A Conversation with International Best-Selling Author Holly Ringland
By Gabby Etzel and Cathleen Freedman
From two different countries and time zones, we chatted with best-selling Australian author Holly Ringland about her career, upcoming Amazon TV series adaptation, and, of course, her novel The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart. “Charmed'' is an understatement. It felt like meeting a soul sister over a computer screen. Cathleen and Gabby are huge fans of Holly Ringland’s work and Holly Ringland herself. It’s an honor to share the conversation we had with her, with you.
Cathleen Freedman (CF): Tell us about your upbringing and how writing fits into that.
Holly Ringland (HR): My mom taught me to read from around 18 months old. I grew up in her garden. She had a pot plant garden in the house, my first house that I ever lived in after I was born. Being on the Queensland coast, which is kind of like Florida weather. It's humid, it's hot, and it doesn't have distinct seasons. For me as a kid growing up there, the winter [elsewhere] over the whole world meant, “Oh my God, I've got to put socks on. Like, what is this?” That's the Queensland temperament! I was constantly barefoot, I was in mum's garden, and in the beginning of Alice Hart's life, where her mom Agnes puts words all over the house so Ellis begins to associate that literacy with objects and draw them together in her world– That's exactly what my mom did. That was pulled straight from my own life. By the time I was three, one of the greatest gifts that my mum has given me is that I could read. We were reading a very well-known children's collection of Australian Bush fairy tales, written by a woman named May Gibbs, and we kind of grow up with them here. [They’re] called Snuggle Pot and Cuddlepie.
CF: We’re adding it to our reading list.
Gabby Etzel (GE): We absolutely are.
HR: I think the reason why it strikes so many of us in our childhoods is that Snugglepot and Cuddle Pie are babies from Eucalyptus gum trees. European Australia is exactly that. We grow up with Enid Blyton fairy tales, with Germanic fairy tales, with American fairy tales. But the thing about Snugglepot and Cuddlepie is it's about eucalyptus gumnuts and features illustrations of kookaburras, which are like these wildly raucous birds that are native to Australia, and the flora and fauna that we have here. So we recognize the world that we live in, in the books that we’re reading. That was a profound thing for me. Mom and I were reading Snugglepot and CuddlePie, and at three, I said to Mom, “I want to do this. I'm going to do this.” So mom then explained to me what an “author” was. The one thing throughout my life that has never changed is that from this time when it was just me and mom reading books in the garden. It kind of sounds lofty and idyllic, and I suppose it is, but in a grounded way. This is the one thing that I could always come back to through my childhood through my teens when I was writing like pastiche Baywatch meets River Phoenix movies. Writing has been a part of me since I can remember remembering.I grew up in these landscapes that fed that first story. I grew up a block from the ocean, in this humid, warm climate where I was outdoors all year. The natural world and writing really went together.
GE: We were actually going to ask you next, but you've already touched on this a little bit. Through simply reading your work or even looking at the show Back to Nature, it is very clear that you have an otherworldly connection with nature. How would you say that that's shaped not only your creative process, but also you as a person?
HR: I think something that I keep learning is that when we are disconnected from the natural world, we will find that we're disconnected from ourselves. The reason for that being that somewhere in the last few centuries, industrial revolution, the evolution of patriarchal science, humans and emotions and senses were cut off from the natural world. It was all about progress and observation and what could be proved. This is what indigenous cultures around the world have known since the beginning of time. We are a part of nature as much as a tree is a part of the natural world and that somewhere in our Western psychology, we consider ourselves separate, too… And also dominant of. I love what Oliver Sacks used to do, before he passed away. He used to write about nature being his religion, nature being his medicine, and again, not in a lofty way. With his neuroscientist background, he would talk about how he would prescribe green space and green time for his patients. He would map the psychological difference in people integrating sitting with a huge tree in a city or going into a beautiful park without any tech in front of them. I consider myself really lucky that I grew up where I did. I didn't grow up going to church. We weren't a religious observing family. But every Sunday, we were hiking in the mountains, that was, you know, that day of rest that sacred day, as a kid, I got piled in the car, and we would go and do 20 Kilometer hikes. I think when you are lucky enough to have that integrated into your life, from a young age, like reading, it's a gift that you take with you. But that's also not to say that, if it's not something you grow up with, that you can't experience your own sense of “Green Medicine,” just by noticing nature.
HR: Has anxiety ever been what we know it to be now? I mean, I can't open my phone without feeling like I'm going up in flames. The counterbalance to that is going to the sea, going to a tree, whether I'm in a city or in a natural space, going somewhere where I can hear birds sing. It's this beautiful phrase of being a part of the more than human world. That's what really affects me in managing my own mental health and also, characters in my novel. [They] are places. Nature is a character in the things that I write.
CF: I don't know if you know, but we're doing this from New York City, which is the “concrete jungle.” I think that's particularly relevant for us.
HR: I always think about Central Park and what a haven it is for so many people. [In Australia] we grow up on a ton of American movies, and I was a teen in the 90s, so I grew up on every 80s and 90s show in New York. Oh my god, Felicity! Like, how many times can I rewatch Felicity and pretend that I'm going to NYU? The first time that I got to visit was at the beginning of 2019, and I had always wanted to go to Central Park because it is a wonderland in the middle of a concrete jungle. But what I didn't fully understand is how you could really lose yourself in there. You could almost forget that you are just surrounded by that rat race.
"Felicity" Pilot (1998)
GE: We actually go to school at Fordham - Lincoln Center, so we're a block away from the central entrance to Central Park. I go fairly often, but every time it's something new. It never fails to catch me off guard.
