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Rebecca Stott: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Rebecca Stott is the author of several novels (Ghostwalk and The Coral Thief), as well as numerous non-fiction works. Her latest book is Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution, published by Spiegel & Grau.

Tell us about Darwin's Ghosts—how did the idea for the book come about, and how did you select which subjects to profile?

When I wrote Darwin and the Barnacle back in 2003 I was struck once again by the dangerousness of the work Darwin was doing. I knew there had been others who had entertained ideas about the evolution of species before him and I became curious about the risks they might have undertaken. I started with Darwin's own list of his predecessors—there were 38 men on Darwin's list—and began to assemble as many more names as I could find. My book begins with Aristotle, even though Darwin was mistaken to call him an evolutionist, because the questions he was asking and the empirical methods he used would shape the long history of evolution in important ways. My aim was to try to understand these people as human beings not just as vehicles for ideas. I wanted to know what vexed them, what woke them up at night, what drove them.

What was it that persuaded Darwin to add his "Historical Sketch" to the third edition of Origin (and to expand it in the fourth edition)? Was there any contemporary reaction to the essay itself (distinct from reaction to the book as a whole)?

There was a kind of protocol in Darwin's time that if you published a groundbreaking book of science you would begin by paying tribute to all the thinkers who had walked that path before you. Darwin failed to do this with Origin partly because he was rushed into print and partly because he was unsure just who his predecessors were. In 1860, when he was chastised for not including such a preface, he resolved to write one. The project took him six years to complete and was a source of enormous anxiety to him; he was never quite sure who had said or written what and when. Because he kept finding new people the historical sketch was always to some degree a work-in-progress.

You write in the preface about growing up in a household where the Darwin entry was literally razored out of the encyclopedia. Do you think that contributed to your interest in Darwin and his ideas?

Undoubtedly—as far as one can know about these things. I was a curious child, and I remember the intense frisson of curiosity I felt about Darwin and his ideas, because they were regarded with such derision and horror by all the important men in the religious community I lived in. Prohibition acts in mysterious ways.

Which of Darwin's predecessors were you most surprised to learn about as you researched for this book?

Probably the eighteenth-century French intellectual Diderot. I lingered longer over that chapter than any of the others. I think I fell in love with him a little. Diderot was intellectually restless, a rule-breaker, a risk-taker, clearly also fascinating and charismatic in conversation. I think he might well be the most original thinker I have encountered. Because he was forced to hide his ideas—he was under surveillance from the Paris police—he developed a series of rhetorical strategies for evading responsibility often by using devices from the theatre. The results are often surreal and highly inventive.

I think the chapter I was most fascinated by was "Trembly's Polyp," about Abraham Trembley's experiments with the organism we know today as the Hydra. Explain, if you would, how Trembley started something of a scientific fad with these creatures.

Trembley, still only a very young man himself, had been engaged as the tutor of the young sons of a rich duke from The Hague. He was a diligent and fascinating teacher and he liked projects. He quickly got them involved in a series of natural history experiments involving insects and microscopes. When the boys noticed that the pond creatures they had collected from the ornamental ponds on the estate had started to do strange things in their jar, Trembley proposed they make a special study of them. But he had not expected to discover that when he and the boys cut the tiny polyp in half it regenerated itself. Having repeated the baffling experiment several times he wanted other important men of science to witness it so that someone might understand how this creature (was it an animal or a plant?) had come to defy some of the known laws of nature. He sent sealed glass jars containing the polyps to men and women all over Europe so that they could repeat the experiment and see for themselves. Soon the polyp and the philosophical problem the polyp represented had become the talk of all the great European cities. Poems and treatises and speeches were written about it.

Do you think that Darwin would be surprised that the very concept of evolution continues to be controversial even in the 21st century?

Difficult to say. He had a pretty good grasp of why evolution upset people and I don't think he entertained any ideas about a future in which everyone would become wholly rational. He knew the limits of the human psyche and the power of the Church to control what people believed to be true. So I think he'd be saddened by the heated debates about creationism in the US but I don’t think he'd be surprised by them.

When and were do you do most of your writing? Do you compose in longhand, or at the computer?

I write most days—on my computer. I tend to write best in libraries: I grew up in a very repressive fundamentalist Christian community and the school library was the place I'd go to follow my own intellectual curiosities without being under surveillance. I have just moved from Cambridge where I have worked in the beautiful 1930s Cambridge University Library building for the last twenty years, to London. I have bought a house within walking distance of the British Library. There is something about writing amongst other people writing that makes me very focused. On a good day I lose all sense of myself for hours and hours just following a thread or a question. I write my fiction in libraries too. Writing fiction is a much more anxious process for me and working in a library helps me to keep steady. A little writing every day is the way I do it. If I leave a project for more than a few days I lose the thread.

What sorts of books would we find on your own library shelves?

Less than usual! I have just moved. Novels, books of non-fiction—a lot of poetry. My daughters and I have culled and culled the house book collection over the last months in order to fit everything into the new London house which is much smaller. I am not a natural collector of books. So long as I am in and out of a great library several times a week I don't need to own a huge collection. The books that are most precious to me are the books I teach regularly—I annotate them on every page so that when I come back into the book again, it is already alive with ideas and reflections I've had before and new ones forming. I enjoy that encounter between the present and the past.

Which books have you recently and enjoyed recently?

A wonderful novel called What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt. Camus' The Plague which I read from cover to cover last week when I was locked out of my new house and had to sit in the porch (with no shoes or phone or purse). The last owner had left a single book behind there—all tattered and yellowed. It was a great unexpected pleasure to be forced to sit and read until my daughter returned with a key four hours later.

Can you tell us a bit about your next project?

I am working on two projects—one, fiction, a dark thriller, called Dereliction set in contemporary London and the other a work of non-fiction called The Iron Room which is a memoir about fundamentalism. They both entrance and vex me.

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell

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