Skip to main content

Interview: May 3, 2013

In a departure from her popular Lakeshore Chronicles series, Susan Wiggs has written THE APPLE ORCHARD, a novel of sisters, friendship, and how memories are woven like a spell around us.’s Alexis Burling spoke with Wiggs about the format of her book and her ability to seamlessly weave together details of two disparate settings in order to draw a complete picture of the characters’ family history. She also explains how writing the novel was similar to a treasure hunt (a nod to protagonist Tess’s job), talks about the inclusion of taste-tempting recipes that are sprinkled throughout the story, and reveals a unique test-taking “tip” that she told her students about when she was a math teacher. THE APPLE ORCHARD is set in the present day in Sonoma Valley, California, but it also flashes back to Denmark during World War II. How did you seamlessly weave together details of two disparate settings in order to draw a complete picture of Tess and Isabel’s family history?

Susan Wiggs: I used my husband’s serger. (He’s an apparel designer.) 

No, really, it was much less interesting and a lot harder: Massive revisions. A multilayered story is always really demanding for me to write. I feel like a juggler with too many balls in the air. But, ultimately, I put it all together. In real life, families fit together (and get ripped apart) by the seams. I’m fascinated by this very human, emotional process. 

BRC: Magnus is in a coma throughout most of the book after falling off a ladder while apple picking. Did you ever toy with having him wake up and become more of an active character?

SW: Poor Magnus has been through the wringer. In various drafts of the story, he’s been dead, held hostage, alive and kicking, in the arms of a lover and probably abducted by aliens. Ultimately, I chose to keep him on ice (ha, sorry) to add tension and urgency to the story. His backstory unfolded for Tess the way it did for the reader, without him around to fill in the blanks. 

BRC: Tess is a “treasure hunter” --- someone who scopes out antiquated objects to determine their worth. Have you ever gone through a sweep of your home to see if you have anything valuable?

SW: What a cool question. I can’t say I’ve done a sweep so much as a mental inventory. Sadly, I don’t have any $20m Fabergé eggs squirreled away somewhere. Most of my old things have sentimental value only. I have some art pieces I love, by my first favorite author, Dr. Seuss.

BRC: This might be an amusing question, but did you watch “Antiques Roadshow” while working on the book?

SW: I didn’t, but I kept thinking up concepts for treasure-hunt reality shows. Maybe it could be like a scavenger hunt. Oh, the possibilities! 

BRC: There are many secrets at the heart of THE APPLE ORCHARD—how Tess and Isabel are connected (aside from having the same father), who Annelise is and what her relationship was with Tess’s grandfather, Magnus, and others. In shaping the story, how did you decide when it was appropriate to reveal tidbits of background information in order to keep the book suspenseful?

SW: I write the way I love to read --- to find out what happens next. So writing this book was a bit like the treasure hunt itself. I was uncovering facts about the characters. It kept me very involved in the story. Sometimes a little tidbit or fact didn’t reveal itself until late in the game. For example, I never figured out Annelise’s connection to the story until I’d gone through several drafts. It’s a spoiler so I won’t mention it, but I think it’s a really cool twist. Trivia: The real Annelise is a lovely young thing who works at the Jane Rotrosen Agency. 

BRC: Tess’s relationship with Dominic is a complex one. They fell for each other when neither of them was looking for a relationship. Yet at one point, Tess makes a sacrifice that prevents them from being together. Without giving away any secrets, can you share what you were thinking when shaping the trajectory of Tess and Dominic’s relationship?

SW: I’m a sucker for that big dramatic “all is lost” moment near the end of a book. Just when it seems too hard, or the odds too crazy, for the two of them to get together, they are forced to deal with what’s REALLY keeping them apart. And it’s never what they think. It’s usually emotional fear on the part of one or both of them.

BRC: As in your previous works, there are loads of scrumptious-looking recipes sprinkled throughout the book that I’m sure your readers will love to try. How did you decide which ones to include where, and do you have a favorite?

