As some Book Case readers know, before I came to BookPage in March, I was an Assistant Editor at Random House in New York City. I had the privilege of working with dozens of talented authors on hundreds of fascinating books. But one of my favorite projects—and one of the last ones I worked on before leaving Random House—was Mark Seal’s Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa.
Published in May of this year, Wildflower is the story of the captivating life and shocking death of world-renowned naturalist Joan Root. Mark Seal, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is the gifted author. Mark took the time out of his busy schedule to answer a few of The Book Case’s questions about Wildflower and writing in general.
Wildflower evolved from a piece you wrote about Joan Root’s life and death for Vanity Fair. How did you first hear about Joan Root? What interested you in her story?
I read a one paragraph mention of her death in The New York Times Digest, headlined “Conservationist Killed”: “Joan Root, animal lover and conservationist who collaborated with her husband, Alan, on wildlife documentaries in the 1970s, was killed on Jan. 13 in Naivasha, Kenya. Root was shot to death by assailants who invaded her farmhouse, the police said. Two men were arrested, officials said. One of the couple’s films, “Mysterious Castles of Clay,” narrated by Orson Welles, showed the inner workings of a termite mound. It was nominated for an Oscar in 1978.” I had never heard of Joan Root, but was instantly riveted and wanted to know more. When I began researching her, a whole world opened—and I discovered a truly amazing woman who led two incredible lives, first as a famous filmmaker with her husband, Alan, with whom she shared a magical love and almost unbelievable adventure, and, after their divorce, as a brave and independent woman on her own, who put her life on the line to save the ecologically endangered lake on which she lived.
Tell us about your research and writing process. How did you tackle such a complicated project?
For the Vanity Fair story, I traveled to Kenya for Joan’s memorial service, interviewing her friends, fellow naturalists and ex-husband, Alan, as well as the police who investigated her murder. However, I felt like I had to get her voice in order to write a book about her—not an easy task when dealing with an intensely private woman, who barely spoke above a whisper and rarely gave interviews. Then, something incredible happened: Joan Root began speaking. Her ex-husband, Alan Root, emailed me, saying I was right about the speaking, but he had thousands of letters Joan had written to her mother, as well as letters she’d written to him during their painful separation and eventual divorce, and meticulously kept diaries over the years. I returned to Kenya and got the letters and diaries, which enabled me to find Joan’s voice, which became so critical for the book.
What do you hope readers will take away from Wildflower?
That we are all capable of second acts and second lives, and that one person can make a difference. Joan was an unlikely activist, but she put herself on the line for what she believed in. “It’s all talk, talk, talk, meetings, meetings, meeting but nothing ever gets done!” she once said. Her legacy is that she showed how action, instead of talk, can bring about change.
What can we expect from you next?
I’m working on a new nonfiction book as well as articles for Vanity Fair.
Any advice for aspiring writers?
Stay with it. And always concentrate on finding a great story. It’s often said that characters begin to speak to you—and they do. But it takes hard work and perseverance to get them talking.
For more on Mark Seal, check out BookPage’s review of Wildflower. Thanks for reading with us!