Elsa Hart is the author of several acclaimed mystery novels set in eighteenth-century China, including City of Ink, one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2018. She was born in Rome, but her earliest memories are of Moscow, where her family lived until 1991. Since then she has lived in the Czech Republic, the U.S.A., and China. She earned a B.A. from Swarthmore College and a J.D. from Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. Her latest novel is The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne?
One of the characters in my first book, Jade Dragon Mountain, was a bumbling botanist traveling through the borderlands of China in the early 18th century. The character was fictional, but he was modeled in part on James Cunninghame, a Scottish ship’s surgeon who journeyed to China in 1696. When Cunninghame announced his travel plans, he was asked by collectors in England to send them as many plants and objects from China as he could. Ever since I read about those English collectors and the coterie of naturalists, apothecaries, artists, and charlatans in which they operated, I’ve wanted to follow boxes like the ones sent by Cunninghame across the seas and enter the world of the people waiting to open them. That is how I came to write The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne.
Are Cecily, Meacan, Covo, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?
They are! I found facets of Cecily and Meacan in Elizabeth Blackwell, a merchant’s daughter who turned to botanical illustration in an effort to free her husband from debtor’s prison; Maria Sibylla Marian, a respected authority on insects; and Eleanor Glanville, a butterfly-enthusiast whose estranged family cited her interest in lepidoptery as evidence of madness. Covo is based on James Salter, a servant of the famous collector Hans Sloane. When Salter left Sloane’s service, he changed his name to Don Saltero and opened a coffee house where he displayed items ranging from the curious to the unbelievable. According to A Catalogue of the Rarities to be Seen in Don Saltero’s Coffee House, these included a pair of gloves in a walnut shell, a cinder from the burning mountain Vesuvius, and “two ancient broad arrows of Robin Hood.”
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
I have learned that the process of writing a book creates ghosts. I refer not only to the ghosts of victims in a murder mystery but to the ghosts of deleted characters and deleted plot points. I once wrote a character named Oliver who has since gotten squeezed out of three books. He haunts me. But the biggest change that happened in Cabinets was to its protagonist. Months into writing the book, I still hadn’t gotten to know my new detective, Cecily Kay. She was a botanical enthusiast and an illustrator and a truth-seeker and a rogue. I just couldn’t figure her out. I would put her in scenes and not know how she should react. I was almost despairing one afternoon when I got a call from my friend Anna. It was one of those close friend conversations that went right to intense subjects. We jumped from current events to career uncertainty to family stress to the meaning of life. As soon as I ended the call, I realized what I was doing wrong with Cecily. I was trying to fit two characters into one. She wasn’t one person. She was two. And they needed to be able to talk to each other. That’s when Meacan Barlow came into being. Once I had them both, these two women with different perspectives, everything became a lot easier.
What drew you to set the novel in 1704?
I found my way there almost by accident. It all began with a visit to the Ancient Astronomical Observatory in Beijing, where I learned about the Jesuits who helped the Chinese emperor build it in the late 1600s. That was what inspired me to write Jade Dragon Mountain and hooked me into this time period. I still haven’t found my way out! I’ve just shifted my attention to a different part of the world. At the beginning of the 18th century, England was coming out of years of turmoil that included the English Civil War, the Restoration of the monarchy, the plague, and the Great Fire of London. I think this helps explain why collectors became so obsessive about their collections. Arranging objects on their shelves gave them an illusion of control.
How familiar were you with that period before you started writing? Did you have to research the era? What was the most interesting or unexpected thing you discovered in your research?
It was a challenge to learn enough to be able to tell the story I had in mind. I could easily have spent years researching the collectors. I think that because a mystery is necessarily very plot-focused, a lot of what I wrote could come from my imagination and from my understanding of (and delight in) the genre. Murder mysteries turn on motivations that are human and always have been—motives like greed, revenge, and romantic jealousy. As I read about the period, I looked for rivalries, tragedies, ventures, and misunderstandings that I could weave into a plot. One of the most interesting things to me was the coexistence of what we would now call scientific thinking with what we would now call magical thinking. For instance, Isaac Newton was studying alchemy, and botanical tomes placed surprisingly contemporary approaches to chemistry alongside astrological herbalism.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett. I loved the idea of being sent on a quest by a cat, packing the perfect backpack, and saving a small dragon from captivity.
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
The steamy romance novels I found at the book exchange at my grandmother’s neighborhood swimming pool.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
What is a book you've faked reading?
I didn’t make it through Ulysses by James Joyce when I was assigned it in college, but I did later and was glad I went back to it.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
I have a favorite edition of Agatha Christie paperbacks, the Berkley Books ones with Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot striking different poses in silhouette on the spine and front covers. I’m not such a collector that I pursue them online, but whenever I see one at a used bookstore I always buy it.
Is there a book that changed your life?
I think that most books have changed my life in some way, even if in a small way like making me think every strand of spider web that catches the sunlight might be a cut in the fabric of reality made by the subtle knife from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. But I think my answer must be Beowulf because I read it in the college course I was taking when I met the person I later married, and Anglo Saxon poetry was at the center of our earliest conversations. It’s still at the center of a lot of them.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
I don’t usually recommend books unless I know a person well and understand their exact mood when they ask for a recommendation, but for readers who like thrillers with a little bit of magic (and metafictional sharks), I like to suggest The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall. As for a book, I think everyone should read, I think How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi is an essential book to read and talk about right now.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
This will reveal what an introvert I am, but it would be an entire day of hiking with my husband on the Isle of Skye (I’ve never been there) and ending up at a cozy pub where there is music playing just as it’s getting dark and the stars are coming out.
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
Would you like to be the resident reclusive writer in my unoccupied castle in Scotland? My answer is yes.
What are you working on now?
A sequel to The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne set on the estate where Cecily grew up in Northern England. I’m also noodling a magical bibliothriller, an activity through which I can acknowledge to myself that my head is in a different place these days.