Thursday, March 20, 2014

Q&A with author Ruth Kassinger

Q: You write that A Garden of Marvels was initially inspired by your experience with your kumquat tree. How did that come about?

A: I don’t think I’m alone in forming a sentimental feeling toward a plant. I really loved this little plant—she was just perfect, except her leaves dropped off. I did a poor job of pruning!

It occurred to me—I had had the thought before—that I don’t know much about how these [plants] work. You can follow the instructions in a book or on the plant's hangtag, but sometimes it helps to know what’s going on in a plant. I got a book, Botany for Gardeners, but it was really boring. All my writerly instincts kicked in—“I can do a better job than this!”—and that’s what I did.

Q: Was there anything that especially surprised you in the course of your research?

A: The story of Sebastien Vaillant. On June 10, 1717, he gave an incredible, sexy lecture that crystallized it for me—there was so little known about plants! In 1717, this was an amazing moment. He was a very appealing character, but he was so stopped in his career by who he was, a son of a tradesman—there was no chance of his becoming a professor. That was one of the most engaging moments.

Also Marcello Malpighi. There was very little written about him, but there was a wonderful five-volume collection of his letters, so I had this sense of doing primary research. I found the particular day when he had written about being at a particular anatomy lesson. It was one of the last times he did something with human anatomy; he was about to leave for the country to work on plant anatomy.

Q: One particularly interesting plant in your book is the fruit cocktail tree that you named Dorothy. What more can you say about that?

A: It started with [my previous book,] Paradise Under Glass, going to a greenhouse complex, Logee’s, in Connecticut. In one of the greenhouses, there was a giant cocktail tree, with so many different kinds of fruit hanging off it. The tree was growing in the dirt, not in a pot, which tells you how big it can become. I just really wanted one! I loved the idea of one tree that could bear different kinds of fruit. It set me off on a quest that took me to Florida.

Q: What about the giant pumpkins you write about, and the pumpkin boats?

A: As I did research on pumpkins, I spent a lot of time talking to people who grow giant pumpkins, and someone said, Go to the Giant Pumpkin Regatta [in Damariscotta, Maine]. It’s a beautiful place. I could hardly hold my camera, I was laughing so hard. It was a fun vacation!

Q: How did you decide on "A Garden of Marvels" for the book’s title?

A: It just came to me. I really struggled with the subtitle—it captures part of the book, but not the other part, talking to people about their extraordinary plants. The cover was painted by a friend who lives across the street, Eva-Maria Ruhl.

Q: Your book includes information on early botanists as well as current scientists and your own life. How did you blend those elements as you worked on the book?

A: I was very conscious of keeping people’s interest and slipping in the science as easily and gently as I could. I had the story of botany in mind, but I knew I needed to chop it in small pieces, and only focus on the botanists who were the most interesting.

I was going to alternate as much as I could: the story about me, the story about someone in the here and now, and the story about someone in the past. It was hardest for me to write about myself. [Looking at an early draft], my editor said, “It needs more Ruth-ness!” She said people are really interested in who is telling them the story.

Q: You’ve also written for young adults. Do you have a preference when it comes to writing for younger readers or adults?

A: Adults. What I find fascinating is the science. What inspired the kids’ books and the adult books is to bring what I find so entrancing about science [to the readers].

There’s only so much complexity you can go into with the young adult books. A lot of the humor and irony would be lost.

Q: Are there any writers who have especially inspired you?

A: Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire. I love books by Nick Lane, a really great popular science writer. Stephen Jay Gould. StevenJohnson, who wrote The Ghost Map, [which looks at] England, in the early 1800s, figuring out cholera and how it was transmitted. These are people who are really good at communicating science in a narrative form.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I really feel so strongly that understanding science should be fun, and it’s not that hard to make it fun and plot-driven in some way, so you don’t feel like it’s a job [to read it], you feel like, “What comes next?”

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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