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Secret Keepers

Winner of the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction

“With a piquant blend of magical realism and down-home pragmatism, decease Friddle’s beguiling second novel is a poignant and reassuring tale of regret and redemption.”—Booklist

“With fluid prose and telling details, advice Friddle deftly captures the downward pull of the past and the Southern penchant for mythmaking; transcending the easy stereotypes of Southern dysfunctional family sagas, Friddle’s clan is a genuinely quirky lot with its own unlikely ideas of happiness.”—Publishers Weekly

“Friddle leads us through great swaths of time in a matter of a few pages, with elegance and a sly sense of the irony of history… As the long buried past comes to light, the Hanleys all must reap what they have sown, and the novel that results just blossoms.”–Talk magazine, Ashley Warlick



Picador; ISBN-10: 0312429797 or ISBN-13: 978-0312429799
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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?

I knew I wanted to write Secret Keepers in the omniscient point of view  and include multiple perspectives. After completing a first draft of Secret Keepers, I revised and expanded 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.