Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Q&A with Ginny Kubitz Moyer


Photo by Robin Clark



Ginny Kubitz Moyer is the author of the new historical novel The Seeing Garden. Her other books include Taste and See. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Q: What inspired you to write The Seeing Garden, and how did you create your character Catherine?


A: It all started with the setting. Many years ago, I visited Filoli, a mansion and garden in Woodside, California, which was completed in 1917 for the Bourn family.


It was utterly captivating: a Georgian Revival-style house with a ballroom and butler’s pantry and walled gardens like something out of an English novel. I had grown up not far away and was astonished to find that a place like that existed in the San Francisco Bay Area!


That first visit planted the seed, but it wasn’t until years later that I learned that Filoli was actually just one of a whole network of lavish estates that once dotted the San Francisco Peninsula, built by the elite who wanted country homes outside of the city.


That got me thinking about the people who would live in such mansions, and that led me to Catherine, the 19-year-old protagonist.


I’ve got a soft spot for coming-of-age stories and protagonists in their late teens/early 20s, so I knew it would be a young woman at the center of the story.


And maybe because my husband is a native New Yorker, I got to thinking about the differences between East and West, and how California would seem to a young woman in 1910 who was visiting from the other coast. I loved the thematic possibilities of that. I got to know the specifics of her personality through my writing process.


Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I read widely about northern California in the early 20th century and visited the research library at the San Mateo County Historical Association.


Because I live in the Bay Area, I was able to visit Filoli often and get a feel for what it would look like throughout spring and summer. I wanted to accurately depict what would be blooming in an estate garden in March versus July, for example.

Serendipity played a role in my research, too; a volunteer at Filoli happened to mention the book Gabriel Moulin’s Peninsula, so I hunted down a copy.


It contains pages of photos of the great estates made by Moulin, who was a society photographer of the time. You can even see photos of the bedrooms of these mansions just as they looked over 100 years ago, which is like catnip for a historical novelist! It was an exciting day when I got my hands on that book.


Q: The author Ann Weisgarber said of the book, “This well-written and captivating novel about social manners and stifling expectations imposed on women shines a light on a piece of California history that has been overlooked.” What do you think of that description?


A: First of all, I’m a HUGE fan of Ann’s work, so it thrilled me to my toes that she enjoyed the book.


More broadly, I think the description shows that there’s a lot of fascinating California history that is waiting to be featured in fiction. I’ve lived here for the majority of my life, and it was only relatively recently that I learned about all these glamorous country estates.


That’s true of every place, really; there are fascinating stories below the surface. This is why I’m a huge fan of local history museums and associations, and why I have so much gratitude for people who take the time to document and preserve the history where they live.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I am what’s often called a “discovery writer,” which is a fancy way of saying that I don’t outline. When I am starting a novel,  I write scenes totally out of order and without even knowing where they’re ultimately headed.


Sometimes I sit down to write a scene and don’t even know what the scene will be about or who the characters are until they show up. I may have a general idea in mind, but I’m frequently surprised by what comes out in a writing session.


I do that for weeks to months, collecting scenes, and that’s how the characters and plot situations emerge. When I’m not actively writing, I’m letting the ideas simmer and thinking about how these scenes and characters fit together. I do this while cooking, while gardening, on my commute, etc.


One of the key plot points in The Seeing Garden actually came to me on a plane back home from New York, when I was just staring off into space the way you do about four hours into a cross-country flight.


Then there comes a point where I sit and list all the scenes I have, in bullet points. I figure out which one goes where, and what’s missing, and which scenes I still need to write. That’s when I nail down the details of plot and ending. For my most recent novel, I did this on index cards, which helped me figure out how to arrange the scenes.


From the start, I knew that The Seeing Garden would end happily for the protagonist, but it took the process above to figure out how she would get there. It’s kind of a wacky way to write, honestly; it demands a lot of trust in the process, which some day is easier to muster than others. But I’ve written three novels this way, and it hasn’t failed me yet (knock on wood).


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My second novel (title still to-be-determined) is scheduled to come out late in 2024. It’s set in 1938, and it’s about a secretary in a Hollywood movie studio who takes a road trip to the Napa Valley with her producer boss, where they hope to convince an infamous 90-year-old stage actress to let the studio make a movie of her life.


I’ve got a third novel – also historical fiction – in the wings as well. And ideas for a fourth are tantalizing me, so we’ll see where those lead.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’m about to launch a monthly newsletter, which you can subscribe to at ginnymoyer.org. I’ll be sharing more about the background to The Seeing Garden and the places that inspired it (expect lots of flower photos!). I’ll also share more about my upcoming novel in the months to come. Thanks so much for interviewing me!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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