HR: I’m really grateful to know that you guys are so close, especially to get away from the madness of dorms and dorm life. I haven't been to college in the States, but I went and stayed for a month with one of my best friends years ago. She was at UCSB… that place was a zoo! That was wild. I was like, “I'm just gonna leave the debauchery for five minutes and just go to the sea.”
CF: Well, kind of building off of that, we would love to hear more about your formal creative writing, training and maybe even contrast that with the training you've accumulated just by existing and being in this beautiful world.
HR: It's such an important question because whenever I have the privilege of doing an interview, I still can't believe some days that I'm published. So whenever I do an interview, I can't help but think about before I was published, when I had this thing I knew about myself that was kind of oppressed and repressed in me and I wasn't doing it and I didn't know how to do it. I'm always so conscious of wanting to give the answer that a younger-unpublished me would have found really helpful. I like to be as honest as I can. Up until about 12 years ago, I've lived a lot of my life with male-perpetrated violence and surviving the post traumatic stress and the cycles of being in it, being out of it, being in it, being out of it. After I left what I decided would be the absolute last time that a man would be able to cause violence to me, I could not fathom how to start my life again. The only thing I could come back to was the three-year-old, the dream, and this stone that was sitting on my chest of a thing that I knew about myself. It wasn't getting any honoring or airtime because I have always written in fits and spurts. But as anybody who has experienced grief or trauma, sometimes just the act of just getting up every day and trying to show the world that you're all good, in an effort to try and show yourself that you're all good, that just takes everything that you've got. Trying to ask your brain to create, in my personal experience, you have no juice left to do the thing that was kind of knocking on your chest constantly and asking for airtime. When I left the last relationship, as I said, I couldn't think of turning to anything else other than this thing that I knew about myself, which was that I was 29. I didn't have a mortgage. I wasn't married. I had nothing binding me to geography to a place. So I quit my career, I sold anything that I could sell to add to my life savings, and I applied to go to school at the University of Manchester in England to do my Masters in Creative Writing.
HR: I did not do that because I thought going to university would make me a novelist. But [rather] because I was too wobbly to be without structure. I needed the validation. I needed help with focus. I couldn't turn up in another country and just rent an apartment, get a part time job, and sort of declare to the world and myself, “I'm going to be a writer.” I knew I needed anchoring, and the MA at the University of Manchester was that anchor to me. It is such a privilege to be able to get a tertiary education, to be able to go to university. It shouldn't be a privilege, but it is. I was in such an incredibly privileged position to do that and to have the life savings and to be able to travel.
HR: But at the same time, doing that master's in Creative Writing did not make me the novelist that wrote The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart. It gave me experience, it gave me life experience, and it gave me the experience of what it's like to study writing at school. And for that, I'm incredibly grateful. But I was almost more lost after I'd done my MA than I was before I began in terms of who I was as a writer. I thought I was going to go to school, and someone would teach me how to write a novel. What happened was I went to school and studied mainly old, dead white dudes who'd written novels. That didn't help me get any closer to opening up this story that was burning in my chest. But experiences are cumulative. So maybe I wouldn't have had the same determination that I had to really go after finding my voice that I did, if I hadn't been so frustrated by not getting what I hoped to get out of going to school. It's all interconnected, I guess.
HR: But I feel like I learned more from reading the women that I love on my bookshelves than I did from studying writing at school. But I say that again, with the full awareness that… Can you separate an experience in hindsight after you've had the experience? I don't know. It just terrified me that after I graduated, I thought, “Oh, God, I'm no closer to knowing how to write a book than I was.” Before I started though, I had to really commit to finding my voice on my own with the evolution that being overseas and being at school and starting my life again had also given me, and that's powerful.
GE: It's a bit like the Wizard of Oz, you know. It was in you the whole time.
HR: Gabby, it's so funny that you say that. I’ve got goosebumps. I've just written a scene where two characters are having a conversation about my main character in my second novel, and one of them says to the other–she's having her Dorothy moment– where Glinda is sort of saying, “It was in you all the time.” And the scarecrow is like, “Why didn't you tell her?” And Glinda says, “Because she never would have believed me. She had to go and learn it for herself….” I’m covered in goosebumps!
Everybody reels from this moment!
GE: Along those same lines. I absolutely love how you describe fiction as emotional truth. What were some emotional truths that you stumbled across while you were writing The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart?
HR: That is such a beautiful question. You guys ask the best questions.
Gabby and Cathleen are flattered!
HR: I graduated in 2011, and I didn't start writing Lost Flowers until three-and-a-half years later. So that was a long time of bumbling around. It felt like I was bumbling around, trying to find my traction. One of the things that helped me find my footing was an American novelist who's a dear friend, Kate Gray. We met at a storytelling conference. Lost Flowers was unwritten, but we were talking about our stories. And she said to me, “Have you heard of Tom Spanbauer?” And I said, “No.” “He is a Pacific Northwest novelist and writing teacher,” Kate said to me, “I want you to look up what he says about fiction and truth.”
HR: The quote truly transformed my writing life. I had it stuck on my wall. Tom Spanbauer talks about dangerous writing, which is the act of the writer going into the sore place that we have inside all of us, and drawing fiction from there because fiction that comes from the sore place is fiction that's alive. So that started to set something on fire in my mind. And then I read this quote that Kate had been talking about fiction and truth. Tom Spandau says, “Dangerous writing is the act of using fiction as the lie, to tell the truth, truest.” That knocked me out of my pants. Absolutely blew me away. And when I started to embrace that, everything that I had kept pushed down in my body, from here down, started to just rebel. This story was coming, no matter what, because it's the story that I had never owned. You know beloved Brené Brown, like your national treasure Brené Brown?
CF: She's actually from Houston, where I'm from, so I have some Brené Brown stories.
