The Signature of All Things
by Elizabeth Gilbert
Issue #183 • September 5th, 2013•Buy Now!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
White Acre, Philadelphia 1800
She was her father’s daughter. It was said of her from the beginning. For one thing, Alma Whittaker looked precisely like Henry: ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose. This was a rather unfortunate circumstance for Alma, although it would take her some years to realize it. Henry’s face was far better suited to a grown man than to a little girl. Not that Henry himself objected to this state of affairs; Henry Whittaker enjoyed looking at his image wherever he might encounter it (in a mirror, in a portrait, in a child’s face), so he always took satisfaction in Alma’s appearance.
“No question who spawned that one!” he would boast.
What’s more, Alma was clever like him. Sturdy, too. A right little dromedary, she was—tireless and uncomplaining. Never took ill. Stubborn. From the moment the girl learned to speak, she could not put an argument to rest. If her millstone of a mother had not steadfastly ground the impudence out of her, she might have turned out to be frankly rude. As it was, she was merely forceful. She wanted to understand the world, and she made a habit of chasing down information to its last hiding place, as though the fate of nations were at stake in every instance.
Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of the bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love—as well as four other books of fiction and non-fiction that led far quieter lives. Her novel The Signature of All Things will be published by Viking in October, 2013.
Hannah Tinti on The Signature of All Things
For the past year, I’ve been spending a lot of time at the American Museum of Natural History. I go there for inspiration, but also to teach creative writing—my students happily scribbling in front of a diorama of mountain gorillas, or underneath a skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. When fact and fiction (science & literature) mix, our imagination can blossom in surprising ways. And this is exactly what happens in One Story’s current issue, “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert. Set in Philadelphia in the 1800s, this vividly-drawn, magically-detailed, humorous and moving story follows the early years of a budding young scientist, Alma Wittaker. Growing up on White Acre, her family’s botanical garden/estate, and encouraged by her parents—who are at turns severe and loving—Alma cultivates a curious mind. She wants to know how things work. But also: why. It is this pursuit of why that determines the course of Alma’s life, as she searches for her place in the world. This story is an excerpt from Elizabeth Gilbert’s forthcoming novel of the same title, The Signature of All Things, and so you—lucky readers—can continue on Alma’s journey of science and discovery when the book hits stores in October. Be sure to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Q&A with us about her research, and the influence of Linnaeus and Darwin on her work. And the next time you find yourself in a science museum, stop and consider the many people who have dedicated their lives to expanding our knowledge of the natural world. In their own way, both scientists and writers play the role of detective, trying to unearth the truth of our existence in the universe. For scientists it is a factual truth—and for writers, an emotional one. There is a story behind every diorama, each skeleton and diagram of the moon. Look closely at that early botanical sketch of a Red Mulberry leaf. Notice the veins, the shape of the tip. Take out your notebook and pen. And start writing.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: This story is an excerpt from your forthcoming novel The Signature of All Things. Where did the “seed” of this book come from? What was the first thing you wrote?
EG: It was a double-seed of inspiration. For one thing, I had just started gardening again after years away from the dirt (I grew up on a farm, but ran away to the city as fast as I could) and I became so fixated on my plants that suddenly all I wanted to think about was botany. Secondly, I inherited a valuable old family treasure—a 1784 edition of Captain Cook’s Voyages, and as I read through Cook’s adventures, I became fascinated with the thought that he had brought botanists with him on his expeditions. This was the first I’d heard of Botanical Exploration. Once I knew such a thing existed, I was doomed to write a novel about it.
HT: You’ve published short stories (Pilgrims), a novel (Stern Men), biography (The Last American Man), memoirs (Eat, Pray, Love and Committed), even a cookbook (At Home on the Range), but The Signature of All Things feels like a real departure from your previous work. Was it daunting to tackle an historical novel of this epic size and scale?
EG: Daunting and exciting, both. This is the scope of novel I’ve wanted to write for a long time. I spent my twenties working hard at becoming a writer of literary fiction, but then, to put it simply, I had some shit to work out in my thirties, and so I used my writing during that decade to help me settle some deeply personal questions about my own life. But writing fiction again felt like a homecoming to me, because this is where the heart of my heart abides. When it was time to come back to fiction, I wanted to come back big. I wanted to write the sort of novel I have always loved reading.
HT: Alma Wittaker is such a singular character. Is she based on any real women scientists that you’d heard of, or came across in your research?
EG: Nobody in particular, but I read up on my 18th and 19th century lady botanists (there were many) and over time I created an amalgam of what traits those remarkable women seemed to share. It appeared to me that if you wanted to be a relatively successful female botanist back then, you needed at least two of these three features in your life: 1) You needed to be the wife or daughter of a successful man of science, 2) You needed to be wealthy, and 3) You needed to be childless. It was those women—the wealthy, childless ones from good scientific families—who made the biggest contributions. Out of that historically-accurate biographical outline, Alma was born.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing the book?
