BOOKS / Bright Bugles and Golden Eyes: Marianne Brace on Lesley Howarth, a novelist with flower power

'I'VE ALWAYS had this strange attraction to heavy, manual labour,' says Lesley Howarth. She has been a market gardener, a pub cook, a flower picker, a pottery worker and a geriatric auxiliary.

But after building her own home, shovelling cement for her husband, Howarth experienced a mounting sense of frustration. As an only child she had spent 'a lot of time sitting on the stairs writing poetry'. As an adult she was suddenly gripped by a powerful new urge to write. 'I had a terrific logjam of ideas and had to express them. So I started writing quirky short stories, and immediately felt a lot better.'

Three years later Howarth read about Walker Books in the Guardian and sent them her manuscript. When the novel was accepted, subject to some minor reworking, 'I went to pick tomatoes and cried'. Walker Books receives up to 100 manuscripts every week, but The Flower King (pounds 4.99) is only the second unsolicited one they have published. The first, Hugh Scott's Why Weeps The Brogan?, won the Whitbread Prize.

The Flower King is the story of a 12-year-old boy's quest for a local celebrity, a plant merchant known as the Flower King; it also describes the boy's attempt to restore his friend, a woman in an old people's home, to happiness. 'In a lot of classic children's books,' says Howarth, 'the protagonists are 12. It's an ideal age to write for. Children are very empowered at 12. They are old enough to go anywhere and do anything, but are unburdened by adolescent worries. Once you tip over into adolescence, stories have to be much more grounded in reality.'

When Howarth was 12 herself, she was a busy reader: 'I had a marvellous series of Dean's Classics. You got Coral Island, The Man in the Iron Mask, A Tale of Two Cities. I bought one every week.' Then, aged 16, 'I had this massive, intensive poetry reading thing. I particularly liked D H Lawrence's animal poems.' But despite her enthusiasm for literature Howarth was asked to leave school ('I spent all my time in the common room knitting rugs') and at art college she stopped reading altogether. 'I was completely sated, didn't pick up any books between the ages of 17 and 35.'

A 'hippy, lumpy jumper' phase followed. Howarth moved to Cornwall and worked as a market gardener potting and rooting at Endsleigh, the Duke of Bedford's estate ('one of the happiest periods of my life'). But then she and her husband threw in the trowel and flew to California. They bought a Honda motorbike and travelled three and a half thousand miles across Mexico and the United States. 'When we came back we had nothing. We had to live in a friend's mother's caravan at the bottom of her garden - a sobering experience.'

With three daughters to bring up, there wasn't much opportunity to write. But six years ago Howarth started attending a local creative writing class and had a go at several novels. Publishers' rejections were no deterrent. She simply felt 'I must get better, and if I can do something good enough, somebody will recognise it'.

The ensuing novel, The Flower King, is 'an affectionate portrait' of the Tamar Valley where Howarth lives. It comes out of her experiences as a daffodil-picker - 'being lifted by the sight of a sea of yellow all around. I also knew that the flower fields were gradually disappearing around our area, which used to be big for flowers, and I felt that was rather poignant. The names fascinated me. I liked the sound of them.'

For the book, she made up new ones: Mohr's Bugle, Humboldt's Goldeneye, Lawry's Golden Belle, Madame D'Or and Little Addie named after a girl who picked for the Flower King. The boy's friend, Mrs Pinder from the old folk's home, was that girl.

But Howarth also taps into the otherness of children. The narrator, for example, has a passion for colours. He doesn't just see them, he feels them, defines everything by them: 'Take it from me, red's trouble. Any kind of red . . . Red's a panic button, black's a cruising shark. Orange, purple and brown are all mixtures, and bound to be tricky.'

Auras and otherworldliness are taken a step further in her second book, MapHead, which Walker Books is publishing next. It's a sort of fantasy rite-of-passage story, again with a young boy as the central character. He and his father are part New Age travellers, part aliens, equipped with peculiar and powerful talents.

'I've always liked the idea of the extraordinary which is just below the surface of the ordinary. It's really a book about the interface of the two.' Howarth has her characters living in a tomato house. 'I felt they would base themselves around plants . . . for the vibes. Having worked in a tomato house I realised you could live there quite comfortably - there are things to eat, drink, places to lie down. It's always warm.'

Howarth's is a fresh voice, as if she too has been cloistered in a greenhouse away from the world of children's fiction. MapHead begins: 'The reason Powers'd liquefied the cat in the end greenhouse first is it asked for it. It was a scrawny grey number with pleading yellow eyes and sticking-out hip bones, like it'd swallowed a box or something.'

In both novels there's a quest and a coming of age. MapHead becomes his own person, though an odd one. The narrator in the first book learns from the Flower King to ' 'Find what you love and do it'.' It is advice that has served Lesley Howarth well.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor