INTERVIEW: Emma Timpany on floristry, ancient civilisations and ‘Three Roads’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Emma Timpany on the research process behind her collection Three Roads (Red Squirrel Press, 2022).

As the title of the collection may allude to, one of the core themes of Three Roads, at least in my reading, seems to be choice and consequence. So many of your characters are dealing with the aftermath of difficult choices, or with the consequences that other people’s choices have forced upon them. Do you think this is a fair reading? How does that theme resonate with your own experience of life, and with your general approach to storytelling?

The theme of the collection is about the fact that change comes to us whether we want it to or not. Often it’s forced on us, or we move in one direction only to find something other than what we expected. Often, change is not something many people like at all. We prefer to stay as we are, safe and settled and unruffled by difficulty, but life is change because we are all bound by time. It’s a paradox because time is our greatest gift and yet, because of its ever changing nature, it sometimes makes life seem disorientating and relentless.

My own life has been full of expected events to which I’ve had no choice but to adapt. The death of my father when I was eleven is still with me, although he died forty years ago this April, but the meaning and consequences of that event continue to resonate as I go through various stages of my life. One thing I love about storytelling, and short stories in particular, is that they can deal with difficulty and accommodate great emotional complexity, because we are all immensely complex individuals who feel differently about things from moment to moment. Compared to life, stories follow a relatively narrow path, within which there is still a great deal of room for recognition and resonance in how we cope with, as George Saunders puts it  ‘ … actual, grinding, terrifying life.’ And the wonder of stories is that, unlike life, events can be controlled and changed and even have some kind of resolution.

While the stories in Three Roads are spread over multiple locations, the most obvious distinction in settings is between the UK and Australasia. As a New Zealander who emigrated to the UK, I wonder how these two locales come into dialogue within your creative process. How do you notice your assumedly quite distinct feelings about these two ‘homes’ being made manifest in your work?

I never expected to spend so many years of my adult life living in London and Cornwall. Many of my stories about New Zealand grew out of my homesickness for the much-missed physical landscape of my childhood, and distance provides its own magic mirror, rendering my familiar homescape extraordinary. The landscape is so dominant in the far south of New Zealand that it is often a character in its own right. Growing up, I spent many holidays with my mother’s family in Brisbane and its surrounding areas, a marked contrast to the southern New Zealand landscape but powerfully affecting in its own way. It’s taken me a long time to set any stories in England, but, as I’ve lived in Cornwall for twenty years now, I feel as though I know some of it well enough for it to appear in my work. London, where I lived for ten years, occasionally pops up in my writing, particularly Piccadilly for reasons unknown to me.

One of the recurring motifs that intrigued me in the collection is the relationship between contemporary, personalised events and deep time, as you alluded to earlier. In multiple stories, action in the present interacts with remnants of ancient history (particularly Roman history), archaeology and mythology, always present and yet often partially buried. I wonder, how do you see the traces of history on everyday lived experience? What might these traces have to tell us?

We are surrounded by traces of the lives lived before us and so must be influenced by them to a greater or lesser extent. At university, I studied anthropology, majoring in archaeology, and learnt a great deal about human history and development. I’ve come to see time and human life as a continuum. I was struck by many things I learnt, such as the model we studied of how civilisations grow, peak and collapse, how such things could be predicted, how societies organise themselves, the function of religion, the way we’ve responded to changes in our environment. Humans have had to be attuned to the environment and study it carefully to survive and pass down knowledge, especially the natural cycles of water, wind, seasons and stars. Mythology has always seemed to me a way of interpreting some physical phenomena and the otherwise unexplainable strangeness of the world through stories.

I learnt Latin at school for three years and, alone of my four classmates, loved it because here was a dead language and a dead civilisation, and yet we could read and translate the words written by Roman poets thousands of years ago and know that they felt like us about many things. I returned to study classical Greek civilisation at evening classes in London at City Lit in the 1990s as I hadn’t been able to study classics at school. I had studied Aboriginal Australian, Meso-American, South-East Asian and Pasifika cultures during my degree, but also felt classics was important. So much of Western civilisation is based on Greco-Roman culture, and we are shaped by our culture and society and by the whole of human history, by attitudes and ideas that have been passed down to us. Aside from me, all of my classmates had returned to study after retirement.

I’ve always been interested in how meanings change over time. For example, the title story of my collection, ‘Three Roads’, looks at the mythology surrounding the Roman goddess of the crossroads, Trivia, whose name translated literally means ‘the place where three roads meet’. In Roman times, all children wore an amulet around their necks to protect them from harm, and, upon reaching adolescence, girls dedicated their amulets to Trivia and boys to Mercury at altars on the crossroads. I was interested in how the meaning of the word Trivia had changed over time to mean a gutter or common place and then has, after further changes, eventually come to mean something of little importance.

While on holiday, I’ve often managed to visit interesting archaeological sites, such as the amazing Mesolithic site of Bru na Boinne in County Meath mentioned in the story ‘Stars’, which also references the important Māori midwinter celebration of Matariki. In another story, ‘Error’, two characters walk through a post-industrial mining landscape from the south to north coast of Cornwall. In ‘Par Temps de Pluie’, a character thinks about the time when Piccadilly was marginal land on the edge of the River Thames or Tamesa, the dark one, as she was known then. The ritual of people coming from all parts of mainland Britain to place very round stones in her waters fascinates me, as do the more recent legends such as why Green Park has no flower beds. I always collected these little bits of knowledge (trivia?) because they interest me, and then, often years later, they weave their way into my stories.

