A Master Gardener, Mindy lives in Greenville, South Carolina, where she directs the Writing Room, a community-based nonprofit program she founded in 2006 to bring writers to Greenville for paid seminars and readings. Secret Keepers, from St. Martin’s Press, is her second novel.
Here is my question-and-answer interview with Mindy.
1. Hi, Mindy. Welcome to Donna's Book Pub. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and advice with my readers. First, please tell us a little about your background and how you became a writer?
I started out as a newspaper reporter and gravitated toward writing features. I realized I loved writing about people, not hard news. It took me a decade or so before I worked up the nerve to write fiction, especially a novel! I read a lot, voraciously, and for a while I felt intimidated. I couldn't imagine how novelists went about writing a book. Among the books on craft that helped me is a classic from the 1970's by John Braine called "How to Write a Novel." He suggests writing on a schedule several times a week, and his book includes some encouraging advice for beginners on how to structure a novel.
2. Thanks for that tip about John Braine's book. SECRET KEEPERS is an intriguing title for a novel. What is the novel about, and how does the title tie in with the story?
The novel is about a group of characters who are stuck--in a town, in marriages, in estranged relationships with their children and parents, in past mistakes, stuck with memories--and how they try to move on. That's why I chose to include the epigraph from Katherine Mansfield: “How hard it is to escape from places. However carefully one goes they hold you -- you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences -- little rags and shreds of your very life.” In the novel, Secret Keepers is a purely fictional flowering plant. It's flower has a potent aroma that evokes a powerful memory of love in a person’s life. Another fictional plant, Soul Shines, is preternaturally sensitive, and seems to perceive a person’s feelings (or character). Other than these flights of fancy, most of the novel is grounded in realism. As I mention on my website, The Story Behind Secret Keepers, I started SECRET KEEPERS with an image of Emma Hanley, gazing at a family portrait, stuck in her hometown. Like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, she yearns to flee. Just when it looks like she might get her wish, her husband heads off to his morning coffee klatch with a gaggle of adoring widow women, and Emma’s dream of travel is stymied. Again. And then she has her hands full juggling the demands of her adult children. A motley group of gardeners, the Blooming Idiots, complicate matters when they unearth some strange botanicals and the Hanley family’s secrets. Nature, it turns out, is a major character in SECRET KEEPERS. But I hope the reader finds that in the course of the novel -- through regret, broken hearts, and grief -- humor winds like a flowering vine.
3. I love the idea of plants having special powers like that! You no doubt have been asked this question numerous times before, but please share with my blog readers what inspired you to write SECRET KEEPERS.
My childhood love of Francis Hodgson Burnett’s classic The Secret Garden inspired the idea of the neglected estate, Amaranth, and its swallowed up heirloom garden. Also figuring in: The “outsider” garden art I love stumbling upon in hidden down-at-the heels neighborhoods in town -- with their bottle trees, and vine-covered iron bedstands. More recently, I read a lot about the tales of plant hunters at the turn of the century. These men -- botanists and amateur naturalists alike -- traveled to desolate, dangerous regions in the world to acquire rare plants. Emma’s grandfather, William McCann, was such a man -- an amateur plant collector whose obsession with acquiring botanicals eventually led him to ruin. And there is the old travel trunk in which Emma Hanley stores her grandfather’s papers. It resembles a steamer trunk belonging to my great-grandmother, in which I discovered old postcards, photographs, telegrams, and a letter about a missing person--my great-aunt-- signed by J. Edgar Hoover. Family secrets -- locked away in a trunk.
4. That must've been exciting to find a letter signed by J. Edgar Hoover about your great-aunt! SECRET KEEPERS follows your critically acclaimed debut novel THE GARDEN ANGEL, which is now in its fourth printing. How are the two novels similar and how are they different?
