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Thursday, August 20, 2020


The summer trip that wasn't: the Isle of Skye, in Scotland
The summer trip that wasn't: the Isle of Skye, in Scotland

When this pandemic is finally over, or, at least, the virus is suppressed enough by a vaccine to allow some semblances of normal life to return, I doubt there will be very many Americans who claim the spring and summer of 2020 as a positive memory. And if coronavirus persists through the rest of the year, which it very likely will do in the absence of a national plan for combatting it, then virtually this entire year will have to be shelved in the category of memories titled “I’d-Rather-Not-Look-Back-on-That.” However, with the latest draft of my second novel completed for my publisher, and my husband re-entering the classroom at USC Upstate this week with a complex plan in-hand for teaching his courses in a “hybrid” model of masked seated students as well as online students (pray for him), it surprises me to realize that the months we’ve spent together in isolation here in our house in Traveler’s Joy* have been very productive, if lonely. 
Haddon Hall, in Derbyshire, England

            I’ll admit that it took a while to get over my disappointment at having to cancel our long-delayed trip (would you believe 38 years delayed?...) to England and Scotland that was scheduled for May. We had an itinerary planned that took us through Yorkshire, making a long-deferred pilgrimage to the Bronte Parsonage at Haworth, visiting the town of Hathersage, and touring Haddon Hall, which was mostly built by some long-dead ancestors of mine, the Vernons, who inhabited it from the 13th century to the 16th and which was used for locations in the latest film version of Jane Eyre. The third novel I was planning to write had a connection to Charlotte Bronte’s novel and I hoped to absorb aspects of the Derbyshire countryside and historic spots while there; however, my agent nixed this book concept. She seemed to think it an outdated idea, and honestly, no one has ever accused me of being anything BUT a mental inhabitant of the 19th century, so I’m sure she’s correct about that! 
The Pharr churchyard on the north coast of Scotland
What stems any serious overflow of self-pity is the realization that everyone has had to suck up the loss of planned vacations, along with the loss of thousands of “refundable” travel $$$ and hotel deposits that were suddenly rendered NON-refundable by COVID-19, as was the case with us. And with over 170,000 deaths in our country alone at this writing, many Americans have suffered losses that can’t measured in dollars. I grieve for them. It’s disgraceful that our government has formulated no plan to combat the growing loss of life and jobs that has continued unabated since March, and I am no longer communicating with the few friends and acquaintances of mine who began this tragic period of our lives by reeling off talking-points they were provided by FOX News. They derided me back then for expressing great concern about the dire effects of the virus (when we were alarmed by a death total in the U.S. of 2,000!...) while insisting that Covid was no more dangerous or deadly than seasonal flu. “It’s all been hyped, it’s a hoax!,” I heard from people who should have been too intelligent to be co-opted by the lazy, anti-intellectual and anti-scientific mindset in our current administration, and who ought now to be saying “I should have known better.” I’m still waiting to hear it. 
Always plenty of masks in our household.

It’s also difficult right now to be living in a community where many voters could be considered poster-children of the “anti-intellectual, anti-scientific” supporters of the current president. Almost as if to thumb their nose at growing infection rates, the governing council of my own town of Traveler’s Joy* decided to stage “Cruising Nights” on several Sundays this summer, inviting motorists from all over the upstate to swing through Highway 29 which runs through the center of town. Motorists did so, enthusiastically, driving back and forth in monster trucks, convertibles, golf-carts and motorcycles, screaming out the open windows and sunroofs and blasting music at teeth-rattling decibel levels, while blocking the secondary residential roads to residents and ambulances. Their vehicles turned the two-lane public highway into a gridlocked clusterf**k for three hours every Sunday the event was held.

Partying hard in the midst of a pandemic: my town in upstate SC. See any masks?