HR: Practically family! A lot of her work resonates with all of us because it's about being human. One of the earliest things that she said was, “If you don't own your story, it will own you.” My story of just living in silence about the men that I have lived with lived. It stayed here.
*Holly points to her chest.
HR: And I was carrying that around. We all get picked on by somebody in the world for something about our true selves. The things that I got picked on was being sensitive, being emotional. One of my high school boyfriend's favorite criticisms of me was “You're so emotional. You're always in Hollyland. Just come back to reality.” 25 years later, I'm like, “Yes, thank you. It’s a good place to be. You might like to try it, you never will.”
HR: To me writing Lost Flowers, just purely personally was a reckoning of telling the truth of my experiences, through Alice Hart’s story of what it's like to have a big imagination and emotions that feel like they're going to swallow you whole and what it's like to live with unspoken trauma, casting this long shadow on your life, and how beautiful life can be when we ask for help, when we allow people to love us, and that we can be more than what people have done to us. So those are the emotional truths that I discovered.
HR: And I don't think I was always successful. But it was a really fine line writing this novel between reflecting on my traumatic experiences in life and reliving them. I had to do a lot of present-making meditations, and I think one of the helpful things was that I wrote the first draft in Manchester, England, which I see now as the most beautiful way of writing myself home. I didn't know how I would ever come home to Australia after I left, and after it was so helpful because I would write about the flower farm. I would write about Thornfield, I would write about the cane fields in the sea, I would write about the desert, and then I would close my laptop. [There is] My beautiful partner, Sam, who I've been with for twelve years. We met in Manchester. I went there not wanting one heterosexual man to look at me, and he was the circuit breaker. He is the kindest man on feet. I met him on my fourth day in England! He just smiled at me and was this support human. He would come home from work and look at me and be like, “Let's go for a walk outside in the world so that you remember where you are.” It was a lot of walking that line between reliving and reflecting to let that emotional truth breathe on the page. Neither of my parents have died in a house fire. I've never had the joy of living on a flower farm…. Aside from the last three weeks where I've been on set at the actual Thornfield…
CF and GE: Oh, my gosh!
HR: *sunglasses emoji* Oh, yeah. But the story is from under my skin. It's my heart and soul on the paper.
GE: You have been very open about how you have had to delve into this trauma to be able to write this story. Once you faced it head-on, would you say that there was sort of instant catharsis? Or would you say that it got worse before it got better?
HR: Definitely the latter because there was a catharsis while I was writing. I felt like I was letting something really burdensome out of my body. It was painful catharsis. It was like, constantly like spitting splinters. Great to get it out, but, God, they hurt coming up. That was a kind of short-lived catharsis because then everything that I wanted, in terms of “I want to be a writer” started to happen. And for that to happen, people had to read what I'd written. So that was a new level of hell that I did not that I did not know! With the dream coming true, I got an agent. I hoped one publisher in Australia would just think it wasn't a piece of shit, and to my incredulous disbelief, the book went to auction. I had the choice of which publisher in Australia would publish it. And then publishers around the world started to make offers! It was the most extreme joy that I could not get my head around, and with that joy, came very quickly behind the shadow of fear and grief.
HR: It'll be five years in March 2022 since the book came out. I had never said the words “male perpetrated violence” before I went on the book tour. So thank God for our girlfriends and thank God for the women in our life because they helped me have a sense of humor about it. One of them, Brooke, said, just to help me dismantle things with a sense of humor, said, “Just want to recap that we've gone 30 years of being alive without ever saying the words “male perpetrated violence” and now we're going on a national tour of Australia where we're dropping it like 20 times a day, and people in the audience are crying and hugging you, and we're just saying “male perpetrated violence all over the place!” A sense of humor never goes astray, and it helped me to really get perspective. Writing the book was one thing and then publicly stepping up behind it was really like stripping myself. You have nowhere to hide that fear. It's my face. It's my name. It's my life. And now, five years on, I think the catharsis is… that story doesn't own me anymore. I own it. And that's the power. That's what I feel. Trauma I will need to keep managing I expect for many years, if not the rest of my life, because it changes our brains so dramatically. But that story doesn't live below. It's out in the world, in the hearts of people who give Alice shelter in their bodies and on their bookshelves. I don't know any feeling like it. It's gratitude to my boots.
CF: Well, you have me in Cathleen Land. I’m wiping away tears.
GE: A lot of emotion in this room as you were talking.
CF: You've touched on this, but how did the narrative story kind of come to be when you started thinking about writing the story?
HR: I had this subliminal knowing that there was something close to the bone that I wasn't writing. I did not know that that was a story about a girl named Alice Hart, and I didn't know the trajectory of the story. I just knew there was something that I wasn't writing, and it was really close to the source and really, physically, embodied in my body. I had been doing other writing, and any of us who write and I think as readers, you can tell when someone writes something at arm's length. You can tell when someone writes something from a cracked open ribcage. I knew that like I was writing here [at arm’s length], but I wasn't writing here [from within]. That crack didn't come because I couldn't find the courage to open myself that way to write the story.
HR: That courage didn't come until 2014. A beloved family member died really quickly from cancer, and I had never seen somebody die. I hadn't even been with our beloved family dogs when they'd passed, I'd been elsewhere in the country. But I was with this family member when they died in hospital. As anybody who's had this experience knows, the profundity between a breath and then the next one doesn't come… it changed my insides. In the wake of the death and in the bereavement I was experiencing, it stirred up all the post-traumatic stress that I worked hard to keep at bay. Grief and trauma often do that to each other. I was so sick of constantly feeling like I couldn’t take a deep breath. Fear, like a corset, restricted my lungs and my airflow. I suppose in the clarity that life and death really gives us, I just saw the fear that I’d been living in for the boring, reductive, useless thing that it was. I mean, when we are driven by fear, it’s coming from the parts of our brains that are trying to keep us safe. So, I can have compassion for fear in that way because our brain is just trying to protect us from risk. But when it gets mutant, it’s not just protecting us from risk. We stop living and taking chances, and we start existing. In the madness of my grief, Sam was at work, and I was at home alone in my writing office. I was just at like a hair-pulling, screaming point with myself where grief has just gotten you by the jugular. You’re open, you’re raw.
