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Books: Bury's Tiffani Angus talks time travel

Set in a garden overgrown with secrets, Tiffani Angus’s debut novel takes her reader on a trip through both space and time. The author, who lives in Bury and works in Cambridge, talks to Velvet’s Alex Spencer

Growing up in the Nevada desert where no building was more than a few decades old, novelist Tiffani Angus developed a hankering for the historic. First she devoured stories of King Arthur and Camelot, then read about Elizabeth I and was astonished to learn that her childhood home still existed. When she finally moved to the UK to study creative writing, she quickly became obsessed with historic houses and gardens and the stories that laid beneath each century of dirt.

“When you write about the past you are writing fantasy in a way. Because until we have Tardises we will never know exactly what happened, but we can imagine. So there's an interesting border between historical fiction and fantasy fiction. I like to write historical fantasy because I can do all the research and find out about real people - then mess with the people’s lives because they are dead.”

Tiffany’s debut novel, Threading the labyrinth, has been more than a decade in the making in part because of the depth of her research. The book follows the story of an American owner of a failing gallery, Toni, who is unexpectedly called to England when she inherits a manor house in Hertfordshire from a mysterious lost relative. What she really needs is something valuable to sell, so she can save her business. But, leaving the New Mexico desert behind, all she finds is a crumbling building and overgrown gardens.

The book tells the story of several of the people who have worked in the garden over the years and how Toni, the main character who has inherited this land, is haunted by them. “I realised that houses are not torn down and rebuilt but gardens are remade much more often. The idea is that if these gardens are dug up and replanted, all these layers are there underneath and they hold onto time that way. . .”

Tiffani’s research took her to local gardens including those at Anglesey Abbey, Ickworth and Audley End. And, although a lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, she actually lives next door to the Abbey Gardens in Bury St Edmunds. “I stand in the Abbey Gardens and think a monk probably had a herb garden here 600 years ago - this is interesting to me.”

“Toni starts to experience odd things in the garden,” explains Tiffani, “and as she learns about her family’s past the narrative will go back in time to four other stories, one set in the 1620s and others in the 1770s, 1860s and 1940s.”

There is a ghostly element, which came quite naturally to Tiffani as ghosts were always referred to matter of factly in her family. “My grandma used to see ghosts,” says the author. “When I was a teenager she woke up one night and her late father was at the end of the bed petting the cat and she was like, well it was nice to see him. She was so calm about it.”

Tiffany believes historical fiction gives her the opportunity to comment on questions that are concerns in the present day. “I think one of the themes from my book is that - especially right now, with the pandemic - we want to know we have left some trace behind and that there's hope that there is some sort of future.”

She also believes gardens are a useful way for a novelist to travel in time. “There is a tradition in children's fantasy fiction: when the garden is a central location, quite often it is used as a time travel device,” says Tiffani. “Look at Tom's Midnight Garden, The Children of Green Knowe and Moondial. . . So I took this idea from kids' books and made it more adult.”

The route to publishing her first novel has been a long one, from working on a local newspaper to training airport employees how to spot bomb parts on X rays. Now she is lecturing in creative writing and publishing at Anglia Ruskin, but only started writing seriously after finishing her bachelor’s degree. The story of how it started is, naturally, a little spooky.

“A friend and I lived on opposite sides of a cemetery in Dayton Ohio. She showed me this headstone that was shaped like a pyramid and it had hieroglyphics on it. Later at dinner I said, what if the hieroglyphics were a clue to something? That inspired us to write a novel about it together.”

Her friend then sent her a link to a writing workshop and she never looked back. About to hit 50 this year, she says: “I tell my writing students a quote attributed to George Elliot: It's never too late to be what you might have been.”

Threading the Labyrinth by Tiffani Angus (42309525)
Threading the Labyrinth by Tiffani Angus (42309525)

Threading the Labyrinth by Tiffani Angus is out in paperback priced £9.99.

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