Holly Ringland is in full bloom. Sturt's desert peas burst in a flame of red from her necklace. Desert heath-myrtle, Cootamundra wattle, honey grevillea and bat's wing coral tree form a tattooed garden that wraps around her forearm.
The tattoos and necklace are recent additions, each added at different stages along the journey towards publication of her first novel, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart.
In the novel, Australian native wildflowers and plants provide a way to express the inexpressible for women who have sought refuge from domestic and family violence at a flower farm, called Thornfield, deep in the bush of north-west Queensland.
Each of the flowers that adorn Ringland has a specific meaning in the language of flowers she develops throughout her novel. The Sturt's desert peas mean "have courage, take heart"; the desert heath-myrtle is "flame, I burn"; the Cootamundra wattle means "wound I heal", honey grevillea is "foresight" and bat's wing coral tree is a "cure for heartache".
It is a language that not only forms the heart of her debut, but one that has enabled Ringland to metamorphose her own traumatic experiences at the hands of violent men into something new.
"Before I wrote the book, I was thinking about healing," Ringland, 37, says.
"Can I reform the experience of the traumatic memory? Can I do something else with these ashes, because that's all that they are? It is unbearable dead life because it is trauma. Can I make meaning out of something that is too hard to remember but that I can't forget?
"What I feel like now is, more than healing, a sense of transformation, a sense of remaking something."
The novel's young protagonist, Alice Hart, stops speaking after her violent father and her vulnerable mother die when fire ravages their coastal home. Her previously unknown grandmother, June, takes her thousands of kilometres away to Thornfield, a "place where flowers and women could bloom". The relationship Alice forms with the troubled women at the refuge is nurturing and empowering, and she learns "this secret language of flowers to speak for all the things her voice wouldn't". As Alice blooms in this magical matriarchal community, she rediscovers the power of speech.
But the cycles of violence are hard to break, and when an adult Alice abandons Thornfield to work as a guide in the desert she finds herself in an abusive relationship after being swept off her feet by a fellow guide. But this is a novel of resurrections and revivals, and just as Alice finds her strength so Ringland has after years of feeling silenced by shame.
"I have lived with [male-perpetrated violence] a lot in my life, in different parts of my life, in different relationships," Ringland says.
"In terms of the personal genesis of the novel, it was the hardest thing I had ever done because I looked at things and reflected on things that I've never taken the time to look at, and sit in, and remember and reflect on. I had to learn how to reflect rather than relive, so that I wasn't spiralling into reliving memories that are in the past."
I had to learn how to reflect rather than relive, so that I wasn't spirallng into reliving memories that are in the past.
Like her heroine, Ringland grew up with the smell of salt in the air, by the Broadwater on the Gold Coast, and fields of sugarcane grew at the end of her grandmother's street. Also like Alice, she moved to the desert in her 20s where she spent four years working as a media officer at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in the Northern Territory. While she has drawn on her experience of violence, Ringland says the novel is not autobiographical.
"I don't want to call it personal because it's not just my story ... I wanted to make art, I wanted to write fiction. I didn't want to write a memoir," she says.
"It was drawing on my emotional and sensory experiences to give Alice an alive story. It was like a two-way thing where I was going in, but she was also pulling me out."
While Ringland was thrilled to finally feel the words flow, the experience was painful; a number of prominent female writers proved supportive friends, teachers and mentors.
Midway through the process Ringland attended a writing retreat run by Bitter Greens author Kate Forsyth and she studied with Women Who Run with the Wolves author Clarissa Pinkola Estes in Colorado. Other mentors included Ashley Hay, author of The Railwayman's Wife, and author Brooke Davis, who put her in contact with her now agent.
"This book has just had so much generosity of spirit from Australian writers ... There were women writers who told me, 'you must, you must' and I don't know if I could have done it otherwise, because it was scary and some chapters felt like pulling teeth to write and others were so wonderful," Ringland says.
Ringland's novel shines a light on an experience that is all too prevalent in Australia. One in three women have endured physical or sexual violence perpetrated by someone known to them, and one woman on average is killed every week by a current partner.
"One person came up to me [at a book event] last night and flat out told me these stories of abuse ... that was extraordinary. And right now, at this point in my life, is probably the truest sense of feeling I'm getting about the thing [commentator] Brene Brown talks about which is, if you 'don't own your story, it will own you'."
Ringland wrote the first lines of her novel in fountain pen in a Moleskine notebook, as she sat in her office in Manchester, in Britain, in 2014. After she'd written the first 11,000 words by hand, Ringland put the novel aside due to a family bereavement, but returned to finish the bulk of the novel from August to October in 2015. The first chapter won a Griffith Review writing award that year, which included a residency at the writers' retreat, Varuna, in the Blue Mountains, where she honed the draft.
Ringland had spent her life savings to move abroad in 2009, enrolling in a master's in creative writing at Manchester University and later in a PhD via correspondence where she first started researching the nexus between creative writing and trauma. "I just suddenly had the clarity of insight," Ringland says.
"I wanted to put myself in the position where life was more about writing. It was a real do-or-die sort of thing. I didn't know what I would do if Manchester didn't work out, I didn't allow myself to think that far because it was too terrifying."