HR: I just thought, “What would happen if”– language warning– “What would happen if you just fucking tried?” Like, just fucking try, Holly. You know, ten minutes, don’t listen to the beastly voices that tell you what you are not worth. TRY and come from a place of joy and possibility and writing and stories of what you love, just fucking try!” I had done everything to prepare for being a writer. I had the Moleskine, I had the fountain pen. I open my Moleskine, and I take the cap off my pen, and I’ve given myself this war cry, and I just tried to flood my mind with the memory of being a kid who loved stories and loved to make stuff up and the joy that I got when I used to write when I was young. You guys, I had the fountain pen, and I was shaking, and I watched myself write into the Moleskine:
"In the weatherboard house at the end of the lane, nine-year-old Alice Hart sat at her desk by the window and dreamed of ways to set her father on fire."
HR: And I dropped my pen, and I sat back and I thought, “Oh my god, that feels like something. That… Oh, I think something’s just happened.” That’s when Alice had arrived.
HR: I thought about how to tell her story. She’s nine, she’s a dreamer, and she’s trying to think of a way to set her dad on fire so she can cleanse him and he can rise like a phoenix. Over the coming months, I thought about one of the most powerful narrative structures I knew of from when I was a teenager, and it was following Jane Eyre from when she was a child, right through to why it’s so powerful at the end when she says, “And reader, I married him.” And it’s because we had known her and loved her since she was a scrappy little girl and I thought, “Well, Alice, y’know, hitch a wagon to the Brontës. That’s what we’re doing.” So, living in Manchester, I was an hour from the Brontës’ house. I would drive to the Moors, and I would go and sit with the ghosts of the Brontë sisters. I would visit Emily’s grave and take her flowers, and I would ask for courage, and I would talk about Catherine and Heathcliff because that’s where Alice is headed, because theirs is not a love story. That is the greatest psychological mutation revenge story ever told. And I sat with Jane and Charlotte, and I just thought to myself, “I’m just going to stay with Alice from when she’s nine, to when she’s a teenager, to when she’s independent.” That way, the simplicity of the narrative structure helped me to tell the complexity and the depths of what was going on inside of Alice, and outside of her, and map those two worlds together.
GE: Wow. I am very glad that you say this because I was speaking with Cathleen about this last night!
GE: About how much your story reminds me of Jane Eyre.
GE: Which is my absolute favorite book in the entire world. In my head, I speak to myself as “Reader” most of the time. So, it’s something that I caught onto within the first chapter of the book with Alice’s relationship to stories as Jane’s is, and of course within the whole structure of the book, I was like, “I think there’s definitely something here.”
CF: We spent a lot of time last night where Gabby was like, “Well, how do we best ask [Holly]?”
GE: “How do we bring Jane Eyre up into this conversation?” Because we just need to! But I’m so glad that you did it for us.
HR: We can talk Brontës anytime! There was probably subliminal Easter eggs that you picked up on as well because I just dropped things in there for me to pay homage to the Brontë sisters throughout, like moments that Alice would look at the town that she grows up in outside of Thornfield, or even when shes a child in the cane fields and she just wants to know what’s outside of the world. And you know, Jane used to sit at the window and wonder what’s beyond the road, and what’s out there in the world. In the desert that Alice goes to, the English name of the crater is “Earnshaw,” so I was like, “We’ll just drop Catherine and Heathcliff in there!” I would walk through the heatherfields, up the Moors, to this crumbling ruins of the farmhouse called “Top Withens,' and the Brontë society is adamant that Emily did not base Wuthering Heights on Top Withens! I’m sure they have very sound reasoning to refute this so heartily, but when you put on your hiking boots and you walk from their house up to the Moors, imagining Heathcliff being up there in all that shadowy toxic and brooding sexual energy that he had, especially in August when all the heather blooms, and you’re walking up this Moorland to this sort of ghost ship of a farmhouse… I’m like, “I respect you, Brontë Society, but…” So, yes, I was always thinking about [Jane Eyre] while I was writing. And you know, no one has ever asked me about it, Gabby!
GE: I’m so glad that we can talk about it! I mean, it’s very clear, beyond specifically the Brontës, in the book there are very clear Victorian ideas of sympathy in this almost telepathic way. Even with the floriography, which leads us into our next question!
CF: So, floriography, the Victorian tradition of speaking through flowers, is such an incredible idea and woven so wonderfully in this book. What is something that you’ve learned while doing that research?
Illustrations by Edith Rewa
HR: I came across it because I was in Manchester, so my Google Scholar algorithm was geographical. I was researching how children respond to trauma. One of the ways being selective muteness. Alice stops speaking, as you know, after the irrevocable tragedy, no spoilers for anyone. I was researching what happens to the child brain and why the voice and speaking stops. Through the geography algorithm, I presume, the Victorian language of flowers in England came up on Google Scholar. I was raised by gardeners. My mother and granny are avid plant and flower lovers, precisely for the medicine and the healing that they provide us. So, for one minute I’m reading about selective muteness in children, and then I start reading about the Victorian language of flowers, which I feel like we’re all probably vaguely aware of. I knew that yellow roses mean friendship because Granny used to have them on the kitchen table every time somebody came for a cup of tea. But I didn’t know that it was the pop craze that swept Europe and America in Victorian times. As a welcome reprieve from reading about traumatized children who stopped speaking, I dove down this rabbit hole to a time in pop culture when emotional expression was considered socially to be absolutely vulgar. Especially as a woman! It was the worst thing that you can do, to speak openly about how you felt. You would be labeled hysterical, or [that] your nerves were out of control. Basically, if we weren’t in control over every waking moment of our consciousness, we sort of got that hysteria label. Men were also [expected to be] aloof, give nothing away. I started to get more interested in how people sent each other flowers, so I kept reading. And then, you know, Australians and Brits love to take the piss out of each other, and living over there, people made fun of me all the time because I was Australian. People loved to talk about the cricket! Just constantly talking to me about the cricket… Like, I watch cricket the day before Christmas to go to sleep, I’m sorry, I'm going to fail you as your Australian stereotype there! But it brought me so much joy to get this one little nugget of information under my wing, which I had been talking about ever since the book came out about English culture, and about how emotionally repressed English people were.
