The April State of the Thing, LibraryThing’s monthly newsletter of features, author interviews and various forms of bookish delight, should have made its way to your inbox by now. You can also read it online. It includes interviews with authors Tatiana Holway and Marie Brennan.
I talked to Tatiana Holway about her book The Flower of Empire: An Amazonian Water Lily, the Quest to Make it Bloom, and the World it Created, published by Oxford University Press this month. Some excerpts:
What a story! It’s hard to imagine a country getting excited about a flowering plant today, but in early Victorian England, just that happened, as you tell us in your book. What was the plant, and why did so many find it so fascinating?
You’re right: most of us these days do tend to think of gardening as just a hobby and flowers as mere decor. For Victorians, though, gardening and flowers were intertwined with almost every aspect of daily life. Add to that the sheer numbers of new flowers that were turning up as Britons explored (and absorbed) more and more parts of the world, and the deluge of information about them that was surging through the ever more widely circulating popular press, and you can see how news of the discovery of a colossal tropical water lily could cause quite a stir. Then add the further fact that the plant was discovered in Britain’s only South American colony—the one where it so happened that Sir Walter Raleigh had gone looking for El Dorado and so much of Britain’s imperial ambition had been formed—and the fact that it was identified as a new genus just when the 18-year-old Princess Victoria happened to become queen—you could say all the forces were in place for a perfect storm. The naming of the flower Victoria regia set it off.
Are you a gardener yourself? If so, what are some of your favorite plants to grow?
Absolutely! After growing up in New York City—”gardenless,” as Victorians might have said—I found myself living in a house with a yard, stuck a trowel in the dirt, and fell head over heels with growing flowers: lilies of the valley, violas, forget-me-nots, daisies, delphiniums, sweet peas, morning glories, poppies, veronicas, daylilies, plantain lilies, lavender, roses, clematis, bell flowers, cone flowers, black-eyed susans, hollyhocks, phlox …
What’s your own library like? What sorts of books would we find on your shelves?
Loads of books on natural history, plus loads on British history, plus loads of Victorian literature and literary criticism. I have a soft spot for 17th-century poetry, so there’s quite a bit of that, and then there’s plenty of contemporary fiction, and pockets of all sorts of other books, too. I can’t live without the OED. That and about a dozen other well-thumbed reference works are on my desk. Naturally, companions to gardens and flowers are there, too.
What have you read and enjoyed recently?
Issues of Punch from the 1850s and ’60s and of The New Yorker from the last few months. Richard Russo’s Straight Man was great fun on a short trip recently. The other day, I started Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale. It’s a nonfiction work, based on a Victorian woman’s diary, and very well written. Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending is definitely on my list. I’m also looking forward to giving the novels of Jeffrey Eugenides a try.
Do you recall what first gave you the idea to write a novel about Hollywood fame and its effects on both the famous person and those around him?
Tell us about Lady Trent, the narrator/memoirist of A Natural History of Dragons. What’s she like, how does she get interested in dragons, and what can readers expect from her memoir?
She’s a deeply geeky woman who became obsessed with dragons at a young age, when she began collecting sparklings (tiny insect-like draconic creatures) and decided that anything with wings was awesome. Her memoirs chronicle the process by which that enthusiastic girl became first an amateur naturalist, then a professional one, then a rather famous (not to say notorious) one. As she is writing her memoirs in her old age, she doesn’t much care what people think of her anymore, and often has trenchant comments to make both on society and her own youthful errors.
What gave you the idea to pen a novel in this particular narrative form?
It really just fell into place, when I first started chasing the idea. The first-person point of view drifted right away into a retrospective voice, Isabella looking back on her life, and then it seemed obvious to write it as an actual memoir—which is, after all, a very Victorian thing to do. (The book is set in a secondary world, but it’s very much modeled on the real nineteenth century.)
You and your husband have been LibraryThing members since 2006 (http://www.librarything.com/profile/castlen). Tell us about your library: how is it organized? Do you and your husband integrate your books or keep them separate?
We integrated them when we moved in together—and yes, both parts of that were considered Big Steps in our relationship! Back then we marked our books with initials in case of separation, but the books we’ve gotten since then are unmarked. God help us if we ever get a divorce; that could get ugly real fast …
As for organization, fiction is downstairs, with mass-market paperbacks in one bookcase (with very closely-spaced shelves) and hardcovers and trade paperbacks on another. Those, of course, are all alphabetized by author. There are two bookcases with comic books and roleplaying games, and then in my husband’s office, various science and technical books. My office contains the nonfiction part of our library, arranged by subject, along with odds and ends like the travel books, foreign language dictionaries, manga, and so on.
It sounds a bit obsessive, but with more than two thousand books, we’d never find anything if it weren’t organized.
You’ve written about the importance of buying books from physical bookstores: what are some of your favorite bookstores, and why?
I love Borderlands Books in San Francisco. It’s a specialty bookstore, with science fiction and fantasy and horror, and its selection is fabulous. They host a large number of readings and signings and other events, and the staff are very knowledgeable and friendly—basically, it has all the classic virtues of the independent specialty store.
Catch up on previous State of the Thing newsletters.