The Unfinished Garden, Back Story

Back Story

The Unfinished Garden evolved over a decade. Like my flower beds—I have fifteen, which is far too many—the novel kept growing. And self-seeded pieces of my life appeared everywhere: my mother’s mentally-challenged springer spaniel; my teen years spent wearing a spinal brace; my love affair with the hawks in our forest; my horror at copperhead encounters.

The original story idea came from watching my mother navigate widowhood and thinking, “What if that were me?” I was a stay-at-home mom with no income and no citizenship of the country I’d come to call home. And, like Tilly, I was struggling with regret over decisions I had made while someone I loved—my father—was dying. Tilly has a spunky edge and a sense of humor that speak to me. I always knew she was a devoted mother and that gardening was her therapy. After a summer of interviewing a group of young widows, I had found my heroine.

Finding James, however, was a painful journey that lasted years. My original hero was a grieving dad, but as I sought escape from my young son’s obsessive-compulsive disorder, James showed up. Actually, he barged into my thoughts and, like a good obsession, refused to move. I love James. I loved him from the moment I heard him say, “Me and my fucked-up shadow.” But I also restrained him, refusing to show readers his dark corners. I guess I wasn’t ready to come out of the OCD closet.

After an endless cycle of querying, rejection, and rewriting, I put the manuscript aside, researched and wrote the first draft of another novel, The Gloaming, which would become The In-Between Hour, and threw myself into a nonfiction project. Still, there was James. Waiting. (Man, he’s persistent.) Finally, I let him out of his box; I let him talk about the voice inside his head. I let him be James. And everything clicked into place.

OCD is an anxiety disorder that creates irrational fear in the absence of true threat. To an outsider, OCD fear can seem crazy, maybe even comical, but the terror a person with OCD feels is debilitating and real. James shows the side of OCD I see every day: the empathy and courage that come from fighting fear.

As Tilly says, everyone has fears. Even Indiana Jones was terrified of snakes, and yet…James is not.

For more information on obsessive-compulsive disorder, or to find a list of support groups or psychologists in your area, contact the IOCDF at

The following UK website is also a useful resource:

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