Today we’re chatting with Kirsty Manning about her debut novel, The Midsummer Garden – a kind of tasty time travelling tale.
For those readers who haven't read The Midsummer Garden yet, can you tell us what it's about?
“The Midsummer Garden brings to life the stories of two women across the ages, both of whom are preparing a wedding banquet when we meet them. Travelling between lush gardens in France, windswept coastlines of Tasmania, to Tuscan hillsides and beyond, The Midsummer Garden lures the reader on an unforgettable culinary and botanical journey.”
France and Tasmania – definitely two vastly different locations. But then you double down by setting them more than 500 years apart. Explain the two story threads a little more.
“1487 Artemisia is young to be in charge of the kitchens at Chateau de Boschaud but, having been taught the herbalists’ lore, her knowledge of how food can delight the senses is unsurpassed. All of her concentration and flair is needed as she oversees the final preparations for the sumptuous wedding feast of Lord Boschaud and his bride while concealing her own secret dream. For after the celebrations are over, she dares to believe that her future lies outside the Chateau. But who will she trust?
“2014 Pip Arnet is an expert in predicting threats to healthy ecosystems. Trouble is, she doesn’t seem to recognise these signs in her own life. What Pip holds dearest right now is her potential to make a real difference in the marine biology of her beloved Tasmanian coastline. She’d thought that her fiance Jack understood this, believed that he knew she couldn’t make any plans until her studies were complete. But lately, since she’s finally moved in with him, Jack appears to have forgotten everything they’d discussed.
“When a gift of several dusty, beautiful old copper pots arrives in Pip’s kitchen, the two stories come together in a rich and sensuous celebration of family and love, passion and sacrifice.”
And all done without a DeLorean or crazy scientist in sight. So how did the idea form? To get all culinary, was it a slow “crock pot” evolution or a microwaved burst of inspiration?
“It all started with the glimpse of a turret. I was on a walk near Chalus, France (headphones in, listening to my audiobook), striding along narrow roads that weaved through lurid green fields and acres of chestnuts forests, when over the barbed-wire fence I spotted this old castle.
“It wasn't grand. Indeed, it looked almost abandoned. But for this Aussie girl, it seemed ridiculous that I could come across this forgotten castle just plonked in the middle of the paddock. It was as if the world had moved on to better things, and these crumbing stones walls, a barn and perfectly solid castle were still standing there, waiting … for what?
“Later, I came back with my family and we toured these grounds of Chateau de Brie. We stood in the barn that sheltered people during the Crusades, learned that none less than Richard the Lionheart had stayed and feasted there. I crouched and ran my hands over the wide oak floorboard in the oversized banquet hall, and admired the marble fire surrounds. Traced the lines of the worn steps spiralling to the top of the turret. At the top of the front turret was a tiny room, the guide had nicknamed ‘The Maidens Room'.
“And I started thinking, who lived here? Was it a maid or a noble maiden? Was she trapped or was she free? Perhaps she slept here the night before her wedding?
And then I looked out the window at the abandoned garden below, and imagined it in midsummer, with a party in full swing. A wedding perhaps, with a banquet ….
And suddenly, I knew I had to tell a story about a banquet prepared from the garden below. Set within the grounds of this castle. Nothing too fancy, but utilitarian and strong. Like my main character, a cook. A herbalist … a gardener. Someone who would lose herself for hours at a time in the chestnut forests beyond the walls of the castle …”
That’s quite a moment of inspiration – and we can see why you were compelled to write such a story. But considering you grew up in New South Wales, what drew you to set the Australian half of the book in Tasmania?
“The coastline of Tasmania is breathtaking. Clean, crisp and quite unlike any other other place in the world. My father is Tasmanian, so I grew up visiting as a child and it always fascinated me. My husband and his family are also Tasmanian and so when we are down for holidays we always seems to be by the water, sailing, swimming, fishing, diving, foraging for pipis and clams. Tasmanians are very connected to their environment. They are strong, outdoorsy, water and mountain-loving people who care very deeply about their environment and where their food comes from.
That passion is the perfect starting place for a book.”
