A Thousand Paper Birds is above all an ode to the healing power of love and nature as well as a hymn to all the things we lost which are still very much part of our lives. What inspired you to write the book?
I was living in a small flat in Kew with very few windows so whenever I had time to write I would go to Kew Gardens. I was working on a different project but became curious about the landscape, the stories of the passing people, and the lives of the dead that the various benches commemorate. To have a constant reminder of death among the vividness of Kew’s flora created an interesting tension that encouraged me to be grateful for each moment. Simultaneously I was researching origami and stumbled upon a quote by Master Yoshizawa: ‘I spent my entire life trying to express with paper the joy of life and the last thought before a man dies.’ I was interesting in stretching that moment between your penultimate heartbeat and your last – what can we learn in that gap that might help us to live better?
Kew Gardens can be seen as a character in its own right. Why did you choose this peculiar setting? Do you have a personal connection with it?
Living near the Gardens for several years, I fell in love with the place. It has not only given me joy but supported me through relationship break-ups, miscarriages and the birth of both my children. In those bewildering, fuggy days of early motherhood I would push the pram through the gardens and feel reconnected. Its history is tangible – you can feel it in the air - all the people over the centuries who have become enchanted by the Garden or found solace there. I love how different it feels depending on the season, and the variety in the different areas – for instance the Palm House feels like a foreign country to the quiet shadows of the Redwood Grove, and the ordered Japanese Garden is worlds away from the natural wildness of the bluebells. Each character resonates with a specific part of the garden. I wrote a lot of the novel on the bench by the lake that became ‘Audrey’s bench’ and on rainy days I worked in the Palm House. If I needed to develop a character I would visit their favourite area and just sit with them and listen to what they had to say.
Harry Barclay, the gardener, spends his time trying to save plants from extinction and writing notes on his special notebook. According to you, nowadays how important is it to preserve the natural world?
Any time I’ve struggled in life, it’s been nature that has saved me. There is something about the cycle of the seasons and rebirth that inspires and grounds me. It is not only essential that we preserve the natural world for the health of our planet, but that we teach our children how to nurture nature and to let nature nurture them. I fear in this digital age that children are not being encouraged to spend enough time climbing trees, wild-swimming, identifying flowers. Without this, I don’t know how they will find the space in themselves to be quiet and listen to their instincts: to be self-reliant. When I walk through the bluebell woods in Kew, for me it is like walking into a church. It was only after completing my novel that I realised it had been influenced by the classic children’s book The Secret Garden. If you enter a garden and truly let it in, you leave changed.
Jonah is a musician and a composer, while Chloe is an artist of paper. Do you think art can be therapeutic and help people deal with strong feelings, whatever their nature?
Absolutely. Whether you are creating or receiving art, it can be a transformative experience. There have been times when I’ve watched a dance piece and left the theatre utterly changed. I’m sure on my dying day I will think of all the novels, paintings and songs that have impacted me – and how much poorer my life would have been without them. What an extraordinary thing it is we do. To express ourselves. To ask questions. To invite empathy. And it’s not always easy – you face failure and doubt – but the attempt to share one’s experience, to find stories that can help us walk better through this world, is a valiant journey. As for art being therapeutic: once, in the depths of grief, I was unable to work, read, or watch TV, but the one thing I could do was play the piano. I just sat there and let my fingers work through it. It becomes a meditation – you’re not thinking, you’re just travelling through the different movements and there’s something in the motion itself that is healing. People find the same with painting or writing. You both engage with your feelings and yet also surrender to not knowing. I do believe in co-creation. You slog away at a chapter or a piece of music and then something shifts and it feels like you’re taking dictation. You are in dialogue with something ‘other’. I don’t care if you think that’s the subconscious, a muse or divine intervention but it feels like something bigger than you. It both takes you out of yourself and centres you. It helps you find a part of yourself that feels unchangeable and essential. I find the act itself inherently hopeful.
In the book, you talk about the truth as something versatile, a sort of physical matter that can be constantly reshaped. How do you think the stories we tell ourselves inform the way we see the world around us? Can bending the truth become an effective coping strategy?
Whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, stories shape who we are. I’m not just talking about the stories we read as children that created our expectations of life – but the stories we tell ourselves every day. I know a man who constantly tells himself a narrative of how difficult the world is and he is, of course, proven right. There’s a wonderful quote from Richard Bach: ‘Argue for your limitations and sure enough they’re yours.’ So I would say if you’re going to choose from a multitude of stories, choose one that serves and empowers you.
