Message From The Author
The Lady’s Slipper orchid was declared extinct in Britain in 1917.
Then in 1930, a single plant was discovered in a remote location. Botanists were thrilled, however the privately-owned site is very fragile and viewing by the general public is strictly forbidden. Although common in other parts of the world, in England the plant and its habitat are protected by law.
Quite by chance I came across the guard from Natural England in his big white tent whilst out on a walk with a friend. Curious as to why anyone was going to so much trouble over a wild flower, we went to look - and I was stunned by the flower’s beauty and strangeness. The fact that it was almost lost to us was moving, and it was this experience that inspired the novel.
Though actually it began as a poem. At the time I was studying for an MA in Creative Writing working on a collection of poems, so my initial response was to create a poem. Whilst researching I found that the orchid was first recorded in England in 1640 and was rare even then. Having been a scenographer and costume designer for twenty years a woman in 17th century dress sprang to mind – she was gazing at the flower, just as I had myself. The woman, who became Alice Ibbetson in the book, grew in my imagination and would not go away. I began to write her story. I looked into the 17th century and found that the social and religious turmoil of that era would provide a perfect backdrop. I liked the dramatic potential of setting a story just after the English Civil War, when the English had been fighting over their own land, a land symbolized by the lady’s-slipper in the book.
I worked feverishly on the novel when I should really have been working on my poetry collection. I became engrossed in the story, and the more research I did, the more the characters grew. I wrote as if watching a play or a film unfold in my head. It struck me later that this is exactly the reverse of what I used to do for a living, translating text or scripts into images for film. Now I was taking images and putting them into words. This makes it sound easy, but there was a lot of re-writing when I felt the story was going off-track. I am a Virgo, so I am quite picky over details!
When I finished the MA I had written two thirds of the novel, but carried on to finish it thanks to the pressure of friends who read the early chapters and said they wanted to know what happened next! I was further encouraged when it was shortlisted for the Impress Prize for Fiction, and although it did not win, that gave me the courage to send it to an agent.
My jubilation was short-lived though as it came back from publishers with rejection after rejection. The difficult thing was that each editor said I could write, but then each had a different reason for rejecting it! I was deflated, but my agent was amazingly encouraging and suggested I should shelve it and start another. And I did start another, because by that time I was hooked on writing and couldn’t wait to tell another story. At the same time I thought I should take the editors’ comments seriously so I took all the different little pieces of advice from the rejections and worked more on The Lady’s Slipper – even though it was supposed to be sitting on the shelf.
I came across Macmillan New Writing on-line and was surprised to find they accept unsolicited manuscripts from all over the world. And even better – by email. I had nothing to lose, so I sent the manuscript off, and then forgot all about it. When the editor rang me to tell me they wanted to publish I thought he was trying to sell me something and nearly put the phone down! After I recovered from the shock and got to have a proper conversation with him it was such a thrill – I think those sort of moments stick in the memory.
The real-life story of the English orchid has moved on during the long time it takes for a book to actually appear on the shelves. Scientists at Kew Gardens have succeeded in cloning more plants from the original plant. The seeds are first germinated in petrie dishes and then grown on into seedlings. The first transplanted specimens have now been placed in carefully protected habitats. And by some strange coincidence they flowered in my local nature reserve on the very weekend that the hardback came out in the UK!
I was delighted when St Martin’s Press decided to bring out a Reading Group edition for US readers as it gave me the chance to share some historical background to the book and to talk about some of the themes. And my second book – a companion volume to The Lady’s Slipper - is now finished, and I’m happy to say will also be published by Pan Macmillan and St Martin’s Press.
You can find out more on my website www.deborahswift.co.uk
- Deborah Swift
Read Book Review ›