Christmas week, I reviewed A Flower for the Queen by Caroline Vermalle and Ryan von Ruben, an exciting botanical adventure story set, mostly, in South Africa.
Today, I have a special treat — an interview with the authors, Caroline Vermalle and Ryan von Ruben. Its sounds like their travels to research the story were almost as exciting as the story itself.
How were you able to make South Africa of the 18th century come alive for the reader? Are there remnants of that South Africa still present in the landscape today?
In terms of bio-diversity, South Africa is still one of the richest places on the planet. Much of the story takes place in what is today known as the Cape Floral Region which contains eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Our challenge was not so much making it come alive for the reader, but not getting lost in the splendour of the place!
Whilst a lot has changed, there is still much that seems to have been untouched with the passage of time and if you are lucky enough to trace Masson’s footsteps across the Cape, it is easy to see how someone who had never left the shores of the British Isles must have been blown away by what he encountered.
I’m fascinated with botany and botanical exploration. Are there nonfiction books you recommend for the casual reader with those interests?
It depends what you mean by “casual”! In terms of ease of reading and books which put our story into a broader context, the two that spring to mind immediately are:
The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf and published by Windmill Books, 2009
The Plant Hunters: Two Hundred Years of Adventure and Discovery Around the World by Toby Musgrave, Chris Gardner and Will Musgrave and Published by Seven Dials, Cassell & Co., 1999
But if you want to get stuck into the real nitty gritty, there is no substitute for the first hand accounts by the two main protagonists themselves:
An Account of Three Journeys from Cape Town into the Southern Parts of Africa; Undertaken for the Discovery of New Plants, towards the Improvement of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. By Mr. Francis Masson, One of His Majesty’s Gardeners. – Published by The Royal Society, 1776
Carl Peter Thunberg Travels At The Cape Of Good Hope 1772-1775, edited by V.S. Forbes and published by the Van Riebeeck Society, 1986
As a librarian, I’m always interested in the research that authors do for their books. What research was required for A Flower for the Queen and what were your best resources?
I think the epilogue of the book probably gives the best answer to this question, but what we could add is that although the story is a work of fiction, in order to make it convincing we felt we needed to have at least some understanding of the period and so we definitely did our share and explored at a wide range of topics and sources. The research that we did was not only factual but also experiential: our own travels through the places described in the book were just as important to achieving authenticity as the historical texts that we consumed along the way.
Thank you, Caroline Vermalle and Ryan von Ruben, for stopping by to tell us about your research, travels, and South Africa.