Two of these events coincided with a carnival held in a closed-down car-lot in the city center. Neither the cruising nights nor the two-week carnival observed or maintained Covid guidelines: there were no masks in evidence, no social distancing, and no hand-washing facilities. It’s almost as if the festivals were staged in defiance of science, exhibiting exactly the kind of detrimental “super-spreading” public gatherings that we have been warned against as the infection rate and death rate has soared in the sunbelt. It’s as if our Mayor and Council wanted to show their solidarity with the president’s own scorn for disease-mitigation, he who is paradoxically an expert on everything while claiming to be suspicious of “experts” (meaning anyone who knows more than he does, which is almost everyone). 
Defiance of science is a political act in these parts.
I can’t bear to think about how many people in this country have died because of the current administration’s incompetence and indifference, especially as that position of “fact-defiance” has been taken up by state and local governments in conservative counties of the former Confederacy, and I worry that people drawn to our own town’s mid-pandemic celebrations were needlessly infected with the virus, or infected others. So far, knock on wood, I don’t seem to be one of them.
I’ve kept my sanity throughout the long hot, and too frequently noisy days of June, July and August by staying on the computer, writing as steadily as the muse permitted. My husband read and edited each scene before I proceeded to the next, and so on, until I finally typed up “Finis” at the end of Page 318 of TROUBLEFIELD. Then I made myself a stiff drink and went out in the garden.
Rewrites kept me from freaking out.
Excepting Sunday Cruising Nights, the garden has been my solace during the pandemic. It was a busy spring out there, with record numbers of birds nesting, mating and fledging their young. It’s nerve-wracking, trying to steward the families from birth to safe flight, but it is also immensely gratifying when I see the fledglings ranged like notes of music along the links of the chain-link fence, or crowding the birdbaths on days when the temperature hovers in the mid-nineties.
A mockingbird mother who lost her eggs to a low-lying nest in our Magnolia ‘Claudia Wanamaker,’ probably to a black snake that my husband was forced to kill, finally made a suitably protected nest in my wire vegetable-collecting basket. It hung on the side of the gated arbor that leads into the veggie garden, and there she laid four blue eggs, three of which hatched into healthy chicks. 
The first nest met with a mishap.
Because she got such a late start with the second nest, however, the chicks were getting overheated in the basket on sultry July afternoons. My husband solved the problem by standing at a distance with the hose and misting them lightly. All three chicks fledged successfully; I attribute this not just to my husband’s cooling ministrations and the sacrifice of the snake, but to the fact that my marmalade cat, Clementine, is very fat and has poor eyesight. She’s the best kind of garden attendant where birds are plentiful.
Mockingbird mama's fat chicks.
Despite having to tiptoe in and out of the vegetable garden while the baby mockers were growing in their nest, my modest tending and tilling there produced a good crop of raspberries and tomatoes, along with a few zucchini before the borer squash vine killed the plants, as they do every summer. Some kind of pest has also killed off the blossoms on my lush green bean arbor, severely limiting the number of beans harvested. I don’t use chemicals in this garden and apparently that fact has been passed around on the pest grapevine until every known vegetable parasite is partying hard here.
Clem has not been diligent this summer.
That’s partly why, over time, I’ve incorporated cutting flowers into the veg beds – a tall cactus dahlia, for instance, an even taller late-blooming daylily called ‘Autumn Minarets,’ an apricot-toned rose, ‘Climbing Moonlight.’ My ornamentals attract more pollinators, provide color, and reward the gardener with flowers when beans and squash are few.
The veggie garden in July.
My muscadine grapevine, ‘Noble,’ was badly damaged early this spring by a gale that lifted it completely off the arbor; it couldn’t be placed back on the arbor as the winds had twisted the vine out of shape and it weighed more than a Chevy truck with a payload of rip-rap. Our lawn men, Mark W. and Willy W., cut it back to the lateral vine on the bottom and hauled the mass of the main vine away. That vine recovered, and is now thick with grapes, which will be ready to harvest for wine later this month or early in September. However, I haven’t decided if I’m willing to go to the bother of making wine again this autumn. I may just let the mockers feast on the harvest.
Twilight harvest.

As many of us have discovered, the most difficult aspect of living a life governed by lethal disease, aside from the fear and the separation we’re all experiencing – we’ve not seen our daughter since last Christmas – is not being permitted to look forward to anything. If my editor approves of the latest draft, we will move forward with the publication process, meaning that the book may come out in January 2022. But that is not certain. And meanwhile, no events can be planned, no reunions, getaways, dinners out, weddings. I attended my first virtual funeral in July, for a friend we’d lost contact with over many years and who took his own life, and it was a bizarrely devestating experience. Isaac Asimov couldn’t have imagined such a thing in his wildest dreams.

Louisiana iris 'Charjoy's Jan' blooming with azalea and, in background, Itea 'Henry's Garnet'

The best I can do for the moment is to put my faith in the future, hoping that change is coming at the national level, and that someday we will travel again, publish novels, be with friends, and that I will be able to put my arms around my child again and hold her close. Until then, the birds and I will be in the garden: socially distanced, with no masks required.


photo of Skye courtesy of
photo of Haddon Hall courtesy of peak
photo of the Pharr churchyard in Scotland, courtesy of

*Traveler's Joy is the fictional name I use for the town where I live, in the interest of protecting the few registered Democrats with whom I share it.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

QUARANTINED: Writing Madly, Gardening Wildly, and Dreaming of Southern Bookstores

