What was your inspiration for writing THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE?
This book was inspired by a summer sojourn in my big old 120-year-old farmhouse in Fentress, Texas. With the thermometer almost boiling over, I began to wonder how people stood the heat a hundred years ago with no air conditioning, especially since they had to wear all those clothes. Callie and her entire family sprang to life at that moment. The book was also inspired by the sight of a big yellow grasshopper and a small green grasshopper sunning themselves on one of the window screens. They looked so different that I wondered if they were different species or not. I spent a lot of time trying to figure this out but never could. Alas, the grasshoppers have refused an interview.
Are any of the characters in this book based on real people?
Granddaddy reminds me a little of my own father and three friends of mine. I must hastily add that my own mother in no way resembles Mother in the book. Callie has a bit of me in her. I’d guess that’s probably true of every author’s protagonist.
Callie's family has lots of pets, and she loves the natural world. Do you have any pets? Do they resemble Callie's in any way?
At the moment, my husband and I have three cats and two dogs. The cats are named Petunia, Callie (a calico, naturally), and Tiger Lilly. My husband recently found Tiger Lilly, a tiny starving kitten howling for food, in a patch of lilies in Fentress. We have adopted her and she is now terrorizing our other much larger cats. Ajax in the book is based on our old black Lab, Elvis. Our other dog, Laika, is half-chow and half-coyote, which means that, technically, she’s not even a dog, but a coydog. (This is a real word; I am not making this up.)
Tell us about your writing process.
I wrote a lot of this novel longhand, sitting on an old cushion on the front steps in Fentress, like Callie making her morning list of creatures. Presently, I write either upstairs in our Austin house, looking out at the trees, or at a small studio in downtown Austin, staring at a blank wall. I now generally use a computer, only switching to analog (i.e., pencil) when my battery gives up the ghost on an airplane. I like to play the Austin classical music station quietly when I write. There’s something about chamber music that is both soothing and stimulating. Reggae is good, too.
You've been a lawyer and a doctor? Has this informed your writing in any way?
I think studying the natural sciences as an undergraduate was helpful. I am fascinated by the leap forward that Darwin dared to make. The book I am working on presently is set in a medical school and is, naturally, influenced by my past in medicine.
Callie has a pronounced disdain for cooking, knitting, and other domestic activities. Do you share these feelings with her?
I love eating good food but I heartily dislike cooking. I have no feel for it. My mother doesn’t like to cook either, so apparently this particular trait is inherited as an autosomal dominant gene. I can knit a sweater under supervision but I can’t produce a sock at gunpoint. I do enjoy a little cross-stitch or needlepoint from time to time, but only if I don’t have a good book to read.
How do you envision Callie's future?
Granddaddy leaves Callie money in his will to go to the University of Texas, where she studies science. She becomes the first female biologist in Texas, and later goes on to publish The Texas Naturalist. On her desk, she keeps Mr. Hofacket’s picture of herself, The Plant, and her grandfather. She thinks of him daily.
What do you think Callie would like most about the world today?
Callie would adore the freedom and choices that today’s women and girls have in their lives. Remember that women only got the vote in 1920! This is really rather shocking, if you think about it. I feel sure that Callie would have been a white-clad suffragette and marched for women’s rights.