Excerpted from Curiosity by Joan Thomas. Copyright © 2010 by Joan Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Emblem Editions, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
10 Writely Questions with Joan Thomas
1. How would you summarize Curiosity in one sentence?
Forty years before Darwin, a 19th century gentleman and a fossil-collecting working-class woman meet each other, and their way of thinking about the world changes.
2. How long did it take you to write this book?
I read for about a year and then I wrote for three.
3. Where is your favorite place to write?
I wrote part of this book in a desk in the bedroom, part in the basement facing a cement wall, the rest in my current light-filled office. Really, I don’t care, as long as it’s quiet. I’m not a Starbucks kind of writer.
4. How many drafts do you go through?
With word processors, it’s impossible to say. I’m always tinkering with what’s there, adding layers. But if you consider it a separate draft every time you say, “Okay, this is done,” print it off, and give it to someone to read — maybe 8. It’s amazing how often you finish a book!
5. If your book were to become a movie, who would you like to see star in it?
I’d hate to put anything out there that would interfere with readers casting themselves into the lead roles in Curiosity, so I’ll stick to the smaller parts. Mary’s father is definitely Daniel Day Lewis in smouldering, maverick mode, and Mary’s wry upper class friend is Emma Thompson. Henry’s fiancée — well, I’d start by calling Emma Watson from Harry Potter in for an audition, although I’m not so sure about her.
6. When do you write best, morning or night?
I love to write in the morning to see what problems my unconscious mind solved overnight. But sometimes I get on a great roll in early afternoon — it feels like that moment when you hit your stride after running for a while.
7. What’s on your nightstand right now?
I’ve just finished the most amazing book — Goya’s Dog by Damian Tarnopolsky, a Toronto writer I’ve just discovered. It’s brilliant and achingly funny. I read it in a day. I recently read and loved Mother’s Milk by British writer Edward St. Aubyn — it’s in a similar satiric vein.
8. What do you drink or eat while you write?
Not long ago I knocked a big glass of mango juice over on my keyboard, so, currently, nothing.
9. How do you decide which narrative point of view to write from?
I guess it’s a question of whose story you want to tell. But then there are questions of which voice to use (1st, 3rd, or if you’re really brave, 2nd) and how intimate and idiomatic and reliable the narration should be. I doubt if most writers make these decisions in a calculated way; you start to write, and look at what you have, and try to fully exploit its potential. I’m so interested in point of view — in my opinion it’s the most wonderful tool writers have. So few books on writing delve into it in a satisfying way. One exception is How Fiction Works by James Wood.
10. What is the best gift someone could give a writer?
I think almost every writer will say “time.” I just received a great gift from a reader. Someone (the hostess of a book club I visited) read an interview where I confessed to writing in my pyjamas so I could get to work faster in the mornings. So she put together a big bag of wonderful things for breakfasts. All home-made baking, pumpkin scones, etc. I loved it — every morning for two weeks I loved it!
From the Hardcover edition.
Ten of Joan Thomas’s favourite books:
I came to the subject of Curiosity as a non-scientist and a non-historian, so as you can imagine, I read like crazy. This project was a great excuse to reread Thomas Hardy (whose novels are set in the Dorset of Mary Anning’s time) and Jane Austen (who I viewed as my guide to Henry De la Beche’s world).
Among the books that inspired and taught me, here’s a list of my particular favourites. The first five are novels and the last five nonfiction.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. A delicious critique of 19th century society written in brilliant imitation of the 19th century novel. And set, of course, in Mary Anning’s town of Lyme Regis. The 1981 film version was shot there (you’ll remember Meryl Streep in a hooded cape at the end of the Cobb). Interestingly, John Fowles wrote that Mary Anning was the secret heroine of The French Lieutenant’s Woman . . . whatever he meant by that!
Darwin’s Shooter by Roger McDonald. Syms Covington was a seventeen year-old seaman on the voyage of the Beagle when Charles Darwin hired him as his servant. An odd fellow, Charles Darwin wrote, but they became friends. This novel is written from Covington’s point of view, and it’s a marvel of fresh and inventive language. It imagines the voyage as well as Covington’s struggles, as a deaf old man in Australia, to come to terms with Darwin’s theories.
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey. Oscar (what an endearing character!) also ends up in Australia, but his childhood is spent on the Devon coast, where he’s prey to the fanatical whims of his widowed father, a naturalist studying marine life along that shore. In writing Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey drew heavily on Father and Son by Edmund Gosse, a memoir about the gifted 19th century naturalist Philip Henry Gosse. I highly recommend both Oscar and Lucinda and Father and Son.
Persuasion by Jane Austen. Austen holidayed in Lyme Regis in 1804 and wrote vividly about the town in letters to her sister. She mentioned visiting a shop where a cabinet-maker, assumed to be Mary Anning’s father, tried to overcharge her for a repair; Mary would have been five at the time. Jane Austen loved Lyme Regis and set part of Persuasion in the town, where Louisa Musgrave falls off the Cobb and Anne Elliot gets to show off her emergency-response skills.
Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth. Among prominent historical novels, Sacred Hunger is a tour de force. It recounts the story of an 18th century Liverpool family that sets out to make its fortune by investing in a slaving ship, and the consequent voyage of the Africans their agents capture. Moving back and forth between these worlds, Unsworth brilliantly explores the moral issues of the times.
The Map That Changed the World by Simon Winchester. A wonderful popular history that tells the story of William Smith, another 19th century working class scientist whose work was stolen by his social superiors. William Smith realized that fossils could be used to trace and date geological layers, and he created the first, beautifully hand-tinted geological maps of Britain. The illustrations in this book are so fine!