HR: In Victorian times–this is the clincher–not only did people send each other bouquets and flowers to express longing and love and friendship, but English people would send their arch nemesis this elaborate bouquet to say “Never speak to me again,” “You disgust me,” “I put a curse on your house,” and this message would be delivered to this household with this spray of poisonous flowers like foxgloves and lilies to send this hideous sentiment. When I read that, I thought, “That is dark and I love it, and I wanna make it up using Australian native flowers! I want to embed that folklore in the Australian landscape and give it its own twist wherever appropriate because aboriginal people in Australia had been using plants and flowers for [time?] and memorial, which is the first language of flowers. Where it’s relevant in the story– that’s why in the chapter headings, the flowers or the plants will also be spoken about in the Pitjantjatjara language and how they would use that. This is where it came from. Those are the delights that I discovered in the research, and that’s part of how I think I wrote myself home. Through remembering the native flowers, the flora and the fauna, that are such a big part of the more-than-human world. It just felt like the land was reaching out to me, and I was reaching back to it because I left Australia thinking that I will never return. That was to sever myself from the very essence of me, that being raised on Australian landscapes, being raised on aboriginal land has made me. So, it was really fun making up the language of flowers. It was like the one really fun part of the book.
GE: You have touched plenty on how the Lost Flowers of Alice Hart is inspired by a lot of your own life, and by your own kind of Jane Eyre arc of being a child to a grown-up. How did you go about the creative process of melding your own life with Alice’s?
HR: Such a good question. It comes back to the reliving and reflecting tightrope that I was walking, and any time I got too close… Do you remember that game in our childhoods? Operation? Do you remember it, with the tongs? I mean it would be quite vintage for you guys, I imagine now.
CF: Yes! I hear the buzzing in my head right now.
HR: You hear the buzzing! You got it! So, that is what it felt like. When I was walking that tightrope while writing fiction between re-living and reflecting to draw fiction from truth, I would get, like, a buzz. My brain would be like, “Meltdown! Too close!” I touched the wall of the body cavity. Whenever that happened, I realized that I stopped storytelling. I would ask myself, “Where’s your storytelling voice? Where’s Alice?” Because while Alice and I are so similar, we’re not the same person. We have the same DNA. [As does everybody in the book,] it’s kind of weird when you start talking about, “Oh, well, June and I don’t have..” Well yes, of course, we do. But particularly as the main character in the story, I had to remember that I was not writing a memoir, thank God! I was writing fiction. I could put my storytelling voice on, I could bring it back to Alice, and that othering, that “Alice has got it, this is about Alice–” that’s how I walked that line without causing too much mental undoing for myself.
GE: So, you spent four years working with an Indigenous community in Central Australia. Can you tell us about what you learned with this experience, and if you found any elements to be particularly applicable in the writing of your work, especially when it comes to Twig’s character?
HR: God, good questions. Great question. I’ll answer it in two prongs. I moved into the central desert in my twenties and got a job as a Ranger in the national park essentially after some to’ing and fro’ing, where I managed the media section of the national park. What that meant was, because the national park is jointly managed between the Australian federal government and Aṉangu owners, there are sacred sites around Uluru and Kata Tjuta, which is the national park where I work, that are sacred and should not be filmed or photographed. To get commercial media access to the national park, you had to fill out a very lengthy permit application, and you had to be supervised–and, hi, here I am, in my Yogi Bear Park Ranger uniform, and I’m gonna supervise you while you’re taking images here so that you are culturally sensitive. To get that job and to live there in my twenties– I learned things about being Australian and being a global citizen that I had never learned, particularly the former, which I had never learned in school. I went through school in the 80s and 90s, and I did not have anything other than what can be described as an exclusive white education. The beginning of Australia’s story was Captain Cook arriving and sticking a flag in the sand. [This experience at the park] completely transformed my understanding of Australia's history, of Australia's story, of the fact that we are on stolen land. I learned things living there and working there that nothing else had taught me in my life. It was also one of the greatest honors to have that privilege of living on that land, to sit with women and listen to their stories at work that are as old as time and have been passed down from thousands of generations of ancestors. I was only in my 20s, it was mind blowing. I left that job, and I left the desert to get away from the last violent relationship in my life, and one of the heartbreaking things about doing that was leaving the life that I had lived there for four years essentially overnight. And after I left, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would do with the honor and privilege of being privy to learning about a new culture, to having the honor of hearing those old stories, and I realized that I would do my absolute best as a white woman, as a descendant of European immigrants to Australia, settlers, that I would not write a story that added to the whitewashing canon of Australian literature.
