Hello and welcome to the beautiful winter season here at Books, Tea & Whiskers. It's getting chilly out there so now is the perfect time to curl up by the fire with a cup of tea and our furry friends to keep us warm. The best books to do that with are those with a wintery tale, of course! Get cozy because we have two amazing author interviews for you which will help you choose your next favourite wintery read. First up is Ashli's newest favourite book (second to The Night Circus, but its climbed fast); The Winter Garden by Alexandra Bell. For this post, we are going to dive straight into the interview after this quick blurb to get you hooked:
"Welcome to the Winter Garden. Open only at 13 o'clock.
You are invited to enter an unusual competition.
I am looking for the most magical, spectacular, remarkable pleasure garden this world has to offer.
On the night her mother dies, 8-year-old Beatrice receives an invitation to the mysterious Winter Garden. A place of wonder and magic, filled with all manner of strange and spectacular flora and fauna, the garden is her solace every night for seven days. But when the garden disappears, and no one believes her story, Beatrice is left to wonder if it were truly real.
Eighteen years later, on the eve of her wedding to a man her late father approved of but she does not love, Beatrice makes the decision to throw off the expectations of Victorian English society and search for the garden. But when both she and her closest friend, Rosa, receive invitations to compete to create spectacular pleasure gardens - with the prize being one wish from the last of the Winter Garden's magic - she realises she may be closer to finding it than she ever imagined.
Now all she has to do is win."
BT&W: Thank you for answering our questions about The Winter Garden! This is such a fantastic, magical experience of a book. How did the idea for the book come to you?
Alex: Thank you - I’m so happy you enjoyed reading it. The idea came about from my interest in pleasure gardens. They seemed like such an interesting, unique form of entertainment that’s no longer around, and I thought they’d make a great setting for a magical story.
BT&W: There are some interesting character dynamics throughout the story. Firstly, how did you decide to dual narrate between Beatrice and Rosa?
Alex: A dual perspective seemed like the only way of getting inside both of the women’s heads and showing why they each behaved the way they do. It would have been too one-sided to see things from just one of them.
BT&W: The men in this story are so quintessential Victorian except for dear James. Tell us about the writing process of these characters? How hard was it to write between James and the Duke with their vastly different personalities?
Alex: I did quite a lot of research for both characters. It was especially interesting reading about Victorian orchid hunters. This would have been such an unusual way of life that it seemed to make sense that such a character might have a slightly different outlook on the world.
BT&W: Now to the best part… the gardens! What was it like developing these various flowers and trees with their magical properties? Did you have a background in horticulture before writing this or did it come with the research?
Alex: I really enjoyed creating the gardens. I don’t have any particular background in gardening but I researched Victorian gardens, pleasure gardens, the mania for orchids etc and used this as a starting point for creating my own magical version.
BT&W: Can you walk us through the process of developing the main features for the two gardens? The Carousel and Rosa’s garden itself with the pond for skating was the most beautiful thing ever. But those plum trees and the power that they hold was intriguing just the same.
Alex: The carousel and the plum trees both came about from asking myself what the most wondrous thing each garden could offer might be. It seemed like most people would have a past regret they might wish to change, or would be fascinated by seeing how their life might have turned out of they’d done things differently - but that there would also be a bit of a dark side to these things too.
BT&W: Would you put your hand out into the plum rain or eat the plum to find your regrets? We aren’t absolutely sure ourselves if we would do it or not!
Alex: I’m not sure either! But I think probably not. I don’t think you can really win with the plum rain, and you’re better off sticking with the life you actually have, warts and all.
BT&W: One of our favorite things is having a good cup of tea while reading a book. If The Winter Garden as a whole book is a certain flavour of tea, what would you pick?
Alex: I really like lapsang souchong tea, and I think this would be a good fit for the Winter Garden, as it makes me think of smoky bonfires and being outdoors.
BT&W: That ending… just wow! Without spoiling it too much, can you walk us through how you came to the ending and what it means to you?
Alex: I knew I wanted an ending that was mostly happy for the two main characters, without things being tied up too neatly. So I aimed for an ending that would feel satisfying to the reader and that both women are in some way free at the end. I wanted them to make peace with the decisions they’d made in their lives and to be ready to move forwards. I also wanted to explore the relationship between mother and child and to acknowledge that it’s a powerful bond, but that that doesn’t necessarily mean that a mother would always get things right or know what was best. I suppose I wanted to celebrate the imperfection as much as anything, and the fact that we all make mistakes all the time, even when we have the best intentions at heart.
BT&W: What is your writing process usually like? Does The Winter Garden have a playlist or anything that you listened to while writing or that you would recommend to readers who don’t want to leave that world just yet?
Alex: I find it really hard to concentrate on writing if there’s any music playing, so I try to work in silence as much as I can, although this isn’t always possible now that I have two young children. I used to enjoy writing at night because the house would be quiet and I knew I wouldn’t be disturbed, but now I have to be less precious about my preferences and just write whenever I find a spare moment.
BT&W: What are you currently reading now/ recommending to other readers?
Alex: I recently enjoyed reading The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Other than that, I’ve been reading a lot of Postman Pat books to my toddler, as they’re his current favourite.
BT&W: Do you have any new works on the horizon that readers should be looking out for and do you have any information that you can share with us on those projects?
Alex: I’m currently working on my children’s series, which is about a group of explorers who have underwater adventures, and the protagonist is part mermaid too. The most recent one - Explorers on Pirate Island - came out this month, and I love working on these books because they remind me of the stories I enjoyed as a child, and why I first wanted to tell stories of my own.