A Conversation with Santa Montefiore, Author of The French Gardener
Why did you decide to organize the novel by season? How do you think this structure will affect the reading of the book? What do you think the passing of the seasons meant to your characters?
The idea for this book came to me watching my children thriving in my parents’ garden on the farm where I grew up in Hampshire. I have always adored the countryside, but more than that I need it spiritually. Being essentially London children they began to plant vegetables and trees and watch them grow. They became more independent, more imaginative and surprisingly creative. I feel that all children should have access to such simple pleasures in a world where computer games and television dominate so many households.
I decided to divide the book into seasons because of the garden theme, of course—I wanted a whole year to watch Jean-Paul’s garden grow—but also to reinforce the main theme of regeneration. The seasons return again year after year, Ava hands her knowledge and love of the garden to Jean-Paul, who then passes them on to Miranda and her children, who will pass them on to their own children one day. My father grew up in the same house that I grew up in, where we now have a cottage. My children build camps in the same parts of the garden and woods and climb the same tree house that my father and I once climbed. Ava’s love is not dead but will grow season after season in the garden she created.
Can you give us some more insight into the poetic phrases that begin each chapter? How did you decide on these? How do you hope they set the tone for what follows in the chapter?
Some of these are my own observations, others were given to me by Georgia Langton, a friend of my mother’s who’s a talented gardener. These are Ava’s words, because, on a deeper level, Ava’s spirit is still there in the garden—like nature we don’t die but shed our bodies like leaves and flower again in spirit. Ava’s very much present, enjoying all the beauty of nature.
Would you give us some more background regarding the poem in the epilogue? Who do you see as a speaker? Who is the audience?
I’m glad you asked this question! In my youth I wanted to be a singer/songwriter. These are the words of a song I wrote aged twenty-two, when a dear friend of mine was killed in a canoeing accident. It has a chorus, but it wasn’t appropriate for the book. Like the phrases at the top of each chapter, these are Ava’s words from her spirit. They’re to Jean-Paul and they’re to my readers.
You mention Georgia Langton in Dorset in your acknowledgments as inspiration, especially with regards to her garden. In what other ways is Georgia’s spirit written into the book? Are any characters based on her? Are images of her garden available anywhere online?
Georgia is a very exceptional, beautiful, talented woman. She embodies the best of British eccentricity in the most glorious way. I knew her when I was a child, so I went to see her while researching the book. She was a great inspiration to me and I did think of her as I created Ava. I’ve never seen anyone wear dungarees with such style. Fortunately for her, I don’t know her well enough to base a character entirely on her, but I was inspired by her unconventional beauty, her animation, enthusiasm, joy and love. I haven’t looked for her online but she is a professional garden designer!
Readers are always interested in which character an author aligns herself with. Is Miranda’s job as a writer and aspirations as a novelist a hint? Do you find it easiest to write about characters with whom you relate or ones you feel distant from?
Oddly enough, I didn’t identify at all with Miranda. I’m a country girl through and through! I identified with Ava a little, but I imagine some of me went into both. I write from my heart without really intellectualizing things a great deal. I write what feels right. I find it just as easy to write about someone like me as someone very unlike me—sometimes the characters who are least like me are the most fun! I can be anyone I want to be and, for the duration of the book, live another life entirely!
Infidelity abounds in the lives of the various characters in The French Gardener.Do you hope that readers will remain loyal to certain characters despite their flawed behavior? How do you see the affairs as differing from one another? Is one more forgivable than the next?
To be honest, I don’t think of my reader at all while writing my books. I embark on an adventure for my own pleasure and work things out as I go along. I think infidelity is wrong only if it hurts other people. Many marriages are open and thrive on that type of freedom. So I don’t judge other people.