THE GARDEN ANGEL is about the unlikely friendship between two women: An obituary writer schemes to hold onto her dilapidated, ancestral home and in the process befriends an Emily Dickinson-obsessed agoraphobic stuck in the suburbs. Think "Grey Gardens" meets "Fried Green Tomatoes." For my second novel, I knew I wanted to write Secret Keepers in the omniscient point of view, with a narrator, and include multiple perspectives.So, there's a bigger "canvas," a wider story in SECRET KEEPERS. After completing a first draft of Secret Keepers, I spent several years revising and expanding the scope of the novel to include several members of a family and a cast of characters. Both novels have in common a strong sense of place, the love of "ruined finery," family conflicts, and humor. Readers tell me they love the humor in both books, and I'm so happy to hear that. Humor is a pleasure to share.
5. I agree with your other readers; your touches of humor add to the enjoyment of SECRET KEEPERS! Your setting for SECRET KEEPERS is charming; your characters are complex and interesting. Is Palmetto, South Carolina, an actual place, and are your characters based on real-life people, composites of people you know, or creations of your imagination?
The (fictitious small) town of Palmetto is loosely based on my own hometown of Greenville, South Carolina and its overlay of New South over Old South. I like to think the heartbreaks, triumphs, family squabbles, and the "heart in conflict with itself," as Faulkner put it, are universal. Mother-daughter conflicts, for example. And controlling marriages. As for setting, I'm by no means faithful to street names and places, and I often "tweak" a landmark when writing fiction.For example, "Springforth Cemetery" in the novel is based on an actual cemetery down the street from me, called "Springwood." I thought Springforth was a better name for a cemetery, anyway. There's a Confederate memorial in front of the cemetery that was relocated from the center of town decades previously. But he isn't pointing. I made that part up. Fiction--gotta love it!
6. You are so right--writing fiction is a lovely experience. SECRET KEEPERS has a strong sense of time and place. What prompted you to select that era?
In SECRET KEEPERS, the past seems to influence, even intrude, on the present. Though it's contemporary story, there's a narrative sweep from the early 1900's to the late 1980's, often illustrated by a landmark--such as the Confederate Monument, from a past central location in the town, to a new marginalized location in the New South. And Amaranth, once the splendid McCann estate, went seedy over the decades--from roominghouse, to flop house. As for characters: Although Emma’s son, Will Hanley, died in Vietnam, and her grandfather, William McCann, died in a firearm mishap, both characters, long dead and “off the pages” of the novel, still figure prominently in the daily life of Emma and several other characters.
7. While showing a healthy respect for Southern values and lifestyles, you poke fun, in a non-judgmental way, at some of the strict religious beliefs and practices of your characters. How has that aspect of your novel been received?
That's an interesting question. Dora, Emma Hanley's adult daughter, is having a crisis n faith, in part because she's never come to terms with an event in the past she still feels guilty about. The more empty she feels inside, the more she shops, buying "Christ-centered decor" at a faith-based commerce mall. While leading the Firm Believers Aerobics Group, she feels herself "just going through the motions." Some people may not see the humor in Dora's escapades, but I hope they won't take offense. There's satire, of course, but Dora is truly suffering, and her sadness eventually drives her deeper to face her life NOW. I have some church book groups who read my books. My late grandmother's Baptist church book club won't read SECRET KEEPERS, however. The leader told me it wasn't appropriate for a church book. I respect that. Thank goodness there are all sorts of readers and book clubs, with all kinds of preferences and tastes.
8. The cover on SECRET KEEPERS is delightful. The boots/planters are like some of the characters in your novel – well worn and damaged, but still functional and capable of letting beauty shine through. What, if any, influence did you have on selecting the book’s cover?
St. Martin's has been wonderful--open to ideas for covers of both of my books, soliciting my ideas and photographs to help come up with book jackets. Although I don't consider myself a photographer--have had absolutely no training-- I love capturing images in my own garden and around town. Point and shoot! I was shocked and pleased when they ended up selecting a photo I sent them for the cover of SECRET KEEPERS. Those boot "planters" are on my front porch still. I take a boot planter to bookstores when I do signings and readings.
9. Your writing has been described as “beautiful as a stained-glass window” and has been compared with Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty. That's quite a compliment! What writers have influenced you, and who are your favorites now?
