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Curiosity by Joan Thomas
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Curiosity by Joan Thomas
Paperback $21.00
Feb 01, 2011 | ISBN 9780771084188

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    Feb 01, 2011 | ISBN 9780771084188

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  • Mar 30, 2010 | ISBN 9781551993539

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“Meticulous and deeply affecting. The traps of poverty and class, calcified notions of women’s place in science and society, fall away to reveal the hidden life below: the human mind and heart excavated with delicate and devastating skill.” —Marina Endicott, author of Good to a Fault

Curiosity is a delight. Set with marvels and rueful comedy, it’s a warmly intelligent feat of historical sympathy. Mary Anning of Lyme Regis, with her dead-reckoning gaze, moves through these pages like a muddy-booted angel.” —Greg Hollingshead, author of Bedlam

“Rich. . . . [Thomas] practically burrows into the characters. Hers is magnificent prose that appeals to all the senses without grandiloquence. Equally important, Thomas handles the doctrinal debate raised by the then-budding field of geology with [great] subtlety and nuance.” —The Toronto Star

“Right from its powerful opening, the novel buffets readers with the inescapable momentum of waves against the Dorset cliffs. . . . Curiosity is without question the best novel this reader has come across in the past year. . . . Lush. . . . Thomas draws [her] characters with such depth, power, and heart tha they remain with the reader long after the novel’s covers are closed.” —Quill & Quire (starred review)

“Thomas handles beautifully the class-afflicted nuances of a doomed love story.” —More magazine

“A brilliant, soulful, multi-layered novel. . . . We are drenched in all the sights, sounds and smells of the era [and] become privy to the ecstasy and the agony of the doomed love affair between the two main characters. . . . Lush prose, compelling narrative and vivid characters [make] this one of the best books of the spring publishing season.” —Ottawa Citizen

“A precise reconstruction of the social and intellectual world of early 19th-century England. . . .[Thomas’s] research gives the characters depth [and] provides Mary with a delightfully distinctive voice. . . . A beautifully wrought . . . work of literary art.” —Winnipeg Free Press

“Extraordinary. . . . A timeless story, and an unforgettable one.” —Edmonton Journal

“Gripping. . . . Mary Anning as portrayed by Joan Thomas stands in her own right as a memorable figure, vulnerable and indomitable at the same time.” —National Post

“[Curiosity] explores the exquisite fragility of a love story that turns upon the lovers’ unblinking curiosity before the metaphysical change their work uncovers. . . . A beautiful, erudite, and deeply pleasurable work.” —The Walrus


Scotiabank Giller Prize NOMINEE 2010

Author Q&A

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!

Author Essay

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

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