However, the characters I write about are there to be scrutinized. Ava falls in love with another man, proving that it is possible to love more than one man at the same time, but ultimately she remains loyal to her husband. She sacrifices her own heart for her children, which is very admirable. I receive so many letters and e-mails from fans telling me of their secret affairs and loves that I realize this sort of sacrifice is more common than I thought. David’s affair is based on vanity and a yearning for excitement. There’s nothing very admirable about that, but it is very human. I think forgiveness is a very high quality, and I like to feel that Miranda and David will heal and grow to enjoy a strong and lasting marriage. No one is perfect, and I like my characters to be flawed because I want to watch them grow throughout the course of the novel.
How do you hope readers will understand the “magic” of the garden at Hartington? Do you believe in real magic, or are you using the word figuratively? Can love make ordinary things and places magical?
I really do believe in the magic of love and in the magic of nature. Ava and Jean-Paul pour all their love into the garden and create something magical. Jean-Paul teaches Miranda and her children to love nature and they flourish. Love makes ordinary things special—it’s all about perception and focus. The old cliché that love can change the world is the truest thing ever said! The only trouble with most of us is that we love conditionally. True love is unconditional.
In your biography on your website you say, “However much we try, time cannot be reversed. It changes us and those we were once close to.” Do you consider this to be a universal truth? How does this notion affect Jean-Paul and Ava? What can happen if we don’t allow time to change us and others?
In my experience time does change us. That’s because life molds us. It either makes us happy, giving, generous and wise or embittered, regretful, jealous and unhappy. In the case of Jean-Paul and Ava, I really wanted them to get back together in the end, but I didn’t think it realistic. Their affair belongs in the past, when they shared that magical time in those beautiful gardens, when they were both young. I’m not so sure that they would have recaptured that magic so many years later. Like an enchanted holiday, you return the year later to relive it again and find you can’t; the magic just isn’t there. The place is the same, the people the same, but something is missing. I think it’s often like that with love. I’m not saying that Jean-Paul’s love has diminished in any way, but he’s changed; and, had she not died, Ava would be different, too—in ways too subtle to describe. Ava would want Jean- Paul to remember her as she was when she was at her most radiant. On another level, I don’t always like to tie up my endings with neat little bows. This ending, though perhaps not as Hollywood would write it, gives my reader something to think about when he reaches the end of the book. And there’s always Peach. . . .
Miranda seems to be a city girl but finds her heart in the country. Where do you feel most at home?
I adore my London life. I love my friends, the restaurants, shops, theaters and the social side of the city. But I need to return every weekend to the country where I see only my family. I feel at peace in the woods and gardens of my home, where we have a cottage, and fill up spiritually.
A Conversation with Santa Montefiore, Author of The Perfect Happiness
What was the inspiration behind The Perfect Happiness? Was there a particular scene you envisioned first?
I’m 40 years old myself, with two small children and a very happy married life. An attractive man flirted with me at a dinner and then found me on email, through my author website – that part is taken from life. It was really a ‘what if’ from there. I wanted to explore two things: is it possible to have a flirtation without it developing into a full blown affair? And two, we belong to a generation that feels happiness is our birthright, at whatever cost. We want something, we buy it on credit, we break something, we don’t mend it as our mother’s did, but chuck it away and buy a new one. Do we treat love in the same way? – and destroy any obstacle in our path, even if that obstacle is our own husband, children or friends? Do we selfishly believe we can and should have everything we want? The first scene I thought of was the robbery and Jack’s confession, so I always knew where I was going, although I wasn’t sure how it would end – and true to character Kate took over the subplot, which was never my intention!
Angelica struggles in The Perfect Happiness to get inspiration for her new book. She believes that “there was nothing more disconcerting than a blank piece of paper with nothing to write on it” (p. 55). What do you do when you get stuck with writer’s block? Does your writing routine mimic that of Angelica’s?
No, fortunately I never get writer’s block. My trouble is finding time to get to my desk with all the domestic chores I have to do!
Shopping, brands and couture are a big part of the ladies’ lifestyle in The Perfect Happiness. Do you consider yourself a “fashionista” like Kate, Candace and the others?
