A story before the story of this wonderful book. In 2011, I read The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life Work at 72 and it struck every note: botany, women, art, memoir and creativity. I was so impressed I contacted the author, Molly Peacock, to see if I might interview her. (We were to be at the same conference in Chicago in 2012.) She generously agreed. So we had breakfast and I recorded Molly's brilliance, transcribed it, we edited the interview, tweaked it, and months later I sent it out to a few literary magazines to see if anyone wanted to publish it. No one bit: the book was no longer 'new' or the interview wasn't quite the right fit. Cultivated is, but I hadn't created it yet. (Without getting too psychobabblicious there's something ominously prescient about my doggedness I think now). Fast-forward to 2015, and I'm in London, and decide I must see the Delany botanical collages for myself. (Here's a link to booking a viewing at the British Museum.) It was an experience I'll never forget. Today I'm off on another trip to London so I contacted Molly again. Did she mind if I published the interview? Not in the least, and (yeah!) she loves my floral designs. Well, I love Molly's work even more now. I hope you do as well.
Here's a quote to start us off. The interview follows below.
"Even the most accomplished people have something they wonder if they’ll ever do. They wonder if they could ever take the leap. I wrote The Paper Garden for those people."
CG: You wrote that Delany’s work was ‘a memoir in paper that someone like me might read’. Can you describe the mosaics and what kind of ‘seeing’ it took to write about two-hundred-year-old works of collage?
MP: Over a period of ten years, Mary Delany constructed 985 brilliantly colored, botanically precise collages of flowers on black backgrounds. Each is a portrait of a flower, and each flower steps out as if from a darkened stage. She called her collages ‘mosaicks,’ and she also called them her ‘ladies’. She made them from hundreds of pieces of cut paper which she painted herself in watercolors. (They were no colored papers in the 18th century, so she had to make them.) Many art history books will tell you that Picasso and Matisse invented collage in the 20th century, but here was a woman creating collages in 1773.
CG: The first-person narrator in The Paper Garden is essayistic. You lean hard on your desires, questioning yourself, examining the facts, and your memory from different angles.
MP: I wanted a complex persona, because I believe in complexity—even though I’ve written for Real Simple magazine! (I do like organized shelves). I had to stick to my perceptual guns with this book though, because I couldn’t really say what it was about until it was almost done. I didn’t even have a title until after I finished it.
CG: I assumed that was the collage aspect…
MP: I didn’t realize I was writing a collage until I did it. I mean, I knew I was piecing myself in, but I didn’t realize I was doing it in response to her. I finally went, Duh! It’s Mrs. Delany’s approach to the world that’s guiding this.
I knew I wanted to weave in a variety of different responses and subjects, like fashion, art history, history, literature and botany, but I didn’t think the book would become as multiply layered as it became. Mrs. Delany was a very complex person. And, as a writer I thoroughly believe in conveying complexity. Experience itself is layered.
CG: In the section ‘Bloodroot’ you assume a poetic form, using one-line sentences, to cover a vast amount of historical events. How did you develop this idea?
MP: Well, that’s the poet collapsing time. The eighteenth century was this roiling mix of art and science. So much happened during her lifetime: George Washington, the American Revolution, Captain Cook’s south sea journey, Joseph Banks creating Kew Gardens, Queen Charlotte’s commitment to botany. Tiny teeny things in Mrs. Delany’s letters lead to all these figures. Details would appear, say, about the Revolutionary War. The son of her friend would be going off to the New World, for instance, and that would provoke me to think about the politics of her times, and then think about the Peacocks, my own ancestors, who were Loyalists.
CG: How did you learn how to do the historical research?
MP: I learned at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center where I was privileged to have a fellowship. And I learned from watching my husband, a textual and manuscript scholar of James Joyce, who helped me enormously. While I might be perfectionistic as a poet, I was an unsure amateur when I began The Paper Garden. And boy did I learn a lesson: You can’t be sloppy with biography. I had to go over and over my facts, especially because I didn’t know how to design a good system when I started. It was Mike, my husband, who stepped in and rescued me with advice.
