Q & As for ‘The Orchid House’ (Hothouse Flower)

1) How did you come up with the idea for The Orchid House?
It all started whilst I was on holiday in Thailand – a country I spent a lot of time in as a child – with my husband when I came across a book on orchids in our hotel room. The story of the orchid’s journey from the tropical jungles in the exotic East, but now freely available across the world, (including my cold part of the northern hemisphere in Norfolk), struck me as a wonderful motif for a book. Then, when I arrived home, I was speaking with a friend who had recently inherited a large country estate from his parents and was having to make the decision to sell it as the death duties were so high. From that conversation, I created ‘Wharton Park’, and came up with the British location for the story.

2) The book deals with subjects such as World War II. How did you go about researching this?
I spent a lot of time talking with people, both in England and Thailand, who had stories to tell about their experiences. In the book, it’s Lord Harry Crawford and Bill, the estate gardener, who are sent off to fight and end up as Prisoners of War. I was very lucky to come across a diary on the internet written by Sergeant Jack Farrow, who happened to be from Norfolk, who published his diary from when he himself was a Changi prisoner. This gave me the link I needed between the Far East and Norfolk.

3) The Orchid House has become an international bestseller with over 2 million copies sold to date. Why do you think it has become so successful?
I think one of the reasons for its success is that the book is about faith, hope, love and the goodness of human nature triumphing over the bad. Many of us living in the modern world wonder if we’ve lost our moral ‘compass’. The past, with its values of family, integrity and duty, brings comfort and hope for the future.

4) Why are orchids such an important feature in the book?
The orchid is a motif that runs through the book, from the fable at the beginning, to the end of the story. The hothouses at Wharton Park also play a major part in the plot and of course, Harry Crawford nicknames Lidia his ‘Hothouse Flower’ – his ‘orchid’.

5) In the beginning of the book, the grieving Julia returns to Wharton Park where she grew up. What does it tell us about the meaning of ‘home’ in this story?
‘Wharton Park’ itself is one of the central characters in the book. There is a line in the story when Julia realises that Wharton Park doesn’t belong to the Crawfords; they belong to it. I think the term ‘home’ tends to mean the same for every human being. It’s a place where your history lies, and where you feel safe and secure.

6) The book tells a romantic, but credible story. How have your readers reacted to this?
To be honest, when I write the first draft of the story, I’m writing for myself, rather than an audience. So I didn’t know what other readers would think or feel. The fact I have sold so many copies of my books worldwide has been a wonderful surprise. And I’ve had some incredible emails and letters from readers saying how the book has moved them to tears.

7) Who are you favourite characters in the book? And when writing it, did you feel anger towards Harry or Xavier?
Bill and Elsie are definitely my favourites – so loyal and steadfast. No, I didn’t feel any anger towards Harry – he had to take a heartbreaking decision – did he follow his love or stay to do his duty? Xavier … well! He is just a weak, selfish man, and we all know at least one of those…

8) Was linking exotic Thailand with Norfolk metaphorical?
Two of my favourite places in the world are Thailand and Norfolk and I wanted to include both in my book. The bleakness of the Norfolk landscape mirrors Julia’s grief and the heat of Thailand is a metaphor for the passionate feelings Harry has for Lidia.

9) Is it hard to write an epic story and yet not become predictable?
I am aware of clichés of course, but I never know what will happen from one day to the next when I’m writing the story, because it’s the characters who take the lead and have minds of their own. So it’s never been a problem. So far …

10) The Orchid House is in many ways a book about how difficult decisions you make affect your life. But isn’t it sometimes impossible to choose right from wrong?
Of course it is – but it’s my belief that people rarely do anything they believe is wrong. I am a great believer in listening to my instincts when it comes to big decisions. They have rarely steered me in the wrong direction. But woe betide me if I haven’t listened…

11) ‘Love’ plays a major part in the book. Do you believe in a love that conquers all – even betrayal and lie?
No, sadly even though I’m a romantic at heart, I don’t believe love can conquer all. This is clear from the poignant situation Harry and Lidia find themselves in towards the end of the book. Often people must choose between their head and their heart, as Harry does when he realises he can never be with Lidia.

12) Julia Forrester, your heroine in The Orchid House, is strong and accepts her suffering. Do you think that suffering has a positive side?
Julia has a journey from despair to joy and the only way she reaches her happy point in the end is by accepting past sorrows. All of our lives contain joy and sorrow and create a balance. As Aurora, the narrator from The Girl on the Cliff says, how can you know when you’re happy if you’ve never been sad? It’s the scales of life and all we can ever do is to seize the day. As Julia says at the end of the book, ‘The moment is all we have’ … I believe it is a journey we must all undertake if we want to move on into a future of positivity. I think that forgiveness and understanding of what has come before are essential to reach the point of happiness and peace.

13) Have you learnt anything from writing The Orchid House?
I wrote The Orchid House without any form of publishing contract. It was a labour of love and I wrote it for me. I poured out my emotions onto the page with no thought that anyone would ever read it. So perhaps, over two million copies on, the most important thing I’ve learnt is that you must always write what you feel from the heart, and never try to think about whether it will sell.