No, but my girlfriends are very fashion conscious. I love clothes and shopping, but I’m not very good at it. If I identify with any of the girls on that front, it would be Angelica.
You created quite the cadre of characters between Angelica, Kate, Candace, Leitzia and Scarlet. Are any of these women based upon people you know? Who do you think you are the most like and why?
I drew inspiration from my group of girlfriends. We meet weekly for lunch at each other’s houses or restaurants, and daily at the school gates. Although I invented their characters, the lifestyle is very much taken from my life. There is a little of me in all of them, barring Kate, who is like no one I know (but would rather like to know as she’s funny!) I’m sure I subconsciously draw on people I know, I’d never do it consciously – basing characters on real people could get me into terrible trouble!!
Your descriptions of London, Johannesburg, Cape Town and the vineyards are exceptionally vivid. Do you frequent these locales? What kind of research, if any, did you have to do for this book?
I always write about what I know. So, yes, I live in Kensington, have been on book tour to Johannesburg and Cape Town, and visited a beautiful vineyard there. I draw inspiration from real places – this novel is the most realistic of all my books, because I usually invent my towns and villages. All the restaurants, streets and shops in London are real. Warwick Estate where Jack and Angelica go for drinks, is a real place anyone can visit.
Was there ever a draft where Angelica and Jack wound up together? Or was she always meant to go back to Olivier?
Jack and Angelica were never going to end up together. I knew from the start that he was going to die, and that Angelica would return and repair her marriage. I wanted the affair to be the catalyst that drives her to find happiness with Olivier.
Angelica highlights the hardships of maintaining both a happy personal life and a successful professional life. What advice would you offer to women who struggle to balance the two?
I think it’s incredibly hard to juggle being a wife, mother and working woman. There is no secret to making it work. You spread yourself very thinly and feel exhausted at the end of the day after everyone has wanted a piece of you. I meditate, try not to put too much in my diary so I get my sleep, and spend quality time with my husband and children on weekends. I’m lucky, I’m self employed and can run my own timetable, if I get stressed out I can go for a walk in the park! My husband and children come first, no matter what, so I revolve my life around them – but my writing is always there for me. It’s a hobby that I’m lucky enough to have as a job.
Angelica’s marriage is (arguably) saved by the events that transpire in The Perfect Happiness. What do you want readers to take away from the book?
Firstly, I would like my readers to enjoy it. It’s a love story, with a little mystery thrown in. I enjoyed writing it and took great pleasure from the characters I invented. I’d like readers to laugh and cry a little but end up with a warm feeling that carries them through their day. If they want to derive anything further on a spiritual level, then they can read extracts from In Search ofthe Perfect Happiness at the top of each chapter and try to work them into their lives. I know all the theory, but it’s difficult to live it, but I certainly try.
Your books have consistently been on the top of British and European bestseller lists and now you are starting to take the U.S. by storm. How do you make your books appealing to so many different audiences?
Firstly, the U.S. covers are beautiful, so that’s a great start when trying to attract readers. Secondly, love is universal. We all want it, no matter whom we are or what we do. We all want to be loved and to love in return. But we all suffer loss, setbacks, disappointment and hurt – as do my characters. I explore love in every form in my novels because love is the most important thing in my life, and, I believe, why we’re all here on earth. The simple answer is that love appeals to everyone.
What’s next for you? Will we be hearing from Angelica again?
The Perfect Happiness has already come out in the UK and I have had many requests to write a sequel – I rather enjoy the idea of picking another character, say Candice, and focusing on her life – or Kate….watch this space.
Right now, I’m writing my next novel, based in Tuscany, Italy in the late 1960s and Devon, England in the present day. Another big love story with a whopping twist! I’ve just changed publishers in England and am now writing for Simon & Schuster UK, so I’m under the big Simon & Schuster umbrella, which is wonderful – I want my first novel for them to be bigger and better than all of the other ones, so I’d better get back to it…………