Westmont professor write adventure novel for young adults
Music can bring people together across borders, religion and even time.
Dr. Paul J. Willis, professor of English at Westmont College in Montecito, explores this idea in his newly published young adult novel, “All in a Garden Green” (Slant Books, 2020).
His experience teaching at Hengrave Hall in England (the home of the Westmont-in-England semester for 20 years) inspired him to depart from his usual nature writing and pen a story set in the 16th-century manor house presided over by a group of nuns.
While exploring the house with her new friend Pedro, 13-year-old Erica Pickins walks through a chamber door into the year 1578. There, she finds a music master who mistakes her for Margaret, the elder daughter of the house who is late for a lesson on the virginal, a forerunner of the piano.
It seems in a matter of days, Queen Elizabeth I will arrive on a formal visit, and the girl is to play for her. Erica pretends that she is Margaret and manages to pull off her final performance but not before the real Margaret reappears at exactly the wrong moment.
The author said he got the idea for the book years ago when he and his wife, Sharon, took a group of college students for a fall semester of study at Hengrave Hall.
“Our children, who were then 5 and 7, were with us, and I always wondered afterward what the visit was like for them. So I did some research about the place and found that it had a distinctive musical history, and I also learned some interesting things about the visit of Queen Elizabeth in 1578. So 1578 became the date to which the children in the story go back in time,” said Dr. Willis.
The book’s title, “All in a Garden Green,” is the name of a song that Erica plays on the piano and the virginal. It was popular in the court of Henry VIII and was still popular in the court of his daughter Elizabeth.
As his first book for young adult readers, Dr. Willis hopes that it will prove to be an adventure for them.
“I can’t predict where that adventure will take them in their imagination. That said, I do have to admit that insofar as the story dips into the deep sense of conflict between Catholics and Protestants in 16th-century England, I do want to educate young readers about what that might have been like — and to warn them away from taking part in that kind of conflict as they get older. By the end of the story, the power of music becomes an almost magical way in which this conflict (at least for the moment) is resolved. I suppose I want to provide some hope that our differences, however intractable, can be transcended.”
Dr. Willis is also the author of four eco-fantasy novels in one big book, “The Alpine Tales.”
The novels are set in a mythic version of the Cascade Range in the Pacific Northwest and are “full of climbing, hiking, skiing, caving and river-running adventures, not to mention a few talking marmots.”
This book is different from the others in how at least a part of it got written, according to Dr. Willis.
“The climactic chapters came all in a rush in a single night. I had spent the day in a very sad way, helping a friend who had just been divorced move some of his stuff out of his house. That evening I felt emotionally exhausted.
“After dinner, I sat down to revise a few pages of what I had written thus far, but then, unexpectedly, I kept going. And going.
“It was as if the story was being told to me, and my job was to just keep up. When I got to the end of the significant action, and Erica had come back to her own time, I looked up and found the sun was coming through the window, and my wife and kids were having breakfast. Some writers experience this sort of thing all the time, but I am usually more of a plodder.”
The author, who has published six collections of poetry and two collections of essays, has already drafted a sequel to “All in a Garden Green” in which Erica’s little brother, Walter, goes back in time to visit a pioneer community in the wilds of California.
“Of course, he gets himself in trouble, so Erica has to go back in time herself again to help him out,” said Dr. Willis. “The story takes place in a wilderness area behind my home in Santa Barbara, so this puts me back on familiar ground.”