HR: So, to the best of my ability, I felt very passionately about heckering Lost Flowers with women of all backgrounds, not just Twig, who is aboriginal, and while also being very mindful that the reason that I fictionalize the crater is to set it anywhere that exists would be to tell a story that is not mine to tell. That kind of follows through in my main character, Alice. She is like me. She is a white Australian because that’s a story I can tell. I’m not telling anyone’s story that isn’t mine, and I also am not leaving women of varying backgrounds off the page. It can be scary, and a daunting thing to do– to write outside of your own experiences and culture, but the thing that I just came back to over and again was if I do my research, if I draw from personal experience, if I listen to what the women used to say to me of how it takes each other to tell everybody the story, then I just need to try my damndest not to add another whitewashed story about Australia to the world.
GE: Of course.
CF: So profound. We’re going to transition now into questions about the television adaptation, if that’s alright. So, when you were writing this, did it ever even cross your mind to see it as a TV series?
HR: Like I said to you before, I wrote it thinking, “F***ing nobody is going to read this.” And then when it went out to publishers, I genuinely was swallowed by skin-crawling fear. Would even one like it? So then, when Bruna Papandrea, who made Big Little Lies comes along, with Jodi Matterson and Lucinda Reynolds of Made Up Stories, I just… No! The answer is no, I did not foresee, ever, that this would be possible! There’s a really cute true story that my mom and I regularly tell around the kitchen table, which is that I had signed a deal with Harper Collins in Australia, and it was the year before the book was going to be published, and it had sold in a few other countries around the world at that stage, too, and I came home from the UK to my mom in Australia, and Big Little Lies had just come out and it was only season one and it broke my brain. Have you both seen it?
CF: I’ve seen just a few episodes.
GE: Yeah, me too.
HR: Okay, no spoilers, but in the final episode, there are about 26 seconds of no dialogue, where the relationship that women have with each other is captured so powerfully. I was just in ribbons. It’s her recognition that we have to each other as women, of our instincts, of our connections, and the whole series was amazing but that moment in the last episode was so breathtaking.
Jane and Madeline in "Big Little Lies" season one finale
HR: I went home to Australia and said to mum, “There’s a series that we need to watch together,” and you know– trigger warnings and violence warnings, and aggression. She was like, “Yeah let’s watch it.” So we watched the whole thing, and mum was blown away. It was a really hot summer day and we’d been binging, and then the afternoon had cooled down enough, so we went outside to hang the washing on the clothes line.While we were outside, we were hanging things up, and mom poked her head around a pillowcase, and she was like, “Holls, what if Alice Hart ever gets turned into a TV show?” And I was like, “Bless the love of mothers!”
Like, bless the love of mothers. I didn’t even let it in. I couldn’t feel it, because… as if that would ever be possible! I was like, “Oh, mum,” and I said to her, “I would never sell the rights for the book to be made into a TV series unless it was the women who made Big Little Lies.”
CF and GE, dropping their jaws: Oh! Wow!
HR: So this is like the regular weeping around the table every time we have a toast or something, because it’s just too weird. It’s just too beautiful, and it is honestly just jaw-dropping to me. I am completely overwhelmed by it.
GE: I think we’re weeping around our little table right here.
CF: So how long after that moment? What was the timeline of that?
HR: So that happened in 2017. Probably the summer… It was the summer of 2017 because it was so hot. Summer in Australia, being December. So the book came out in Australia four months later in March 2018, and seven months later we had done the deal. Made Up Stories made the announcement to the world that they’d bought the screen rights to adapt it into a TV series, and that was only four years ago, and now they’re in production, which is so fast, for I guess the screen industry.
CF: Yeah, especially with the last year and a half.
HR: Exactly, and I mean it’s just a small miracle that anything is getting made, you know. Or a large miracle. Just a miracle. Just a huge miracle.
CF: Bless the love of mothers, and thank goodness for all these miracles.
GE: Can you walk us through what the discovery was like when you found out that it was being made into a television series? If you can put it into words. I know it was probably a lot!
HR: It really is as unbelievable as you imagine winning the lottery is. Not about money, but because of how much you can’t grasp that something like that would change your life. Also, the flipside to that, one of the reasons why it’s so overwhelming is that it’s not the lottery. It’s not random, it hasn’t fallen out of the sky in the sense that I worked my brain and my courage to its absolute limit to write the novel, and to not give up at multiple occasions in writing it, and to take on board the help of others to bring it into the world. There is a village that makes a book become a book, and I have a really beautiful village of people that have made me the author I am, and the book that it is. It is constantly this two-part pedaling wheel where I spent thirty years of my life thinking that I wasn’t good enough, smart enough, brave enough to do the thing that I’ve known since I was three, that I wanted to do. It’s only eleven years later. I’m forty-one now, and I am just completely… Like I know that it’s happening, I understand, but absorbing and processing that… I’ve started to think that I don’t know that sinking in is ever a destination that we reach or arrive at, and I don’t know that I ever want to stop feeling bewildered about this. I don’t know that I ever want to stop just weeping with joy, overwhelmed because I don't ever want to get used it. I'm so aware of how rare it is, and I’m so exceedingly grateful that it’s happened to me because people work their guts out and they don’t get a break. You have to try, you have to do the hard work in order for any semblance of luck and timing to find you. I always think about Frances McDormand in Almost Famous, and she would say, “Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid!” You know, the mighty forces can’t find us if we don’t try, and do the most humbling hard work, and I’m just mind blown that the bold and mighty forces found me.
CF: Well, you just have to– pardon my french– fucking try! And you did!
HR: Just fucking try!
Frances McDormand in "Almost Famous" (2000)
CF: To what extent have you been involved in production?
