Anne Arundel

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

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?

I try to get to know my characters really well before I write. Where I start is to ask myself what my characters really, really want. What is their heart's desire? In life, everything you do, you do because there's something you want — something big or small, physical or emotional. Characters are like that. You try to make it difficult for them to get what they want, but their desire is … the engine that drives the car forward.

From that point on, I become like a stalker. [Laughs.] I stand right behind my characters and watch where they go. I manipulate them some, but if I try to micromanage too much, that's when I tend to get [writer's] block.

As a reader, what did you like so much about "The Secret Garden"?

I loved reading a book where the main character was really just unpleasant. Mary is described as this sullen, nasty, tough, very unattractive little girl. But she was smart. That's rare. I loved it!

On another level, I loved the way reality and magic melt together in the book. I'm sure that has had some influence on me. That element is there in all of my books. For instance, there's a ghost in every one. I don't make a fuss about it. They just come in and out.

How did the Humming Room project happen?

My editor, Jean Feiwell, came to me with the idea. As it happens, I had a copy that was completely dog-eared. I actually re-read "The Secret Garden" every year. But when I sat down to work on it, I realized I'd gotten myself into a mess. This was the scariest book I've written.

What were the biggest challenges?

For one thing, there's a secret in the book, but everyone [who has read it] knows what the secret is. How do you write about a secret when everyone knows what it is? That was tricky.

I also wanted to follow the story line pretty closely — it's a great story line — but also retell the story in a fresh, surprising way. If you don't do that, why bother?

How'd you approach the project?

I knew I had to make the setting different [from the English moors]. I was toying with all kinds of ideas. I initially thought of New York City — that would be interesting, to have the secret garden be in an urban environment. But the main character has to be isolated, so that wouldn't work.

At the time we were living in this lovely, tiny little town, Clayton, N.Y., right on the St. Lawrence River. I'd sit there on the pier to do my writing. And one day I found myself looking at this gorgeous river and these islands — the Thousand Islands — which are covered by these vast mansions built by millionaires early last century. There are creepy stories attached to all these places. I thought, "You're an idiot. It's right here!"

In the book, she lives in a house had been a tuberculosis hospital. Is there really such a place?

Not in New York. I was looking online, though, and learned about this old sanitarium that had what they called a body chute. These places were awful at helping people. They'd have patients walk outside in the freezing cold because they thought it was better for their lungs, stuff like that. … And they used these chutes to dispose of bodies [to avoid bad publicity]. I thought: That's one way to create secrets that weren't in the original.

How about the main character?

Roo popped right out. She was very easy to write. She feels like a half-savage in the beginning. She's so wild, raw and shut in, just like the garden. She's a person who's interested in things, but she's in survival mode. I think that makes readers root for her.

Do you counsel young writers?

A writer friend, Anne Mazer, and I realized we were getting tons of emails from kids with questions about writing. There are so many people between 9 and the early teen years who love writing! They don't fear it. Many are trying to do novels. They have sophisticated questions about plotting, writer's block, where ideas come from. There weren't many accessible, informative books about writing for kids, so we collaborated on one, "Spilling Ink." It's being taught in a lot of [grade-school] language arts classes.

I also go into schools a lot to talk to kids. When I was in elementary school, a poet came to our school and took us writers very seriously. … That was life-changing for me. I felt, "This is a real person. This is possible."

What lessons do you share?

I recently did a workshop where I talked about how to build suspense. I talked about planting clues — words that give the readers a heads-up that something is going to happen. And how the closer you get to the pivotal scene, the slower you want to go. But the most important thing is to create a character the readers care about. That way, if something's going to happen, the reader will care.

I also think kids, and adults as well, think writing is sort of a smooth process, like you just sit down and spin it out. Anne and I tell kids it's never easy. Every book is tricky and awkward in its way. I can see why so many people start out writing books and don't finish them. If you think it's going to be easy, and it's not, it's discouraging. I tell kids, "if you have a story going, just finish it." Then you know it's possible, and you can build on your success.

When did you finish "The Humming Room," and what are you doing now?

I finished it about a year ago. Since then I've written a book for boys 7 to 9 called "Otis Dooda." It's about a Lego-loving boy who moves into a New York City apartment building. He comes across as kind of a third-grade Holden Caulfield. It's kind of goofy, silly.

I wrote it because my son, Ian, is 7 and an avid reader, and there just aren't that many books for boys his age. He has been reading the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" books, but the content isn't really for 7-year-olds. They have crushes on girls and stuff, and he couldn't care less about that. Boy readers have to gravitate up.

Will "The Humming Room" become a movie?

We'll see. The Olivia Kidney series has been optioned by this wonderful producer, Michael Siegel, who did "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" [with Johnny Depp] and works mostly with kid lit. … A script for that is complete and a director is attached. Creative Artists Agency is representing "The Humming Room," and a screenwriter is in talks with several producers. But that's out of my hands. I'm on to my next thing.

What happened to that professor who rejected you? Did you ever contact her?

I always remembered that letter she wrote. I kept it. When my first two books were published, I was going to send her this nasty letter along with them. But then I took the time to reread the work I had submitted to her, and you know what? It wasn't very good. She was right. I did send her the books, but I included a thank-you note.