Papa Bluebird and his mate rented out the tobacco barn.
The bluebirds are fledging their young this morning. They set up house together at the start of this pandemic, about the time my husband and I began cancelling our European trip, one painful (and expensive) component at a time. This was intended to be our first trip together overseas, ever -- the financial crash of 2008-2009 having dashed the plans we, as empty nesters, had begun to make once we were liberated from college tuition payments. It was also meant to celebrate the completion of my second novel for Algonquin, Troublefield, which is due out in May of 2021, if God and the virus are willing, while allowing for some enjoyable field research in the Yorkshire dales for Book 3. If there has been any silver lining to this lockdown it is that I was able to write for thirty-eight days consecutively in March and throughout April. No breaks! No socializing! No day trips! But now the gaping loss of our UK journey dims the prospect of summer. I consider the tens of thousands of aspiring vacationers around the globe who have had their plans dismantled in a similar way, and have now have lost their jobs as well as their hopes of travel, and feel sobered by the scope of this terrible predicament. It’s the Great Recession all over again, only with the threat of contagion pushing stress levels beyond what is bearable.

It’s critical to have a refuge at times like this. Twelve years ago my stress-reducer was the same as now: my garden. It beckons with mind-numbing manual labor in all seasons and weather; I can weed and chop and haul for hours at a time without thoughts of Covid-19 intruding. Now there is no limit to the amount of "bathrobe gardening" I may indulge in: these are the sessions that take place when I go out first thing in the morning with the dogs and a mug of coffee and spy a project that needs to be addressed. I dive in, despite the fact that I'm not dressed, and when I come up for air both the gardener and the bathrobe need a thorough washing-up. 
Alice and Zombie, my garden companions.

When I cease to garden and merely sit with that mug of coffee in the swing, there are birds to watch, going about the business of building their nests or feeding their young in every tree, dense shrub, or birdhouse. It’s infinitely reassuring, this ritual of mating and procreating, of getting the next generation off to a flying start – it reminds me that there will be a tomorrow, albeit a changed one, and it generates reflection on this responsibility we humans bear for the condition of our world.

In fact, it’s come as something of a shock to realize that my life during the pandemic is very similar to what my life was like before the pandemic.  Writers and poets lead lonely lives to a great extent, alone with our imaginations for long periods of time. (And I should point out that this is a choice, of course, bolstered by natures that seek solitude instinctually.) This became especially true for me after The Second Mrs. Hockaday was launched into the world and I began work on Troublefield.

By 2017 it simply wasn’t feasible to continue teaching English as a college adjunct-instructor. While I miss engagement with students, and was continually inspired and informed by their developing minds and unique stories, the requirements of grading nearly 140 papers per Comp section per semester as well as planning curriculum and meeting with students individually meant that I was working seven days a week, holidays included. There was little time to write a novel, let alone think about one. In terms of income as well as productivity, it made sense to withdraw from the university, and the months that have passed since I made that decision have been very productive ones. My husband continues to carry a full load at the college, but now that all instruction has shifted online, he’s joined me in lockdown and we’re finding it mostly quite endurable.
Tensions that arise during lockdown are usually resolved.

However, now that public life is denied me, what do I crave persistently? Public life. With a second novel in production I’m looking ahead to the book tour and wondering how much the literary landscape will be altered by the time it’s safe for stores to reopen and conferences to be convened again. I worry about some of my favorite small bookshops, their owners and key staff, improvising through this crisis and spinning endless plates in the air as their profit margins, already razor-thin, subside into nothingness. And while I am supportive of all independent bookstores, recognizing how essential they are to the financial health, literacy and viability of their communities, there are some store owners and staff who are so supportive of authors that you want them to do especially well.

TLB staff, owner Mary P. behind me
I feel this way about The Little Bookshop in Midlothian, VA, which I visited after taking part in the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville in February 2017. I’d been scheduled to drive to Richmond earlier in the day, but that event was postponed at the last minute and I was glad of it, because as soon as I arrived at TLB after my long drive from the city, owner Mary Patterson and bookseller Laura Edwards welcomed me with open arms and five-star treatment. The event was well-attended, with many of TLB’s “regulars” showing up and demonstrating that the shop, although only a few years old, already had a loyal customer-base who loved the collection of books Mary curated for the store. As I was leaving that afternoon to catch my plane in Richmond, Mary heard me say that I hadn’t had time to eat a meal that day. Before I could pack up and get back in the rental car, she and Laura magically produced a sandwich and cookies from some secret store, and sent me off well-provisioned.
Our much-loved former home in Wake Forest NC.

