Jacqueline Kelly’s first novel, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, won a 2010 Newbery Honor and legions of fans for its portrayal of a turn-of-the-century Texas girl with a passion to study science. It’s been six years since Calpurnia burst on the scene, quoting Darwin’s The Origin of Species, but now to the relief of her many fans, she reappears in a sequel, The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate, that beguiles despite the fact that a lot of the book deals with dissection and disease. Kelly explained to PW the biggest reason for the delay.
Tell us about the challenges you faced in writing this follow-up.
The biggest challenge of all came about when my beloved old farmhouse in Fentress [Tex.] was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in June of 2010. The house was the inspiration for the first book. I wrote much of it sitting on a ratty cushion on the front porch just like Calpurnia, waiting for some creature to crawl or hop or fly by and start me off on the next chapter. I was so sad after losing the house that I couldn’t think about a sequel for a long, long time. The only good news is that my husband and I were not there when it happened.
Calpurnia is forced to intervene on behalf of many of her younger brother’s pets in this installment and, when necessary, she is stoically unsentimental about making hard choices. Is this due to her upbringing on a farm, or perhaps to your own medical training?
Some of this is Calpurnia’s upbringing in that, at the time, people raised animals, slaughtered them, and ate them, and then started the cycle all over again. It was just a part of everyday life that everyone took for granted. Some of this also comes from my undergraduate degree in biology, where you had to get over your squeamishness pretty quickly.
Do you like to do research and can you now say you specifically like to research pernicious diseases and exotic animals? Tell us about your methods.
Research can be fun, but it’s not always my favorite thing. I’d rather write the story than do the research. And when I do research, I’d rather poke around used bookstores than sit at my computer Googling stuff. That's how I stumbled on one of my favorite tomes, Diseases of Livestock, by Lloyd Tellor, M.D., published in 1884. Dr. Tellor was a country physician who was often called upon by his neighbors to minister to their horses and cattle and hogs, and decided to write his own text for farmers to use since veterinarians were practically nonexistent at the time. Dr. Tellor taught me what a bistoury is, and how to treat the impacted rumen. Such useful things!
For living in such a restrictive time, the young women in this novel certainly have gumption. Did you chafe at conventions that were placed on you as a young woman who earned a law degree as well as a medical degree?
I was furious about having to take baking and sewing in the eighth grade. There was no choice about it at the time, can you imagine? The boys got shuttled off to take half a year of “shop” and the girls were forced into “home ec.” The teacher was an old bat who looked like Wallis Simpson and didn’t like me. She gave me my very first C. Although, looking back, I have to wonder how much my bad attitude contributed.
Sneak fifth question! Are you planning another volume?
The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. Henry Holt, July ISBN 978-0-8050-9744-3