What inspired you to set your novel A Thousand Paper Birds at Kew Gardens?
I was living in a small flat on Kew Road with very few windows so I would often write in the Gardens. A particular bench became my makeshift office. Although I was working on a different novel, I couldn’t help but be moved by my surroundings. I was particularly struck by the abundance of nature in juxtaposition with the commemorative benches. All those people ‘who had once loved these gardens’ made me even more aware of how fleeting life is. How precious. How does anyone say goodbye to such beauty? The novel is really a love letter to Kew Gardens. A love letter to life.
Do you have a favourite place to visit in the Gardens?
I adore the wild places. The bluebells in the conservation area are an annual highlight. The Redwood Grove is a wonderful place to find stillness. To breathe in and out with those giants is almost sacred. I spend a lot of time at the lake watching the birds’ antics. I wrote most of the novel on a bench there that became ‘Audrey’s bench’ – a character in the story.
On wet days I would write in the Palm House so I have a soft spot for the balcony there. The heating pipes are wonderfully warming on a winter’s day! Climbing to the top of the pagoda was a joy. The views up there are amazing. Each character in the novel resonates with a different location so the whole garden is represented, including the mysterious Ruined Arch. There’s even a map in the book to follow the characters’ journeys.
Kew is a living, breathing thing so it’s constantly evolving. What amazes me most is that after fifteen years of membership, I am still discovering new things. The day I stumbled across the lake by the Joseph Banks Building was a revelation.
Have you visited behind the scenes? What did you discover?
Fairly late on in the writing process, I visited the Herbarium. The book talks about ‘a place for lost things’ and that day I found it: seven million specimens preserved over centuries. It’s an extraordinary place. As a lover of both nature and libraries I was in heaven! The cabinets are not only filled with plants and paper but with the love of everyone who has worked there. It feels like a hallowed place.
Is there one job at Kew you would like to try?
The tree gang would be fun but I’m not good at heights! I’m very moved by the arborists’ love for the ancient trees. They speak about them as if they are family members or old friends. I’m also fascinated by the task of pollination – the intricacy of waiting for the ripe moment. The passion and dedication of the staff is astounding.
What inspires you about Kew and its work?
If we can continue to be responsible stewards of this earth, to tend to nature and care about beauty, then I still have hope in the human race. Kew is a haven, its work vital in saving species from extinction.
It is difficult not to take in the extraordinary variety of flowers and not question if there are fingerprints behind it: some kind of creative force or imagination. If it’s all an accident, what a glorious mishap it is. The creative impulse of evolution humbles me.
But it’s the quality of the atmosphere that touches me most. Rich in history, Kew has provided solace and inspiration for centuries. I’ve heard so many stories about these Gardens helping people through difficulties. There have been days when I have wandered through Kew, heartbroken – and each time it has saved me. Many of us as children read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and learned from an early age that gardens can be transformative. If you enter a garden, and let it enter you, you leave changed. I truly believe that Kew Gardens is a place where magical things happen. When writing A Thousand Paper Birds I hoped it would inspire people to visit. Judging from responses so far, this is exactly what’s happening.