EG: Writing about Alma’s sexuality. From the beginning, it felt imperative to me that she be a deeply carnal person. A great deal of the plot hinges upon her lustiness, and also I feel that this is a character we haven’t seen much in literary history—a woman, not necessarily desirable herself, who is nonetheless full of desire. I wanted to know what she would do with all her energies, her longings, her passions. But I loved Alma so much and I didn’t want to degrade her (especially in the scenes where she masturbates) so it was troubling for me to figure out how to get it right. I was much helped by my friend the romance novelist Eloisa James, who has written more sex scenes than anyone I know, and who says, “All you have to ask yourself is what that character would actually DO...and then let her do it.” With that permission, Alma’s full lusty character was able to be born.
HT: The selection we’re running of The Signature of All Things begins with what Alma learned—from both her mother and her father. Knowledge, and the seeking of knowledge, is a theme that travels with Alma throughout the book. Why do you think this pursuit of the unknown spurs Alma so?
EG: She simply wants to know how things work. I think this characteristic—burning, urgent longing for the secret code behind everything—is what unites seekers in science, religion and the arts. There was, of course, a time when science, religion and the arts were all considered to be the same thing (we can just call it The Big Search) but during the 19th century, a great schism occurred and they all fractured off into utterly distinct pursuits. (They have not been reunited since.) I wanted Alma to represent the scientific faction of life, as purely as she could. In a way, she is modernity itself, pushing away the distractions of artistry and divinity to get to the bottom of the natural world.
HT: The setting of White Acre is extraordinary. I wish it existed somewhere, so I could visit! Was there any place in particular that inspired this botanist/natural history paradise?
EG: It kind of does exist! If you go to a place called The Woodlands in Philadelphia, you will see the crumbling shell of a great estate upon which I based White Acre. Then if you go to Kew Gardens, outside London, and imagine overlaying it upon The Woodlands...you sort of get the idea of my imagined Whittaker home.
HT: At the beginning of this story, Alma’s mother Beatrix quotes Carl Linnaeus: “Stones grow. Plants grow and live. Animals grow, live and feel.” When I re-read this line, after finishing the entire novel, it resonated. We see Alma grow, even in these short pages. But to grow and truly live—that is more of a test (as Alma finds). Then for her to not only grow and live, but feel—and truly understand those emotions and come to terms with them—as Alma eventually does—this appears to be her greatest challenge. Was this idea of Linnaeus as haunting for you (as it was to me)? I was also interested in how you began Alma’s life with Linnaeus, and draw her story to a close with Darwin. Can you talk a bit about the influence of these two men on the novel?
EG: Wow, what a lovely observation! I wish I could say it was intentional! But now that you’ve put it in my mind, I am convinced that this is, indeed, Alma’s journey. I love that quote by Linnaeus because it strikes at the very heart of the question science has always tried to answer, which is to identify, “What is life?” (Religion and the arts try to answer this question, as well, but Linnaeus was really breaking it down into the most fundamental, empirical elements.) Linnaeus was the great master of taxonomy, who did his best to put every single plant on earth into order—family, genus, species, etc. He was like the librarian of the natural world, and he was essential, because before you can make sense of anything, you need to put it into order. Linnaeus laid the groundwork for species differentiation, and then Darwin was able to come in a century later and ask the far more abstract question, “What is the MECHANISM behind species differentiation?” Linneaus asked “What?”; Darwin asked “Why?”. And WHY is a much more nuanced and mature question. (Every child begins her life asking “What?” and only later matures into the philosophy of “Why?”) And you are absolutely correct that Alma’s journey is one where she must move out of the comforting confines of empirical observation, and enter the murkier philosophical territory of feeling. That’s the most dangerous journey a person can take, and the most essential.
HT: Can you tell our readers about the significance of the title, The Signature of All Things?
EG: It’s the title of a work by a great 16th century German mystic and botanist, Jacob Boehm, who believed that God had imprinted into the design of every plant on earth a clue as to that plant’s usage for man’s betterment. Thus, sage leaves are shaped like livers, because they help cure the human liver. And walnuts are shaped like brains, because they are good for headaches. And so on, and so on. I love this idea because it is “pre-schism”—it is the height of that ancient union between science, divinity and the creative arts. By the 17th century, more rational minds had already rejected Boehm’s notion, but I have a character in my novel who is still seeking it, who, idealistically, still insists that this lovely and whimsical dream of God-the-kindly-botanist could be true. I chose the theory as a title because everyone in my story is, in some way, looking to break the code of the natural world—everyone is seeking the code that will explain everything.
HT: How long did it take you to complete the book?
EG: Over three years.
HT: What are you working on now?
EG: I’m taking a pause for now, but starting to dream of another period novel. A different period, a different century, but another foray back into history. I found it incredibly satisfying—like learning a new language.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
EG: “Be kind to your characters. You are their god. Be a generous god.” Helen Schulman, whose creative writing classes I took at NYU, taught me that.