Karen Hugg writes literary mysteries inspired by plants, and she blogs about her passion for gardening, traveling, and books at http://www.karenhugg.com. She’s a fellow MFA graduate of Goddard College and she lives in the Seattle area, where we sometimes meet for tea and a spirited conversation about books, published or not. Karen’s latest novel is The Forgetting Flower, a thriller with a unique premise: What if a flower’s scent could erase someone’s memory? Who would grow such a plant, who would harvest its flowers, who would buy them? And for what purpose? Karen’s stories usually feature plants that affect people in strange ways, but they always explore so much more about human nature.
The Forgetting Flower deals with family roots and memories that can be tinkered with, and even completely erased. Renia Baranczka is a Polish immigrant in Paris, and her break with her family back in Krakow was a painful one, in part because of her twin sister’s love for the plant she named the Violet Smoke, the forgetting flower. Renia’s good start in Paris comes to a halt when her good friend Alain is found dead. Did her flower have anything to do with Alain’s death? While she investigates, her past catches up with her when a blackmarket mobster starts pressuring her to sell him the blooms of the forgetting flower.
How did you first come to writing?
I came to writing through a love of reading. I was kind of a lonely child. My dad died when I was four and I didn’t have many friends. Also, my siblings were several years older than I. I hung out by myself a lot. So, when I discovered books, I discovered, in essence, a new life for myself. They offered entirely different worlds inside which I could escape. I found intact families, blossoming friendships, and compelling adventures. That changed me. So much so that somewhere around ten years old, I realized I could create my own worlds. That was terribly exciting to me and I’ve been writing ever since.
The Forgetting Flower has such a unique premise. How did you come up with the idea of a hybrid plant whose scent erases memory?
Thank you! Well, I worked as a professional gardener for some 15 years so I was well acquainted with plants. I was often advising clients on what plants to plant in their yards for fragrance, like spicy scents, sweet, citrus, smoky, etc. And I started thinking about what might happen if a plant existed whose scent was dangerous to smell. Not necessarily foul, but dangerous, as in anyone who walked by might be affected. How would that work? Who in the world would grow such a thing? And why?
The Forgetting Flower is a story that combines your passion for plants, your love of Paris, your affinity for Poland. Can you tell us about the origin of these three things and how you weaved them into your captivating thriller?
When I started writing the novel, I told myself that this endeavor was for me. I was going to create a psychological refuge for myself, a place I’d never tire of, inside where I’d always enjoy dreaming. So I incorporated my three passions. I loved plants and wanted to create the beauty and allure I felt for them on the page. Then, I’ve always loved everything French. When I worked in hi-tech many years ago, I had the amazing experience of living and working in Paris. It’s a city that still has my heart. And finally, my family’s Polish and I adopted three kids from Poland so being Polish is in my blood and my background. I know that experience well.
Many of your characters are Polish, and you wrote their parts in English. You have Polish roots, and I assume you know the language. Did you take into account the specific sound of Polish when writing your characters’ dialogue in English?
I was born into a Polish-American family and grew up in a very Polish neighborhood in Chicago. Though I’ve heard my mother, extended family, neighbors, and people in the community speak Polish all of my life, I don’t speak the language fluently. I know some and have studied it but have lost a lot. My mother never immersed me full on as a child because she wanted our family to integrate into American life and thought Polish might make me stand out.
I didn’t think too much about the sound of it when writing the characters’ dialogue though I’m very aware of how Polish relatives and friends who speak it as a first language often sound in English. The same with French. So, I just wove their speech patterns in a bit.
In The Forgetting Flower, one of your themes is memory. While the scent of the Violet Smoke erases memory, the scents of Paris send Renia down memory lane into her backstory with Estera. Alain wants to forget his heartbreak. Mobsters want to alter the course of justice by messing with people’s memories. Tell us about memory as a theme.
I think memory is interesting because people are manifestations of remembered experience. We modify our behavior based on what we’ve been through, both good and bad. It affects our outlook on life, how we cope, the choices we make, etc. And in thinking about that, I realized that people would pay good money to forget some traumatic or even just uncomfortable experiences that haunt them. And yes, in the story, just as in real life, every time Renia inhales a particular scent, it reminds her of a memory. And that string of her memories makes up the backstory about the estrangement between her and her sister.
What other themes do you gravitate toward as a writer?
One theme I realized I wrote about after I finished the novel was the chasm between rich and poor. In the book, Paris represents a safer life with more opportunities for Renia but what she has to do to maintain that life takes her down a dark road. And her boss, who is on the wealthy selfish side, doesn’t help matters. So, I think, and this is probably related to my working-class Polish background, that so many people are struggling, especially today, to have happy comfortable lives and nowadays it’s harder than ever. That’s another reason the book has several other immigrant characters. Paris is a wonderful mix of diversity. The city represents a better life for many people not just from Europe but around the world.
