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!
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