HR: I have been a consultant on the series. Cool and breezy, cool and breezy! So what that has meant is that I’ve sat in the writers’ room for a number of writers’ sessions, which is where the showrunner and writer Sarah Lambert gets together with her team and discusses the story, pulling it apart, looking at Sarah’s amazing screen structure, and how to take a book from the limits and the freedoms of the form of a novel. How to take that story and sort of create it anew in the limits and freedoms of screen because each medium can do similar and different things. I've been involved in that and talking with the team about the experiences behind the fiction, sharing with them in a really intimate and safe way where parts of the story came from in my life to bring knowledge to their writing adaptation vision. I’ve spent a lot of time chatting with Glendyn Ivin, the director, who has such an incredible eye for beauty and trauma and making visual stories, and I guess I’ve just been sort of on board and looped in with conversations with the producers around the development of the show and bringing it to a point where it comes into being.
Sigourney Weaver and Alyla Browne as June and young Alice in "The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart."
HR: As I said earlier, I’m in Sydney, in my publisher’s office, because I’ve just been in New South Wales on the set of Thornfield for three weeks while they’ve been filming, and I don’t think it will shock either of you when I genuinely say that I cried every day. There was something new that has made me weep every day. With just sort of like, a rollercoaster of emotion, moved to tears. The attention to detail of the production design, feeling like my imagination was living outside of my brain, and a crew of hundreds are walking through it. Just processing all of these emotions that I don’t have names for. Maybe they exist in German, but English is really letting me down!
CF: Those untranslatable words.
HR: Untranslatable, totally. And then, just down to the bizarre, wild gloriousness of looking up and seeing Sigourney Weaver dressed as June walking across the set, or Leah Purcell as Twig, or Alycia Debnam-Carey as Alice. You can just find me a lot of the time, like, jaw agape. That’s what involvement has been like. Made Up Stories has been genuinely incredible to work with. Bruna and Jody and Steve and Lucinda, they’re amazing.
GE: That’s lovely to know.
CF: Yeah, that’s fantastic!
GE: You just listed a few of the people in the very impressive cast that you have going on there! You have Sigourney Weaver, Alycia Debnam-Carey, and Leah Purcell. Did you find that the casting choices lined up with how you imagined the characters, or did the actors bring something new to the roles that you had never really imagined before?
HR: I could never have dreamed that Sigourney Weaver would play June. As if Sigourney Weaver is on the same planet that I inhabit. Like, as if. When I saw the publicity photos, when Amazon did the big announcement a few weeks ago and they released the first publicity photos to say that production was underway in Australia, when I saw Sigourney dressed and embodying June, I’m not joking, my knees gave out. Because she was alive at a cellular level, and it’s been really joyful when I’ve shared those photos on social media. Readers respond, and they say, “But she is June! She is June!” When I was writing Twig, I had a dream, a moment where I allowed myself to see Leah Purcell in my mind. So the fact that Leah is embodying Twig and bringing her to life is just next-level altogether. She has a new movie coming out called The Drover’s Wife, which she had written, directed, and starred in. Major trigger warnings, but it is such a brilliant film. We saw it while we were on set, at a local cinema. Leah’s just perfect. She’s perfect. I mean, Alycia Debnam-Carey comes from fighting zombies on Fear the Walking Dead, to embodying Alice in a way where, *snap*, there she is. Whenever I saw her onset in character, it was, “There she is. There’s my Alice!” And then, Alyla Browne who plays Alice as a child… What an incredible young human and spirit! I know it’s very easy to presume, “But how could I sit here and be like, ‘They really didn’t do a good job with casting that person..’?” I suppose it’s not something that you really could talk about if that’s how you felt, but genuinely, down to the ground, the cast is like a chef’s kiss moment. It’s amazing, really, truly.
CF: So wonderful. I need to get tissues. Anyway, Gabby, why don’t you take the next question about what’s coming next for you!
GE: Alright, so, we see that you are currently in the process of writing your next book, which has a publishing date in 2022, titled, The Seven Skins of Esther Wilding. Is there anything that you can tell us?
HR: After nearly five years, I’ve got my elevator pitch for Alice Hart down. I could say it in my sleep. Esther feels like… You know what I think of? I feel like I’m the boys in Stranger Things keeping Eleven hidden. It’s like, I have this really powerful, magical friend, but I don’t really know how to describe her, and I don’t want to say the wrong thing that would give her away. But I’m really excited to talk about it. It’s the second world, and the second life that I’m living right now. When I’m writing, I live in two worlds, and I’m here living on set in Lost Flowers, and now I’m in Sydney in my publisher’s house, but at the same time, I’m living in this sliding door second world of Esther Wilding. We recently jotted out a blurb… could I read you the blurb?
GE: Read us the blurb!
HR: Okay. I’m going to read you the blurb. Because then, I don’t have to rely on myself. With Esther being my secret Eleven, if I rely on myself to talk about her, what we’re gonna get is, “And then she does this! And then this happens!”
CF: I can’t wait to meet her!
HR: Okay: Okay... Here it is. I’ve got sweaty hands, you guys!
"On the afternoon that Esther Wilding drove home along the coast, a year after her sister had walked into the sea and disappeared, the light was painfully golden."
From internationally best-selling author Holly Ringland comes a haunting and magical novel about joy, grief, courage, and transformation. The last time Esther Wilding’s beloved older sister Aura was seen, she was walking along the shore towards the sea. In the wake of Aura’s disappearance, Esther’s family struggles to live with their loss. To seek the truth about her sister’s death, Esther travels from Tasmania, to Copenhagen, and then to the Faroe Islands. On her journey, Esther is guided by the stories Aura left behind in her treasured journal. Seven fairy tales about selkies, swans, and women, as well as cryptic verses Aura wrote and had secretly tattooed on her body. "The Seven Skins of Esther Wilding" is about the far reaches of sisterly love, the power of wearing your heart on your skin, and the ways life can transform when we find the courage to feel the fullness of both grief and joy.
CF: I can’t wait to read it.
GE: … Did you end up getting those tissues?