SW: I call my kitchen the Fictional Test Kitchen because I’m always trying new things. For every recipe in the book, I’ve tried maybe a half dozen. I am wearing the evidence on my hips! I love my time in the kitchen. It’s relaxing and creative in a different way from writing. I love the bonding of cooking with someone and the feeling of love when someone cooks for me or scarfs down something I’ve made. I just made Tweed Kettle Pie (from THE APPLE ORCHARD) for a friend who’s going through cancer treatments. Food is love and comfort around here. 

BRC: Most of your devoted followers probably already know this, but for those who are new to your books: Did you really teach math before becoming an author? What kind of math? Has math come in handy at all for you as an author, besides calculating royalty checks?

SW: Yes, I was a math teacher for 10 years, and a good one, too. Writing a novel demands total left-brain and right-brain involvement. The structure is the left-brained, orderly side, and the imagined parts stem from the right brain --- I think. I always forget. I used to tell my students that just before they take a test, they should inhale deeply several times through their left nostril. They always did it. Gosh, what a bullshitter I am. I can’t help myself. 

Trivia: One of my fifth-graders grew up to become a successful author in her own right --- Katherine Howe, author of THE PHYSICK BOOK OF DELIVERANCE DANE.

BRC: You attend a lot of conferences as a writer, both as a speaker and as an attendee. For all the aspiring writers out there, might you share a few thoughts about why you find these conferences to be helpful? (Or unhelpful!)

SW: I love other writers, and the day-to-day work of writing is extremely isolating. A conference where we can talk shop and learn from one another is a great way to stay fresh. A writer’s skill set is never “finished.” There is always something to learn or some new insight to explore. The conferences I attend are always in some fabulous place --- Hawaii, Colorado, British Columbia, Australia…that’s a bonus. My upcoming appearances can be found at Aspiring fiction writers should mark March 2014 on their calendars --- a very special event will take place in Eugene, OR. 

BRC: You have published more than 40 books, both stand-alone novels and books in a series. Do you prefer writing one to the other, or are there aspects of each that you find rewarding for different reasons?

SW: No preference. Each is a new adventure. I love the world building and familiarity of a series. I also love exploring and discovering new people and places in a stand-alone story. I think I’ll probably always write both. However, each time I write a stand-alone book, there are requests from readers to hear more about those characters, or a spin-off about a secondary character. 

BRC: I noticed that you keep a blog (and one with a wide variety of posts!). What do you find rewarding about this type of writing? Is there anything you don’t like about blogging?

SW: Blogging is a great creative warm-up and a place to show off my mediocre photography skills. I can be less formal and more ridiculous on my blog than in my book. With the dominance of Facebook, the blog seems less relevant, but I still have my followers. I try to make sure there’s something interesting there at all times, even if it’s just a photo of my Doberman sunning himself. 

BRC: Originally, Tess is from San Francisco and identifies wholeheartedly with city life. But her trip to the California countryside changes her. You live on an island in the Puget Sound off the coast of Washington State. Did you ever live in the city? If so, how did you wind up living in such a bucolic environment, and how do you think it affects your writing?

SW: I’m lucky to have lived all over --- small town in upstate New York, world capitals like Brussels and Paris, a busy city and suburbs (Houston), and now a perfect green gem of an island in Puget Sound. My house is on a beach that frames a perfect view of Mount Rainier, and sometimes on a sunny morning, I just stare at it in wonder. It never gets old.

For me, the writing is so internal --- all inside my head. So as nice as it is to be surrounded by beauty and serenity, I forget the world while I’m creating. For example, I’m typing on a laptop at the moment, on a sunny patio with that glittering view in front of me. Yet if I was in a cramped closet or urban atelier, the view would be the same --- the words in front of me. 

Until I look up, that is. 

BRC: What’s next for you?

SW: A trip to Iceland, Scotland and the Czech Republic to see my publisher. Summer fun, of course --- lots of reading and sports. And, of course, writing. CANDLELIGHT CHRISTMAS comes out in October.