PW: What attracted you to the subject of Charles Darwin?
Peter Sís: Darwin is one of the people on my list of heroes. If I look back now at all my books, they all have one idea—discovering the world.
I have two children, who are 11 and 9. Watching my children being so exposed to television and to peer pressure, I thought, why shouldn't I choose people in the history of man who could somehow be role models, people who could show that independent and free thinking can have rewards. [Sís has also written about Christopher Columbus, in Follow the Dream, and about Galileo, in Starry Messenger.]
PW: How long did it take you to complete this book?
PS: Four and a half years, although I interrupted it. This was the most difficult of my books, not necessarily because it was the most difficult subject, but because it caught me at a difficult juncture. There was September 11, and my father passed away around the same time. I was also in France for a year, to work on the film version of my book on Tibet [Tibet: Through the Red Box, 1998], which was never finished anyway. Darwin was the heaviest load I was carrying, so I kept postponing. I did another book in between, Madlenka's Dog .
But I thank Frances [Foster, Sís's editor at FSG]. She would not let it go. I went through a lot of hardships with the organization, too. I went through many, many ideas. After going through these blows of fate, suddenly I wasn't as sure of myself as I used to be. But Frances has such a peaceful approach. I felt I was standing in some sort of flood, and she pulled me out of situations that were not easy.
My father, who worked with me on my books, thought this book was too difficult. Other people, too, thought it would be too difficult. But it's not a book about evolution, it's not about natural selection. It's about a man who sees things differently, how he has this personal fight with his conscience: "Can I do it? Can I publish my theory?"
PW: How did you go about visualizing the story?
PS: For me the visuals come first, then the text. I have always liked maps. Of course, people have said, the world has already been mapped, there is nothing left to map. But I look at history as a map, and there are bumps, people who stick out. I started to be more and more interested in the maps of minds, not like fantasy, but in that people can also see things differently.
I tried to create a kind of mosaic, to show how many different things were happening all the time. When Darwin was on the Beagle [for example], he was very young and very energetic. He would be on land whenever possible, not on the ship, and every day he was out seeing things and collecting things, and shipping them back to England, with notes. In this way his fame began even before he got back.
PW: What kind of research did you do in preparing for this book?
PS: I gathered things, Frances gathered things—books to read, illustrated books, articles. All of a sudden I had maybe 60 books, some of them very visual, for example about the birds of Brazil, others more technical. I should have done [the research] with the help of a librarian, maybe, but then again, maybe the book wouldn't have been "me."
It's amazing, when you are dealing with a person like Darwin, how almost every week you find something in the newspaper or magazine that has some sort of relevance. I had the sense that Darwin lived just yesterday, even though he died 150 years ago.
It was a big struggle to squeeze everything into a picture book. I was already weeks and weeks into some pictures, and I had to give them up, because they no longer made sense in the way I was showing Darwin's life. Somebody said to me, "You need another 40 pages for this book." I still feel bad about shortchanging the end of his life.
PW: What were you sorriest to omit from the book?
PS: I was sorry to leave out what I had hoped would be a big double spread about the Fuegians. The British had brought a few Fuegians to England, dressed them up and had them presented at court, then after a few years brought them back to Tierra del Fuego. What happened to these people? I show one of them, returned to his ways. But they deserve a whole book of their own.
I also would have liked to say more about Fitzroy, the captain of the Beagle. Darwin was hired [in part] because he was on Fitzroy's social level [and could provide intellectual companionship]. But after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Fitzroy became the biggest defender of the Bible. He blamed himself for taking Darwin on the Beagle.
PW: You note that Darwin's colleagues publicly defended his On the Origin of Species. What was Darwin's response to the "creationists" in his time, and what do you think he might say to creationists today? And what do you say to creationists today?
PS: He took the role of gentleman scientist, and he really stayed away from the arguments—of course, he had fierce defenders to argue for him. But it was an amazing and smart move. He said, This is what I wrote, it's up to you to read it and understand it.
I'm sometimes stunned by certain religious explanations of things, but Darwin was much more liberal. He wanted to keep the debate going; he didn't want to shut it down. If anybody would come to him with any discussion, he would listen, and I think that's what we have to do too, today.
[Reactions to Darwin's work ebb and flow, and] now it seems that in certain parts of the country, his theories are an issue again. It wasn't a factor in my deciding to write about him—and I hope my book doesn't become part of the issue now. I'm not telling people how it is, I want to show them the information and let them decide.