The renowned naturalist addresses accusations of plagiarism in her new book, Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants.
Where did you grow up?
When I grew up, World War II was raging and when I was 5 years old, I went with my mother and baby sister to the south of England, Bournemouth. We had very little money, but a nice big garden. It was my grandmother’s house. Right from the beginning it was animals, animals, animals. I was watching them. Writing stories about them. So I was born like that. But I didn’t have any desire to be a scientist. I wanted to be a naturalist. When I was ten, I saved enough money to buy a second-hand book called Tarzan of the Apes. I fell passionately in love with Tarzan, and was most distressed when he married the wrong Jane.
Tell me about your earliest personal interaction with a chimpanzee.
My earliest interaction…I wasn’t a child. I had a job in London, and saw two chimps in the zoo. I was very sorry for them, because they had an absolutely dreadful exhibit. The reason I studied chimpanzees was that when I finally saved up money to get to Africa, as I was invited for a holiday by a school friend, I heard about the late Dr. Louis Leakey. The paleontologist. And it was he who asked if I was prepared to go and study chimpanzees. I would have gone to study any animal. I just wanted to be living out in the wild with animals, surrounded by them and writing books about them.
Could you tell us some books about naturalism that were particularly influential to you?
Well, it’s difficult, really, because I’m not joking when I say that Tarzan really influenced me. The jungle, the forest, and animals. Just what I wanted. I also had a book which was not for children, but my grandmother had saved up coupons from, I don’t know, tea or something. And the prize was this book called The Miracle of Lives. It was literally divided into sections, a section on different tongues for different purposes, different feet for different purposes. A natural history of mammals. Evolution. There was even a history of medicine. It was an amazing book, and I spent hours and hours and hours with this book. I looked at the pictures, copied the drawings. Then also I suppose Ernest Thompson Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known. And Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Any book like that.
Have you ever thought of a career in fiction, as opposed to science?
I don’t know if I ever thought of a career in anything. When I was growing up, girls didn’t think about things in those terms. I just wanted to be out in the wild with animals. I don’t know that I, sort of, contemplated…in those days you did what you could, and then somebody married you. That’s how it was when I was growing up.
What is it like to be made a Dame? We Americans are fascinated with the knighthood concept.
Well, you’ve got these series of honors. It starts with an MBE, a Member of the British Empire. Then you’ve got an OBE, Order of the British Empire. Which they gave me. No wait, they gave me Commander of the British Empire, one up from that, which was the first one I had. And then, a few years later…I don’t know, people suggest a name, then others endorse a name, and it goes to a committee. It’s formal. Quite honestly…I mean there isn’t a British Empire, is there? It’s an anachronism.
Was the actual ceremony itself moving for you?
The CBE, that was much more moving, because my mother was still alive. She was so excited and proud. My father came, although they were divorced, they came together. My sister was there. That was actually very meaningful. It was the Queen, who handed it to me. And the Dame bit? I just don’t like being a “Dame.” A Dame is some funny person in a pantomime. If it was a knight…it’s the equivalent of a knight, but for a woman. But a “Dame?” Anyway… I don’t use the title.
You seem to have a good sense of humor, as in the incident with the Gary Larson Far Side cartoon. It seems like quite an honor to be so well-known as to be recognizable in a popular cartoon, and to be included in a Simpsons episode.
Yeah, I was absolutely delighted to be in Mr. Larson’s cartoon. I think his cartoons are fantastic. I had this stupid executive director of the Jane Goodall Institute back then, and she actually wrote—I was far away in Africa and had no idea what she was doing—she wrote to Gary Larson’s people and said she was thinking of suing them, because that cartoon suggested that I had sexual relationships with chimpanzees! I mean, honestly, can you believe it?! About two years later, Gary Larson was invited by one of my friend to come to visit. He said, “Well, I don’t think Jane will welcome me.” He didn’t know that I was shocked about this ridiculous gesture, and he didn’t know how much I loved his cartoons. He came, and we sorted it all out.
How did you address the plagiarism accusations around your new book, Seeds of Hope?
In hindsight…Noah, I just got the book in my hands today, you know, the one they send around. It arrived the same time as me. I just arrived from Africa, and the book got here a half an hour after me. Isn’t that amazing?
Congratulations. That’s always a special moment for a writer, when they hold in their hands the first copy of their book.
I am so, so glad that I had that extra time. Publisher’s deadlines, when you’re on the road 300 days a year, as I am—they’re very difficult to meet. Going through this book with my co-author, who is a truly wonderful person. She did a lot of the nitty-gritty. But I am really really happy not for the way it happened, but that I had the time to go back through the book and get all the references right. I need hardly say what a shock it was when these accusations came pouring in. I mean, oh gosh. But all’s well that ends well.
Describe your morning routine.
My biggest problem—I’m not quite answering the question. The only time I have for writing is when I’m back home in England, in the house I grew up in, where all my things are, my books. Many times, I’ve got to try to get a lot of writing done in just, maybe, five days. That means setting the alarm for five o’clock. Desperately writing until breakfast, going back to write again. Always taking an hour off to spend with the dog. And in the evening I spend time with my sister—we own the house together and she lives in it with her family. Then I sometimes have to go back and write late into the night. It’s a very stressful way to write, high and edgy.
Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space?
All the writing is done at home, in my bedroom, up under the eaves of the house. It’s got all my things in it, from all over the world. Lots and lots of books—as many as will fit in such a small space. I write on a laptop. My best position for writing is sitting on the bed, with my legs stretched out in front of me. I can write all day like that!
What is guaranteed to make you laugh?
Well, hm. What is guaranteed to make me laugh? Something funny, I mean…
What is guaranteed to make you cry?
There are so many moving stories about amazing, inspirational people, inspirational moments with chimpanzees.
Do you have any superstitions?
Only silly little things we’ve done all our lives. If you drop a knife you mustn’t pick it up. If you pick up someone else’s knife, you must say the name of a poet. If you spill salt you must throw it over your left shoulder.
If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?
This is so challenging, because there are so many people I want to bring back to life. The one person I really want to bring back is someone I never met. My grandfather. I heard so much about him, and everyone says that I inherited a lot of characteristics from him. And I’ve heard that he was completely wonderful. I’d love to actually meet him. Gosh, if I could bring back anyone else—it would take all day! So many people I wish I could bring back to life.
Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.
The problem with this is I’ve written so many books about secret parts of myself, and most people don’t talk about themselves. Most things I do everybody knows about.
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
No one’s ever asked me that before. I’m not going to have a tombstone, but that’s beside the point. I’m going to have my ashes distributed throughout the countries where we have youth groups. Each one will throw a tiny pinch of me, and I will grow into a tree all over the world!