CHAPEL HILL - The real estate agent drove Barbara Claypole White west on Dairyland Road, and a few miles outside Chapel Hill, they rounded a curve and crested a hill and suddenly the land opened up on either side and the gorgeous vista of Maple View Farms lay before them.
“There’s that lovely sweep of hills and the silos, and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I could be in England,’ ” said White, whose soft British accent has survived her two decades in the U.S. “It was beautiful.”
Like White herself, her debut novel has a foot in both countries. “The Unfinished Garden,” recently published by Harlequin MIRA, is set in Orange County and England; a pivotal early scene even takes place amid that pastoral Maple View landscape, from the vantage point of the rocking chairs on the front porch of the farm’s ice cream shop.
White lives with her husband and son just a few minutes away from there, on a deeply wooded tract off Dodson’s Crossroads. Her home – well, her woodland garden, anyway – also plays a role in the book, which she describes as “a love story about grief, OCD and dirt.”
So, in a way, does her son, 17-year-old Zachariah, who is a nationally award-winning poet and top of the class student who happens to have OCD – Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
OCD is an anxiety disorder characterized by intrusive, recurrent thoughts that produce unease, fear and apprehension. Making fear palpable
White said her family has been through some very difficult times during its years-long struggle to help Zachariah deal with what she calls “the OCD monster.”
“Imagine the worst fear you’ve ever felt, fear amplified to the point of absolute, paralyzing terror,” she said. “People with full-blown OCD face that kind of fear every second of every minute of every hour of every day. It can be completely debilitating. When my son was little, it was a very long time before we knew that what he had was OCD. We went through some very dark moments.”
Some of those moments, and the battles to overcome them, have found their way into “The Unfinished Garden.”
The book chronicles the evolution of the relationship between Tilly, a British ex-pat who runs a woodland garden nursery in Orange County, and James, a man who has OCD.
“The character of James evolved out of the struggles we’ve had with OCD,” White said. “People don’t understand OCD. They think it’s like the stereotypes they see on TV, where people with OCD are victims, or crazy, or serial killers.
“OCD is like an allergy to life. Fighting it takes incredible courage. And James is a fighter. He’s not a victim, and he’s not crazy, and he’s not a serial killer. He just happens to be terrified of everything except snakes – which makes him one up on Indiana Jones.”‘They’re both isolated’
The thing he’s most terrified of is dirt. That’s what leads him to Tilly; he’s determined to face what he knows is an irrational fear, and so he is drawn to someone who works with the soil and transforms it into something beautiful.
As for Tilly, she’s dealing with problems of her own, reeling with grief and regret after the death of her husband.
“They’re both isolated,” White said. “I wanted to explore the idea that people who need each other find each other.”
White said the novel grew out of “two dark ‘what-if’ moments” in her own life. The first came after her father died.
“I watched my mother deal with that,” she said, “and at one point I had a morbid thought, which was ‘What would I do if something happened to my husband? What would it be like to be a young mother and a widow?’ ”
The second “what-if” moment grew out of the exhaustion and fear of trying to help Zachariah with the extraordinarily difficult and disruptive effects of OCD.
“At some point, I thought, ‘Suppose nobody can ever love him as much as I do? What if, because of this disorder, nobody ever sees what an incredible person he is? What if he ends up alone because of this?’” she said. “James is an adult who finds himself facing that situation.”47 rejections
“The Unfinished Garden” took a while to bloom. It’s actually White’s second novel – the first one is in a desk drawer, where she says it belongs and shall remain – and she rewrote it so many times, she says, that it almost counts as 10 different books.
She shopped the book around for a couple of years looking for an agent. Forty-seven rejections later, she took a frank look at her manuscript.
She realized, she said, that she hadn’t let James fully breathe; something in her had been holding him back from fully acknowledging his OCD. She rewrote it again, and this time, she says, she “unleashed James.”
That change proved to be the key. Everything fell into place. She found an agent and sold the book rapidly, and it’s been winning awards and getting good play.
The publisher has contracted for a second novel, and White’s second-floor home office bears the evidence of her progress on the next book.
One wall is plastered in colored-coded post-it notes bearing reminders – “Will: keep confident,” “Jacob and Poppy are the agents of change” – and she has character charts and chapter summaries tacked to other walls.
“I’m not a plotter,” she said. “I’m a person of instinct. I have an outline that I made and have never looked at again. I have to find characters’ voices, and then in the process of writing I work things out. I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. You try to make the manuscript the best it can be. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure a novel is ever really done.”