Landscape is Destiny: A Chat about Home with Author Holly Ringland
It’s not a stretch to claim that Aussie author, Holly Ringland, is the current talk of the literary world. Her debut novel, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, was purchased by HarperCollins after a fierce bidding war and has been sold to twenty-one territories around the world. Now, it’s currently on the Aussie bestseller list. What has created such a buzz is Holly’s equal parts enchanting and heart wrenching tale of trauma, courage and belonging, which, excitingly for Wonderground readers, lyrically explores the Australian landscape in its many and varied incarnations, from the ocean, inland to farming country, and all the way to the central desert.
Holly is currently back on home soil doing a Lost Flowers tour around the country. We chat to her about all things home, the intricacies and evocations of the distinctive Australian landscape, and of course, native flowers.
When your main character, nine-year-old Alice, experiences a massive tragedy, she moves in with her only remaining family, her grandmother June who she didn’t know existed. June runs a native flower farm and introduces Alice to the language of flowers, a special form of communication passed down through the family’s generations, which in turn enables a traumatised Alice to speak the things she cannot say out loud. You created your own language of Australian native flowers for the novel (wow, by the way!) Floriography, which translates as the language of flowers, became very popular in Victorian England and is found in traditional cultures throughout the Middle East, Asia and parts of Europe. How did you undertake the process of attributing meaning to Australian native flowers, where none previously existed, if I’m not mistaken? Nobody, as far as I’m aware, of European descent, has made up an emotive, sentimental language of Australian native flowers. Of course Indigenous Australians for thousands of years have had medicinal, and in those ways, storytelling, purposes for our flora. So all of our native flowers had an infinite number of uses and meanings long before we arrived, and that was something I really wanted to acknowledge in the book, and give its own power, as it should have. Including many different cultures in the story felt like an essential responsibility to me.
I discovered floriography when I was researching the relationship between writing trauma and fiction, and then I was researching childhood trauma and selective muteness, which led me into researching voice, and then all of a sudden I’d stumbled across the language of flowers.”
It was this real source of light and joy, to engage in my imagination wholly to make this up and to spend ages with books and photos and Googling compared to writing the very necessary, harrowing parts of the book that nearly killed me. Some flowers have got such beautiful names and they’re so unique and weird and stunning in their own appearance, but not all! I would be flicking through an Australian wildflower book and find a really beautiful looking flower but then its name is like ‘pig face wort root’, and you know, that really breaks the vibe [laughs] so I couldn’t have it in the novel. Attributing meaning was also inspired by the real metaphoric value of the habits of the flowers. For example, the Sturt’s Desert Pea, which means ‘have courage, take heart’ in the novel, are really fickle to propagate in a non-natural habitat, but once they are established, are really hardy, and I thought, ‘well doesn’t that feel like courage.’ And then I had books of the Victorian language of flowers so I would riff off some of those meanings to keep that Victorian phrasing, like ‘I wound to heal’ for Cootamundra Wattle. It was really driven by gut instinct, because if I started to second guess myself, I would’ve spent five years figuring it out.
We follow Alice Hart as she is shifted between homes. The first, as a young child with her parents, living near the ocean. The second, with her grandmother, on the inland flower farm, named Thornfield. Here, when she first discovers the river on her grandmother’s property, Alice considers how one can belong in some strange way to the environment: “… the thought that she was somehow a part of this place filled a small space inside her with warmth.” Alice’s sense of self is so connected to the geographical landscape surrounding her. Can you talk to me about your own sense, as well as Alice’s, of what home can mean, and how home relates to the natural world surrounding it?
To Alice, finding a way to connect with the landscape around her when she feels so adrift from a literal sense of home, finding a way to connect to wherever she is, is how she creates her own sense of belonging.”
She’s removed from her mum and her dad, who are her home, for better and worse, and Toby, her dog, and therefore any sense of self she had at the important age of nine. When she goes to Thornfield, she’s told she’s with family, but what does that mean when there’s no roots laid down there for her to feel connected to?