Another bookstore of which I’m especially fond is Page 158 Books in Wake Forest NC. My family and I lived briefly in Wake Forest, that small, historic town northeast of Raleigh, graced by towering oaks and containing, at its heart, a stunning early nineteenth century college campus. The college was ‘bought’ by the Reynolds family in 1951, when such things could be done, and moved to Winston-Salem. As the story goes, R. J.’s wife was determined to elevate the culture of that hardscrabble, cigarette-manufacturing, factory town and she did so, by acquiring a college, a symphony, an art museum, and so on. In doing so, she ensured that newcomers to NC would be confused in perpetuity, having a university named Wake Forest located in a city named Winston-Salem, and a Baptist seminary in the center of a town carrying the name of a distant college… 

We didn’t want to leave Wake Forest, or our two-story Colonial home close by the elementary school, but a changing job situation forced our hands. I still feel ridiculously sentimental about the place, so when we joined our daughter and her husband for Thanksgiving in their new home in Raleigh in 2017, I suggested that on Black Friday my husband and I drive a few extra miles up Highway 1, for old times’ sake. Once in town, I was pleased to see that, while much has changed in the twenty years since we’d lived there, the hardware store was still thriving, along with Shorty’s Hot Dogs. I knew we would have to make a stop at Page 158, out on Brooks Street where the Winn-Dixie used to stand. I’d heard from a fellow novelist that one of the owners, Suzanne Lucey, had expressed particular fondness for The Second Mrs. Hockaday, and had featured it as a ‘staff pick’ at one point. This was a store where I wanted to spend my money. 

Page 158 staff; owner Suzanne Lucey, in elf hat.
We were pleasantly surprised by how contemporary Page 158 felt, and how well-stocked it was, and had begun selecting some purchases when Suzanne’s husband, Dave Lucey, asked if he could help me find anything in particular. I explained who I was, told him that we’d lived in town years before, and told him the name of my novel. He smiled, stood back, and yelled to the back of the store, where there was a stockroom. “Suzanne!” he called. “Susan Rivers is here. Second Mrs. Hockaday!” There was silence for a few moments. Then a door flew open, and a woman wearing an elf's hat atop her curly red hair exploded out of the stockroom and galloped to the front of the store, throwing her arms around me. This was my introduction to the ever-ebullient, splendidly enthusiastic Suzanne Lucey.

Page & Palette's welcoming street corner.
I returned to Wake Forest for a literary event in 2019, and I’m certain I will go back again in the years ahead to look in on Dave and Suzanne. I hope to get back to Virginia to see Mary Patterson, as well, and to check in with Sally Brewster of Park Road Books, to whom I am eternally grateful for recommending TSMH to numerous Charlotte-area book clubs. When we’re released from quarantine, I hope to drop in on Betsy Teter at Hub City, which is the beating heart of upstate South Carolina’s literary world, to go back to Main Street Books in Davidson, which hosted a wonderful readers' event in 2017, and to revisit Polly and Julian Buxton in their elegant shop, Buxton Books, on the water in Charleston. I also dream of taking a road trip south to Mobile Bay, to the charming town of Fairhope, Alabama.

You can't miss Page and Palette, the bookstore on the main avenue, because that's where everyone gathers to eat ice cream and drink lattes and get book recommendations from Stephanie Crowe, P & P's friendly and spectacularly gifted hand-seller. What all these bookstore-owners and sellers have in common (as well as others I do not have space to name), is a powerful passion for the written word in all its forms, and a profound sense of mission in sharing their love of books with everyone who comes into their shops. They know they will never be wealthy running a bookstore – far from it. And in this horrible pandemic they are having to adapt to business models that are not only changing daily but hourly, as regulations shift to address the virus. And yet they persist, thank goodness! – because they are committed not merely to their books but to their communities. I am so grateful for them and all the booksellers like them. 

In the days before Covid-19, of course, bookstores, libraries and book clubs were also gathering places where readers could meet their favorite authors, and vice versa. For me, meeting readers has turned out to be the best, most unexpected benefit of publishing a novel commercially. I have met, presented to, or spoken with hundreds of smart, literate and unendingly curious book-lovers, and I am always uplifted by the experience. 
I've met hundreds of smart, curious readers at book clubs like the Tomato Pie group in Charlotte NC.

Deborah Branch Phillips, whom I met at an author-luncheon produced by Litchfield Books near Pawley’s Island South Carolina (L. B. is also on my short-list of favorite bookstores) is a stellar example of the ‘ideal reader.’ She heard me say during my presentation that I was working on a novel about mill workers in upstate SC at the turn of the century. After the talk, she volunteered to share some of the details of her mill-working ancestors. 

Deborah Branch Phillips, far left, gathered former Clifton neighbors to meet me.

When I managed to meet up with her a few weeks later in Georgetown SC, she surprised me by sharing a prized family scrapbook depicting generations of her family members who lived in the milltowns of Tomahawk* and Spartanburg counties. It was a researcher’s dream come true. She followed that act of generosity by setting up a meeting with me and several residents of the former mill town of Clifton SC, including her aunt, Gladys Kuester. Gathering with these generous people in a church meeting hall (on an afternoon when it was raining black cats, as they say) we enjoyed pound cake and punch while I listened to innumerable stories of lives lived by family members who worked at the mill and thrived in its close-knit community. There’s no substitute for that kind of authentic detail – it’s priceless!

