The Garden Angel
Selected for Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
“A comic delight…Winning characters and piquant wit, with an underpinning of graciousness: a standout.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Mindy Friddle has a great comic touch, and her novel is a touching, heartfelt debut.”— Richard Russo, author of EMPIRE FALLS
“The glory of a past that may never be reclaimed is the theme of this unique and satisfying novel …At times wonderfully comic and sad enough to provoke tears, The Garden Angel is an addictive read, and an enthralling story filled with both loss and hope.” — The Barnes & Noble Review from Discover Great New Writers
“Friddle has a way with the comic yet apt image…funny, down-to-earth and steeped in a sense of place.” —The Washington Post
The Story Behind THE GARDEN ANGEL
Q & A with author Mindy Friddle, Go Triad, by JERI ROWE, Editor
The view from the attic bathroom always broke my heart a little, for it told the story of my family’s own fall: our lost property and standing, our dwindling.
Opening line in Mindy Friddle’s “Garden Angel”
In her mind, Mindy Friddle spent eight years living in the tiny upstate South Carolina town of Sans Souci.
She hung out with two women she called Cutter Johanson and Elizabeth Byers, putting them through all sorts of conundrums such as dealing with a dilapidated house, wrestling with agoraphobia, or fear of being in public places, and dealing with a monkey named Crusty.
These scenes sprang from her lap top. She bounced around her home in Greenville, S.C., writing on her screen porch, at her kitchen table and inside her home office with the bird feeder outside the window.
And she clocked in like some first-shift textile worker, working from at least 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., almost every weekend, for eight years.
That discipline she first learned as a small-town journalist in South Carolina has now paid off. This summer, St. Martin’s Press published “Garden Angel,” and Friddle is crisscrossing the South, including a Monday stop in Greensboro.
You can expect she’ll talk about her book, Southern fiction and the rising development in the New South. But if you’re lucky, she’ll throw in a mention of an excrement-tossing monkey, too.
Where did you get the idea for “Garden Angel”?
There was this house on the seam of a mill town and the city of Greenville, and you can tell it was full of ruined finery. Inside, everything looked like it was once glorious. The wallpaper was peeling, the windows were boarded up, and I heard this story that two spinsters lived there, and I imagined what kind of person would want to hold onto that.
How did you find this house?
I stumbled onto it. It was off the highway, beside a Taco Bell, and it just looked like it had a personality. I had a Realtor take me in because to me, this particular house seemed very stubborn, and it was very tenaciously holding onto its ground.
But why were you drawn to it?
You know, I don’t know. It’s that sense of place. That is important to my writing, and I guess it was that link to the past that appealed to me. I’ve found that there is this sense of mortality in houses where families once lived, and especially with things crafted so well. You think they’d last forever. But with all those years gone now, the house seemed haunting, and in that microcosm, it represents how time goes on and everything comes to an end.
Is that what you see in the New South?
The development is hard to see sometimes, but every Southern city is struggling with this, including Greenville (S.C.), Greensboro, Charlotte and Atlanta. But one good thing about the New South is that you’re more than likely to have a diverse neighborhood. I know around me in Greenville, I have some duplexes and some huge houses and some apartments for college kids. Just young families and people who have lived there for 60 years. Hispanic and African-American families. Hearing different languages. So, that’s the great thing about the New South, and eventually that will reach Elizabeth and Cutter. They will welcome that. But (the South) is losing its actual charms, and bulldozers are the things they are fighting.
But “Garden Angel” really seems to be a story about the strength of female friendship.
It brings into question who you choose to be your friends. As the saying goes, you can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends, and there are a lot of people I know whose friends got them through the most difficult times in their life.
What’s your favorite line from the book?
