Where Lilacs Still Bloom: An Interview with Jane Kirkpatrick

Kirkpatrick, Jane

This spring, my heart almost broke when I walked outside to discover my neighbor had chopped her lilacs a few feet from the ground. It was but a few weeks from blooming, and although the bushes were not mine, I was always welcome to cut as many of the fragrant blossoms as I wanted. Now, they looked forlorn and desolate. Mere stumps.

I’ve long been a lover of those purple heavy-scented spring blooms. Lilacs remind me of my birthday in May. I feel a deeply personal connection with them, as they remind me of my grandmother and my mother — also lilac lovers.

A few weeks later, I was flipping through a magazine when the description of a new novel caught my eye. Or maybe it was the cover of the book, depicting a cascade of purple lilac blossoms. The brief synopsis described a story of a German immigrant and farm wife, Hulda Klager, who discovered a passion for hybridizing lilacs.

I checked to see if the book was at the library. It was. I put the audio book version on hold.

As I began listening I was transported to Woodland, Washington, where the novel follows the life of Hulda Klager from the late 1800’s into the early 20th century. I was even more captivated when I realized the story was based on a real woman, whose lilac gardens and home are open to the public. Hulda faces many challenges in hybridizing her lilacs: flood waters, the opinion of others, and even her own gnawing doubts that oppose her at times. But Hulda persists, finding comfort in her blossoms and her faith, continuing in her work. Ultimately, she comes to see her passion for lilacs as a gift from God to give others.

Having never read any of Jane Kirkpatrick’s previous work, I didn’t realize I’d picked up a novel of the Christian genre. I must confess, except for Jan Karon’s Mitford series, I’ve not read much Christian fiction for many years because I’d begun to find the spirituality trite and the writing not up to par. However, Where Lilacs Still Bloom pleasantly surprised me. Kirkpatrick weaves a realistic story where the quiet faith of Hulda is depicted sincerely and winsomely. There is no preaching in this novel, only the story of a life that gives beauty and a faith that grows and deepens through the years.

It was with great excitement that I got to chat with Jane Kirkpatrick through email. I was excited to find out more about her life as a writer and further details about how she came to write Where Lilacs Still Bloom.

Your professional background is in social work and mental health. When did you first discover a love for writing?

I’ve always loved words, just the sound of them as well as their varied meanings. Early on I wrote poems as a child and eventually moved into writing essays, features, and finally novels. I find story telling to be very much like mental health work in that words come along beside us bringing comfort and healing and that’s what gifted counselors do as well.

Are you a lilac lover and gardener?

I do love lilacs! A huge bush bloomed at the gateway to the one-room school I attended for the first grade. Yes, I’m that old! But a gardener, not so much. I am learning though and discovering I enjoy the anticipation of wondering what a bulb I planted will look like or when it will bloom. And last week I planted two tomato plants that were wonderfully healthy looking and this morning saw that they’d been clipped like a razor. My shout brought my husband to the kitchen thinking I’d cut myself! The yard is deer fenced so it must have been a rabbit!

How did you first learn about the real-life character in Where Lilacs Still Bloom, Hulda Klager?

A very loving and persistent descendant sent me a brochure about Lilac Days. She’d read some of my novels and felt this would not only be a great story for me but that I’d do her grandmother-in-law justice. I put her off for a long time thinking because I wasn’t a gardener, this wouldn’t be the story for me to tell. But then I visited the garden and everything changed after that.

Why did you choose to write a novel about Hulda Klager’s life?

It was walking where Hulda had walked and seeing the love and devotion she’d put into her garden, how it must have helped her heal during the times of great loss, and how generous she was. It was her generosity and how it came back to give her hope in her later years that really told me “this is a great story! I just hope I can tell it well.”

How difficult was it to research Hulda’s life? I did a simple Amazon search and no biographies appeared, just guidebooks and lilac horticultural books. Was finding details about her life a challenge?

Most of the details of her life came through interviewing descendants, reading old newspaper and magazine articles from the 1920s, census informatio,n and a wonderful history of the Woodland area written in the 1950s. I also had access to International Lilac articles and one traced both her history and the history of her flowers so I could see what years certain lilacs were named. That told me something of what was happening in her life then. Hulda’s home and garden are also on the National Historic Register and I had access to the information provided for that documentation. I also found a letter to the editor she’d written which was terrific to read both for the subject matter but also her passion and writing style. To fill in the blanks of her life, I used my imagination, which is what fiction allows one to do.

How many months/years did it take to research Hulda’s life?

I think I was enchanted by the garden four years ago and slowly began researching while working on other projects. It took me about six months of actual writing and then of course I’m always still researching even to the last sentence before it goes to print!

Cornelia, Shelly, Ruth, and Nelia are a “composite” cast of characters that are important to the novel, but fictional. Why did you decide to structure the novel with not just Hulda’s point of view, but other fictional characters too?

