May 2023

Giving a body to a novel about plants

Behind the Book by
In the latest novel from acclaimed, bestselling author Katy Simpson Smith, two women in different time periods are tasked with cataloging the plants that grow in the Roman Colosseum. But how can unnoticed little weeds hold up the weight of a story?
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I approach a book as if it were a body. An object not only to shape through words but also to bring to life—activate!—using a collection of tools that go beyond hammer and nail. Though this method can apply to any project, it has felt more urgent to me in fiction that tackles the past as a subject; how do I convince readers that a distant time is not a grainy photograph but is fleshy and real? I feel a pressing responsibility to bring characters out of the realm of the theoretical and place them in moving forms—and, through careful research, to turn the framework of their narrative into a body too. 

“A book’s body should be lovely, should move with vigor and should be convincing down to its beating heart, its sturdy bones.”

First the skeleton: Who were these people, what was their philosophy about faith and love and sin, how did their culture conceive of itself? This demands highbrow research, the investment in archives and thick history texts. Then the muscles: What pushes these people through space? What are the events ordering their lives, the goals driving them, the particular bends of their relationships? Historical studies help here too, but we begin to drift toward areas the internet excels at. (“What happened on this date in 891?”) Finally the skin, the hair, the eyes. What did this world look like? Here the internet with its gift for trivia takes over (“how to tie a toga”; “recipe for 18th-century cornbread”; “minerals used in Renaissance paint”). By the end of this construction process, a book’s body should be lovely, should move with vigor and should be convincing down to its beating heart, its sturdy bones. 

Having written several historical novels, I thought I had a pretty good feel for this research strategy. I knew what to read, where to turn. But then I decided to write a novel about plants. What lessons could I carry over to a field in which I was a neophyte? How could I build the bones, the muscle and the skin not for a young woman but for a violet? I structured The Weeds as a botanical flora, using 19th-century botanist Richard Deakin’s list of plants growing in the Roman Colosseum (420 species!) as a framework to tell a story. Each entry describes a plant while pushing the human narrators along their arcs; each entry shows how flower and human intersect. The point of The Weeds is that women and unwanted plants have an uncomfortable amount in common, so I set out with the same approach: to find first the highbrow, foundational sources that would give me a holistic sense of this kingdom of flora to which I had devoted a narrative. 

Sensitive fern from The Weeds, credit Kathy Schermer-Gramm

Onoclea sensibilis, sensitive fern

What is the philosophy of a flower? The closest I came to an answer was in the research room of the New York Botanical Garden’s library, where an archivist laid out the lusciously illustrated floras of past centuries. These folios, composed in Latin or French or Italian, were as large as atlases; exotic flowers bloomed on vellum. I handled a first edition of Deakin’s Flora of the Colosseum of Rome and paged through Giorgio Bonelli’s massive 18th-century Hortus Romanus, Antonio Sebastiani’s 1815 catalog of the Colosseum and Domenico Panaroli’s fragile 1643 flora. The illustrations ranged from simple black engravings to full watercolors of a grapevine’s brown tuberous roots, the crimson berries of a butcher’s broom, hot-pink caper blossoms. One might think an illustration of a plant, unlike a photograph, can only be an approximation; it’s not true, one might say. But consider Rembrandt’s self-portrait at age 53; how much more do those blue-gray lines creasing the artist’s eyebrows tell us about his stance than a photograph would? Art, I must remember as I turn the heavy pages of the flora, can evoke something much rounder than fact. From the dusty manuscripts, I gleaned that even the mildest plants explode in beauty, and they demand a painstaking attention from their human witnesses. 

How do you put the characters of plants in motion? I had some gardening knowledge inherited from my mother, a basic sense of what plants grow best in sun, which weeds taste good, how to make a snapdragon talk. But many of the plants in Deakin’s flora were unfamiliar to me, and what Deakin was interested in—their botanical structure but also their medical uses and mythological meanings—were subjects I too needed to understand. More importantly, I was using the essence of each species as a springboard for a narrative moment. The unusual umbels of a candytuft, shaped like a rabbit’s paw prints, trigger a memory of a narrator’s childhood bunny. The worldwide antipathy toward chickweed prompts a narrator to consider the abuse suffered by women in academia. Where could I learn these details about flowers? As a historian, I told my students to look beyond Wikipedia. As a novelist searching for the muscles of a book, Wikipedia was my lodestone. There I discovered the Grand Duke of Wurttemberg’s 1671 edict against grass pea flour; the presence of a 1,600-year-old olive tree on a Croatian island; the particular osmotic pressure at which a squirting cucumber can eject its seeds. (On the equally democratic and chaotic YouTube, you can find erotic videos of this phenomenon in slow-mo.) Wikipedia is in some ways a flora unto itself: scientific, cultural, idiosyncratic. A page on Bellis perennis, the common daisy, includes sections on its botanical description, etymology, distribution, cultivation, uses and the fact that Daisy is “a nickname for girls named Margaret.” These are the muscles that begin sending the plants into my story-world, into action. 

Queen Anne's lace from The Weeds, credit Kathy Schermer-Gramm

Daucus carota, Queen Anne’s lace

How do you put a final, sensory skin on vegetation? What does a plant really look like, beyond its pinnate leaves and hollow stems? This research turned out to be internal, spiritual, and it took me to my own childhood memories in my mother’s wild garden. I saw her clambering roses as houses that could hide my body; her pansies were the faces of friends; the wild oxalis dotting the lawn was a sour snack. Everything in her garden taught me that plants were vibrantly alive—neither remote nor static but endlessly growing, always responsive to my young imagination. They filled my world with scent and color and taste, but they also needed my tending: My mother paid me a penny for every spent bloom I cut. So I had no fear when it came to writing a book dominated by plants; I had long ago seen how they could become characters in their own right. 

Still, I believed writing about weeds would demand a new research strategy—that what I had learned as a trained historian would fall short. (Would I need a doctorate in botany too?) But a novel is still a novel; a book still requires a body. And from 17th-century watercolors to 21st-century internet encyclopedias to my own tactile attachment to an elm’s raspy leaf, the material was already at hand. I merely had to foreground these plants not as decor but as protagonists. They too needed bones, muscles, the beautiful yellow eyes at the center of forget-me-nots. Like any element of fiction, they needed to come alive.

Photo of Katy Simpson Smith by Elise L. Smith. Illustrations from The Weeds by Kathy Schermer-Gramm. Used with permission from FSG.

Katy Simpson Smith

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The Weeds

The Weeds

By Katy Simpson Smith
ISBN 9780374605476

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