MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.
The novelist Tracy Chevalier has made a career of bringing history to life. She's written books set in medieval France, in 18th century London and in 17th century Holland, specifically in the home of painter Johannes Vermeer.
That book tells the story of a Dutch teenager who became a maid in the Vermeer household � and the subject, as Chevalier imagines it, of one of his most famous works, "Girl with a Pearl Earring."
Well, Tracy Chevalier is back with a new historical novel. It's called "Remarkable Creatures." And at its center is a pioneering 19th century fossil hunter named Mary Anning. Chevalier encountered Mary Anning's story one day while visiting a small dinosaur museum in England.
Ms. TRACY CHEVALIER (Author, "Remarkable Creatures"): I had never heard of her. And I learned from the display that she was a working class girl who had lived in Lyme Regis, which is on the south coast of England, and had been fossil hunting with her father. And one day she and her brother discovered a huge specimen of what turned out to be an ichthyosaur, an ancient marine reptile about 200 million years old, had no idea what it was � thought it was a crocodile � and went on to discover another ancient marine reptile called a plesiosaur.
And she was really quite an amazing woman because she was completely self-taught, never had any formal education, was very poor, found these things for a living. And maybe most importantly to me as a novelist, she was struck by lightning as a baby and she survived it and lived to tell the tale.
And I loved that. When I found this out, I thought I have got to write a novel and I've got to start it off with a lightning strike.
KELLY: And you open the book with the line: Lightning has struck me all my life - just once it was real. I wonder if you would read a bit of that passage for us.
Ms. CHEVALIER: Sure.
(Reading) The lightning killed the woman holding me and two girls standing next to her, but I survived. They say I was a quiet, sickly child before the storm, but after it I grew up lively and alert. I cannot say if they're right, but the memory of that lightning still runs through me like a shiver. It marks powerful moments of my life: seeing the first crocodile skull Joe found, and finding its body myself; discovering other monsters on the beach; meeting Colonel Birch. Other times, I'll feel the lightning strike and wonder why it's come. Sometimes I don't understand, but accept what the lightning tells me, for the lightning is me. It entered me when I was a baby and never left.
I feel an echo of the lightning each time I find a fossil, a little jolt that says, yes, Mary Anning, you are different from all the rocks on the beach. That is why I am a hunter: to feel that bolt of lightning, and that difference, every day.
KELLY: So, that's the first chapter of your book, the way you open it. And, again, this is real person, Mary Anning, who really did survive a lightning bolt. And to be clear, this is a book set in the very first part of the 19th century, the early 1800s.
Ms. CHEVALIER: Yes.
KELLY: This is from, you know, a couple of generations before Darwin was writing "Origin of Species." And what she was finding, you know, the scientists were still really trying to understand the very concept of what a fossil was.
Ms. CHEVALIER: That's right. It was prime Jane Austen territory, if you like. It was early 19th century. Most people believed that the world was 6,000 years old and had been created by God in six days and set to run, and was exactly, if you looked around, it was exactly as God had made it. They took the Bible as literal history.
And they're - scientists were very slowly starting to question that. And when Mary discovered this specimen of an animal that clearly didn't exist now � first they called it a crocodile, but they really quickly realized it couldn't be because it has this huge bulbous eye like a doughnut, and it has paddles rather than claws and legs � and they quickly figured out it was an animal that was extinct. And that was like setting off a little bomb in this cozy idea that the world was 6,000 years old, because suddenly people realized, actually the world isn't just as God had made it.
There are animals that have died out, that have gone extinct, and that was a very new concept.
KELLY: So, Mary Anning, as she hunts for fossils on the beach, you write about how she would look at these things and she felt a sense of wonder and of awe at what she was seeing, but she didn't really understand it. The other narrator for your book, and the other central character, is a woman named Elizabeth Philpot, and she did understand it a bit more. Tell us about her.
Ms. CHEVALIER: Well, Elizabeth was like a little gift to me as a novelist. When I started researching about Mary's life, I kept hearing about this woman named Elizabeth Philpot who became a very good friend of Mary's. And they used to go out fossil hunting on the beach every day.
And Elizabeth was 20 years older than Mary, a middle-class woman who had moved with two sisters down to Lyme Regis from London in 1805. And they never married, and they became quite interested in fossils. But I thought Elizabeth was perfect because when I was looking into Mary's life, I thought it's going to be very difficult to tell this story only from Mary's point of view. Because her point of view is necessarily limited because her experience is limited. She hardly ever left Lyme Regis, and she never had any formal education.
And so, I needed a voice. I needed somebody who could in a way be the reader standing, watching the person who's the genius at work and commenting and thinking about them. So, it's a book that becomes about - more about their developing relationship. It's about fossils but it's also about friendship. And in a way, this book tries to answer that question, what do women do who don't find the Mr. Darcy of the Jane Austen novels? What do they do when they don't get married? What is there for them in this society that expects them to marry?
KELLY: Mary Anning not someone that most people will have heard of today, certainly not for reading your novel. She did leave one legacy, though, that lasts and that's something that may be familiar to children, a saying that you discovered, we think was based on her.
Ms. CHEVALIER: There is a tongue twister: she sells seashells by the seashore. And I think that was created in 1908, supposedly as a tribute to Mary Anning, who sold mostly fossils, but she did indeed sell seashells by the seashore. And the funny thing was (unintelligible)...
KELLY: And you still can't say it three times fast.
Ms. CHEVALIER: Yeah. I was originally going to name the book "She Sells Seashells," and then I thought there's no way I'm going to do that because I'm going to have to say it so many times and I'll never be able to do it.
KELLY: Do you feel any pressure from having had such a huge success with "Girl with a Pearl Earring" relatively early in your career, knowing that you're going to have a really big audience no matter what you write, a lot of people will read it?
Ms. CHEVALIER: I'll tell you, what I feel pressure most is getting things right. Most people aren't going to read a biography of Mary Anning or read scientific books about her. They're going to read this novel and they're going to think that's exactly how it happened. I had that feeling after I wrote "Girl with a Pearl Earring." People took it as if that was what really happened with Vermeer the painter, and that's how the painting came about, when actually I made most of it up.
And I had no idea that the book was going to have the success it did. And so, afterwards, it was a real shock. And ever since then, as I write books about things that really happened, I have to be very careful. So, I definitely feel the pressure of being in a way like Mary Anning's representative, and I need to get it right as best I can.
KELLY: Tracy Chevalier, speaking to us about her latest novel, "Remarkable Creatures." Thank you so much.
Ms. CHEVALIER: Thank you very much.
KELLY: You can read an excerpt from the book about the discovery that launched Mary Anning's career as a fossil hunter at our Web site, NPR.org.