One of my favorite lines is something you can’t say in the newspaper. It’s when Crusty (a monkey) throws monkey (excrement) into Mrs. Worthington’s hair. And another one, I guess, is the line I use from Emily Dickinson, ‘A prison gets to be a friend.’ I love Emily Dickinson. And I like the opening line from the book. It took me a long time to finally get it. I wanted it to be cinematic, a sweep, that would go right at the heart of Cutter. I kind of feel like it came close to that.
When did you write?
I do my best in the morning, from 9 to 2. At night, I can only do editing. My brain is swirling so much from the day.
Did being a journalist help, if any, in your writing?
There is the deadline. It forces you to be concise and the immediacy of it, and it gets you out in the world interviewing small-town politicians to farmers to teachers. But when I took Bill Fox’s class (at University of South Carolina) he told me, “Stop being so damn clear. You’ve been a journalist. I can tell.” And that makes sense. You have to meander around in fiction. You have to leave a little mystery and not explain everything.
So what’s next?
I’m working on something, but I don’t want to open the oven door when the cake is baking.
So, what’s it about?
I’m not sure. I do know that it’ll be set in another small Southern town. That sense of place is strong. The character may be a landscaper. I’m not sure, but someone who loves the land and the setting.
Are you going to bring Cutter, the monkey, back?
Not this time. But you know, I am tempted to make Crusty a recurring character.
“The writing is as beautiful as a stained glass window . . . Like Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, Friddle reveres the majesty of Southern homes and Southern women, zany or not.” —The News & Record (Greensboro, North Carolina)
“Friddle has a great flair for comic relief, and in a novel filled with tragedy . . . there is also much laughter.”— Oxford Town (Oxford, Mississippi)
“The hidden charm of this book is the eccentric minor players that move effectively throughout the story. Everyone is believable . . .The Garden Angel continues in the tradition of other great Southern novels with wit, charm, and an abundance of humanity.”—Savannah Morning News
“A whimsical tale about the transformative power of an unlikely friendship. Friddle’s lyrical novel is beautifully written in language both earthy and poetic. It is also extremely funny.”—The Journal-Standard (Illinois)
“Bursting with local color and Southern warmth, the story . . . reflects a need to remember our history in the modern south.”—Ya’ll magazine
“Add Mindy Friddle to the list of contemporary Southern writers able to bring a town to life with her words . . . a confident debut from a Southern writer to watch.”—Playback (St. Louis)
From the St. Martin’s Press Catalog:
What gave you the idea for writing THE GARDEN ANGEL?
I was inspired to write this novel after happening upon a dilapidated, once beautiful estate in the upstate of South Carolina that was gradually being swallowed by a strip mall and several fast food joints. I wondered what kind of people might have lived there, back when the local Southern textile town boomed. The house, more than a century old, had been vacant for years and ravaged by trespassers and transients, but the rumor was that two sisters from the town’s once prestigious family had lived — and died — there, spinsters.
I arranged for a realtor to take me inside and explore the grounds. I was immediately taken with the hidden beauty there: a kitchen garden gone to seed, a dried up fishpond, and inside, stained glass lamps, threadbare rugs and water-stained cabbage rose wall paper, and, of course, claw foot tubs. A few days later, I began writing the novel. I envisioned a woman in a claw foot bathtub in an attic of a dilapidated Victorian house. She was soaking, and patting on a homemade herbal facemask.
A few weeks later, while staying at a rented beach house in Edisto Beach, South Carolina, I perused the bookshelves and wedged between the People magazines and mysteries, I happened upon a psychological case study of agoraphobia. What struck me, as I read about the torturous daily life of a woman who was confined to her home by her agoraphobia, was the idea of one’s home as both a trap and safety hatch from the world, the pull and poison of that kind of sanctuary. And so, going back to my character in the bathtub, I immediately saw that she was in the warm comfort of her homestead, a kind of elegiac, shabby museum that honored her once prestigious family, a home she was determined to keep, and I wondered what might happen if she befriended an agoraphobic, one who finds a home a trap…and what the two of them might do together to face the world out there.