It was clear to me that Hulda touched many lives. She named many of her lilac varieties after different people, for example. I thought that would be like dedicating a book to someone — very special. Stories told about her and how important education was to her and her family begged to be told in some way and I felt that composite characters would allow me to explore people close at hand whom she helped by providing a place to live while they attended high school. The articles and family lore also said she gave away most of her starts and sometimes they mentioned how far people came to visit and that starts would leave with them. I thought it would add interest for readers to imagine how those lilacs might have found their way to Arnold Arboretum at Harvard, for example. And the composite characters allowed me to tell some of the many stories that Hulda wouldn’t tell herself, but that speak volumes of the kind of woman she was.

I was intrigued by the Baltimore connection. Having worked across the street from The Peabody Institute I was surprised to discover it was briefly featured in the novel, along with a mention of the Hampton Estate (now Hampton National Historical Site), which I didn’t know existed, despite having lived a few minutes away from it in the past! I now have Hampton down on my “to visit” list. Did you travel to Baltimore to research this novel?

Several years ago I spent a month in Maryland as part of a National Endowment for the Arts program. Most of my time was in Annapolis and Baltimore. I decided to incorporate some of my experiences that summer into a character’s life. I was unfamiliar with the Hampton Estate until I started doing research for the book, though. I found it interesting that large estates eventually became places for public access and were part of the early “green movement” in many ways. I must come back! I love Maryland.

One view of nature that causes tension between characters in the novel is that changing features in plants by hybridizing was “wrong.” Was that a commonly held view during Hulda’s lifetime?

Hybridizing for food, ala Luther Burbank, was just taking off though people had hybridized fruits, for example, for a long time. Hybridizing flowers or ornamentals in order to gain information for food hybridizing, was accepted but to just hybridize for beauty or scent or hardiness or color, well, many people thought there were more “useful” ways to spend one’s time. Hulda’s German background must have been somewhat of a challenge since Germans == like many cultures — can be focused on work. That’s why I love the verse in Mark when the woman pours expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet and He says, “She has done a lovely thing for me.” The translation using the Greek word is not the word for “good work” but rather suggests something lovely in and of itself. I think Hulda understood the value of beauty, in and of itself, especially when one gives it away.

One theme in Where Lilacs Still Blooms is the comfort flowers give in grief. Did Hulda really memorialize people through the naming of her lilacs?

She did indeed. Alice Christianson, which is a lovely pink bloom, was named for a young girl who lived with her while attending school who died of the flu probably around 1918. She named a new cultivar for her. There are cultivars named for her husband, son, daughter, friends whom she outlived.

When finishing When Lilacs Still Bloom, what’s one thing you hope your readers take away from the story of Hulda’s life?

That generosity, when given as a reflection of God’s grace, is returned ten-fold in time.

Can you tell us anything about your next writing projects?

I’m currently in the revision process of a story titled, One Glorious Ambition, which is the story of an early mental health reformer named Dorothea Dix. She was a New Englander and like Hulda quite remarkable. She had a passion for “the least of these” and spent her life working toward better conditions for the mentally ill. She was also a teacher and writer and had correspondence with over 700 people! Imagine! Many of them kept her letters!

If you could give one piece of advice to a writer who’s aspiring for publication, what would it be?

Make and keep your commitments. Keep learning while you’re sending your query letters or book proposals out, but make the commitment to write, to send, and not let the vagaries of the industry dissuade you from your passion.

What are some of your favorite books?

Oh goodness! To Die For by Sandra Byrd. The wonderful series set in Scotland by Liz Curtis Higgs. I recently read Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing about the first Native American to matriculate and graduate from Harvard. Fabulous book! Susan Meissner’s The Shape of Mercy continues to resonate with me though I read it three years ago. Books by Davis Bunn, Francine Rivers, and then I love a good mystery, too, so Michael Connelly and P.D. James are on my beside pile. Oh, you may have wanted classics … well, for another time and who’s to say these aren’t classics, right?

How do you like to unwind?

I take my dogs for a walk, watch a movie with my husband, listen to music, and of course, read a good book!

For more information on Jane Kirkpatrick and her other books, visit her website. For more information on Hulda Klager and her garden, visit the historic site’s website.

Enter Our Giveaway!

We have three copies of Jane Kirkpatrick’s book, Where Lilacs Still Bloom to give away. For a chance to win one, leave a comment that answers: What is your favorite flower and why.

One additional entry can be earned for each of these:

  • Follow @ungrind on Twitter. Leave a comment to tell us you did.
  • Tweet about this contest. Leave a comment to tell us you did.
  • “Like” this post on Facebook. Leave a comment to tell us you did.
  • “Like” our page on Facebook. Leave a comment to tell us you did.

This contest closes on Tuesday, July 10th, 2012, at 12 a.m. Our apologies to our international readers, but it’s only open to those residing in the United States.

This contest is now closed. Thanks to Random.org, we have our winners. Congrats to Amanda, Trish, and Courtney!

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Danielle Ayers Jones is wife to an amazing husband and mother to three. She's a writer and photographer, combining both loves on her blog, danielleayersjones.com. A space where she seeks to find beauty in everyday places, joy in hardship, rest in the struggle, and encouragement in unexpected places. She's also written for Thriving Family, Clubhouse, Jr., iBelieve.com, StartMarriageRight.com, and FortheFamily.org. You can follow Danielle on Instagram here and Pinterest here.