Renia and Estera are twins, and so are Uncle Feliks and Tata, but the twins in your story are very different from each other. It seems that the theme of unreliable memory is strengthened by the concept of two close people seeing the world so differently. I know you’re a plotter, so I assume Renia and Estera are twins for a good reason. Can you tell us about it?
I have a close friend who’s a twin and at one point, deep into our friendship she mentioned that she was always the shyer, uncertain one and her sister was always the outgoing, braver one. Knowing the two of them, who were both similar in personality, I was really surprised. That stuck in the back of my mind: two people raised by the same parents in the same location with almost the same face could be so vastly different. And that carried over into the novel. Renia and Estera are close, really best friends, and need each other for various reasons but they react to shared experiences differently. Also, they view the Violet Smoke plant very differently.
Renia is an immigrant, and she’s pretty lonely, especially after her friend Alain dies. You lived in Paris for a while. How did your expat experience influence your understanding of Renia as an immigrant?
When I lived in Paris, I was an American. Even though I could order food or ask directions in French and understand a lot of French in the office, I was still separated by my American-ness. I was part of the culture but not truly French. There were some awkward and funny moments around that. But my expat status didn’t matter too much as my French colleagues were some of the most loyal, loving people I’ve ever met. They folded me in like the temporary French citizen I was. I had great fun with them both in and out of the office. Of course, at the same time, I longed for my husband and pets and sometimes a good ole American experience like watching a basketball game or eating nachos or dashing out to a pharmacy on a Sunday. Stuff like that.
In terms of Renia, I knew she would have to be careful as an immigrant. And that impulse to draw her as such comes more from my personal background. Knowing Polish people from Poland. In America, and other Western countries, people can be welcoming but just as they’re welcoming, they can also be skeptical or nasty if they view your difference as threatening. Renia knows this. She’s careful about what she says and does, especially to particularly powerful people like her boss, the police, etc. She knows if she’s careless, she could lose her job or be deported or even imprisoned. Some readers have knocked her for being what they saw as wimpy but I don’t think she’s wimpy, she’s just quiet and cautious. As an immigrant, she has to be.
Your readers mention the fairytale allure of your novel. Was that something you planed to create, or did it emerge organically while you wrote and revised?
I’m happy people think of it in that way though I actually didn’t think of that as I wrote. I thought of the Violet Smoke as more of a scientific anomaly, a botanical rarity. A plant that could make you have temporary amnesia is not too far from what some plants actually do in real life. But if readers see that as magical and more fairytale like, I’m fine with it!
What are you working on now?
The Forgetting Flower is the first in a trilogy of stand-alone books set in Paris. Each of the three is about a botanical oddity and features some of the same characters. So, the next book, Harvesting the Sky, focuses on Renia’s botanist friend Andre, who discovers a white apple tree with healing powers in Kazakhstan. As he propagates the apple trees in Paris, a stranger keeps trying to break into and vandalize his greenhouse. He can’t figure out why but suspects it has to do with mistakes he made in his past.
Any interesting writing habits or writing rituals you could share? Especially things that have to do with gardening and the place of plants in your creative process.
My creative process really started churning along once I incorporated plants into my writing. I’d never thought plants were a valid thing to creatively write about. But I kept adoring them and working with them. When I allowed myself to bring their mysterious, alluring ways to the fictional page, I exploded with ideas. And I’m still dreaming up stories! So, I encourage writers to write about your passion, not necessarily what you know, but what you want to know. Then that passion will translate to the page and to readers.
What’s the greatest piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Richard Ford once told me that it didn’t take any special genius to write great books, just the will and hard work to do it. That made me think maybe I could do it too.
Do you have a writing partner or a writing community that supports and inspires you? Do you have beta readers you trust? Editors you like to work with?
Yes, I have a very supportive writing community, from online pals to workshop peers to old dear friends from work or college. Some are even recent fellow debut authors. I gained a lot of writer friends from my MFA program at Goddard College. Two are my beta readers. And yes, I have worked with an excellent book editor. Her name is Heather Lazare. She used to work at Big 5 publishing houses and is experienced enough to tell me what my novel needs, rather than how she would have written my book. So, I encourage other writers to get a tribe. They’re important. In fact, I wrote about them on my website, here.
What’s it like working with Magnolia Press?
Magnolia Press is a small press run by a small but talented savvy group of women. They are publishing wonderful books. Like any small press, resources are limited so I don’t have the huge publicity advantage that an author on a Big 5 publisher does. But that’s okay because my editor, in addition to being an amazing developmental editor, truly believes in me and adores this novel, which makes me very happy.
Do you have any advice for hopeful writers looking to become published authors?
My advice is to write what you’re excited about or wildly interested in, then edit until your fingers almost fall off, get feedback only from people you trust, and then put on an outfit of armor and begin querying. Writing a book is a long road and getting it published is even longer. Prepare for humiliation and rejection but revel in the words as a refuge. Believe in yourself. It can happen. It just might take longer than you expected, especially if you’re a parent. But you never know where your book might land and who might connect with it, so keep going.