CG: Did you ever have to cut yourself off from the research and just write?
MP: Yes. For me writing is thinking. I would write something and then I would start to understand some aspect of Mrs. Delany’s life. But then I’d be aghast at something I didn’t know. Did I think I needed to know so much about botany? No. Did I think I needed to investigate Lord Butte? No. But I did. I had to.
CG: You write: Letters required Mary to formulate her dilemma, to shape her stories, to do what all personal writers do: become a sympathetic witness to the character of herself... What challenges did you encounter in constructing yourself as character in this story?
MP: I went right back into therapy, of course. I was totally overwhelmed. I wept. I spent days in abject fear. My own identity issues came back: Who am I? What am I doing? I had to return to the sympathy for the self that that comes out of my poetry. I do write autobiographical poetry, but it comes from a stance I take as a sympathetic witness to the things that have happened to me.
CG: How did you actually write it?
MP: There were 420 footnotes, each one that need to be checked and verified and I just thought, I can’t do this! I can’t finish on deadline, this thing is so big. My husband saw me crying in my bathrobe and said, ‘Molly, no scholar exactly what they’re doing at this stage. Everyone loses things. All scholars do this.’ So I thought: Okay. Writing my book is just like making a quilt. Or undertaking a HUGE house renovation.
You’ve just got to do that house renovation inch by inch. I pieced all those bits together. That’s the only way I could handle the volumes of material. I’d look at a flower: Try to fit it in. Look at another flower: Try to fit it in. And eventually, after reading volumes of her letters, and travelling to England, and Ireland, and interviewing people and staring at these collages, I hit on a question: What happened in this woman’s life to make her burst out and invent an art form at 72? Once I realized I had that frame, a lot more fell into place. If I could track the creative act—whether that was the silhouettes she made or the botanically accurate flowers she assembled or a dress she’d designed herself—I could elect what needed to stay in, like fashion and craft. And that let me decide what to leave out.
CG: And that led to your structure?
MP: I chose a dozen flowers that I felt people would need to see in order to appreciate Delany’s fantastic skill. Then I used each flower as a threshold into a chapter of Mary Delany’s life. Once I got the arc of these flowers, I realized I could start collapsing the years, not treat them equally. I didn’t want to follow a chronology because that meant the flowers wouldn’t appear until the end. I wanted people to attach to the collages right away, so I needed to begin with her as an old lady first, and then move back into her childhood. That’s the complication—and the fun—of shaping biography.
CG: Did you write poetry during your time with Mrs. Delany, and if so, was it hard to shift back to prose?
MP: Yes, I did write a bit of poetry. I had to. After writing a memoir, and not writing poetry through that period, I found it very difficult to get back into it. So this time I did. But only a little. My poetry life is tied to a lyric impulse, which is a youthful one. Poems take only a page or two. You can hover over them with your whole body. But a huge project is much different. You have to swim in it. Once you leave the shore, you can’t see land for a long, long time. I was incapable of writing a book like this when I was young.
CG: How do you mean?
MP: At a certain age, and at certain point in my literary career, I have a sense of confidence about a huge project. On good days, I thought: I’m a strong enough swimmer to take this on now. And people have my back. But on other days I also felt overwhelmed, as if I could drown. To be overwhelmed, really, repeats the confusion of youth. It’s a phrase I use in the book because there’s a thrill to it, that sense of taking on a huge challenge.
CG: About three-quarters of the way through the book, you include this little metanarrative turn by writing, ‘I think I’m going to write about Mrs. Delany’. It’s almost as if your confidence overrode your fear.
MP: I really wanted this book to be for all those people for whom it’s never too late. Even the most accomplished people have something they wonder if they’ll ever do. They wonder if they could ever take the leap. I wrote The Paper Garden for those people.
Thank you Molly!
To learn more about the Molly and her latest works, please visit http://mollypeacock.org