Better Reading: Hi Fiona, congratulations for the publication of The Tea Gardens. Could you tell us a little bit about it?
Fiona McIntosh: Thank you….those who read my historical dramas will know that I like to play with the topic of modern women in the early decades of the previous century, pushing back against the traditions and the expected norms of society that preferred them not to have an opinion, let alone a voice. And the well-heeled were strategically married off ; their role was to produce heirs and run smooth households. And I use this fractious jumping off point for many of my main characters and in this one we meet Isla Fenwick in 1932 who is a doctor. This wasn’t rare in the 1930s but it wasn’t common. She’s self-assured, lives with her widowed father and is fully accepting of the notion that she must make a good marriage and soon. First, however, she intends to keep a personal promise to work at the coalface of medicine in and around the slums of Calcutta and follow in her dead mother’s footsteps of courageous medicine. What she doesn’t anticipate is to have every notion about herself challenged once she gets there and how the confidence she has always relied on is rattled by India and by one person in particular.
BR: The two characters of Jove and Saxon are very different, whilst both being quite appealing (albeit for different reasons). Did you prefer one over the other?
FM: I love Jove for his wisdom, his tolerance, his patience for Isla while she works herself out. But! Every woman loves a roguish bad boy…certainly in her fantasies. And Prof. Saxon Vickery is, I hope for most readers, irresistible. I can’t help but wish I could meet him. His blunt manner, distant attitude, his lack of neediness, his honesty but especially his tenderness and vulnerability are, in combination, helplessly attractive. I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of crafting Saxon and had lots of pleasure in his company while we were together.
FM: Well, I went to India and I found the hospital in Calcutta that I wanted to use for Isla’s story and I spent time in it. Not very glamorous! I spent time soaking up atmosphere and when I travelled up into the foothills of the Himalaya in a hamlet called Kalimpong I got into one of the fever wards of a remote hospital. I shouldn’t have been there but no one challenged me. I found a pile of feverish but smiley children as it turned out, which was touching because they all wanted me to take their photo. I got a good look at the place and that helped to make my storytelling feel real. I did find the right teaching hospital in London as well for the early chapters of Isla’s life and did loads of research in the British Museum to get the era bang on for that hospital.
BR: Your descriptions of India are amazing, particularly when Isla journeys to the Himalayan region, and definitely made us want to plan a holiday soon! Is this an area you’ve travelled to often?
FM: Thank you for those kind words. I’ve been to India a few times in my life but I have never been that far north and I have always yearned to visit the Himalayan region. I was not prepared for how awesome they are and I use that word with all of its right intent. I defy anyone visiting to not feel a similar overwhelming awe – it became close to spiritual for me and I would love to return one day. I’m extremely hopeful that breathtaking sense of Nature’s majesty comes through to readers via Isla. I made her reaction mirror my own. The tea gardens themselves are so picturesque I didn’t want to leave.
BR: You’ve said before that you won’t write about somewhere you haven’t personally explored. Is there a location you love that you would like to set a book in the future?
FM: Yes, I would love to visit Jerusalem and Bethlehem and see what bubbles up for me. But, it’s not just Israel but that whole region in the middle of our world that intrigues and fascinates. I never tire of Arabic destinations if I’m honest … they always surprise and delight. I need to get to Muscat! I would love to visit Palestine too. A book set in this region of the world would please me enormously. I not so long ago visited a place that was seriously high on my bucket list and that is the Ancient City of Petra in Jordan. I simply have to find a way to include it in my storytelling sometime soon.
BR: Many of your books have featured around the senses – be it taste in The Tea Gardens and The Chocolate Tin, or smell in The Perfumer’s Secret and The Lavender Keeper. Are you thinking of something similar for your next book or is this still a work in progress?
FM: I place emphasis on the senses but only in the construction of my stories. In terms of their subject matter, I admit that’s coincidental. My next novel is a couple of chapters shy of being finished and it has no direct connection to the senses in its subject matter, title, cover, etc. And it’s extremely different to The Tea Gardens, The Chocolate Tin and The Perfumer’s Secret that are a trio of novels that work rather beautifully together in their motifs and characters.
BR: What cup of tea would you recommend readers enjoy with this book – would it have to be Darjeeling?
FM: It has to be bright, sparklingly delicious first flush or Monsoon flush single origin Darjeeling. Having said that, I would not criticise anyone for brewing up a robust Assam (my favourite).
BR: Isla is such a spirited and strong character, especially for a woman of that time. Was she inspired by anyone?
FM: No, but I will say I come from a long line of strong matriarchs so perhaps the women of my family have inspired me. I do lean towards building spirited women who jump out of my pages as strong-willed, driven characters. I enjoy being with them and it means I can take them into all sorts of dilemmas and destinations.