While Ringland's mother, Colleen, is an avid gardener, she was inspired to create her own Australian language of flowers after researching the rise in popularity of floriology – which seeks to define the meaning of flowers – in Victorian England. Boxes of reference books were delivered to her home, shared with her English partner Sam, which became jungle-like as she also accumulated pot plants.
"I really embodied the book to write it. Like, I lived it to write it," she says.
Ringland had long dreamed of writing a novel. She remembers declaring she would be an author when she was three after reading May Gibbs' Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and when she was 14 she emailed publishers alerting them of her desire to become a writer. Their polite responses then were very different to those she received when she submitted her manuscript for The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart.
The novel is expected to be one of the biggest Australian fiction releases of the year. HarperCollins has launched a mammoth publicity campaign for the book and Ringland soon embarks on a whirlwind tour across the country with visits to more than 50 bookshops. The rights have been sold to 20 territories, including Britain, Canada, Russia, Japan and France. The Slovak Academy of Sciences has even added 60 Australian flowers and trees to the national lexicon, after the translator discovered that there were no words for them in the Slovak language.
There is also the potential of a film or television adaption, with the novel currently in the hands of producers.
Her agent, Benython Oldfield, who is the Sydney director of Zeitgeist Media Group Agency and also represents Jasper Jones author Craig Silvey, said he was immediately transfixed by the manuscript, then titled The Centre is Red, that landed on his desk.
"I turned off all communication and read right through the manuscript at my desk – which never happens".
Oldfield rang Ringland that afternoon, fearful that other agents might be circling. There was a five-way auction in late 2016, and Ringland's HarperCollins publisher, Catherine Milne, says a "significant amount" was paid to secure the book.
Milne describes the year-long marketing campaign in the lead-up to the novel's publication as "out of the box". She is willing to "go out on a limb" to describe the level of hype, goodwill and retailer support as comparable to that which met Jane Harper's The Dry and Brooke Davis' Lost and Found.
"The momentum behind this book has been building and building and it feels like everything is going right," Milne says. "Everything is falling into place. Some books just have that luck, they have that momentum, and this is one."
As we sit in a cafe in Sydney for her first media interview, an exuberant Ringland is at a loss to express how she is feeling.
"I'm just so grateful this is happening. I feel like I have pea-sized brain when I try and get my head around it ... I really hope that it kind of never wears off. I hope that it never sinks in," she says.
"I was talking to my mum and my best friend about this. We are feeling feelings that we don't have names for. We need another language ... if I do try and name it, it feels awing. I am awestruck."
Luckily, there might be another way – maybe a bouquet of orange immortelle ("written in the stars"), a flannel flower ("what is lost is found") and a fair few painted feather flowers ("tears") would suffice.
Anatomy of a book deal
2014 – Holly Ringland starts writing her novel by hand.
October, 2015 – The writer sends a draft to agent Benython Oldfield, who agrees to represent her.
June, 2016 – Ringland delivers a revised manuscript to the agent.
October 2016 – The book is "talked up" to publishers at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
November, 2016 – The manuscript is submitted to Australian publishers, with offers and marketing plans due by the end of the month.
Late November – December, 2016 – A round robin auction is held. There are five bidders, with HarperCollins Australia securing the book. Overseas submissions open and a six-figure offer is made by Random House Germany's Limes imprint.
January, 2017 – The UK rights are sold, after a pre-emptive bid, to Pan Macmillan Mantle.
2017 – early 2018 -The book is edited and the cover is designed.
March 19, 2018 – The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart to be published in Australia and New Zealand.
June 2018 – Overseas publications begin.
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart
Late afternoon sunlight poured into the cab. Alice started. She'd fallen asleep without realising; dried tears cracked in the corners of her eyes and there was a kink in her neck. She straightened up and stretched. Harry licked her hand. She let him; she was too tired to push him away again. No longer on the highway, they were bouncing noisily along a rough dirt track. A pink bruise had formed on her knee where it had knocked against the door handle as the truck jostled over bumps and dusty pockmarks. Alice craved salty sea air.
June had her window down, one tanned elbow resting on the open sill. Her greying curls moved gently in the wind. Alice studied her profile. June didn't look anything like her father, but felt so familiar. When she tucked a curl behind her ear, the silver bracelets jangled on her wrists. From each one a small charm dangled, with a pressed yellow petal inside. She glanced at Alice, who was too slow at acting asleep.
Through the blur of her pretend-sleep eyelashes, Alice saw June smile and shake the bracelets on her wrist. "Like them? I made these myself. All the flowers, they come from my farm."
Alice turned her head away to look out the window.
"Each flower is a secret language. When I wear a combination of flowers together, it's like I'm writing my own secret code that no one else can understand unless they know my language. Today I thought I'd wear just one flower."
A muscle twitched in Alice's cheek. June changed down gears, the bracelets chiming in response. "Want to know what they mean? I'll tell you the secret."
This is an extract from the Lost Flowers of Alice Hart which will be published by HarperCollins at $32.99 on March 19. Holly Ringland will attend events across Australia this month and will be at the Sydney Writers Festival in May. The full festival program will be in next week's Spectrum.