“Writing helped me discover my parents and my legacy”: An Interview with Alexandra Risen

In a nutshell, Unearthed is a memoir, it’s about a garden, it’s about a family. But as you start to sift through its pages, you come to an easy conclusion that Unearthed, above all, is a love letter, from a child to its parents, from a woman to the garden that ultimately heals her.

Alexandra Risen had always loved reading and dreamt of writing books someday. But it wasn’t until the past 10 years, when Alexandra—formerly a seasoned corporate executive and currently one of three co-founders of the non-profit online literary magazine Don’t Talk to Me About Love—took writing seriously. And she finally found the words for her debut novel right in her backyard—a one acre historic garden she and her family owned and restored when they moved downtown.

“I realized that writing was more fulfilling than I ever imagined. It helped me discover my parents and my legacy. And through sharing our journeys, we hopefully, sometimes inspire others. Someone described my memoir as a love letter to my garden as well as a love letter to my parents. I guess it ultimately came from my heart,” says Alexandra, whose memoir talks about the challenges her immigrant parents from Ukraine faced when moving to the “New World” and its subsequent effect on the family dynamics.

How did the idea for Unearthed, came about?

In the early years of the garden work, I wrote a short story about my mother being a Lily of the Valley in a University of Toronto writing class. I read it aloud, and at the next class, a fellow student gave me a gift of a luxurious bar of Lily of the Valley scented soap because my story touched her. I haven’t seen her since, but I was humbled by her gift, and it spurred me to write more plant stories, all the while inspired by the concurrent work in the garden.

I wrote about 15 short stories about my “plant-people” as my husband calls them. Over time, the stories morphed into a journey of self-discovery and the memoir was born.

What’s the most important lesson you learned from the time spent at the garden?

During the 10-year garden restoration, I studied about trees, shrubs, and flowers. Each plant’s qualities reminded me of a special person in my life. The restoration took on an almost spiritual role, and helped me reconcile my love of gardening with that of my parents. As I untangled the past, I learned to accept my family’s legacy and developed the desire to share it with my son, who will, ideally, carry it into his future.

What has been the feedback for your book?

Initial critical reviews from the United States, where the book first launched, were lovely. I was thrilled to have positive reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal, and Booklist. Media coverage in Canada has been terrific, and I loved an article called “Alexandra in Wonderland” referencing my favourite childhood book. Many people have shared their personal family and nature stories with me, and I appreciate every single one.

Which area in the garden is particularly your favourite?

I love the scents of spring, the lilacs and Lily of the Valley. The primroses are magical. I love it when the ducks come back. They arrived in early April this year. The pond is probably my favourite thing because the water comes from so deep below the earth. It carries minerals and the freshness of promise.

What are some beginner’s tips for someone with a vacant lot but no idea what to do with it?

I’m inspired by books. Gardens appeal to all our senses, so colour, texture, contrasts, and fragrance play a role. It’s important to focus on native plants; they are best suited to local conditions and also easy to care for. And a bench for contemplation is key.

How challenging is it to garden and what are some of the health benefits you can personally vouch for when it comes to gardening?

 The healing aspects of a garden easily overcome the challenges. And science has caught up with what nature lovers have known for centuries. For example, “shinrin-yoku,” meaning “to bathe in the forest,” is a concept that was formally proposed in Japan in 1982, and scientifically studied hundreds of times since then. Our five senses are stimulated by volatile oils and scenes in forests, and the impact is reduced stress, increased immune function, increased focus, and faster recovery from illness. Another study, in Neuroscience (2007), showed that a ‘friendly’ mycobacterium in soil, when breathed in, increases the production and release of serotonin, enhancing our feelings of happiness.

Are you are currently working on another novel?

Yes, another book about our inter-connectedness with nature, but from a very different perspective.

(Photos provided by author)

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