What was interesting about writing the novel through different perspectives was exploring how the story changes depending on who is doing the telling. No one is the owner of ‘absolute truth’. Life always comes through our assumptions and filters.
As for what is true in this world, none of us knows. Is there life after death? What about quantum physics or multiple universes? Be you scientist, atheist or believer, there are still so many mysteries – and I love that sense of not-knowing. I believe my job is to nudge a sense of wonder. Perhaps there is more to life than what we see through the limitations of our eyes. I’m not expecting to find the answers, but I’m sure going to have fun exploring…
Origami is an essential part of Chloe’s abrasive yet fragile and vulnerable personality. Can her art, which evolves through the narrative, be considered a mirror, if not a tangible proof of her psychological transformation?
Yes. In her very first scene she is struggling to make a tiny model of a heron and by the end that full-size heron is displayed in the Gardens. She also moves from her art being a very private act to something that is collaborative. In her final installation she invites the ‘audience’ to create the piece with her. There is something very generous about that – offering others the chance to experience the process, and ultimately to create something bigger than one person. It reminds me of what I’ve learnt since being published. It is the reader that breathes life into the characters and the story. They are the true alchemists. Without them, the story is nothing.
The way you describe the life that lingers and reaches beyond reality is both poetic and extremely powerful. You can almost breathe the gratitude you feel for existence throughout the entire book. How did your life experiences contribute to shaping this positive attitude?
There was a time in my late-teens when I was very lost. Each day I took myself to a garden and sat by a tiny dirty stream – and on one of those days I noticed that a tiny bug was walking across the top of the water. An everyday miracle, but as I appreciated this tiny moment, the world changed. Everything around me, beside me and above me became interconnected. It is hard to describe it without sounding sentimental, but it was a visceral experience that has remained with me. These days we lead such busy lives it’s easy to take what we have for granted. Whatever your worldview, it is extraordinary that we are alive on this planet. Each of us is a collection of very lucky atoms! The fact of our existence is amazing. I see this awareness in people who know they are dying – they notice the sun on the garden fence, the feel of their child’s hand in theirs – and perhaps if we saw the world continuously in that state of intensity, gratitude and loss, we would go crazy. But I believe one of art’s roles is to remind us all how lucky we are and how fleeting it is, to remind us, once in a while, to just stop and breathe and whisper ‘wow.’
Your book has a rhythm of its own. The perpetual intersection between past and present gradually erodes every temporal boundary and dissolves into a kind of melody. Can you tell us more about the structure you adopted?
There were three influences on the structure of the book: music, dance and origami. I did work with the five characters as different melodic lines – sometimes standing on their own, sometimes weaving together – each character as an instrument. I had a large wall of post-its marking the different scenes, with different colours for each character’s perspective, so I could see when they were talking too much or silent for too long. The book also felt like a ballet: the characters enter the set of Kew Gardens and dance solos, duets, trios – for example, the memory of Audrey spinning between Jonah and Chloe. With the origami, I saw each mini-scene as a fold. Like paper, the further you go, the denser the folds so I began to shift quicker between the different perspectives. There’s also something called a reverse-fold where you pretty much turn the paper inside out. There were a couple of key scenes in the book that are reverse folds – when I turn the world upside down and the reader finds themselves somewhere different. Finally, I wanted to play with genre – how far can I bend and crease the story before the paper frays?
Is there a book that filled you with the urge to write?
In the early nineties I spent a summer in Spain and read two of Jeanette Winterson’s books back to back: The Passion and Sexing the Cherry. There is such verve and vitality to her writing – it leaps off the page. There’s something joyous about her work. It opens possibilities, and to me it felt like an invitation – not only to write, but to live bigger.
Are you already working on a new novel?
I’m in the final stages of completing it. Like my first novel, it has a specific location as a central character: this time a tiny island off the coast of Devon. I spent my childhood summers there but it is famous for its Art Deco hotel and glamorous guests – from Agatha Christie to Edward and Wallis Simpson, Churchill and The Beatles … the list goes on. It is an incredibly evocative and curious place – the perfect home for fiction! I’m not sure if I can say much more, but it’s been an incredibly fulfilling experience – and it’s a tale I am desperate to tell. In essence it is an unrequited love story between a man and his soul.