The Hummingbird Cabinet: A Rare and Curious History of Romantic Collectors by Judith Pascoe. A fascinating study of the English frenzy for collecting that put a cabinet filled with fossils or dessicated hummingbirds in every 19th century drawing room. Judith Pascoe includes an entertaining account of the Mary Anning symposium chaired by John Fowles in 1999. Her own thinking about Mary Anning is fresh and thought-provoking.
The Dragon Seekers by Christopher McGowan. By one of Canada’s prominent paleontologists, this highly readable books tells the story of the circle of Pre-Darwin fossilists trying to make sense of a spate of discoveries during an exciting period in English scientific history. The Dragon Seekers was a great resource for me regarding the personalities that figure in Curiosity: Anning, De la Beche, Conybeare, and Buckland.
The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Paleontology by Martin J. S. Rudwick. Martin Rudwick’s books are a gift to nonscientists who are curious about how fossils were interpreted through the ages. You might also like Scenes from Deep Time: Early Pictorial Images of the Prehistoric World.
Charles Darwin, a New Life by John Bowlby. Bowlby was a psychiatrist, and was drawn to this subject by a desire to unravel the riddle of Darwin’s numerous (and probably psychosomatic) illnesses. On Darwin’s personality and family life, this biography is insightful and moving. On the times and the gradual emergence of evolutionary thinking, a rich story full of compelling characters.
- Joan Thomas
From the Hardcover edition.
1. The word curiosity has more than one meaning: in what different ways does the title express the content of the novel?
2. In what ways is “A Love Story” a valid description of the novel?
3. Curiosity is set against the backdrop of scientific discoveries that, 40 years before the publication of On the Origin of Species, challenged beliefs that most people living in the Western world at the time held without question. What aspects of these discoveries do you think most people found the hardest to accept, and why? Do you think that a novel set today could ever portray such a momentous shift?
4. What do you think are the particular attractions for an author of setting a work of fiction in the past? The particular challenges? What attracts you to such a novel?
5. A reviewer has said that Thomas writes “magnificent prose that appeals to all the senses. . . . Equally important, Thomas handles the doctrinal debate raised by the then-budding field of geology with [great] subtlety and nuance.” For you, is an author’s ability to bring the physical world to life equally as important as her ability to explore and present complex ideas? If one aspect is more important to you, why is that?
6. About midway through the novel, Mary recalls the pastor James Wheaton’s last sermon and the text he chose from the Book of Matthew: If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. Much later in the novel (chapter 30, p. 345), Mary remarks to herself, “This is what comes when your eye is single.” What do you think she means? Why do you suppose this text occurred to her at this point in her life?
7. A number of clergymen play roles in Curiosity and in Mary Anning’s life: Mr. Buckland (who was an Anglican priest by the time he met Mary Anning, and became Dean of Westminster later in life); James Wheaton, the nervous young pastor of the chapel; and Mr. Gleed, who replaces Wheaton. What do each of them mean to Mary? They all profess their religious beliefs at one time or another, usually in an effort to somehow correct her: how does she respond to each of them? What is the “ground” that Mary stands on when she comes into contact with authority?
8. Mary has examples of belief systems that come from sources other than established religion: what are they? Which do you think is most important to her? Why?
9. How would you characterize Richard Anning? Was he a hero? A failure?
10. And what of Henry De la Beche? Discuss the extent to which his ideals and youthful rebellion are or are not fulfilled in the choices he makes later in life. Could he have acted otherwise, with regard to Mary? With regard to his own career?
11. What drew Henry and Mary to each other? Which of the two do you feel had more to offer the other?
12. There are a number of significant female characters in Curiosity besides Mary: her mother, Molly Anning; Miss Elizabeth Philpot; Mrs. Aveline; Letitia Whyte. Which of them, in the end, would you say was the most able to decide her own fate? Which of them was the happiest? Would you characterize any of them as tragic figures? If so, why?
13. Do you think Miss Philpot was a true friend to Mary? Why or why not? How about Colonel Birch? Mr. Buckland?
14. Curiosity is written for the most part from two alternating points of view: why do you think the author chose this particular strategy to tell the story? How do Mary and Henry’s different backgrounds and experiences shape their interpretation of events? In what ways does the author bring these differences to the readers’ attention.
15. At the beginning of the novel, Mary enumerates the “degrees of the poor” (chapter 1, p. 15). How important are the distinctions of class to Mary and to Henry? Do these distinctions remain as important to each of them at the end of the novel as at the beginning? Would you argue that either of them transcended or escaped the boundaries placed on them by class expectations? By gender expectations? By familial expectations?
16. The Khosian woman known as Saartjie Baartman was displayed in London in 1810 and after, but there is no historic evidence that Henry De la Beche saw her there. Why do you think the author imagines this encounter? How significant do you think Henry’s unusual childhood was in shaping the youth, and then the man, he became?
17. In their last encounter in the Undercliff, Henry says to Mary, “I saw the end of all our science.” What does he mean by this?
18. The major characters in Curiosity are based on historical people. How do you feel about the author’s responsibility to “reality” in a work of fiction? Are all facts open to interpretation, or are some matters more sacred than others? Does the amount of time passed make any difference?
19. If you could go back to mid-19th century Lyme Regis and hear about the events of Curiosity from one of the characters other than Mary Anning or Henry De la Beche, who would it be? Why?