Tina: The garden is the main character – what gave you the idea about the haunted garden and why did you choose those particular time periods? Which is your favourite?
Tiffani: The original idea was to write about a house and its changes through the centuries, but as I started that research—this is over a decade ago—I realised that the garden’s changes would be much more drastic. The research into gardens and garden re-creation made me realise that gardens leave behind traces—they exist in layers, one atop another. This idea—of a place holding on to time—meant that of course there would be ghosts! Because I wanted the novel to be set in the same garden over centuries, I was restricted to a house of a certain vintage, hence the Hall in the novel that was previously part of an abbey (emptied and then given away during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the early 16th century). I was also restricted by the records available for gardens and what they looked like, so I chose the time periods based on garden fashion of the time. The first popular gardening manuals in English weren’t written until the late 1500s, so setting the first chronological part of the novel in the early 1600s meant that there would be gardening books but that my protagonist, Joan, would have her own ways of doing things that she learned from others and not from books, and the garden would still have some Tudor-era characteristics. The next section, the later 1700s, coincides with the English Landscape style; it’s here that the garden is under real threat, just like nearly every Tudor-era garden was at the time—there are only a few extant now. The 1860s is an intersection of a lot of things such as the growing Arts & Crafts movement, the Pre-Raphaelites, the rise of photography, the collecting craze (when wealthy garden owners would collect one of every species they could get—flowers or trees), and improvements to greenhouses. And I had to include the 1940s because of the necessity of turning once grand gardens of flowers into crop-yielding fields and because Land Girls are awesome.
My favorite has to be the earliest; I love a knot garden and I’m fascinated by how people lived in the 16th and 17th centuries. One idea I had that didn’t make it into the book but might develop into a stand-alone story is the protagonist of the 1700s section, Thomas Hill, and originally where (or when!) he came from and about the garden in the 1660s. Little note about him: he’s named after the author of the first gardening manual in English written for the general population.
Tina: Is The Remains based on a real property?
Tiffani: No—it’s an amalgam of historic homes I have visited. I adore Hatfield House, which was one of the original inspirations for Threading because of its link to Elizabeth I, but it isn’t as old as the Hall in the book.
Tina: Toni gets trapped in a haunted house at night. She seems reasonably calm about it and the other ghosts. Have you ever had spooky encounter? Would you stay overnight?
Tiffani: I have had a couple of moments that were spooky. In one house I lived in when I was around 12, we swore we could hear whispering in the bathroom. But my grandmother was the lightning rod for ghost sightings in my family; once when I was around 12 she woke up to find her father (who died right after I was born) petting the cat, who was lying on the end of the bed. She wasn’t a flaky woman—she was very practical, very logical, very much the matriarch—so I believed her. And it didn’t scare her at all; she was happy he visited. I liked the idea of that—that your family is still there, visiting, in the background, so I don’t find the idea scary at all.
Tina: Do you like to garden?
Tiffani: That’s a loaded question! I laugh because pretty much everyone who reads my fiction—not just Threading but several of my stories, which are related to horticultural history—assume I have a massive green thumb. I grew up in the desert without a garden and only really had to learn when I bought a house in the US about 20 years ago that was not in a desert and suddenly found myself the keeper of half a dozen lilacs, over a dozen peonies, and more irises than I could count. Plus a wisteria that was the bane of my existence, bleeding heart, lily-of-the-valley, several flowering shrubs, hostas of all shapes, clematis, a herb and veg garden, and a poison ivy that, no matter what, I could not kill. I liked gardening fine in April and hated it by July. So now I like gardens that other people sweat and toil over; I appreciate the work that goes into them but don’t have to deal with bugs or weeds!
Tina: James Hitchen with his book of plants is another fascinating character. Was something like Culper’s Complete Herbal in your mind when you wrote Hitchen?
Tiffani: One of my favorite parts of research was going to the rare books room in the British Library and handling the gardening books from the late 1500s and early 1600s. I had to get books in the novel because of the shift from experiential knowledge to ‘book learning’ that was happening at this time in history (which Culpeper had a lot to do with in the 1650s). There were practical books for gardeners, such as the real Thomas Hill’s The Gardener’s Labyrinth (1577), plus early herbals such as William Turner’s Herbal (1551), which was the first of its kind originally written in English, and John Gerard’s The Herbal or General History of Plants (1597), a lot of which was lifted from other books from the continent.
