FAQ about Creation
1. Why you chose to write about Audubon?
I was blown away by his pictures when I first saw them. Then I read about his life and the man himself captivated me. He was difficult, inspired, devious, a conman even, and succeeded despite his social standing, which was essentially nil, as a ‘bastard’ child born in Santo Domingo.
2. What did you think about the 'man'?
I think he was in a way a prophet, although his source of knowledge was simple- he just paid attention to the birds in the wild. I would love to have dinner with him but not to be his wife.
3. What did you think about his relationship with his family? wife Lucy? sons? lovers/friends?
Everyone and everything came second to his goal of completing the Birds of America. Everyone’s wishes were subverted to that; everyone was, in his mind, only there to help him finish. Yet I think he was captivating as a companion, lover and friend, because he was open and ‘modern’ - like a man far ahead of his time. I think this was because he essentially invented himself. He was a Victorian, but also a man of our own time, by virtue of his self-invention.
4. Were you able to read any of the original letters that he wrote?
The letters have been collected and published and yes, I read them. Some no longer exist. Some are in archives where I did not go. But the most significant of them I did read.
5. Where did you do your research on Audubon?
The Toronto Public Library. It holds one of the few copies of the double elephant portfolio of Birds of America, has collected most of the published works that pertain to Audubon. TPL bought a copy of Birds in 1902for $200,000, using up the entire budget for the next several years. It was very farsighted and we would never get away with such a thing today. The library also has Bayfield’s surveying journals. I discovered Audubon’s reference to Bayfield, and then Bayfield’s reference to Audubon, in their journals there. At that moment the hair stood up on the back of my neck! Here was a novel: two great characters of the 19th c meeting one night in a remote and rocky anchorage quite literally “off the map” in Labrador.
So I did a lot of work there, in the ‘Baldwin Room’ which is a lovely reading room, very quiet. I also traveled to Charleston, SC where Bachman lived; I did some work in New York at the Historical Society, and went to various “swamps” and Audubon plantations- there are quite a few of them in the States- which claim to have a connection to the man. I read a lot about birds and about Maria Martin.
6. What are your reasons for approaching that part of Audubon’s adventures from a fiction point of view. Was this the only hazy part of his story?
My story is a mixture of fact and fiction. “The gap” in history is what interests me. That’s where the imagination can find root. I was very proud of those first two words — Just Suppose.
Audubon’s life is well documented, but some of those documents contract others! Of the summer of 1833 when he sailed up the coast to Labrador there is almost nothing written. Why? One reason is that most of the books are written by Americans and in their eyes he sailed out of range. Another is that his letters from this period are missing, perhaps destroyed by his granddaughter, Maria. I think that he came to the shattering conclusion, in his mind, that human incursions into wild habitat would lead to “the end of nature”.
He suppressed that knowledge. Maybe the granddaughter suppressed it too. There is also the question of his relationship with Maria Martin, which was reaching its peak that summer. That’s really hazy. I have made surmises from existing letters in which he calls her “sweetheart” and from his fight with Bachman which seemed to be over her.
7. Your characters are real, and yet their connections and interactions come from your interpretation. How much is you and how much history? How do you draw the line as you write?
That’s a good question. I try to be true to the facts as we know them. I try to feel my way into the characters and their contradictions, their impulses. I discover as much as is possible to discover and then I take some guesses, informed guesses, I would say. By the end I have convinced myself that I’m right!
8. Also, did the paintings you describe originate during this period?
Yes. That part of the story is recorded in the “Ornithological Biography” which in fact was edited by Lucy. Audubon wrote down his stories, tall tales, some would call them, about finding the birds. These large volumes of text were published alongside The Birds, which as you know had no text.
9. Is there anything else known about Robert Havell’s time in the United States?
Havell moved into the Hudson River Valley and became a painter of landscapes. He was from a family of artists in England. His Wikipedia entry says he is buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarryton, New York.
I think his engraving work on Birds was far more inspired than his painting were when he actually got to see North America. Which has to say something about fact and fiction!