We’re thrilled to welcome Tiffani back to BtGS – this time to introduce her debut novel!
Threading the Labyrinth is your debut novel – congratulations! – but you also have a PhD in Creative Writing. Was Labyrinth your PhD project? Can you tell us a little about your experience of balancing creative writing with academic practice?
Thank you! I’m thrilled to have my debut coming out and to finally share long-form fiction with readers. Yes, Threading was my PhD project–it was the creative portion, paired with an academic essay that examined space and time in gardens (fictional and not). Doing a PhD–or any academic degree, really–in creative writing is interesting because it seems like it should be this split between “creative” and “academic”, but creative writing is academic. That’s not to say that I was able to instantly go from writing a chapter of the novel to writing a chapter of my analytical essay! (Ask my supervisor; I’m kind of crap at shifting gears like that!). But doing a creative writing degree means approaching creative writing from a different direction than if you are doing a literature degree.
I would write a rough draft and then edit it–over and over in some cases–and then examine what it was that I actually did: what elements I specifically worked on, where connections could be found between the research I did and the end product, how what I did connected to other work (the context it sits in) and where it branched out. I did use some theory (that scary word!) but I used it as a way to analyse my practice and process and product as the creator and not from an outside perspective. I used theories of space and time–the chronotope, polders, borders, the hortus conclusus, spatialization, and heterotopias–to investigate how gardens hold on to time. They’re TARDISes!
The best part though? The research! I got to go on “field studies” to, well, actual fields and gardens all over the country; I got to sit in the rare book room of the British Library and handle 16th century books; I went to the Chelsea Flower Show; I interviewed the head gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden; I watched a lot of Edwardian Farm/Victorian Farm/WW2 Farm and gardening history documentaries; I went to the William Morris Museum, the Imperial War Museum, the V&A, and any other museum I could get to; I read a zillion fantasy novels that were set in a garden (mostly kids’ books!); and took thousands of photographs. I ended up knowing a little bit about a lot of things, and so much of that ended up in the novel.
How did you come to be interested in gardens as a research topic and theme, and British gardening history in particular?
I grew up in the desert–in the American Southwest–and I always wanted a garden, a lush green space, like those I read about in books set here. Those gardens where everything grew, where it rained and there were flowers and dappled sunlight, and where history–places that didn’t exist in the garden–were fantastical to me. When I was a teenager I’d try to grow plants and they would just die because the climate was so very wrong. I even bought English gardening magazines and checked out English garden books form the library. English gardens were my Narnia. From childhood I loved any book and movie set in Britain and Ireland, from King Arthur to Jane Austen to (insert pretty much any Merchant Ivory film here).
So when I had the opportunity to do a PhD, I had to come up with a project. I love stories that follow a family from generation to generation. My original idea had to do with the generations living in a house and how the changes in architecture mirrored situations going on with the family. I can’t remember exactly how or when that changed to the garden surrounding the house, but there was something about how English gardens have very distinct fashions and how those styles go hand-in-hand with politics and social history–the changes are easier in a garden than with bricks and mortar–that made more sense to follow than architecture. I initially envisioned the family’s situation mirroring the philosophy of the garden style in each period, but that morphed soon enough when I realised that gardens are functional and the philosophy is sometimes what happens or is understood after. Gardens are living, they are used, and the people who work in them have a very different relationship with them than the people who study them from a distance of decades or centuries.
Luckily, as I was talking to a friend from the States who is a professor (Hi, Nettie!) she said, “Hey, you can go to the UK to do a degree” and that lit a fire in me. I mean, this is where English gardens live, and I was so lucky to be able to come here and study them in situ, and get a hold of the first gardening books written in English, see where Land Girls did their thing, look at original pieces of embroidered Elizabethan-era fabric, etc. I can geek out about this all day–I had better stop and move on to the next question!
Threading the Labyrinth traces the life (and afterlife?) of a garden across the centuries, and gorgeous botanical detail abounds. Is there a particular plant or flower that holds special meaning for you?
Oh gosh. I am a massive geek for blue things in nature, so any blue flowers make me stupidly happy. They just don’t seem like they should exist, like blue birds or blue fish. Part of that comes from a specific scene in the Merchant Ivory film Howard’s End, when Leonard Bast walks all night from London to the house and at one point he walks through a field of bluebells and the colour is like something from a Maxfield Parish painting and it just…ah! See, that is one of those connections I was talking about; that image from the film, that colour, ended up in the book.
I also have a special love for dianthus: pinks, carnations, sweet william. One story is that the word pink for the colour comes from the plant, which was called pink because the petal edges are “pinked”, or like little saw teeth. I don’t know if it’s true, but the smell of them, like clovey marshmallow, is one of my favourite things. Oscar Wilde’s carnations were back when carnations had a scent. And sweet william is one of the plants Thomas Fairchild used in 1717 to cross-pollinate species (the first person we know to do this in the Western world) Finally, peonies–big, fluffy pink floppy-headed peonies. Pink roses, too. There is just something so decadent about them, so ridiculously unashamedly feminine about them. And, I have to say, that I have a serious love for formal gardens. The geometry, the topiaries, the parterres de broderie that bring to mind baroque fashions, and I am a sucker for costume porn! I obviously can’t pick just one!
The episode you previously recorded with us, “Where are the tampons?” about the estrangement of women’s bodies in apocalyptic fiction is one of our most-listened to episodes! Have you seen any evidence of improving representation in the two years since recording it?
That’s a great question. Because of work the past couple of years editing the novel to ready it for publication, and my work as a lecturer, I haven’t had as much time to continue that research. What’s cool is that A.J. Fitzwater, who saw my original talk at Worldcon in Helsinki, wrote a story inspired by the research; “Logistics”, published by Clarkesworld right after we recorded that episode, is about a trans-man travelling the world after an apocalypse looking for shelter and sanitary goods.
There have been other fictional accounts that are starting to focus on the issues I talked about–I get emails or other announcements often from friends when they find someone menstruating in fiction! I’ve been working on a novel about this very thing, but now, with COVID-19 dominating the news, I am afraid that my apocalyptic novel (which I planned to finish the full first draft of in June at a writing retreat) won’t be what publishers are looking for in the next year or so. But hopefully non-apocalyptic books will continue to represent–more and more–our lived experiences in our bodies.
Pitch us Threading the Labyrinth! Why should we be reading it?
Threading the Labyrinth is The Children of Green Knowe or Tom’s Midnight Garden for grown-ups. It’s (mostly) about the women who work in the same garden over 400 years and the woman who has inherited it and discovers that it’s more than just a weed pit: it’s a seductress doing what it can to find someone to tend it and keep it. It’s about art and love and sadness and time, and how places absorb the echoes of those who walk upon them, and how you can see those spirits out of the corner of your eye.
Threading the Labyrinth is out now as an ebook from Unsung Stories with the paperback to follow in July.
An American ex-pat, Tiffani Angus is a Senior Lecturer in Publishing and the course leader for the MA Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK, as well as the General Director of the Anglia Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy. A Clarion (2009) graduate, she has published short fiction in several genres in a variety of anthologies.
Threading the Labyrinth, in its original form, was part of her PhD dissertation, paired with an analysis of time and space in fantasy gardens. Her research into gardening history and women’s bodies in apocalyptic fiction feed into her fiction. You can follow Tiffani online, on Twitter, Instagram and Goodreads.