Karen Hugg writes literary mysteries and thrillers inspired by plants. Her first novel, The Forgetting Flower (Magnolia Press, April 2019) is the first in her Botanique Noir trilogy and centers on a fictional amnesia drug sold out of a plant shop in Paris. Hugg formerly worked as an editor and now specializes in ornamental horticultural and is a master pruner. She earned her MFA from Goddard College and has had work published in the anthology Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction and elsewhere. She lives in Seattle.
Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?
Ha! I actually went to Catholic school for many years so I’ve interacted with plenty of nuns in my life (not so much penguins). At any rate, I’d say I write literary mysteries and thrillers inspired by plants. I’ve been a writer since I was a child and became a professional gardener as an adult. Several years ago, plants started slipping into my stories. I realized the best way to spread my passion for plants was to write about them in exciting ways that embodied the fascination I felt for them. That led to start speculating about plants that didn’t exist but could. And that was the seed (no pun intended) for The Forgetting Flower.
But I don’t just write about plants. I write about human beings too. The people who care for the plants, the dilemmas they face, their flaws and conflicts. People are interesting because they’re complex and I try to bring that to the page too.
Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?
That The Forgetting Flower is, in part, about the addiction and trade of a flower. It’s somewhat similar to marijuana or heroin made from poppies in that it has a natural origin. But the story really isn’t about the plant but rather what’s done with it. For instance, the plant in the book, Violet Smoke, produces flowers that give whoever inhales its scent amnesia. People forget the last thing they were thinking of. This, as addiction experts would know, could be very handy. People might want to forget certain traumatic or inconvenient events in their life. And my characters do just that in this novel within the dark framework that sometimes accompanies drug addiction: the monetary costs, the desperation to obtain it, the deterioration of a livelihood, the black market on which it’s sold.
What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?
I have to be honest and admit I don’t have a personal story about recovering from drugs or alcohol. Of course, my dad died when I was a child from lung cancer caused by nicotine addiction but that experience didn’t appear in the novel directly. That occasionally appears as absent father issues in other writings!
My story is more in the professional realm. As a gardener, I was always advising clients on what fragrant plants to use in their gardens. Ones with sweet or citrusy or spicy scents. But then I started thinking about what would happen if you had a plant whose scent was dangerous to inhale. Where would that grow? How would it come into existence? When I started outlining the details of the plant, it followed that the plant would be produced or discovered by some sort of botanist before anyone else. What that botanist would do with it was then the launching point of the story.
How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?
Well, in The Forgetting Flower, I had a choice to explore the idea of forgetting happy or neutral memories or painful sad ones. The idea of people wanting to forget painful sad memories seemed more fruitful. It also offered the most plot choices. If people wanted to forget painful memories, there would be a demand for the Violet Smoke. And that demand could launch a person into using it altruistically or nefariously. From a plot perspective, it was much more intriguing and exciting to have it used nefariously. And so, that demanded a person secretly grow it and sell it. And to whom would someone sell it to? Well, they’d either sell it to an established above ground pharmaceutical company or black market dealers. The latter seemed more intense. So, I developed a whole plot line with that logic.
The other choice in the narrative was whether one of the people who cared for the plant might use it on his or herself. You know how some dealers never dip into their product and others do? Some are addicts themselves. So, I explored that aspect a bit too.
If drugs weren’t in my writing arsenal, at least for this book, I wouldn’t have explored such dramatic topics. Drugs are sometimes a means to escape pain and where that pain is born can be intense: poverty, abuse, neglect, rape, etc. And the people involved with all of these issues have binding relationships. That makes for compelling storytelling. If I wasn’t exploring them, I’d have to work to be creative in a different way to put powerful drama on the page. And that would be okay too.
What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?
Basically what I mentioned above, that drug addiction is an intense topic and can make for compelling reading. In the future, I know it will take me to that altruistic side of medicinal plants. My next novel, Harvesting the Sky, focuses on a botanist who discovers and then grows a medicinal apple for a pharmaceutical company, but someone keeps vandalizing his greenhouse, and he can’t figure out why.
BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that The Forgetting Flower gets made into a major motion picture. What song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?
I’d love to see a movie or better yet, a well-done series that portrays not only The Forgetting Flower andHarvesting the Sky, but the third book in this Botanique Noire trilogy. The third book will focus on mutated trees. So, I think, kind of like Tana French’s forthcoming television show with the Dublin Murder Squad characters, my Botanique Noire novels could make for a decent limited series.
In terms of a song playing as the credits roll, I love the Thievery Corporation song “Le Coeur,” which features the French/American/Iranian singer Loulou Ghelichkhani. In Thievery Corporation style, the song is cool electronica and her voice is sultry and beautiful. Her style on that song reminds me of Astrid Gilberto. Plus, she sings about melancholy and moving on, which somewhat matches where my main character’s at throughout the book. I absolutely love that song!