Q&A: Margaret Dilloway, Author of The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns

Inflexible and uncompromising, science teacher Galilee Garner divides her time away from work between her rose-breeding hobby and her outings to the hospital for dialysis treatments. But her structured life is transformed when her 15-year-old niece, Riley, unexpectedly arrives on her doorstep to live with her. Filled with lovely rose-breeding details, Margaret Dilloway’s The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns (out this month) is a tender study of how love and understanding nurture our growth and our lives.

Readers may initially find Gal as “thorny” as the lovely roses she raises! Can you share some of the challenges you faced creating this character?

at first, my editor asked me to soften her—I made her too prickly and overbearing, though she didn’t seem that way to me! But now you can tell that, despite her somewhat curmudgeonly nature, she really just wants the best for everyone.

Describe the impact Riley has on Gal’s ordered existence.

Suddenly Gal has to deal with a teenager in her [private] life. Gal has guilt for not being there enough for Riley when she was a little kid and a strong desire to help her out, yet the presence of another person is tough on her—she’s been alone for so long. And she also has to figure out how to care for a dependent, when sometimes it’s difficult for her to care for herself.

Gal is no stranger to hospitals and medical procedures. How did you learn so many of the clinical details?

My late sister-in-law, Deborah, had three kidney transplants and was on dialysis for many years. She was born with reflux, causing her kidneys to fail at age four. She shared a lot of the harrowing medical details I included in the book, including her allergy to IVP dye, which doctors thought was all in her head. She really had to fight for her treatments or argue against other procedures, which earned her the reputation as a difficult patient with certain doctors.

Raising roses and the world of rose competitions plays a significant part in your novel.  What kind of research did you do? Why is Gal so taken with this hobby?

I found a rose breeder named Jim Sproul who volunteered to answer my questions. He’s written a lot of articles about rose breeding, which he shares on his website. He told me about the Hulthemia and its 200-year journey of hybridization, in which many people have tried to get the perfect rose, just like Gal does in the book. In fact, this year is the first year the Hulthemia is commercially available, courtesy of Mr. Sproul! It’s an exciting time for a rose enthusiast.

I think Gal likes raising roses because she can somewhat control and predict how they turn out, while she herself has very little control over her own body and disease.

Several of your other characters are well-drawn and very real. Which of these characters did you find most challenging?

 Dara, Gal’s best friend, was the most challenging and most satisfying to write. Dara is the art teacher and Gal’s polar opposite. She has a complicated relationship with Gal—she’s a caregiver, a friend, a colleague, even a bit of a competitor. They have a falling out, and getting that just right took a few rewrites.

Siblings often have fractured relationships. While Gal and her sister’s relationship requires mending, what valuable lessons have surfaced?

I think the main lesson is people are all different, and rather than fixate on what you don’t like, you need to focus on your commonalities.

This novel differs greatly from your somewhat autobiographical debut, How to Be an American Housewife. What inspired you?

Gal just started speaking a monolog in my head while I was reading about rose breeding. You can’t ignore a voice like that! Looking back, I think I chose to write about rose growing because I began writing [the novel] during an uncertain period of my life, when I felt like nothing would ever change. I needed a lesson in resiliency.

Rose growing reflects life. To thrive, roses need a period of dormancy. They need to be severely pruned. They need to be fed and watered just right; insects and fungus need to be controlled. They have a blooming season. Gal has kidney disease; Riley is troubled by her past. They are in a period of dormancy and pruning themselves. How can we gracefully accept the bad cards life has dealt us?

Rose growing is a reminder that nothing is permanent, not the worst of times nor the best of times. There is a certain comfort to that. And both novels feature strong female characters and have the lore of an inspirational text guiding them.—Andrea Tarr, Corona P.L., CA