student Lucy Silver arrives in England hoping to solve a longstanding literary mystery, write her dissertation, and finish her graduate studies in a blaze of academic glory. But as Lucy starts to piece together the correspondence between her late grandmother and Elizabeth Blackspear, the famous poet and garden writer who’s the subject of Lucy’s dissertation, she discovers puzzling coded references in the letters—and when an elderly English aristocrat with a secret connection to Elizabeth offers Lucy access to a neglected walled garden on his estate, the mystery deepens.
As spring turns to summer in Bolton Lacey, Lucy finds herself fighting the Blackspear Gardens’ director’s attempt to deny her access to vital documents in the archives . . . and trying not to fall in love with an attractive Scottish contractor. In the midst of this turmoil, she stumbles upon an illicit plot to turn the historic gardens into a theme park, and becomes determined to stop it.
As she races against time to save the gardens, Lucy’s search for the truth about Elizabeth’s life leads her to a French convent where she uncovers explosive evidence that will change her life and the lives of everyone around her, ultimately revealing a home—and an inheritance—more incredible than anything she could ever have imagined.
Robin Farrar Maass is a lifelong reader and writer who fell in love with England when she was twenty-two. She enjoys tending her messy wants-to-be-English garden, painting watercolors, and traveling. She lives in Redmond, Washington, with her husband and two highly opinionated Siamese cats. The Walled Garden is her first novel, and she’s already at work on her next novel set in England. Learn more at www.robinfmaass.com.