Another remarkable reader is Emily Daggerheart, whose mother Tracy contacted me through Polly Buxton. Tracy and her 14 year-old daughter had missed my reading at Buxton Books, and Emily, an aspiring writer, was a fan of the novel. We eventually arranged to meet at a bagel shop in Charlotte, and even though it poured buckets that morning (why is it always raining in my stories?...) the three of us had an excellent time, sharing green chai and mutual sympathies. Meeting young readers who already love novels as much or more than I did at their age is an intensely inspiring experience. It means that books are still important. It means that stories matter. Perhaps they are especially important when society is out of reach for us, like now.
Selfie with novelist-to-be, Emily Daggerheart, and mom Tracy

I know the world will eventually return to a state that is closer to normal than what we have today, even if human contact will be curtailed to some degree. The birds in my garden point the way towards the resumption of seasons and the rediscovery of purpose. But will we emerge from this crisis as better human beings? More resilient? Reflective? Focused? More grateful for what we had pre-pandemic and took for granted?  This is what I hope for myself. On the day I am able to walk into a coffeeshop and take a seat among others of my species while the barista brews my flat-white, I will rejoice in being alive. I will rejoice and be glad on the day I may shake a stranger’s hand. Or stand in line at the post office. Or browse in a bookstore for as long as the money in my parking meter lasts, or sign books and stand close to a reader as she tells me about herself and what she loves to read.

For now, I watch the bluebirds fussing over their children. I watch rain slant across the garden. I am thinking about the next novel. And the one after that. I’m feeling grateful for the way books keep connecting me with the best kind of people.


The Little Bookshop: TLB is taking orders by phone and email for curbside pick-up Wednesday-Saturday, 12noon to 3p.m. 804-464-1244; They urge patrons also to buy audiobooks through, their audiobooks partner.

Page 158 Books: Page 158 is doing delivery (only) at the moment, M-F, on local orders over $20. They also offer "grab bags," and jointly with SIBA (Southeastern Independent Bookstore Association) offer Reader Meet Writer, a series of virtual author events in May with well-known authors discussing their new books. Click on the website for this program to reserve a "seat." 919-435-1843;

If you care about supporting independent bookstores, especially in desperate times like the current coronavirus crisis, contact your own local bookstore and ask about their curbside pick-up, delivery, and/or shipping policies.
 Books may also be ordered online through, with a % of the sales going to independent bookstores in your region.

Monday, September 16, 2019


Southern life is rooted in the natural world. The rhythms of this life are shaped by intense summer heat, brief but brilliant springs, and the bountiful harvests of autumn. Our lives are conducted beneath the canopies of massive trees, a deciduous forest biome that once stretched from the Atlantic coast to the banks of the Mississippi River and beyond: oaks, magnolias, maples, pines, pecans and tulip poplars.

Magnolia virginiana 'Claudia Wanamaker'
It is a life sweetened by fragrant shrubs and vines like honeysuckle, jessamine, gardenia and moonflower, with blossoms that render southern nights intoxicating, and which seduce night-flying pollinators. And it is sustained by fruits that shrug off the heat, pests, and ever-present diseases: figs and berries and scuppernong grapes. On moonlit August nights my dogs bark and otherwise bedevil the 'possums that creep into our garden from the woods behind the house and strip my fig tree clean just as the rosy fruits are ripening on the branches. 
This possum made his getaway through the giant pecan.

Persistent wildlife is also an important element of the south’s inter-connected ecology, as I know from the legions of chipmunks, rabbits, 'possums and raccoons who defy my scrappy canines to feed in the garden and dig dens on our property. Yesterday my husband and I were driving through a heavily congested intersection in the North Carolina border town of Shelby, stuck behind a traffic light that favors the through-traffic on Highway 74. While idling on a cement overpass, I happened to look down into the culvert, covered in discarded cans and kudzu, and spotted a woodchuck feasting on blackberries. Even amidst the densest urban blight, it appears, southern mammals carry on!

Any writer who does not appreciate how fully southern life is integrated with the seasons that bring fruit, flower, or leaf-fall has not comprehended one of its key components. I began to perceive this connection as a result of visiting historic home-sites in the Carolinas, Georgia, Virginia, Mississippi, and Tennessee over several decades, and noting common gardening features or plant specimens these sites shared that were advantageous to the generations of residents who had lived and died there.
The cedar allee at William Faulkner's house, Rowan Oak, Oxford MS

These particular plants were consciously present while I wrote The Second Mrs. Hockaday, my novel about a young war-bride struggling to survive on an upstate South Carolina farm during the Civil War. (Algonquin Books 2017.) Modern-day homesites could benefit from borrowing some of these time-honored southern stand-bys. 

