It has been an absolute honour to interview Kayte Nunn author of the delightful "The Botanist's Daughter" our A Box Of Bookclub November / December Group read. Kayte's journey to becoming an author is so interesting & just goes to show what can happen when you follow your dreams!
Tell us a bit about yourself
I’m originally English, though I have now lived in Australia for half my life. In my early career I worked in book publishing as a non-fiction and cookbook editor and then as a consumer magazine editor – one of the high points of my career was as editor of Gourmet Traveller WINE magazine. I’ve also worked as a freelance editor and writer. I now live with my family in the Northern Rivers of NSW.
When did you decide to make the transition from editing to writing yourself?
Writing fiction was a long-held dream, but one I never thought I was clever enough to achieve. However, in my early 40s, it became a case of ‘now or never’ and I couldn’t ignore the voice in my head any longer. I began by writing some short stories, a couple of which were shortlisted in local and international competitions, and this feedback and the way writing made me feel, gave me the impetus and confidence to tackle a novel.
Do you have a process that you go through when writing a novel?
I spend a while thinking about my characters and the setting and the story, turning the possibilities over in my mind. I also research the period that I am intending to write about and make copious notes. When I can see the first scene in my head, I begin to write.
"The Botanist's Daughter" is your first novel of transporting historical fiction, why did you decide to do that?
It was partly that I wanted to stretch myself and write a dual-timeline novel (as I’ve always enjoyed reading these, and love the way the past is made real in the present), and then partly that the story chose me. I was walking one day in the Sydney Botanic Gardens and came upon the beautiful sundial in the herb garden. As I placed my hand on the warm metal I had a sudden image of a young woman in a walled English garden where there was a similar sundial. I knew straightaway that there was the seed of a story there.
Did you use a different approach to write it and how did you go about doing your research?
I definitely did more research than with my first two contemporary novels. I read as much as I could about life in Victorian times, visited exhibitions of botanical art and of the lives of Victorian planthunters both in Sydney and in Kew Gardens, London. I read diaries of shipboard travel at the time, and found early photographs of Valparaiso in the 1880s to determine what the city looked like then. I also found a wonderful diary written by a sea captain’s widow who lived in Valparaiso for several months in the 1850s – her descriptions of the flora and landscape were invaluable in helping me bring that part of the novel to life.
Where did your interest in the botanical come from?
I’ve always loved plants and flowers, and learning their names, which have always sounded like poetry to me. My grandmother and mother were both keen gardeners, so I grew up with that – the smell of tomato plants in a greenhouse takes me straight back to my grandmother’s garden. I also love the precision and artistry of botanical art – it often shows more detail than a photograph can. I’m really interested in the healing and medicinal properties of plants as well.
Are any of the characters based on people in your real life?
Not directly. I’m sure that I’m guilty of picking up on tiny details of people’s behaviour in everyday life and moulding them to suit a character.
When developing characters do you start with an idea in mind of what they are like or do they evolve as you write the story?
I start with an outline of an idea as to who they are, but they reveal themselves more fully as the book progresses.
Is Trebithick Hall based on a real home or from your imagination?
I Googled similar country houses in Cornwall, and used photographs of them to inform my descriptions in the book.
What made you pick the "Devils Trumpet" as the reason for Elizabeth’s journey?
Early on in the research process, I came across a newspaper report online of a couple who had found an illegal plant – a Class B drug! – growing in their back garden in England. They were puzzled as to how it could have arisen until they realised that they had been throwing out seed to attract birds. The plant was called the Devil’s Trumpet and it originates in Chile. When I read that, I knew I had another piece of the story’s puzzle.
"Although you are but a woman" is a statement Elizabeth's Father made which was the commonly held view in the 1800's. Anna in 2017, didn't have to encounter such challenges. Was highlighting the change in the females place in society something that you wanted to make a statement on in particular in writing the novel or just a reflection of the times?
Both I think. I also wanted Anna and Elizabeth to almost seem as if they should have been born in each other’s century, as Elizabeth rails against the strictures surrounding the opportunities and expectations of women in the 19th century and Anna is more self-effacing and quiet.
How long did it take you to write "The Botanist's Daughter"?
I wrote it over the course of a year, but I was also working on the edits for my previous book, and took on a number of freelance editing projects.
As a former Editor yourself how involved does your Editor get in your novels?
Very – she offers such an informed perspective on what can be done to improve my work on both a macro and micro level. As a writer sometimes you can get too close to your own work, so having an expert’s analysis is essential. An editor is an invaluable part of the process of creating a successful novel – bringing a book to the world really is a team effort.
Do you have another novel in the pipeline?
Yes. I have recently finished the edits on next year’s book, The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant, a story of a cache of unsent love letters discovered in an old suitcase on a remote English island, set in the 1950s and the present day. I’m now working on a manuscript that will hopefully be published in 2020, also a dual timeline story.
Pimms makes a mention, is this because it's quintessentially English or one of your favourites too? Or both? Is that the same with the Matte tea that is also mentioned?
In regard to the Pimms – yes it is a personal favourite and it is so wonderfully, classically English. I’m afraid I’ve never tried matte.
If you would like to enhance your reading experience or are looking for the perfect "book lovers" gift we have curated "The Botanist's Daughter's Book Box" that includes a copy of Kayte's wonderful book and little gifts that relate to parts of the book & should only be opened when you get to certain pages, it's a little bit of added fun!