The girls at WGR are excited to have the opportunity to get to know Lily in Bloom author, Margaret P. Cunningham.
Margaret, thank you for agreeing to chat with us today.
1.) I noticed on your website that you started out your writing career with short stories. Tell us a little bit about your first published work.
My first published work was a short story titled “The Best of Fredville”. Its first person narrator was a little girl visiting her imperious aunt in the tiny southern town of Fredville. The aunt was in charge of the town’s down-and-dirty gardening competition to win the title of Best of Fredville. It won a contest and then was published in an anthology called Gardening at a Deeper Level.
2.) You offer new writers the advice “Write what you know. Write what you love.” I’m guessing you took that advice to heart while writing Lily in Bloom. You grew up on a plant nursery. What was that like?
Playing hide-and-seek among acres of azaleas and camellias and a big, old greenhouse was great fun. Although my thumbs aren’t as green as my daddy’s were, I did inherit a love of gardening.
I also loved/love the total escape of those old romantic comedy/mystery movies we used to watch on our black and white TV. I decided that if I was going to spend a year or so writing a novel, I was going to indulge myself, fill it with characters that I would like to know and of course, it would be set in a southern garden.
3.) In your story, Lily fell in love with a much younger man who shared her passion for gardening. How did you meet your own real-life hero, and does he share your interest in gardening?
I met my husband, Tom, on a blind date. Unfortunately, his is pretty much a “slash-and-burn” style of gardening. For example, I love vines. He hates them, and “trims” them every chance he gets. Once I put buttermilk on everything to get that great, green algae growing on it. And it worked – until the day I came home to the smell of bleach and my husband proudly informed me that he had cleaned every bit of it off!
4.) When you’re putting a novel together, do you start with the setting, the plot line, the characters, or something else?
An idea first – usually some human interaction I’ve witnessed that I can’t get out of my head. Then the characters, especially the protagonist. What is her problem (based on that first spark of an idea)? Setting is very important to me – almost like a character itself. Plot is the hardest, but I’ve read lots of beautiful writing that seems to go nowhere. I think the first order of writing is to tell a story!
5.) What is your favorite part of the novel writing process?
Believe it or not, revision. I love to have a finished chapter or entire piece – all those dreaded/loved plot lines tied into place, then go back and play with the words. I also enjoy researching things – thank you, Google!
6.) What is your least favorite part of the novel writing process?
Self-doubt. I always wonder, Am I wasting my time on this? Will anyone ever even see it? Shouldn’t I be doing something more useful, like cleaning out a closet or making lasagna? Unlike a painter who can hang an unwanted piece in her bathroom if all else fails, the manuscript goes in the drawer. I’ve learned to remind myself that every time I write, I learn. Other than that and probably more to the point of your question, as I stated above, plotting is difficult for me.
7.) Who are some of your favorite authors, and what writers have influenced your writing?
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Agatha Christi, John Grisham, Rosamunde Pilcher, Robert Olen Butler, Khaled Hosseini, Flannery O’Connor, Michael Knight, Jhumpa Lahiri – and Carolyn Keene.
I think all writing begins with reading and Carolyn Keene and her wonderful protagonist, Nancy Drew turned me on to reading, fired my imagination and put the idea in my head that a brave girl can do whatever she sets her mind to. I’d like to think that I’ve gleaned a bit here and there from those other, loftier favorites of mine, too.
8.) What is your favorite book of all time?
To Kill a Mockingbird, whose author I didn’t name above because I’m having a senior moment and can’t think of it.
9.) What do you like to do in your spare time when not writing?
We are blessed with fabulous beaches here on the gulf coast, so my family does a lot of boating, etc. I enjoy gardening, of course (though you’d never know it if you could see my yard right now).
10.) Are there any more great Margaret Cunningham novels in the works?
Thank you for the adjective “great”. I am working on a novel in the same vein as Lily in Bloom. It’s the story of a middle-aged woman who goes in search of her past – in the ante-bellum era raised cottage where she was born. As usual, I’m at that stage where all of my plot lines look like a bowl of spaghetti.
11.) It looks like you have a busy schedule lined up for the spring. Where can readers go to find out all the latest MPC news?
12.) Say that Lily in Bloom was going to be made into a major motion picture and you got to decide what actors would play the parts. Who would play the part of Lily? Will? Crazy Maisy?
Someone actually was looking at Lily in Bloom in hopes of it becoming a TV movie, so I’ve given it some thought. There are so many talented actors – but I have a hard time imagining most of them with an authentic southern accent even though I know they are up to the job! Maisy…? Olympia Dukakis, since she was so great in Steel Magnolias. Will…? Clint Eastwood in his thirties? But any number of tall, handsome, thirty-five year old actors would do. And Lily…? Why not go for broke? Julia Roberts, though she’s only 44.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Yes. Thank you for the great review of Lily in Bloom on Working Girl Reviews and for having me as guest interviewee. It was lots of fun.
Margaret P. Cunningham