The grape arbor at Brattonsville SC
In the novel, Placidia first meets her future husband when Major Hockaday and her father emerge from a grape arbor where they have been finalizing Hockaday’s purchase of a mule. Grape arbors are a fixture of rural southern plots; built from cedar logs, resistant to rot and pests, and covered by vines bearing the heat-tolerant scuppernongs (yellow-green fruit) or muscadines (black), the arbors provided a cooling spot for entertaining in the days before air-conditioning, and offered a harvest in late summer which could be made into wine or jelly. (Placidia makes wine.) 
My eight-year old muscadine grapevine
Vitis rotundifolia ‘Noble’ is the muscadine vine I planted on the gated arbor leading to my vegetable garden. Grapes need a well-drained site, and this spot slopes away to the yard below, ensuring that water doesn’t collect at the roots. One of the best sources for fruiting vines and trees in the Carolinas is the Farmers Market in Raleigh, specifically, the vendor known as “the fruit-tree man.” The vine he sold me eight years ago has grown like Jack’s proverbial beanstalk, encircling most of the veggie garden, and has been almost entirely pest- and disease-free in that time. Most importantly, the flavor and dark purple, almost black, color of the fruit is excellent. 
'Noble' muscadines
I make my ‘hurricane wine’ after harvesting the grapes around Labor Day each year, usually when a storm is heading our way from further south or has just brushed past us. The mash ferments in jugs above the washing machine and is strained and bottled in October, producing half a dozen bottles to give to neighbors or take along to holiday celebrations. 
Muscadine mash, fermenting

In The Second Mrs. Hockaday, Placidia makes wine from vines that grow wild in the woods, hoping it will be appreciated by her husband when he returns on leave, but the bottles are stolen in a raid by Confederate bandits. Hoping to assuage the leader of the band, Placidia tells him, “I made it myself, so it’s not the best-tasting. But it’s alcohol.” 
My husband FK harvests grapes with Clemmie 
That's for sure. After a few weeks fermenting above the washing machine, my muscadine mash has a high alcohol content. I warn imbibers to go easy and not gulp the wine, but, maybe because it's naturally sweet, they tend to overdo. As my elderly neighbor told me one winter's day when I broke out a bottle: “that’ll have me seeing double and feeling single.” I loved that line so much I put it in the novel, along with the wine. 

Almost every historic homesite I’ve visited in a southern state boasts at least one fig tree, and this tree is nearly always planted on the sunny south-facing side of a house or separate kitchen, against a wall that protects the tree from frost and warms it as it buds out in spring. 
The fig tree at Historic Brattonsville SC occupies a sheltered corner

That’s why I featured one in the kitchen garden at Valois (“this had always been our place for secrets,” Placidia writes, as she and her father shelter beneath the fig to discuss Hockaday’s proposal of marriage). 

Figs can grow quite large, given time. Years ago, I wrote a magazine story about the garden of some friends of mine who owned a pre-Civil War home in North Carolina. The fig tree that grew behind their house was a behemoth -- at least two stories tall and wide. They didn't own a ladder tall enough to pick the figs at the top, so at harvest-time their four boys happily scampered up the branches  and dropped the fruit to their waiting parents.
This massive fig tree in NC is over 150 years old.

The ‘Celeste’ fig I was given as a rooted cutting by a gardening friend over a decade ago now towers above the railing that once supported it. I planted it on a south-facing spot where our deck blocks freezing winds. 
Ficus carica in summer
Even in a protected site, however, a fig’s yield can be limited by late spring freezes, excessively cold winters, excessively hot summers, too much rain, too little rain, and by the scourge of winged and mammalian marauders who find its sweet fruits so appealing. 

I consider myself lucky to get sufficient fruit in the first crop to make a fig cake and possibly a jar of chutney, because the second crop is nearly always stolen. (Figs don’t come ripe until early August, or, in good years, late July, as do the figs at Holland Creek when Placidia lifts her young step-son, Charlie, into the branches to feast on the early fruits.  If you’re lucky, you can get a second crop that extends the season into September.)

Fig cake with 'Celeste' figs
The beauty of a southern fig is that it is one of the few fruit trees nearly impervious to pests and disease. The worst problem I’ve ever encountered is premature leaf-yellowing and drop due to drought and/or consistently unbearable heat, but when you consider how many sprayings are required for peach trees, apples, cherries and the like, growing a fig seems like a no-brainer for any southerner wanting to tend a garden organically.