Another theme that especially engages me in Three Roads is nature, especially your use of flora not just to provide delicate descriptive passages but also to drive the action. I’m keen to know whether you have a history of working with plants, and how flora has made an impact, if at all, on your life and work.

You are completely right that flowers and plants have been absolutely central to my life. My parents were both florists who met at an Interflora conference in the 1960s. I spent a great deal of my life until the age of twenty-one in our family flower shop, Miss Reid the Florist, in Dunedin. My father was a great gardener so I spent much of my childhood playing in our garden at home. His favourite flowers were regal lilies, and he had many roses which he called by their names – Margaret Merril, Constance Spry, Cecile Brunner –  as if they were his friends. He grew beautiful rhododendrons like Rhododendron fragrantissima and September Snow, and had planted a whole bed of azaleas in reds, oranges and white and lemon which ran down a slope like a bed of flame in late spring. Our garden was also used to grow flowers and foliage for the business, as was my grandmother’s beautiful garden two doors down, a large section which contained a large east-facing slope covered in native forest.

My Australian grandmother, Minnie, started a flower growing and floristry business in Brisbane after my grandfather, Matie, lost his railways job during the Great Depression, and my mother and her four sisters worked as florists in the workshop beneath Minnie’s house. It was a lively space full of people, dogs, cats, bantams and babies when I visited it during the school holidays, which opened out into a jungly garden of papaya and banana trees, and an empty section used in the past for flower growing. A huge stephanotis vine grew up the back of Minnie’s house and reached through the louvered windows on the upstairs veranda, filling the house with its glorious scent. I’d often go upstairs to pick the flowers to use in wedding bouquets, and it may not surprise you to hear that I now keep a rather large stephanotis vine, which flourishes indoors in the warm air of the dining room ceiling. For me, flowers are memory, and I have grown many beloved flowers of my childhood here my garden here in Cornwall, as the temperate climate is very similar to Dunedin.

At university, as well as majoring in anthropology, I also studied other subject modules to make up my degree including history and two years of botany. The old botany department at the University of Otago was a wonderfully gloomy huddle of low buildings set in an secret, overgrown garden behind the Otago Museum, and its faculty were some of the kindest people I have ever met. We began with the simplest forms of plant life, fungi, algae mosses (I’ve had a soft spot for spaghnum moss ever since) and, as with anthropology, worked our way onwards through time with a special focus on native plants. I see that some of things I learned about pine trees later found its way into my story ‘Girls on Motorbikes.’

During my first five years living in London, I worked as a florist, meeting a huge variety of people and seeing extraordinary places. We were lucky enough to have a tiny garden in our first flat in Dartmouth Park Hill and later, after moving to Cornwall, I had the opportunity to grow flowers on a friend of a friend’s smallholding. Cornwall’s mild and wet climate meant that it was a traditional flower-growing area, so I was able to grow many of the flowers I’d used as a florist and sell them locally. After five years, we moved to a house with a large garden where I was able to move all the flowers from the small holding and develop a proper garden of my own which still includes masses of cutting varieties. I’ve also been able to grow beloved plants of my childhood such as a Japanese cherry blossom (Prunus yedoensis), regal and tiger lilies, masses of roses like Zepherine Drouhin and Gertrude Jekyll, Polygonatum (Solomon’s seal) and all the Camassia, hyacinths, tulips, irises, hellebores, cornflowers, hostas, Nectaroscordum, Eryngium, annuals and vegetables that I can fit in.

Running with that theme of flora and growth, I’d like to close by homing in on a line from the final story in the collection, ‘Flowers’. On page 128 we read that ‘Life holds no story unless that story is the growing and the dying.’ I wondered to what extent this epigraph is compatible with your approach to storytelling, particularly within the short fiction medium. And is there a link there feeding back to choice and consequence?

What a great question, although a difficult one to answer. Flowers are closely associated with all the important rituals of human life – birth, marriage, death – as well as other special occasions and celebrations. They are used to celebrate love and to offer condolence silently, replacing the need for words. Their beauty is a comfort to us and their life cycle reflects our own, connecting us to the natural world of which we are a part, as much as we might try to deny it. That is the only story, really, isn’t it? We live and, one day, we die. It’s what we do with the life and time we have that matters.

In terms of storytelling, story structure reflects this natural cycle very closely. Stories rise towards a climax and turning point and then fall again, sometimes rapidly to a close. I think that’s why we like stories so much; they reflect the shape of our lives, but, as writers, we have some control over the outcome of stories which is not always possible in life.

Emma was born and grew up in the far south of New Zealand. She lives in Cornwall. Her publications are the short story collections Three Roads (Red Squirrel Press, 2022), Over the Dam (Red Squirrel Press, 2015) and The Lost of Syros (Cultured Llama Press, 2015). Her novella Travelling in the Dark (Fairlight Books, 2018) is part of their series of Fairlight Moderns. She is co-editor of Cornish Short Stories: A Collection of Contemporary Cornish Writing (The History Press, 2018). Emma’s writing has won awards including the Hall and Woodhouse DLF Writing Prize 2019 and the Society of Authors’ Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2011. Her work has been published in literary journals in England, New Zealand and Australia.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

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