Sarah Salway, novelist and poet, has a passion for gardens and their histories. As former Canterbury Laureate she went on a journey around 26 gardens in Kent, digging up stories from the past and creating her own imaginative responses in the present. Digging up Paradise, published next week, is the result. She talks here about the particular pleasures of writing outdoors
PJ: These Kent gardens seem to have inspired in you all the writers you have been in your career, researcher/reporter, storyteller, poet. Which of the writers you are was most challenged by the project?
SS: That is so interesting. I don’t think I ever consciously separate off any of my different writing selves, maybe because they come from the same stem: a desire to question and to know a little more about the untold stories behind the surface. I know from my journalism that there is a certain tension I feel – an itch almost – when I realise that I’m getting close to a real story. I think this is why we refer to it as ‘sniffing out a story.’ It’s the same tension when I hear or find out a detail that won’t leave me alone until I have shaped it into a poem or story. I suppose it is reinforcement that, for me, writing is the way I make sense of my world, not THE world because that’s too big for me to even think about making sense of. Gardens allow a focus for so many different areas of life. When I was reading the book in proof, I was shocked to realise just how personal it is. I think that’s because my ‘censoring writing self’ was busy with the research and history. There’s a freedom there.
PJ: You research and report on each garden’s history, you evoke it in the present moment as you walk around it, finding telling details of horticulture and much else, and then you go on to challenge yourself to write a garden-specific poem or story at each location – was that nerve wracking, how did you go about it?
SS: No, not nerve wracking at all to write. But very nerve wracking to share with the garden owners or visitors! I didn’t want it to feel at all as if I was writing ‘THE’ poem for the garden but only my subjective response. That’s why the book offers writing prompts so that other people can similarly engage. But I was aware that – in the same way as ekphrastic writing works – I was riffing off someone else’s creativity. I spent a long time listening and looking.
Sometimes I walked into a garden and knew exactly what I wanted to write. So I would find a sheltered spot and sit down – if it wasn’t raining! – with my journal while it was fresh in my mind. The editing came later, but often I would go back to my first draft to check I hadn’t edited out the original seed.. Other times I wrote and wrote until I had the right tone. I tried to put the research behind me and write not from an idea but from an emotion. Luckily gardens are full of emotions!
PJ: During your laureateship you took writing groups into gardens – how does running a writing workshop outside compare to the usual indoor version?
SS: In my experience it has to be more flexible – which is both a blessing and a ton more work! This isn’t just because of the weather but because it is amazing how everybody will react differently to a particular space. Obviously you’ll want to work with that so it is a case of prompting and allowing, rather than directing.
For my radio play, A Shepherd in London, I researched into the Outdoor School Movement because there was a school on Clapham Common. I found photographs children in rows of beds having ‘sleep time’ under the trees, and that was fascinating. I am persuaded that there are benefits to learning outside, I am interested in how it seems to help concentration although that feels counter-instinctive. Working outside means there’s more awareness of natural rhythms as opposed to, say, writing under strip lights.
But then painting, say, has a tradition of working outside, and I know I often write outside myself. Certainly if I’m stuck, I know I’m not going to unblock myself by sitting at the computer. I need to remind myself that the world is outside, not just in my head!
PJ: Unfair question, I know but, out of the 26, do you have a favourite garden? Or a favourite detail within a garden?
SS: Very unfair! And already nearly everybody who has seen my list of gardens has told me about at least one other that should have been in there. That’s great though. I just reply that they should write themselves about that garden. I certainly don’t intend this book to be the definitive guide. It shows what a wealth we have in Kent.
I can’t pick just one, but I will always treasure the gentleness of St John’s Jerusalem, the majesty of Chilham Castle and the eccentricity of Great Comp. These are three gardens that people might not know as well but should definitely visit. Oh, and Marle Place has the most delicious cake!
PJ: Digging Up Paradise shows that a garden is a wonderful repository for stories – gardens are emotionally charged – perhaps this summer we should all get out more and dig for stories – what’s your hot tip for anyone going into a garden to write?
SS: Walk around first and just soak up all the details. Observe what is spiking your imagination – plants, colours, contours – and then sit on a bench and when you’re ready, start to write. I’d do this before reading the guidebook or filling yourself with ‘knowledge’. If you do this too early, the facts can muscle sensory impressions out of the way, and so your writing can lose some energy. But what I also found was how often those facts mirrored or contrasted with my first impressions and that definitely added another layer to my pieces. I also took lots and lots of photographs – as much for the act of looking closely as having a record.
PJ: Are we likely to see more garden themed stories in your fiction?
SS: Yes! I think gardens have always been there, but I’m working at the moment on a horror story set in a garden. As you mentioned they are emotionally charged, and I love the shadow side as well as the blossoms! Gardens are also very erotic and I think we miss a lot if we just spend time looking at plant labels. Just look at what Francis Dashwood did with West Wycombe Park…
PJ: What are you working on now?
SS: As well as the short story above, I am busy doing stuff around the launch of Digging Up Paradise. No hardship there. I have just spent the morning researching into the ‘ghost’ gardens of the Strand in London for a walk I am putting on for the Chelsea Fringe with the Old Map Man, Ken Titmuss. We are going to be introducing people to all the gardens that once were on the Strand - grand gardens, flower shows, and even a windowbox flower show. Ken has the 17th and 18th century maps, and I have found poems, letters and diary pieces that hopefully will bring it to life. It’s all fascinating – not least because of the traces the gardens have left behind them. You should come! It’s up on the Chelsea Fringe website.
Digging Up Paradise is published by Cultured Llama, you can see sample pages and pre-order a copy, here
Read the poem Sarah wrote at Derek Jarman's garden, here
Find out more about Sarah's writing in gardens, here