Tale links Norfolk to Far East

Norfolk author Lucinder Riley's acclaimed novel Hothouse Flower is an epic love story that crosses continents and spans more than half-a-century. EMMA LEE meets her.

It was looking out across the Chaopraya River in Bangkok that inspiration struck Lucinda Riley. The writer and her husband were staying at the Oriental Hotel, a place that she knows well from her many visits to the Far East. And it was there that the seeds of an idea for a novel were sown. A 13 hour flight home later Hothouse Flower was in full bloom.

Since it came out late last year, the epic romance which spans continents and decades, has become a bestseller. It's being translated into several different languages, it's going to be published in America, and it's made it onto Richard and Judy's prestigious book club reading list joining the likes of the Time Traveler's Wife and the Lovely Bones in its hall of fame.

On returning from the Far East, she started to write. Five months later she came up for air and the book was finished. The fictional Norfolk stately home Wharton Park is the link between a wartime love affair and the present day.

In the late 1930s, debutante Olivia meets handsome aristocrat and heir to Wharton Harry Crawford and thinks she has found the perfect catch. But Harry is a complex man and in the short time they spend together as man and wife before war breaks out, he is evasive and distant towards her – and before he leaves to take up his post as a general, Olivia discovers a devastating secret about him.

Just as they are finding their way towards happiness once again Harry has to leave with his batallion to fight in the war-torn Far East and their relationship is put to an even greater test.

In the present day concert pianist Julia Forrester has returned to Norfolk from the South of France in the wake of a family tragedy. As a child she had spent many hours in the hothouse of the Wharton Park estate, where her grandfather tended the exotic flowers.

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Recently inherited by the charismatic Kit Crawford, the estate is undergoing renovation which leads to the discovery of an old diary written in Thailand, prompting the pair to seek out Julia's grandmother to learn the truth behind a love affair which almost destroyed Wharton Park. As she unravels Harry and Olivia's story she discovers not only that the impossible choices they had to make hold parallels with her own life, but also that she too is inextricably linked to Wharton Park.

Lucinda is a brilliant storyteller – she's just as engaging in person – and there are some incredible twists in the tale. The book is very moreish and hard to put down. She writes in such a descriptive way that you can really imagine the story playing out on the big screen.

'I have to do the most enormous amount of research. I'm absolutely passionate about history. It feeds my lust for knowledge,' says Lucinda. 'It's amazing what you find out doing the research.'

One such example is a co-incidence she discovered when she was trying to find a way to link Norfolk and the Far East in Hothouse Flower. An internet search led her to the diary of Jack Farrow, a sergeant in the Fifth Royal Norfolks, who was held as a prisoner of war in Changi, Singapore. His description of the conditions in the prisons helped her understand what the soldiers had to endure. And, like the character Bill in the book, he was a gardener.

'I still get shivers thinking about it,' Lucinda says.

Lucinda trained as a dancer and became an actress but, as she explains, it was during a period of illness that she turned to writing. She wrote her first book longhand, based on her exaggerated experiences as an actress. Eight books have followed, written under the name Lucinda Edmonds. Her next novel, The Girl on the Cliff, is out in November.

Lucinda, who is in her early 40s, suffers from RSI, so rather than typing, she talks in to a tape recorder. She says that writing in that way helps the creative process.

Although she is disciplined when she writes, there have been some rather exciting distractions for Lucinda of late – the news that Hothouse Flower has been selected for Richard and Judy's book club and that she is going to be published in America by Simon and Schuster.

Lucinda has a great fondness for Norfolk. She lives near Holt and she says she loved having the opportunity to put some of her favourite places in the county into the book as well as some of her favourite places on the other side of the world. One of the great characters in the book, Wharton Park, is an amalgamation of some of Norfolk's beautiful estates.

'I came here and completely fell in love with it. It's just the most amazing county,' says Lucinda. 'I love Blakeney, which I put it in the book – my favourite pub is the White Horse. One day I'm going to buy the cottage that Julia lives in because it's got the most amazing view.

'Every single time I leave Norfolk I miss it,' she says.

l Hothouse Flower is published by Penguin, priced �7.99.

l The Girl on the Cliff is published in November.