The inspirational fiction of Denise Hildreth Jones has been hailed as “smart and witty.” Her ability to express the heart of the Southern voice has led to her being featured twice in Southern Living, and receiving the accolades of readers and reviewers alike—but it is the simple joy of writing stories that keeps them coming back. Her previous books include the Savannah series and Hurricanes in Paradise. Her latest novel is The First Gardener.
Q: What would you like to tell us about The First Gardener?
The First Gardener is at times a heartwarming and heartbreaking story. The story takes place at the Governor’s mansion, where the Governor Gray London and his wife Mackenzie are in the middle of his first term. They have a beautiful daughter, Maddie, who is starting kindergarten, and they are in the midst of fertility treatments to try to have another child. In the middle of this term they suffer a heartbreaking loss.
Jeremiah Williams has been the gardener at the mansion for twenty-five years. He knows his own share of losses. And in his beautiful and gentle way, he helps them till the soil of their hearts back to life.
This might actually be the hardest story I’ve ever written. And it was actually a story that just came to me from out of the blue. There was no catalyst for it. No experience that launched it like my last three books. It was very much like my Savannah series in that it was just a story that kind of settled in my soul.
To me, it is a story about so much, but it is mostly a story about deep relationships, how far they will travel, what they can handle, and how people who love you—truly love you simply won’t let you go.
It is a story about our doubts, our questions and our beliefs about God and how He should work in our lives. It is about surrender, and trusting when we can’t see. And realizing that in this life we are entitled to nothing. That we have anything good at all is simply because God is so inconceivably kind. So it really does dig down into some of the most challenging questions that we may have in this life.
Q: The First Gardener is described as a “Southern tale”—how much of that is a matter of the story’s location versus a particular tone or state of mind?
I honestly think it’s both. There are aspects of setting, and nuance of voice or thought that seem to be uniquely Southern. As a Southerner when I travel to different places, West Coast, up North, I’m struck by some of my thought processes, or the foods I eat, or the things that I say that people look at me as if to say, “Child, what in the world?”
This is my first novel set in Tennessee, so there are things that are uniquely Southern in that way: crepe myrtles, azaleas, country music. There are pimento cheese sandwiches and sweet tea. All of these things are unique to the South. But there is also a pace about the South. A way of life. You can pat people you don’t know. You can call the waitress “baby” or “sugar” and she doesn’t think a thing about it. So I think it is both.
Q: You’ve written several novels at this point—how has your journey as an author changed your fiction over time?
I think my stories have changed as the story of my own life has changed. And I think each one in some way has been something God was desiring to say to me about my own personal story.
My first three books were these lighthearted, southern tales about this abandoned heart wrapped up in a young woman named Savannah Phillips. Those books were such a gift to me, but I see them now as a tool of God’s wooing. I believe He gave me those books to try to woo my childlike heart back to life.
Flies on the Butter was my next book and it really was the same way. Most of the scenes that were about Rose’s, the main character’s, childhood, were my childhood memories. Once again, I think God was trying to woo my shut-down heart back to this alive, childlike place.
Then things shifted. The Will of Wisteria was about a battle for your birthright. A fight for your heart. Which I was in a battle for and didn’t even realize it.
And then Hurricanes in Paradise was such a healing book for me after the heartbreaking loss of my thirteen-year marriage.
And in my new book, The First Gardener, I think I was processing some of my personal beliefs about my Heavenly Father and how He should do things as well as some of my pain from years of not having children of my own. So, it seems that my stories move as my heart moves. As God reveals things, changes things, uproots things, heals things, all of that becomes reflective in my writing.
Q: Is your first goal to minister to readers—or to entertain them?
Honestly, neither. My first goal is to write the story that I can’t get away from. Because in that I feel like I am writing the story God has called me to write for that season. And then I trust that they will be both ministered to and entertained.
I will say that in The First Gardener I didn’t originally have Eugenia, the mother-in-law of the Governor, as a main voice in the book. But as the book began to come out, it felt so heavy that I knew we needed something to lighten it up, so I gave Eugenia and her four crazy cohorts a voice. And for me that took the story to another level.
Q: What do you most hope readers take away after reading your book?
I always hope that my stories cause people to look into their own hearts. My hope is that through the stories of the characters they might see an area of their own heart that needs to change, needs to heal, needs to surrender. If a reader can write me that something in my story has touched them in the deepest place of their soul, then I know I have written the story God has given me to write.
Q: What is the best thing anyone said about your books?
It has to be “Once I started reading this I couldn’t put it down until I finished it.” I tell people all the time that when they have picked up an author’s book they have given them two of their most precious commodities—their time and their money. People don’t offer either one of those things lightly. If I have been privileged enough to write a story someone can’t put down then I know it has touched them on multiple levels.