Robin Farrar Maass’s new book The Walled Garden publishes May 17, 2022. Robin is a lifelong reader and writer who fell in love with England when she was twenty-two. She enjoys tending her messy wants-to-be-English garden, painting watercolors, and traveling. She lives in Redmond, Washington, with her husband and two highly opinionated Siamese cats. The Walled Garden is her first novel, and she’s already at work on her next novel set in England.
Synopsis of The Walled Garden from the publisher:
American grad student Lucy Silver arrives in England hoping to solve a longstanding literary mystery, write her dissertation, and finish her graduate studies in a blaze of academic glory. But as Lucy starts to piece together the correspondence between her late grandmother and Elizabeth Blackspear, the famous poet and garden writer who’s the subject of Lucy’s dissertation, she discovers puzzling coded references in the letters—and when an elderly English aristocrat with a secret connection to Elizabeth offers Lucy access to a neglected walled garden on his estate, the mystery deepens.
As spring turns to summer in Bolton Lacey, Lucy finds herself fighting the Blackspear Gardens’ director’s attempt to deny her access to vital documents in the archives . . . and trying not to fall in love with an attractive Scottish contractor.
In the midst of this turmoil, she stumbles upon an illicit plot to turn the historic gardens into a theme park, and becomes determined to stop it. As she races against time to save the gardens, Lucy’s search for the truth about Elizabeth’s life leads her to a French convent where she uncovers explosive evidence that will change her life and the lives of everyone around her, ultimately revealing a home—and an inheritance—more incredible than anything she could ever have imagined.
Robin answers some questions that I posed to her about The Walled Garden:
1. What inspired you to start writing The Walled Garden?
When I was twenty-two, I got on a plane for the first time in my life and went to England—and I never got over it! I’ve always loved old houses and gardens, and over time I became fascinated with the idea of secrets being hidden in the garden.
More than twenty years ago, I had a dream about three people: a young American woman, an older English gentleman, and young British guy. I started writing about them, trying to figure out who they were. I’ve always been drawn to stories of young women setting off to make their way in the world, so the young American woman became my protagonist, Lucy Silver. The older English gentleman became Sir Edmund de Lisle. I was intrigued by the idea of a young American woman and a crusty British aristocrat coming from completely different worlds, but still being able to forge a connection and eventually solve an old mystery. The young Brit, Sam McKenna, was the hardest to nail down. He went through several iterations before he found his current form!
2. What kind of research did you have to do?
I was totally delighted when it dawned on me that traveling to England could be considered research! My all-time favorite research experience involved living in college at Christ Church College, in Oxford for a week one summer, taking a class on the history of English country houses. I also did a lot of reading about life in England during WWII, English gardens, the Language of Flowers, ley lines, French monasteries, gardens in Jaipur, and various flowers and plants. I read a lot of poetry too!
3. Can you share something with me about your book that is not in the blurb?
Elizabeth Blackspear’s garden is based on a real English garden called Waterperry, just outside of Oxford. I’ve visited it twice and I would live there if I could—it’s just dreamy! I changed some things to suit the needs of my story, but most of it is just as it appears in the book: the entrance, the Virgin’s Walk, the café, the garden shop, and the way the house is situated in relationship to the garden. I made up the Grand Allée and the Grove of Saints, and then had fun situating Priory House, Sir Edmund’s estate, further along the River Walk. Priory House and the Walled Garden are entirely my own creations, based on a lifetime of reading and dreaming about England.
4. What do you hope your readers take away from your book?
First of all, I hope they’re simply enjoying the story! Ultimately, what I’d really like readers to take away from the book is a sense of hope. Being able to escape to the world of The Walled Garden while I was writing it helped me weather some hard times in my own life, even before the pandemic. I’ve always wanted to create a fictional world that would help readers sustain their sense of hope, no matter what they’re going through or what’s happening in the world. If the book gives readers a sense of solace and comfort in the midst of the uncertainties of life—or even a refuge to return to when times are hard—I’ll feel that I’ve accomplished that goal.
5. Do you have any say in what your book cover looks like?
Yes. One of the things I appreciated most about SparkPress was their willingness to work with me on the cover design. In the book, I used the Victorian Language of Flowers, a system that assigns meanings to specific plants and flowers, as a code in the letters between two gardeners. So it was important to me that the flowers on the cover have “good” meanings in the Language of Flowers—even if I was the only one who knew that! One of the choices for the cover image was a lovely image of hydrangea petals strewn over a stack of old letters. But though I love them as flowers, hydrangeas mean heartlessness in the Language of Flowers, which is the opposite of the book’s themes. There’s an important rose in the book called Maiden’s Blush, which means If you love me, you will find it out. The roses on the cover resemble Maiden’s Blush roses, and the arrangement of them suggests enclosure, which seemed appropriate for The Walled Garden.
6. Are you working on anything you would like to share with me?
Yes! I’m about a quarter of the way into my second novel, also set in England, about an American artist who’s been married to a Brit for ten years when she discovers he’s been unfaithful. Seeking a fresh start, she moves out of London to a cottage in the countryside where she finds a cache of letters and diaries from a young woman who was evacuated there during WWII. This discovery launches her on a quest to find out who the people in the letters were. There’s a mystery about some paintings that were done during the war that have disappeared, and an abandoned summerhouse the artist claims as a studio, even as she wonders if she’ll ever be able to paint again. There’s also a bearded estate manager who keeps popping up when she least wants to see him—and she hates men with beards!
7. What are you reading now and what have you read recently that you loved?
I just started S.J. Bennett’s All the Queen’s Men, featuring Queen Elizabeth II as a detective. I loved her first book, The Windsor Knot, and the way she portrays the Queen as a smart, spirited woman in a world of high-powered, patronizing men. I just finished The Runaway Duchess by Joanna Lowell and loved it—it has a brilliant plot and lots of sexy, lush, garden imagery—so fun. I recently read Anthony’s Horowitz’s latest, A Line to Kill—and totally enjoyed it. He’s such a good writer. My TBR list includes Woman on Fire by Lisa Barr, The Stolen Lady by Laura Morelli, and Book Lovers by Emily Henry.
Order The Walled Garden from Bookshop.org.