I really enjoyed writing those scenes where she goes to the river for the first time because the river became that one thing that allowed her to begin cultivating a sense of home… that beautiful childlike idea that she could get into the river and somehow literally float home. And then later in her 20s, she leaves the flower farm for the desert, and she deliberately wants to get away from water, she wants to get away from the river, she wants to get away from the ocean, so she goes inland. And then she has this moment when she discovers the desert is in fact an old inland sea. There’s this constant theme of finding out where she belongs through the natural landscape. I think we all need to know where we belong, and when we don’t know, whether we’re conscious of it or not, we look for ways to find home, and sometimes we look for it in the wrong places; in people.
You wrote the entire first draft of Lost Flowers from Manchester, where you live most of the time. What was it like writing so evocatively about your homeland, Australia, while looking out the window to the snow and chill of the UK? Did you have to conjure your own memories of the Australian landscape? This feeds into how my sense of home is impacted by the natural environment because I grew up by the coast, when the Gold Coast was sleepy. My high school was surrounded by gum trees and bushland which is now all town houses. The Gold Coast highway was just a two-lane highway by the sea. So that sense of vastness was a part of my growing up, whether I was in my backyard or by the sea. Going to visit granny was a six-hour drive through Gladstone and Gympie so I would just sit in the car staring at hours of countryside, at arid bushland, and that was always input, it was feeding in all the time. And then living in the central desert in my twenties [where Holly worked for four years in a remote indigenous community] as such a water baby, not being able to understand why I felt so at home there, until I realised that the vastness of looking out over the land was like the vastness of looking out over 180 degrees of the Pacific.
While writing this book from Manchester, the way I would access where I needed to be in my mind when my body was so far away from these landscapes was totally sensory. I would burn eucalyptus and sandalwood oil in my burner; and I chose the room in my house that I write in because it has a window view and Manchester is red brick city, and when the light hits the red bricks a certain way, they are made of iron ore sandstone, so they throw the same colours as the desert.
I guess I just really used my senses to bring back memory and imagination, and I had tactile things I could pick up, like desert oak seed pods from the territory that I have on my desk and I’d press them into my hands. Through my senses I could safely access landscapes that I’d left behind.”
Then, when I’d finish my work for the day, I’d go out into gothic industrial architecture. When I craved being able to feel the wildness of our landscapes, the Yorkshire Moors are an hour away from our front door and I’d go walking in the wild, wooly, windy elements, and the difference and yet familiarity of the feeling of that natural landscape was a real connection to home.
You include a quote by Alice Hoffman in the novel – ‘Landscape is destiny.’ It’s beautiful. What does it mean to you? I still love thinking about what that quote means. When I was twenty-three, I was living in Adelaide, I was poor, I had no family there, I wandered into a library and I picked up a book called At Risk by Alice Hoffman, who I hadn’t heard of. I think I read it in a day, and I was just so in love with the storytelling. Six years later, by the time I moved to England, I had grown a collection of Alice Hoffman novels. I sacrificed warm clothes in my suitcase to make sure I was able to bring my Alice Hoffman books with me. And in 2009, I sent Alice Hoffman a message via Facebook, never thinking for a second that anybody real would be on the end, and I just totally fangirled and poured my heart out to her. I told her, ‘I’m in England, and I’m giving this writing thing a crack, it’s all I ever wanted to do since I was three…I described what was around me, my dingy student accommodation…And she wrote back. She was so kind and in her very first reply, she said, I feel like you have found the place you are meant to be and have found the story you are meant to tell, and then wrote, ‘Landscape is destiny,’ and it has stayed with me for years. We’ve been writing to each other for nine years now and she has been so encouraging and generous. I wrote asking if I could use her quote as an epigraph in the novel and it’s so relevant to Alice Hart’s story. It just felt so gorgeous to be able to include it in the book.