And why did you decide to make your medieval France character a herbalist?
“The medieval France bit came about because as I toured around France, I found myself drawn to the history of the gardens. I’m interested in history of herbs and herbalism, and how plants can be used to heal. Gardens are also my happy place. You can tell a lot about a person, or a place/city/town/ by their gardens. And of course, the symbolism and metaphors around gardening are endless inspiration.
“I found myself starting to research about the herbs, and about medieval banquets. I love the beauty, symbolism and nostalgia of food-the way we connect it to place, family and friends. I read books on medieval housekeeping, recipes (many original recipes are in the book) and gardens and the themes and stories seems to just flow from there.”
Now, some may say that Tasmania is behind the times, but certainly not 500 years behind. So did you find it difficult to connect these two different time periods and stories to form a cohesive novel?
“Sometimes! The connectivity comes from the themes, really. If you try to contain a story to two parallels I worry it might be quite predictable. So, I use the themes of a medieval woman, contained within the walls of the chateau and garden and compare it with contemporary themes about the metaphorical walls young ambitious women find themselves typecast inside, and the ones they construct around themselves.
And of course the theme of food and nature, yes?
“The magic and wonder of the herbs and landscapes connects the stories. How plants and landscape feeds and inspires us, how they can heal. I think sometimes the world is moving so fast, and we are so busy going point to point (I'm guilty as charged!) that we forget to let a little of the whimsy and magic outside our doors inside.
“I try to capture that old-school idea of how plants can uplift us and create something special. I adore being in different landscapes, and I'm always peeking at gardens down lane ways and over fences when I travel. I just can't help myself. Plants and landscape really inspire me every day.”
Okay, let’s talk about Kirsty the writer now. Do you have a typical writing day or normal routine?
“I wish! In a perfect week, I try to write when the kids are at school three to four days a week, after I go for a walk and quick coffee. But sometimes life admin and other work just gets in the way.
“Mostly, I find time to squeeze the writing in when I can. When I first started I would do a lot of writing at night. But when it became clear I was going to finish The Midsummer Garden, I decided to treat it like a professional job and give myself the time and space to get it done properly. I cut out coffee dates and lunches with friends for a while (forgive me!). But writers need to come out of the cave and see people, so now I am making a big effort to go see movies and catch up with mates.
“My three kids play a lot of sport – so on a Sunday, for example, I will spend two hours writing beside a basketball court while my daughter trains. Weekdays, my son starts swimming training at 5am (so we get up at 4.20am to get there!) so I'll go to the gym for an hour and try not to fall off the treadmill or bike, before sometimes doing an hour with the laptop at the pool if I'm close to deadline.
“In a best-case scenario, I write during school hours and sometimes on weekends. But mostly I find I'm squeezing it in when I can. I'm aiming for that perfect, well-organised life but best laid plans and all …”
We hear ya! So finally, on the theme of travelling back in time, what writing advice would you give to your younger self?
- “Surprise yourself!
- Life will take you to unexpected places and sometimes it will feel a little like you are drifting out to sea while it seems like everyone around you is climbing ladders to success. But hold tight. Keep daydreaming! Stick to your passions and work really hard – and those experiences will tie themselves together in unexpected ways. Enjoy the process.
- When you want to write, don't expect inspiration and perfection to pour from your fingertips. Work hard to learn your craft. Writing is a legitimate profession (and a ‘hellava’ way to spend your days!)
- Get ready to rewrite.
- Seek feedback from people who know the craft, and be gracious … Always be gracious.
- Keep reading great books. They will inspire you and fill you up creatively.
- Do the work! Don't make excuses. Just focus on how you can make time to do the work.
- Lastly, it's natural when you are a great reader to feel that you will never be able to produce work as great as the writers you love. Stop that! Find your own voice, find your own story. When you hit that moment, when you find that sweet spot where you realise you have your own style, it's magic! Embrace that magic and just do the very best you can.
- Enjoy yourself! This is the best job in the world. Take a moment every now and again to remember that.
- When you leave the desk to go out, take off the ‘sportswear' and put on some red lipstick. Trust me, it will make you feel better!”