  • Erin

    I follow Ungrind on Twitter.

  • Erin

    I like Ungrind on fb.

  • Erin

    I liked this post.

  • Erin
  • Lisa

    There are so many favorite flowers of mine hard to narrow down to just one. I love the old fashioned ones, hollyhocks, foxgloves, peonies, but lilacs hold a bit more of a special place in my heart because my momma had a lovely lilac bush and she too was always giving them away to special friends, especially a very dear neighbor and placing them in church on Sunday. I’ve always had lilacs every place I’ve lived. They are very special to me.

  • Lisa

    Liked this post on fb

  • I liked this post and the Ungrind website, both on fb.

    My favorite flower is the daisy. It’s always been my favorite. There’s just something about the crisp white petals against the bright yellow centers that cheer me. Simple, no-fuss, friendly flowers.

    This book looks interesting! :-)

  • Doris BeLoat

    My flower is lilacs and has been ever since I was a little girl which is many years ago.

  • Doris BeLoat

    Lilacs are my favorite flower only wish they were year round.

  • Doris BeLoat


  • Marilyn H

    Liked you on FB

  • Marilyn H

    Following on Twitter as HeavenMHer

  • Marilyn H

    My favorite flower also is lilacs, I remember my mother cutting them and being so excited to have a vase of lilacs in the house. Beautiful!

  • Marilyn H

    liked the post on FB

  • Marilyn H


    Thanks for the chance to win a book, sounds delightful!

  • Favorite flower? I don’t even know the exact name of it–but it’s a pink lily. They were in my wedding boquet and my dad calls them an “amanda flower”! ;)

    Thanks for this interview–I love Jane Kirkpatrick!

  • I follow you on twitter! :)

    • Congrats, Amanda! You won a copy of “Where Lilacs Still Bloom!” I’ll be contacting you soon.

  • And now I like you on FB! :)

  • Dawn Cronk

    I love daffodils, they are some of the first harbingers of spring. I get very depressed over the winter as there is no color, everything is brown and dull. I absolutely look forward to the bright white and yellow sunny faces! I even force bulbs so I can enjoy them in January & February.

  • Great interview. Just saw this book at the Bookie Joint in Brookings. The owner and a patron were talking about how much they loved Jane’s writing (and how well it sells there). I’m looking forward to reading this one. And I love lilacs – and daisies.

    • Congratulations, Trish! You won a copy of “Where Lilacs Still Bloom.” I’ll be contacting you soon.

  • LIKED this post. :)

  • Courtney Everard

    My favourite flower is the daisy – just always has been. I did not grow up gardening or appreciating flowers in that sense, and I always loved the simplicity of the daisy.

  • Courtney Everard

    I also liked this post on Facebook for another entry!

    • Congrats, Courtney! You won a copy of “Where Lilacs Still Bloom!” I’ll be contacting you soon.

  • My favorite flower….hard to choose but in memory of my Grandma my husband & I put in a glorious raised rose garden which I thoroughly enjoy!

  • I like your facebook!!

  • retweet contest

  • Karen Gervais

    I love lilacs. I love the smell and the color. I even had lilac perfume when I was a teen.

  • Karen Gervais

    I follow you on twitter.

  • Karen Gervais
  • Karen Gervais

    Liked the post on Facebook.

  • Karen Gervais

    Liked your page on Facebook.

  • Pam Kellogg

    I “liked” your Facebook page and the post. I really enjoy Jane’s books (I have several and have read even more) so I’d be very happy to win a copy of Where Lilacs Still Bloom.
    I like lilacs and many other flowers, but my favorites are iris and roses.

  • Jackie Thomson

    I liked this post on FB, and liked the Ungrind page on FB as well.
    I like wildflowers because of how beautifully their varied shapes and colors complement each other.

  • Alice Trego

    This is a great interview! Came upon it via Facebook :)

    I remember lilacs blooming in the wild woods that surrounded our house when I was a little girl. We always had a vase of lilacs sitting on our dining room table during the months when the flowers were in bloom. This interview brought back those memories…

  • Trella Hastings

    I liked this post. It has a wonderful story and your experience behind it. I love most all flowers, especially our state flower, the Rhododendron, here in WA state. It signals the middle of spring and the coming of summer, showing beautiful color everywhere. I also love lilacs and their wonderful fragrance. We have one in the front yard which I will miss greatly because the house has been sold. I went to your writing workshop in Hood River several years ago and was first introduced to your books then. I also liked the” ungrindwebzine page.”

  • I love lilacs! Have two that had beautiful blooms last month. I love to garden and recently planted 6 flats of flowers at the cabin where the lilacs bloom. The love of lilacs has been passed down from my grandmother and mother to me. They will always be in my heart.

    I liked/shared on facebook, and have followed on twitter.

    Really appreciate the giveaway!

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Where Lilacs Still Bloom: An Interview with Jane Kirkpatrick

by Danielle Ayers Jones time to read: 9 min