If you go shopping for figs, don't be persuaded by nursery staffers unfamiliar with fig husbandry into buying a variety that only yields west of the Mississippi River. (I did that, when I was a novice gardener. In fact, I bought TWO barren figs, and learned an expensive lesson.) Certain California fig varieties require a particular wasp for fertilization that doesn't exist east of the Rockies. Instead, buy one of the types commonly grown in southern states: 'Celeste, 'Brown Turkey,' or possibly 'Chicago Hardy.' These are self-fertilizing varieties that have proven themselves over many years growing and bearing in southern gardens. 
Fig chutney

My fig cakes freeze well for holiday gifts or entertaining, but my favorite dish is fig chutney, which pairs beautifully with roasted pork. I’ve included the recipe below, if you want to try it with your own figs next season.

In marrying Major Hockaday, Placidia Fincher forsakes her privileged life growing up on the large plantation of Valois and struggles with a harsher existence on her husband’s subsistence homestead at Holland Creek. 
Mountain Shoals Plantation, in Enoree SC, was a model for Holland Creek Farm

Here too, events occurring in the novel were often inspired by the sturdy southern plants I scouted on my travels among historic sites, or worked with in my own garden, like a particular, delicate daffodil that captured my imagination and found its way into my fiction.
Heirloom narcissus, Twin Sisters

Following their wedding night at Hockaday’s farm in upstate South Carolina, Placidia wakes from her somewhat harrowing introduction to married life to find that her husband is already out and about on the farm. Before parting from her, however, he has laid a single jonquilla stalk on the pillow beside hers, and their elusive fragrance, "like honey but with the fresh tang of grass underneath it," bolsters her optimism as she commences life on the farm.

The story behind that blossom is a somewhat magical one, as many Southern stories are. Over twenty years ago, when my husband, daughter and I were forced to leave a beloved home in Wake Forest, NC, and resettle in Charlotte, where my husband’s new job was located, we settled on a house that none of us loved, but whose location was convenient. Once we had moved there, I stood out on the raw front lawn of our new home, on the lot that had been torn out of a large tract of succession woods cleared to make the development, and tried to find something, anything, that I could pin my heart on long enough to begin building a garden. As I shifted my head in the breeze coming off the nearby lake, I caught a faint but distinctive scent, a sweet cool fragrance. I wandered the yard, sniffing and searching, until my eyes caught up with my nose. Sprouting from the grove beside our house, the only original terrain that had been spared by the bulldozer, was a small clump of bluish foliage, as narrow as grass. In the center of that clump, two tiny porcelain trumpets were casting their perfume on the air.

Twin Sisters, like all jonquil-types, are sweetly fragrant
Who could have planted such beautiful daffodils, I marveled. And when? The land on which our subdivision stood had been leased for timber until recently, and Duke Power had owned it for decades before that, ever since the Catawba River was dammed in the sixties to create Mountain Island Lake and Lake Norman. If there had ever been a house on our small hill, let alone a garden, both must have been removed years ago.

The mystery of the rediscovered garden deepened when a sprawling Apothecary’s rose, present in gardens since the fifteenth century and as durable as steel, emerged from under the trees to bloom on Mother’s Day, along with old-fashioned popcorn spiraea that stretched its arms beyond the wild cherry to catch the sun.  

As the garden flowered, however, my husband was experiencing some uncomfortable sensations. Arriving home from work one day, he asked me if I had invited a neighbor to the house. “Was she in the garage?” he asked uneasily. I answered, also feeling uneasy, that there were only ten other families living in the development and no one had yet been to our home. He explained that as he pulled into our driveway, he had glimpsed a woman in a long, faded dress standing in front of our garage, but when he parked and got out, she vanished.

“Maybe she’s our gardener,” I joked. “She came back to see the roses bloom.” We laughed a little, agreeing that my husband’s vision had probably been nothing more than a trick of light or an effect of commuter exhaustion. And yet, this notion of a gardening spirit took root in my imagination, providing a strange kind of comfort. Of connection.
The sharecroppers' land

Not long after this, my husband woke in the middle of the night with a splitting headache and went downstairs to get some aspirin. From upstairs, I heard objects tumbling to the floor, followed by cursing. Down in the kitchen I found him picking up postcards and photos that had fallen from our refrigerator door, where we kept a messy, ever-changing display. “I felt a draft,” FK told me in a thin whisper. “It was as if something rushed past me, knocking all these things to the floor.”

We scooped up our memorabilia and left the mess piled on the table. In the morning I began to sort through it and discard the items we no longer needed. Mixed in with the jumble of snapshots and clippings were several magnets from a poetry-magnet kit we’d acquired. Maybe you’ve seen these kits: they consist of hundreds of words that can be arranged to form daffy poem fragments, of which we had many gracing our refrigerator: “swim/in/the/delirious/storm/of/life/like/
a/thousand/tiny/why/nots,” and “languid/shine/
of/summer/garden” and “mother/is/most/cool.”

