I’m very excited to have Fiona McIntosh her today talking about the story behind the story, of The Lavender Keeper. I loved this book and found it very difficult to put down. I hope you enjoy her blog!
Where did the idea for this book come from?… is perhaps the most popular – and certainly legitimate – question that most authors get asked about their work. And even though writers, including myself, will look a bit blank at first to explain it’s because the kernels of story ideas often arise from curious coincidences. The Lavender Keeper came together through the collision of two wildly unrelated events, triggered by my publisher at Penguin asking ‘so what’s next?’ Paris was part of my mental landscape that day. I love Paris, I dream Paris, and one day I’ll live Paris. But in the meantime any reason to visit Paris is a good one and I had the best – an invitation from my French publisher to be its guest for a week in the City of Love to attend The Paris Book Fair. Marvellous! So there I was with every intention to enjoy 21 hours alone in Business Class with movie, music, books, and yet the truth was my imagination was reeling toward a new story that I hadn’t yet conceived. At the back of my mind was a fast approaching visit from my parents to Tasmania, which is where I like to do a lot of my writing from. I wanted to have some fun trips in place for them to enjoy. And so I’d recently been googling madly to come up with options and had stumbled across Bridestowe Lavender Farm just outside Launceston. It looked beautiful and given that it would be in full blue roar during their visit, I couldn’t imagine something more suitable for my mother in particular to enjoy. I’d explored its website in depth and become deeply fascinated by Bridestowe’s history. Why was it so fascinating? Well, at around the turn of the previous century an English perfumer left London and arrived in Launceston of all places clutching a bag of lavender seeds that he’d harvested from the southern French alps. Not any old lavender mind you, this was true French lavender – which most believe is the finest and most pure of lavenders because it grows wild in a climate that experiences hot dry summers and very cold, wet winters. Provence offers this climate and only the Luberon offers the alpine nursery so pockets of wild lavender or ‘lavandula angustifolia’ if you prefer me to be precise can grow. Mr Denny had failed in Devon with his planting of French lavender so this really was a bit of a last ditch effort to be giving it a whirl in Lilydale on the other side of the world. They planted and in 1924 a sample was sent to London and pronounced ‘completely camphor free’. This was incredibly exciting and I’ll explain why in a different blog, and Denny believed this is because his site outside Launceston at 40 degrees south mimicked the landscape, altitude and climate of the Luberon region of 40 degrees north. Anyway, the Denny family began a lifetime of plant selection and cultivation as well as innovations in how to grow and where to grow. That’s coming close to a century ago but today Bridestowe lavender is some of the most coveted on the planet because is provides sumptuously high quality and super yield of that most rare of products – perfume quality lavender oil. (More on that in another blog.) Today perfumers from all over the globe jostle to get hold of Bridestowe oil because it is so pure and comes from the original French wild stock. Oh…which writer could resist this? You see it was this lovely story of the Dennis family’s farm now owned by the delightful Robert and Jennifer Ravens – who have done much to continue the farm’s progress and renown – but especially the notion of selling French lavender oil back to the French that stuck in my mind. It was also topical that we were about to mark 70 years since WWll. The French were gearing up for all sorts of festivities and exhibitions. And it just all seemed to fit together …Paris, lavender, war. By the time I hit Charles de Gaulle airport I was rushing to get to my hotel so I could scribble off that email to my publisher….how about a story of a young French lavender farmer from the Luberon in Provence whose livelihood is shattered and family savagely ripped apart by the onset of WWll and the arrival of the Nazis into France. He must leave his farm and all he can take is a bag of lavender seeds before he turns resistance fighter and makes a vow that one day he will plant those seeds in peacetime and once again walk his rows of lavender. It felt huge and romantic and heroic. I could already envisage the woman who would come into his life and the conflict was already there in the shape of the war and the Nazis who traumatised not only France but all of Europe. It really was irresistible and even though it felt thin at that stage I knew I was onto something. It seemed so did Penguin because I was deliriously happy to receive an email back the next day saying it would very much like to purchase this novel and could it have a synopsis as soon as I could write one. Conceiving the idea was one hurdle….the real obstacles were yet to come. Researching WWll is an enormous task because it was an enormous war covering so much ground, involving so much death and destruction and hardship, and spanning six long, miserable, fear-ridden years. There were so many theatres to this war. There was so much political intrigue too. And of course, there was the Holocaust, looming over it and like a heavy burden in my heart. I didn’t want to write a Holocaust story but I couldn’t write a WWll story without acknowledging it. So I had to learn all about the Holocaust too and that was physically, emotionally and mentally wearying. I travelled all over Paris and southern France, I went to Strasbourg and Poland to visit Auschwitz and to Vienna, to London of course and up and down the British south coast. I covered a great deal of territory, going to museums, looking up records, building contacts, buying books, finding people who could help me and, of course, trawling the internet. It was huge learning curve and a massive commitment for me to do the learning and all the reading involved. And after all of that information had been absorbed, digested, sorted into neat files in my mind, I then promptly put it all aside as purely background. My intention was always to write a ‘small story’ about a ‘big subject’ with an even ‘bigger backdrop’. My story is about three people…and their WWll and how it affected their lives, their relationships with others and between themselves. But it was only until I had the bigger picture in mind with all of that education in place, that I could focus in on the much, much smaller picture about this trio of characters. Curiously, it made the story even more tense, packed full of fear, with lots of action and adventure and you can really feel the unease and anxiety of the characters because it’s their lives in the balance. It’s not about armies and bomb blitzes but about what the war does to three lives. And my final hurdle was that the story was turning out to be so much meatier than I’d anticipated that we all decided it was going to make two great books rather than trying to leave lots out and cram into one book. Penguin was fantastic to give me the scope for a sequel so that means book one – The Lavender Keeper is set in wartime and its sequel is now set in the 50s and 60s in peacetime Britain, Australia and France….but that’s another story!