|Angela with her two dogs in Cumbria|
1. Angela, when and where did you get the idea for this novel?
If it hadn't been for my sister buying a Victorian garden and building a house there, looking over the Pennine Valley, I would probably never have written 'Dreams of the Blue Poppy'. It was there that my sister showed me meconopsis grandis, the Tibetan Blue Poppy, growing against a sandstone wall. I had never seen a flower so beautiful and such an amazing blue, and despite never having really taken an interest in gardening before, I set out on a quest to find out about this incredible flower. I was already very interested in Tibet, and when I began researching the book, I felt I had to go to the Himalayas to see where the Blue Poppy grew naturally on the mountainsides.
2. I know that this was the start of a life-changing journey for you - what happened?
When I was due to go to the Himalayas for the first time to start research, I was doing a big shop for the kids and my husband before I left, when I met a Tibetan monk in Safeways – he was wearing a black tracksuit, not robes - and was over in Britain teaching at Conishead Priory in Cumbria. We started talking about Tibet, and I told him I was going to the Himalayas the following week to research my book. He came up to me at the checkout again and said, 'The book is not important, but the journey is important!' I hadn't the first idea what he meant. But now I realise that I had to make that journey before I could ever finish the book. On the journey, I trekked in remote parts of Nepal, worked with the Tibetans-in-exile and met the Dalai Lama in a Scottish monastery.
3 How did you develop the story?
I started with the idea of the search for something non-material, spiritual even – and the Tibetan Blue Poppy came to symbolise that search. The book is about letting go of material possessions – in this case a mansion in Cumbria which Charles inherits, but where he's been very unhappy – in order to pursue what seems to be an impossible dream. There is a natural link between Cumbria and the high Himalaya, as we have so many mountaineers living here. Also Cumbria was one of the first places to employ plant hunters to develop their great gardens, as the soil and climate are very similar.
I wanted to turn the idea of inheritance and riches, which in many books is the goal and happy ending of the story, on its head, as it were – so the hero starts off inheriting wealth and privilege, and ends up with nothing, having nonetheless fulfilled his dream and found happiness.
I spent 15 years on the research, including four visits in the Himalayas, endless visits to Kew and to the great gardens of the North, and a whole library of books on plant hunters, Tibetan Buddhism, geography and botany of the Himalayas. I became fascinated by the lives of the plant hunters and the obstacles they overcame in order to find that delicate and ephemeral thing – a new flower. I grew several different meconopsis in my garden and was always astonished by their beauty.
4 What else did this research lead to?
I went 4 times to Nepal and fell in love with the people and the Himalayas. As a result, I founded Juniper Trust www.junipertrust.co.uk which helps support sustainable communities, especially villages in the mountains, and particularly helps with education and health of children. Juniper Trust has now built 4 schools in the poorest parts of Kathmandu, and also works all over the world with the most disadvantaged communities. It was such an unexpected journey, beginning with the sight of that wonderful blue flower in the hills of Cumbria, and it changed my life.
5. I know you went to great lengths to get the botany right. Would you like to talk about it?
I was about to lead a writing course on the island of Iona, and crossing Mull, when I decided to take a detoured to Tarasay Gardens. As I walked into the tea room, I saw a bowl of blue poppies on a table, with a notice saying that this was a new Blue Poppy grown there for the first time, and they would like suggestions for names. I was excited by the coincidence, and went in search of the Head Gardener. Mike Swift told me that it was he who had developed the meconopsis at Langholm Gardens in Cumbria, when he was head gardener there. It is now sadly closed. We started talking about blue poppies, and I told him about writing the book, and how I had been inspired by seeing my sister’s flowers, and also from growing meconopsis sheldonii, another Blue Poppy, in my own garden. It turned out he had actually developed that Blue Poppy himself while he was at Langholm. I'd often visited there to look at the blue poppies growing in the Woodlands, and to experience the Himalayan vegetation which is so wonderfully recreated there. Mike turned out to be a real expert on meconopsis, and later became a crucial adviser during the writing of the book. I even found him while he was on the ferry to Oban, where he was going to do his washing, just before the book went to press, to double check an important technical point.
6 How easy was it to get the novel published initially and how many disappointments did you suffer on the way?
When I first started to pitch the book to publishers, no one was really writing about gardens – it just wasn't a sexy subject – and no one really knew about the plant hunters. It's very different now! However, Little Brown did decide to publish, and the Editor was very committed to the book. Then, on the day when we were waiting for the contracts to be faxed through, we had four pages with Sorry! written on every page. Apparently the sales team had vetoed the book because the Americans would not understand the dialect. Later, for Robert Hale, John Hale, the grandson of the founder, was very helpful – recommending some cuts which were actually very useful, and asked me to remove most of the dialect. It taught me a lesson about how to keep the inflection and lilt of language, with a few keywords, and not make it incomprehensible to a wider audience. If I had done that to start with, Little Brown would probably have gone ahead with publishing! There was a rather nice coda to that story in that the Editor at Little Brown, under her own name, wrote a very kind review on Amazon for me about the book – I only wish she had put CEO Little Brown underneath, but perhaps that's ungrateful!
7 Did you feel your first publishers were totally committed to your book and how much effort did they put into promotion?
Robert Hale were fantastic, especially the Marketing team. They paid for a big launch up in Cumbria with very good posters, flyers and bookmarks, and also a launch on the island of Iona. They gave me a great deal of support, really behind the book. Unfortunately, they don't have a paperback house, and though there was talk of foreign rights, they came to nothing. I also think that the cover artwork let it down – I should have vetoed it at the time. It was a mistake to try to market the book is yet another country house novel, with a hand-painted cover, when I had tried to subvert the form and bring in other elements. However, in fairness it did sell reasonably well, and I had some good royalties initially.
8 Now that you've dipped your toe in the water, what do you think of E-publishing so far?
If it's Kath, Neil and The Book Mill I would do it again any day! The Book Mill have been fantastic. I am absolutely delighted with the cover, and the artwork that Neil has created, and the service you have both given to me. I think that if that had been the original cover, it would have sold like hot cakes!
9. Thanks for the reference Angela! What are you working on at the moment?
I have just finished writing my new book Days of the Tamarisk, set in France from 1943 to 1947, about the work of the French Resistance and the reparations after World War II. Dreams of the Blue Poppy took me 15 years to write, but this one has actually taken 33! I began the research in the Imperial War Museum when my children were toddlers, handling classified material which I had been given clearance to inspect – and it's gone through many incarnations since then. I've also been doing the final edits and polishing on a new Mr Mullett book for children – Mrs Mullett and the Cloak of Gaia, which I hope will be properly finished in the next few weeks.
Thanks for your time Angela and for allowing us to publish your book, which we hope will be a big success. You can read my review over at my bookblog. Dreams of the Blue Poppy is available on Kindle, Kobo Reading Life and on Smashwords. For more information about Angela and her other publications please take a look at www.AngelaLocke.co.uk Now to break out the virtual bubbly!