I grew up reading Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty, among many others. I also read writers such as Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, James Jones, Marilyn French. There's no way to list all the books that have moved me! I try to read widely. Mona Simpson, Pat Conroy, Ann Tyler, Richard Russo.Some of my all time favorite novels--this is a very partial list: Ironweed by William Kennedy, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, every novel written by Ann Tyler, The White Hotel by DM Thomas, The Hours by Michael Cunningham,The World According to Garp by John irving, Norwood by Charles Portis, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, Amy and Isabel by Elizabeth Strout, Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo, Barbara Kingsolver, and lots of classic southern faves: Jill McCorkle, Lee Smith, Allan Garganus, Josephine Humphreys, Kaye Gibbons, Michael Lee West--Crazy Ladies, love it-- Fannie Flagg. On and on. I often recommend books on my blog, Novel Thoughts. http://mindyfriddle.blogspot.com/
10. In addition to being an accomplished writer, you are also a Master Gardner, and the beauty of nature shines through in your novel. How are your experiences as a writer and a Master Gardener similar?
I can get lost in both of them. I love when I lose my sense of self, and just focus on what's in front of me--whether it be composting, planting seeds, weeding, or writing 1,000 words-- just being absolutely present and open. In that sense, gardening and writing are my spiritual practices.
11. Please describe your writing process.
I try to keep to a schedule of writing five times a week for several hours or 1,000 words per session, depending on what I'm working on. I draft, then revise, then get a reader or two to weigh in, then revise more. It's not easy or effortless. But I do love when I feel the "portal" is open, and creativity is flowing not from me, but THROUGH me. Writing is its own reward.
12. I love that--writing is its own reward! What happens after the writing stops? As a writer, what do you have to do to help make your book a success? Can you share a few book signing horror stories and lovely surprises?
The promotion, travel, blogging, public readings call on a different set of muscles from toiling in isolation at your desk. I count myself lucky to enjoy the promotional aspects of an author's life, as well. Certainly, I feel privileged to be a part of reaching readers. It's such a contrast to drafting a novel...yin and yang...and after the extrovert part is over, I'm looking forward to getting back to writing even more.The best book signings are usually luncheons or readings-with an eager group of readers who are attentive listeners and ask intriguing questions. It turns out to be a conversation, a community of readers and writers. That's so fun. The horror story--most authors have this one-- arriving at a bookstore after traveling for hours and find they haven't ordered your books, and don't have any for you to sign. Humor...did I mention humor? Don't leave home without it! That and GPS.
13. Humor and GPS. I'll try to remember that. What advice do you have for writers just starting out, or even those who have been writing for years? Any recommendations for books on writing?
Find a group of fellow writers. You can read each other's work. Here's why: You'll often learn a great deal about your own writing by closely reading and critiquing a fellow writer's work. It's amazing how this helps! [Of course, be gentle...point out what works. Knowing what works in a piece is so helpful.]As I mentioned, Braine's book on novel writing is helpful, and so is Stephen King's book on the craft of writing. John Dufresne has a helpful book on writing fiction--stories and novels--and of course there's Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
14. What you said is so true. Finding a group of other writers is so important. I don't know what I would do without my writing friends. Final question: What’s the best way to contact you or to find out more about your books or scheduled appearances?
Please feel free to visit my website. You may contact me there through my e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. My appearances page has my current schedule. There's also a section for book clubs and some interviews with writers. I also occasionally offer a "seedy characters" contest, and you can sign up for my occasional, sporadic newsletter. And please drop by my blog, Novel Thoughts: Musings on Reading, Writng and the Earth. for content, reviews, tips, bootylicious tour updates, and lots of photos.
Mindy, thank you so much for your generosity and patience in answering all my questions. We all can learn so much from reading your answers. I personally highly recommend your book, SECRET KEEPERS, to my blog visitors. It was such a delight to read. I'll have to check out your "seedy characters" contest.
If anyone would like to leave a comment or ask additional questions, please post them here, and if Mindy isn't too worn out from answering all of my questions, she will pop in to answer them.