On the tabletop, I lined up the five magnets that had fallen to the floor the night before. As I did so, I felt the skin on my arms prickling with goosebumps. I read: “sweet/mother/garden/goddess/friend.”

Old farm
Over the months that followed, I persisted in trying to determine who had lived and gardened where our house now stood, eventually tracking down the man whose ancestors had owned the 1,000 acre plantation that once bordered the river. “After the war, the bottomland along the river was farmed by sharecroppers,” this man explained. “There were shacks up and down Nance Creek, where your development was built. The tenants mostly grew corn and cotton.” But in 1916, two hurricanes collided over the Blue Ridge Mountains, creating a terrible flood that swept down the river channel. “A lot of people lost their lives when the river topped its banks,” he told me. “People, animals, houses, barns: entire towns were washed away. I would imagine you’ve got the remains of a sharecropper’s garden that was planted there before the flood."

Do you wonder, then, why I felt compelled to take cuttings of the rose and the spiraea when we moved a dozen years later to our home in South Carolina? Or why I carefully dug up a handful of the heirloom jonquilla bulbs (discovered to be Narcissus x medioluteus, a late-blooming heirloom species, also called N. ‘Twin Sisters’for the small double-blooms that open on each stalk in April) and planted them in a place of honor in the new garden?  Their scent, and their ghostly originator, have happily haunted me every spring, and both found their way into the novel.

The swamp rose, Rosa palustris scandens, in my garden

I've praised the swamp rose, Rosa palustris scandens, in at least one previous blog post ("Roses for Southern Gardens") because it is the only rose I know of that shrugs off southern clay and blackspot, and, as it's common name implies, tolerates very damp soil. I have grown it in all three of my Carolina gardens, trouble-free, but it troubles me that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find in the trade. Even my favorite mail-order rose nursery no longer carries it. Why should this be? I can't fathom. Her single pink blooms are cleanly fragrant and the plant's lovely vase-shaped habit is designed to shelter all manner of shade-loving creepers, hostas and hellebores beneath her skirts.
Its cascading habit is highly romantic

Its habit must have been what inspired me to write a brief romantic scene between Placidia and Gryffth set beneath the arching branches of a large swamp rose that grows beside the banks of Holland Creek. At about 10' tall and wide, I reasoned that a mature specimen could surely accommodate two lovers beneath its protective cover, providing plenty of privacy. 

When the novel was in the process of being edited at Algonquin, my husband and I celebrated its publication by traveling in May 2015 to Mississippi to visit Faulkner's home, Rowan Oak, and driving on to Tennessee to take in Andrew Jackson's impressively restored and preserved homeplace, The Hermitage. 

In the romantic gardens where President Jackson is buried alongside his beloved wife Rachel, the woman he defended from detractors in numerous duels, the peonies and iris were in full flower. But the sight of a swamp rose covered in blossom, trailing its pink skirts along the path, gladdened my heart beyond measure. 

Swamp rose blooming at Andrew Jackson's home, The Hermitage
In the book, Hockaday writes to Placidia from the battlefield, recalling the morning after their wedding when they walked the farm. "We found that spot under the big swamp-rose where we could sit and not be seen, do you remember? ...When I open one of your letters now when I am so far away and see your handwriting...that is the only time this old soldier feels fear after so many battles, my fair girl. If there is a hell, it is the prospect of not seeing you again. There is no home for me if I can't come home to you."

Home means different things to different people. To this writer, it means keeping a homeplace that honors and evokes the past while sowing ideas for books that have yet to be written. So long as my garden bears southern fruit and flowers, I'll never lack for inspiration.

The garden in May. Swamp rose on left, southern peonies handed down by previous owner on right.


FIG CHUTNEY (adjusted from recipe by Emeril Lagasse)
1 1/4 cups red wine vinegar
1/4 pound brown sugar
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 TAB chopped fresh ginger
3/4 teaspoon dry yellow mustard
2 TAB lemon zest
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 pound fresh figs, ('Celeste' preferred), rinsed, stems removed and halved

In a saucepan combine the vinegar, sugar, onion, ginger, mustard, lemon zest, cinnamon stick, salt, allspice and cloves and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until mixture is thickened and reduced by 2/3, forming a thick syrup. Add the figs. Cook gently until figs are soft and most of the liquid they've produced has evaporated, about thirty minutes.
Store chutney when cooled in a Mason jar and refrigerate until used. Tastes best when allowed to warm to room temperature.

P.S. If you contact me through the comments section on this post, or through the contact form on my website, I'll be happy to send you my recipe for muscadine wine.