CF: Yeah, let me get them.
*Cathleen stands up and leaves the room
GE: Oh, wow. That is powerful. Very powerful. Everything about the stories that you tell is very–
*Cathleen returns with tissues.
GE: *holds up tissue* Powerful.
HR: Oh my god, I love you two. I wish I could come knock on the door and be like, “Red wine?”
GE: If only! If you’re ever in Manhattan…
HR: The time will come again, and we’re going to go out! Or sit in, whatever is safest, of course.
CF: We’re going to go to Central Park and we’re going to hug some trees!
HR: We’re gonna hug some trees!
GE: And then we’re gonna go and have a little weeping session over wine at night.
HR: Yes, perfect! I’ve never read that out loud to anybody. Thank you for being the first. I’ve got emotion sweat under the arms and between the boobs!
CF: I’m familiar with it!
GE: Well, thank you so much. We are so honored to be the first people that you’ve read that out loud to. That is so special.
CF: It’s hard to believe that we’re talking over screens right now!
GE: Also the time is flying by, and I’ve had no concept of it.
CF: I know, and we haven’t even gotten to our Absolutely Anything questions… So, now?
GE: Let’s jump right into it.
HR: Let’s do it!
GE: Alright! Golden Globe-winning actress Sigourney Weaver will be starring as June Hart in the television adaptation of the story that you wrote. But in a television series about your life story, who would play Holly Ringland?
HR: Kate! Kate Winslet!
CF: That’s who I was thinking!
GE: Oh, that’s so good! That just feels right!
CF: This whole interview, I’ve been like, “If I don’t focus, it looks like I’m literally talking to Kate Winslet right now.”
HR: I mean like, you have to really put fears of being a bit too not-modest to answer that question, right? But I mean, Kate in Mare of Easttown? Come on!
GE: No modesty needed!
CF: I’m validating you. Perfect casting!
HR: Thank you!
CF: Alright. Next question. If you could be named after any flower or plant that isn’t “Holly,” what would it be?
HR: Oh my god… I’m really partial to “Rosie.” I’ve got Irish Celtic ancestors, and there’s just something about “Rosie” in an Irish accent that lingers from kitchen table stories at my granny’s place. Granny used to always tell the story that her sister got called “the rose,” and granny got called “the bull.” Granny was so aghast about that! It would need to be “Rosie,” not “Rose.”
CF: Reclaim it a bit. Actually, I was telling Gabby that we need to have flowers while doing this interview, so I have my dying roses right here.
*Cathleen holds up dying roses.
HR: This is so perfect. Yup.
CF: Well, good answer. Next question.
GE: You’re a writer, and you work a lot with words! So, out of all of the words, what is your favorite word? This is the real deep stuff that we’re getting into here!
HR: The first one that comes to mind is “incandescent.”
CF: Yeah, that’s a good one, you can’t get around that one.
HR: Immediate. ‘Incandescent.’
CF: We just got a phone call. All of the perfumeries in the world have decided that they are only going to create one type of fragrance, but you get to decide what that top note is! No pressure!
GE: These are just at the top of your head, aren’t they!
HR: Maybe it’s because it’s so expensive. Australian sandalwood, to get it undiluted, it’s so expensive. Even though it’s not floral, there’s something about it that is so warming and moorish. It takes me into a plant and flower world… Sandalwood! I don’t even know where these answers are coming from. Incandescent, sandalwood, you guys!
CF: That’s the name of the fragrance right there! Well, we just got a message from your secret admirer, and they want us to ask, what flower should they put in a bouquet for you?
HR: Sticky Everlastings! The Australian paper daisies.
GE: Funny you say that! Just before this interview, we were flipping through the book again, looking at some of the flowers and reading them out loud–
CF: At the very end of the book where there’s a legend.
GE: And we saw sticky everlasting, and we had to know what it looks like. So we actually looked it up like, two seconds before you joined the Zoom call.
Sticky everlastings for Holly's bouquet.
HR: Amazing! As they’re growing, when you rub their petals they sound like paper. Even if you cut them when they dry out, they just keep their color. That’s why they’re called “everlastings.” That’s why I gave them the meaning, “My love will never leave you.” They’re so beautiful. I have one tattooed here!
CF: Oh my gosh! Now that’s everlasting!
HR: Right? As long as I’m around!
CF: Next question. This one is a two-parter. Are you left-handed or right-handed?
GE: And on that right hand, would you consider yourself to have a green thumb?
HR: I don’t know how much granny would approve of my answer. But I do think I get the raised eyebrow of approval from mum. Over the years, because I have lived between places so much, I don’t have gardens in the ground, I have pot plant gardens. To that end, I feel like I’m a very responsible plant-tending human.
CF: Good! Could you leave us with a gardening tip?
HR: Yes! Don’t overwater your pot plants! That’s the root rot in your pots. Make sure that they have light, but don’t put them in direct sun! The babies just need to be able to have like, bright light where they feel like they’re reaching for the sun coming through the canopy. That was the big game changer about pot plant gardening. You need to remember that all of the plants that you’ve got inside, in nature they grow under the canopy of the big giants that protect them from the harshness of the sun, but they might get a lot of bright light. So, one of the rookie mistakes I made, even in English sun, was putting the ferns or the staghorns right at the window, and they would burn because I thought they needed as much sun as possible. So, fill a bright room with pot plants that can reach and see the window, don’t overwater them, and always give them good food in spring.
CF: Okay! Jot all that down!
GE: Now I’m looking over at our little windowsill here!
CF: I know, let’s plant a little garden over here. Well, those are all the questions we have for you. This was… a delight, which is an understatement!
HR: It’s just so lovely, you guys. Really so lovely. Thank you for having me, and for putting together such beautiful questions.