Interview – Avi Sirlin, author of The Evolutionist
Today we welcome Avi Sirlin, author of the recently released novel The Evolutionist to Booklover Book Reviews.
The Malay Archipelago. 1858. In these remote tropics, a young British naturalist, Alfred Wallace, toils in obscurity. He collects specimens − beetles, moths, ants and birds − that sell for pennies apiece in England.
One night, suffering from fever and hallucination, Wallace solves the greatest mystery of the era: the origin of species. To circulate his discovery, Wallace contacts a distant acquaintance − Charles Darwin, who has been secretly penning a near-identical version of the same evolutionary theory for twenty years. Darwin achieves world-renown and Wallace earns, if nothing else, widespread grudging respect. But then Wallace returns to England and his advocacy for ideas ranging from socialism to spiritualism sets him on a collision course with the men at the very heart of the scientific establishment, including Darwin.
From oppressive jungle to mid-Victorian London, The Evolutionist tells of one man’s determination to seek out his own truths in his own unique way − and the price he pays. It is the story of the forgotten father of evolution.
Published by Aurora Metro Books
What inspired you to write The Evolutionist?
The Evolutionist is an historical novel about a Victorian era British naturalist, Alfred Wallace. In 1858, Wallace earned equal credit with Charles Darwin for discovering the modern theory of evolution by natural selection. I first read about Wallace about a dozen years ago in a fascinating scientific book, Last Song of the Dodo by David Quammen. At the time, I thought: Wallace sounds like an interesting fellow — I wonder why I haven’t heard of him before? Jump forward to 2011 when I’d just finished reading a novel about another historical figure and got to wondering: If I were ever to write about someone who’d lived in an earlier era, who would it be? In a flash — I swear, it was less than a second — even though I hadn’t thought of him in the longest time, Wallace just popped up. My initial reaction was that I knew next to nothing about him, had probably heightened in my mind his importance, and that if I did a little digging, I’m sure to find he wasn’t as intriguing as I’d like to believe. So I did some quick research and found quite the opposite: Wallace proved absolutely compelling. I wanted to learn more about him, bring out his inner life, and raise public awareness of this fascinating, largely obscured personality.
There. You were probably hoping for a short answer, right?
Would you say The Evolutionist is plot or character driven?
Based on a real historical figure, there’s little doubt it’s character-driven.
Tell us a little bit about your main character.
Alfred Wallace was a man who, at face value, lived a life of contradictions. A driven scientist, he was also an ardent spiritualist. Eager to settle down, he spent a dozen years travelling the Amazon and Malay Archipelago then, upon return to England, moved incessantly. He had a passionate admiration for all forms of natural life, yet in an almost causal manner, he violently ended the lives of so many animals, including human-like orangutans. One of the most venerated and progressive thinkers of the Victorian era, he was usually on the outside looking in, frequently undermining his own career ambitions through social and political gaffes. Wallace became world-famous during his lifetime, his name tied closely to Darwin’s, yet a hundred years after his death, he is largely forgotten.
What type of reader do you think would most enjoy The Evolutionist ?
Those interested in the history of science, with a dash of adventure. Anyone fascinated with Darwin’s discovery of evolution. More generally, readers of Victorian era fiction. Books that have touched on similar themes include Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things and Harry Thompson’s wonderful novel, This Thing of Darkness.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing process?
Before I could begin the writing process, there was an intense period of about six weeks during which I assembled critical biographical information pertaining to Wallace’s life and work. Then, as I wrote, I constantly filled in gaps in my knowledge with further research. In terms of writing routine, I write at home in the mornings. Afternoons, I “liberate” myself and write in a coffee shop (way more fun). I completed the book in about 18 months.
Do you have any other titles in the pipeline?
I’m finishing a novel that’s set in contemporary Toronto about a woman and her relationship with her troubled brother. Nothing remotely in common with The Evolutionist!
Do you have any tips or advice for aspiring writers?
Chances are, if you’ve stumbled onto this interview and read through to this point, you’re serious about the writing process. But nothing beats “BIC” (Butt in Chair): keep writing, keep reading, and send your work out.
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Further information about Avi Sirlin can be found on his website.