Roughly seven minutes after I told my editor that, “Yes, I can absolutely write a modern retelling of The Secret Garden, no problem!” I began to think about American Idol. Specifically, I was thinking about the first round of auditions, where there are always a handful of people who look directly into the camera and boldly declare that they are destined to be the next American Idol. Absolutely.
These are invariably the very same people who make complete asses out of themselves in the audition, so retelling a beloved classic seemed like an excellent way to wind up with egg on one’s face.
Consequently, for a few weeks I did what many a person might do when they are terrified of looking like a doofus: I did nothing at all. Actually, I ate Swedish Fish and worried, but apart from that, nothing.
Help came one day when I was sitting on the pier in Clayton, NY, staring out at the St. Lawrence River, a vast stretch of roiling water, peppered with old mansions perched on tiny islands.
Old mansions. . . . Vast stretches of wild, moody water. . . . It was one of those shazaam! moments. Here, in the hinterlands of upstate New York, I had found my Yorkshire moors and Misselthwaite Manor. It had been right in front of me the whole time I was worrying and giving myself a sugar headache.
Out of the wild and beautiful St. Lawrence emerged a key character in The Humming Room; Jack, my counterpart to The Secret Garden’s Dickon. Now Dickon is a tough act to follow. Who doesn’t love this guy? He has a wicked cute accent, is nice to cranky girls, and can tame a wild fox. I suspected that creating a new Dickon wasn’t going to be easy; yet my Dickon — named Jack — seemed to materialize out of the river itself, paddling a canoe and wearing a tattered dress suit. If the original Dickon was a child of the moors, my Jack was a child of the river, living alone and nearly feral on the water. The more I wrote about Jack, the less sure I was that he was actually human. He seemed more like a Selkie, a mythological creature who can transform from a seal to a human. That was when I decided to create my own mythological creature — The Faigne. While the original Dickon wields magic over the land and animals, Jack has dominion over the river, and is able to call down storms or calm violent water. As the Faigne, he is a sort of Puck, a romantic sprite, liable to charm the young girls and whisk them off to sea.
Which brings me to the subject of romance. This was my one and only quibble with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. I always wanted Dickon to fall in love with Mary, the heroine. But he didn’t. I think he was too busy cavorting with squirrels to notice that Mary was head over heels for him. Although The Humming Room follows the basic storyline of The Secret Garden, this was my one major point of departure. This time, when the main character, Roo, fall for Jack, he falls for her right back, squirrels be damned.
The Humming Room was the 10th book I’ve written and was, by far, the most difficult. Trying to live up to a classic that classic probably took a few years off my life. Would I do it again? Maybe. But the next time I would know enough to follow a bit of sage advice from American Idol: If you are going to sing someone else’s song, you had better find a way to make it your own.
And remember to stock up on Swedish Fish.
Ellen Potter is the author of The Kneebone Boy, praised as “a quirky charmer” by Kirkus in a starred review. Her other novels include, Slob, a Junior Library Guild selection, the bestselling Olivia Kidney series, and, most recently, The Humming Room, now available from Feiwel and Friends. She lives in Upstate New York.