Mr. Ripley’s Enchanted Books: Author Interview with Ann-Marie Howell - The Garden of Lost Secrets

We have been spoilt for choice this month with so many fantastic children's books having been published. One of them is A. M. Howell's  - The Garden of Lost Secrets - which was published on the 13th June 2019 by Usborne Publishing. This is a magical middle-grade mystery and a book you will certainly want to explore and escape into. I thought it was a great opportunity to find out more about this book and get to know the debut author a little more. Hopefully, this Q&A style interview will pique your interest and make you want to pick up a copy very soon. Perhaps you could read it whilst hiding out in your own magical back garden. Please remember to follow the author on Twitter: @AMHowellwrites or visit her website: Thanks for reading and have a great day. 

The Garden of Lost Secrets is your first book, what is it about and why should we read it? 
The Garden of Lost Secrets is a historical mystery set in a real walled kitchen garden within the grand country estate of Ickworth Park in Suffolk, now managed by the National Trust. It’s centred around Clara who goes to stay with her aunt and uncle, who work on the estate, while her father recovers from gas poisoning during WW1. There are lots of strange goings on in the book – a locked door and a hidden key, a strange boy who appears in the walled gardens of the country house at night, and a scheming pineapple thief! I hope that anyone who likes multi-layered stories and unravelling secrets and mysteries will find this an enjoyable read. 

Every character has a secret to tell, especially Clara the main character of the story, so what would her secret be? 
Secrets are a key theme running through the book, and Clara brings with her a big secret from home when she goes to stay with her aunt and uncle, one she keeps hidden in the pockets of her apron. It’s about her brother who is away fighting in the war, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what it is as I don’t want to spoil any surprises! 

What makes a magical garden? 
For me, a magical garden is anywhere green I can sit in peace and quiet with a good book and a cup of tea with only the sounds of rustling leaves to keep me company. My own garden is very small and new and I’m working hard on making it green and magical with lots of different plants and shrubs, and pots with edible things like strawberries, raspberries, and tomatoes, apples and pears.

What research did you do for this book? 
I did do a lot of research, but much of it involved visiting places rather than reading! I visited the servants’ quarters of Ickworth House to find out what it would have been like to work ‘downstairs’ in a grand country house. The head gardener of Ickworth was also very generous with his time and shared his knowledge of how the gardens used to look and work. I also visited the Cambridge Botanical Gardens to sit in the hothouses so I could write authentic scenes when Clara and Will are staking out the hothouses trying to catch the pineapple thief. 

What songs does this book make you think of? 
I have to admit that sometimes I had the orchestral theme tune of Downton Abbey running through my head when I was writing, a programme I absolutely love! 

What do you think of the book cover? How well does it convey what the book is about? 
I absolutely adore the book cover! It was designed by Kath Millichope at Usborne and illustrated by the very talented Amy Grimes. I love seeing Clara through the keyhole at night which is surrounded by mandarins and blossom – which is very significant to the story. It’s almost as if we are seeing Clara from inside one of the hothouses which is just perfect, as this is where she spends a lot of time hunting for the thief. 

You were selected to take part in a Curtis Brown Creative Writing course for Children, what did you learn that helped you write this book? 
The course was excellent in that every few weeks I would be sent my fifteen course mates’ views on the latest 3000 words I had written. At first it was a bit overwhelming as the comments were all so varied, but I started looking for areas where a few people had given the same feedback and it all clicked into place and made me focus on the parts that needed changing. I had some friends and family, and of course my lovely agent, read early drafts of this book and because of this experience I was able to much more quickly spot problem areas which most people agreed needed addressing. 

You're hosting a literary dinner party, which authors/illustrators/famous people would you invite and why? 
This is a tough question! I would definitely invite Enid Blyton, as I used to devour her books when I was young, particularly The Famous Five and Adventure series. I would also invite Louisa May Alcott to have a chat about Little Women, which is one of my favourite books, and ask her why she decided to let Laurie marry Amy and not Jo! There would also be a place at the table for Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake and present-day authors Emma Carroll and Lucy Strange, as I haven’t met them yet and would love to sit down and have a good natter about historical fiction and children’s literature today.