Mayo author makes new, familiar tale from 'Secret Garden'

Children's author Ellen Potter of Mayo updates a classic in her latest novel, "The Humming Room"

March 10, 2012|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

When she was growing up, Ellen Potter was an avid reader, and nothing thrilled her more than settling down with her well-worn copy of Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic 1911 children's novel, "The Secret Garden."

The book's heroine, 10-year-old Mary Lennox, loses her parents to a cholera outbreak and must start her life anew at a remote manor in rural England. There she meets an array of often-spooky characters, happens on an abandoned garden and brings it back to life.

"At the start of that story, Mary's so sour and unlikable. That's so unusual, and it fascinated me," says Potter, a children's novelist whose three-book series about a feisty preteen named Olivia Kidney gained acclaim in recent years. "I've always been obsessed with that book."

So Potter, a Mayo resident, felt both thrilled and nervous three years ago when her editor came up with a bold idea — that she update "The Secret Garden" for a modern audience. "At first, I thought, 'Hell yeah!'" she says. "Then I sat down to it, and I thought, 'Am I suicidal? This is one of the most beloved classics ever.'"

But critics are raving about the result, "The Humming Room," the haunting novel she wrote and that Macmillan published last month.

"The Humming Room" (it's named for a room that emits ghostly sounds) gives us Roo Fanshaw, a 12-year-old girl whose parents, both drug dealers, are killed and who, like Mary, must start all over again. She's sent to live in an uncle's chilly mansion in the remote Thousand Islands on the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York, where her experiences echo Mary's.

Publisher's Weekly has called the book "resonant" and "a thrilling ghost story." Meghan Cox Gurdon of The Wall Street Journal writes that "Potter revives ["The Secret Garden"] with such grace and sensitivity that readers ages 11-14 will be glad she did." The plaudits are nothing new for Potter, three of whose works have been optioned by Hollywood producers.

Potter, who grew up in a rough-and-tumble part of New York City, lived in upstate New York for years and moved to Mayo last fall. She lives a block from the bay with her husband, who is an engineer, and their 7-year-old son. This week she sat down to discuss "The Humming Room" and her burgeoning career.

How did you get into this line of work?

I pretty much always knew I wanted to be a writer. I was writing goofy stories when I was 7 or 8. That was what I call "wishful-thinking writing." I grew up in the city and always wanted a horse, but there was no way I was getting a horse. So I wrote all these stories about kids who had horses. It's still fun entering these other worlds.

Did people encourage you?

There were writers and journalists in my [extended] family, and my parents always supported me 100 percent. I have a brother who's a doctor and another who's a nuclear physicist, so when I was working as a waitress [in my 20s], trying to get published, it felt a little strange, but they never once said "Go get a real job." They told me, "You're not a waitress. You're a writer in the making." That made a huge difference.

That's important in this field, right?

Oh, yes. One professor in college told me flat-out I wasn't good enough to enter the creative writing program. I saved that letter and promised myself I would send it back to her when my first book came out. And [early on], I got so many rejections. I just submitted and submitted. I did not stop. It was just sheer bulldoggedness.

Why do you write for children, not adults?

I started out writing short stories, then did a novel ["The Average Human"] for grownups. I got an agent through doing the novel, but the book took 10 years to see print. Once that was over, I was ready for something light, so I wrote a kids' book, "Olivia Kidney," and that spilled out of me in three months! Oddly enough, those two books were published within three days of each other [in 2003].

How do the genres compare?

I resisted children's writing for a long time. I saw myself as a writer of literary fiction. But I had so much more fun writing kids' books. And I found there wasn't that much of a difference, really, especially for [11- to 14-year-olds]. You have to keep things moving, nail the characters, keep their interest. If the writing's not good, they don't care if it got a good review in The New York Times. They'll put it down.

What's your workday like?

I sit right here at this sofa and write on my laptop. It's quiet. I write about two hours a day, and I write in fits and spurts — 45 minutes here, a half-hour there — and when I get stuck, which happens often, I take the dogs for a walk. But during the time when I'm not actually writing, I'm thinking.

You've said you start with characters, not plots. What do you mean?

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