So here is this guy, Hitchen, who suddenly appears with his books and is trusted to know what he is doing, but someone who is barely literate knows more about the garden—I liked the clash of knowledge, especially in a walled garden that seems to have a mind of its own. The title of Hitchen’s book in Threading was inspired by the ridiculously long titles of some of those early books that previewed everything contained in their pages. But one word was especially important: secrets. At this time, scientific knowledge was starting to grow, which contrasted with the older belief that “the ancients” were the last word in everything and questioning them was a bad idea. So the publishing world had to sell books that contained information, and what better way to do it than to promise that they held information that no one else knew? So I did the same thing with Hitchen’s book, which is completely made up: A compleat collection of plants and trees as described by Wm. Tusser, natural philosopher, including receipts for physic and offering all of the secrets of the garden.
It’s funny that you ask about Nicholas Culpeper because I am thinking about him for my next novel (after the one I am currently writing). Not a whole lot is known about him, so I am thinking about how to approach his life from a different perspective.
Tina: Hitchen also reminds me of the early explorers from Kew Gardens who went out collecting exotic plants to bring back to England. Kew Gardens is little later than Hitchen, but have you visited there for inspiration or other places with traditional gardens?
Tiffani: Threading the Labyrinth was part of my PhD dissertation (paired with a 40,000-word examination of space and time in Threading and in other gardens in fantasy fiction). When I was doing my research, I got to go on “field studies” to, well, actual fields! I travelled all over, going to gardens, flower shows, museums, etc. I went to Kew early in the research and loved it (and am hoping to go back one day to do some serious research in their archives, depending on my work schedule). I also went to Hatfield House, Biddulph Grange, Stowe, Fenton House, Clandon Park, Hampton Court, Kentwell, Chelsea Physic Garden, and Sissinghurst (twice!), among others. It’s hard to go to these places and not think about the people who have worked there over the centuries.
Tina: Do you have a favourite historical garden and house?
Tiffani: Hatfield House, definitely. I have been a couple of times and am hoping to be able to go back again—maybe next year if the pandemic eases and things open again! There is just something about it that caught my attention before I ever came to the UK; when I learned that the house where Elizabeth I lived as a child and where she was when she became queen, I was fascinated because where I grew up the oldest houses were from the 1950s!
Tina: Are you interested in modern gardens as well traditional ones or is the historical interaction between people like Women’s Land Army out in the fields and their interaction with nature that fascinates you?
Tiffani: For me it’s all about the historical interaction. I’m the same way with modern architecture and modern art; I mean, I took a bunch of art history classes at university and understand why it exists, but I don’t necessarily want it on my walls! As someone who grew up in a very new place, I am fascinated by history and always curious about the people who have, over the centuries, lived in these houses and worked in these gardens. Learning about the landowners—and the aristocrats and royalty—is all well and good (I mean, who doesn’t love a costume drama?) but it’s the people like us who I think deserve more attention. Take any of us back a century or two and we would’ve been the servants, the farmers, the workers. That’s why Threading isn’t about the landowners but the workers; so much of the history we are taught is about the big names and big events, so I’m always interested in the people below stairs who cooked the meals, the women who did the laundry, the people who went to work in the factories, the young women who signed up to be Land Girls and left the city behind, and what it means for us to be stewards of that history.
Threading the Labyrinth – Back cover blurb:
Toni, the American owner of a failing gallery, is unexpectedly called to Hertfordshire when she inherits a manor house from a mysterious lost relative. What she really needs is something valuable to sell to save her business. But, leaving the New Mexico desert behind, all she finds are crumbling buildings, overgrown gardens, and a vast archive in need of cataloguing. Soon she is immersed in the history of the house: the gardens that seem to change in the twilight; the ghost of a fighter plane from World War Two; the figures she sees from the corner of her eye. She must ask herself, what if her heritage has carried lives across centuries.
Tiffani Angus teaches creative writing and publishing at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. Her short fiction—historical fantasy, science fiction, horror, and even erotica—has been published at Strange Horizons and in several anthologies. She lives in Bury St Edmunds with her partner and really wants a cat.