Elizabeth Gilbert is currently best known as the author of the memoir Eat, Pray, Love, which sold more than 10 million copies, spent over 200 weeks on the New York Times' bestseller list, and was made into a movie starring Julia Roberts.
With the publication of her new novel, The Signature of All Things, she may also become known as an expert on exploration, botany, and the history of evolutionary theory. The book, which Gilbert spent nearly four years researching, follows the fictional Alma Whittaker as she wrestles with the most pressing scientific questions of the 19th century from her comfortable home in Philadelphia—until she is driven to discover the world firsthand and sets sail for Tahiti.
National Geographic spoke with Gilbert about what it was like to follow her curiosity into the world of science and exploration.
The Signature of All Things covers a lot of ground, but must have started with a small seed of an idea. What was it?
It came from two sources, actually. The first is that I had recently moved to the country, and I had just started gardening. I was surprised by how sucked into gardening I became and how I didn't want to think about anything other than plants. So I knew that whatever I was going to do next was going to be about plants.
Then I stumbled upon a 1784 edition of Captain Cook's voyages that had belonged to my great-grandfather. It was this gorgeous, remarkable book that had been in the family forever and that we were always forbidden to touch when we were children. I started to read through it and discovered that it wasn't Captain Cook who fascinated me but [naturalist and explorer] Joseph Banks, with his energetic perusing of the earth for botanical specimens. Once I learned about that, I knew there was no way I was writing about anything else.
So you had a fascination with plants and a historic background, but you needed a main character. Did you model Alma Whittaker on any particular 19th-century female botanist?
She is not modeled on anyone in particular, although there were quite a number of prominent and brilliant female botanical researchers and explorers. I'd initially thought that she'd be this person of towering intellect who isn't able to have her work taken seriously because she's a woman. Once I started doing research, I found that it would have been a real discredit to female botanists because a lot of them did have their work taken seriously.
Alma has an epiphany about moss, in which she looks at it through a magnifying glass and discovers a "stupefying kingdom." Why did you have her—and by extension, yourself—plunge into the study of moss [bryology], of all things?
I needed to find something that she could have realistically spent decades studying without leaving home, and that limited things enormously. Alma was very bound to her father and to her father's work, and he was bound to his estate in Philadelphia. I needed to find something that was quite in reach, and it had to be diverse and complicated enough that you could spend decades studying it. Once I started reading up on moss, I realized that it was exactly the right thing because it is the universe writ tiny. Everything that's going on in forests and ecosystems on a large scale is also going on in the mossy world on a tiny, microscopic scale.
You went to Tahiti to research the book. What were you looking for?
I was looking for climate and landscape. The vast majority of what I learned in working on this book I was able to get through reading, but there's some things that you just really have to see and you have to smell. I needed to go the beach where Alma lived and know the length of it, and how the surf was from the tree line and what her view would have been and what the trees would have sounded like and what the lizards and crabs there looked like. All of those things just needed to be seen in the immediate present.
Alma works her way toward the theory of evolution independently of Charles Darwin. Why was it important for you to have her reach that level of scientific discovery?
Because I thought it'd be fun. Prior to my research—and I feel very silly that I did not know this—I had not realized that the conversation about evolution in scientific circles had been going on for such a long time and by so many people. Even before the 19th century, there was a growing awareness among natural philosophers that the world is a transmutating place and that things are not what they were. They started to find the fossil records and the geological records, and it was becoming really apparent to them that shifts had taken place. They even used the word evolution. They just didn't know how it occurred.
Here all along, I thought Darwin had invented evolution, but he had just discovered the mechanism of evolution. There were a lot of other people who were quite close to that—not just [Alfred Russel] Wallace but others as well—so it didn't seem completely out of the realm of possibility that somebody who'd been spending 25 years looking that carefully at a couple hundred yards of moss on her property might not come to the same conclusion as somebody who was looking at the beaks of finches in the Galápagos.
How important was it for you to get the science right in a work of fiction?
Really important. I'm not a scientist; I'm a liberal arts major. To honor Alma, I had to make sure that I didn't write something that wasn't plausible. So for that, you turn to the pros. There's a woman named Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer who is a tremendous bryologist and also a very beautiful writer. She wrote a book called Gathering Moss that became a kind of touchstone for me while I was working. I wrote her a letter before I even started writing and just laid out my whole idea for the novel and asked if this was something that even could have been possible. She granted that it was. Once the book was finished, she checked all the bryology to make sure it was accurate. As much as I possibly could, I tried to make sure that the science, if not historical, was at least plausible.
What does the title—The Signature of All Things—mean?
The "signature of all things" was an early scientific/mystical theory that was put forth by a quite fascinating and possibly mad German cobbler and mystic named Jacob Boehme in the 1600s. He posited that God had so loved mankind that the Lord had hidden in the design of every plant on Earth a secret code as to that plant's usage. The easiest way to describe it would be that walnuts are very good for headaches and walnuts are shaped like human brains when you open them up. I put it in the book, one, because I have a character in the novel who is still looking for that hidden code and believes in it, which by the time that my novel takes place is quite outdated thinking. Secondly, because in a way, science is in pursuit of the signature of all things. It's what everyone in the novel is looking for and what all scientists are looking for: the fingerprint, the answer, the code, the hidden trick, the thing that's behind the apparent.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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