The Story Behind SECRET KEEPERS
A novel by Mindy Friddle
The Story Behind The Book
A note from Mindy:
In the garden this morning I found larkspur and zinnias sprouting in the tomato bed. Last summer’s Love-Lies-Bleeding went rogue, too, self-seeding among the squash and peppers. I find such strange bedfellows enchanting. I’m working with nature here, so I’m open to surprises. I like to see what happens.
That’s pretty much how I approach writing novels. I like to see what happens. What are these characters up to now? I love it when they surprise me.
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 . . . well, Emma’s dream of travel is stymied. Again. And then she has her hands full juggling the demands of her adult children. Things get really prickly when a motley group of gardeners, the Blooming Idiots, unearth some strange botanicals and the Hanley family’s secrets. Nature, it turns out, is a major character in SECRET KEEPERS. In the course of the novel — through regret, broken hearts, and grief — humor winds like a flowering vine. Publisher’s Weekly says the Hanley clan, “is a genuinely quirky lot with its own unlikely ideas of happiness.” Strange bedfellows, indeed.
Thank you so much for visiting. I look forward to hearing from you, and wish you happy reading.
P.S. Are you in a Book Club? Reading guides are available on the Book Club page. And for more musings on reading, writing, and the earth–with lots of pictures from my garden– drop by my blog, Novel Thoughts.
Secret Keepers: What’s It About?
From the St. Martin’s Press catalog copy:
In Palmetto, South Carolina, the past intrudes upon the present. No one knows this better than 72-year-old Emma Hanley. Descended from a disgraced town father whose obsession with botanicals led to bankruptcy and madness, Emma plans to finally escape Palmetto and travel the globe. But when her fickle husband dies in undignified circumstances, Emma’s lifelong dream is foiled. Instead, she finds herself stuck in her hometown — a land of faith-based shopping centers, Confederate monuments, and neglected, seedy estates — while juggling the needs of her adult children. Her son Bobby, once a science prodigy, still lives with her, afflicted by an illness that robbed him of his childhood promise. Her once free-spirited daughter Dora, now a frustrated leader of the Firm Believers aerobics group, turns to compulsive shopping and a controlling husband to forget her wayward past.
But when Jake Cary returns to Palmetto, he brings a broken heart, and a passion for gardening. It isn’t long before Jake and his ragtag group of helpers, the Blooming Idiots, spread mysterious flora across the entire town, unearthing secrets that have divided the Hanleys for decades. Written with the comic warmth of Lee Smith and the magical touch of Alice Hoffman, Secret Keepers is a beguiling second novel by the acclaimed author of The Garden Angel.
What inspired you to write Secret Keepers?
Among the sources of inspiration for Secret Keepers:
• The tales of plant hunters at the turn of the century. These men — botanists and amateur naturalists alike — traveled to desolate, dangerous regions of 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.
• The old travel trunk in which Emma Hanley stores her grandfather’s papers resembles a steamer trunk belonging to my great-grandmother, in which I discovered old postcards, photographs, telegrams, and a letter about a missing person signed by J. Edgar Hoover. Family secrets — locked away in a trunk.
• My childhood love of Francis Hodgson Burnett’s classic The Secret Garden no doubt 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, vine covered iron bedstands, and a goat or two.
Is the town of Palmetto in the novel a real place?
The town of Palmetto is loosely based on my own hometown of Greenville, South Carolina and its overlay of New South over Old South. However, I’m by no means faithful to street names and places, and I often “tweak” a name or location when writing fiction.For example, “Springforth Cemetery” in the novel is based on an actual cemetery down the street from me, called “Springwood,” in front of which stands a Confederate memorial that was relocated from the center of town some decades previously.
What kind of experience has writing Secret Keepers been for you?
Secret Keepers is my second novel, and while it took less time to write than my first novel, The Garden Angel, the process was not easier–just different. I knew I wanted to write Secret Keepers in the omniscient point of view, for instance, and include multiple perspectives. 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 constellation of characters in the fictitious small town of Palmetto.
How did you go about researching the flora and fauna that appear in Secret Keepers?
While writing Secret Keepers, I trained to become a Master Gardener. The Master Gardener program teaches volunteers to be community educators by providing science-based information on horticulture and environmentally sound gardening practices. I soon expanded my own garden, which is a National Wildlife Federation “Certified Wildllife Habitat,” to include vegetables and native plants, and I incorporated some of what I learned in the novel itself. For example, Gordon’s “Compost Tea” describes an actual practice of stuffing an old stocking with compost and dipping it into a watering can like a tea bag — a quick, organic way to fertilize plants and boost blooms.
Many of the plants featured in Secret Keepers are real — Amarnathus (or “pigweed”), for example, is an ancient Incan plant grown from seed in my own garden. Tongue Orchids, which have evolved deceitful abilities to lure pollinators, actually exist, as does Dragon Arum — Dracunculus vulgasis — a plant that smells like rotten meat to attract flies. However, other botanicals in the novel tip into magical realism: “Secret Keepers,” for instance — a purely fictional flower with a potent aroma that evokes a powerful memory of love in a person’s life. Thus, after taking a whiff of a Secret Keeper, Emma recalls the smell of her first son’s newborn head, and Jake remembers the nape of Dora’s neck. “Soul Shines,” with their eerie, petaled eyes, are preternaturally sensitive, and seem to perceive a person’s feelings (or character), as when they appear to look back at Miss Gibble in the nursing home courtyard and provide comfort as she recalls her long dead fiancé, or when, in the bank parking lot, they lean and shine toward Gordon, their homeless caretaker, and shrink away from his brother, JJ, a bank manager who disapproves of his brother.