T.L. Mogford's The Plant Hunter is shortlisted for the 2022 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize.
1867. King's Road, Chelsea, is a sea of plant nurseries, catering to the Victorian obsession with rare and exotic flora. But each of the glossy emporiums is fuelled by the dangerous world of the plant hunters – daring adventurers sent into uncharted lands in search of untold wonders to grace England's finest gardens.
Harry Compton is as far from a plant hunter as one could imagine – a salesman plucked from the obscurity of the nursery growing fields to become 'the face that sold a thousand plants'.
But one small act of kindness sees him inherit a precious gift – a specimen of a fabled tree last heard of in The Travels of Marco Polo, and a map.
Seizing his chance for fame and fortune, Harry sets out to make his mark. But where there is wealth there is corruption, and soon Harry is fleeing England, rounding the Cape of Good Hope and sailing up the Yangtze alongside a young widow – both in pursuit of the plant that could transform both their lives forever.
About the Author:
T.L. Mogford can trace his roots back to a line of famous horticulturalists - his great-grandfather has an apple tree named after him. Before becoming an author he worked as a journalist for Time Out and as a translator for the European Parliament. The Plant Hunter is his first historical novel.
WNSF: What does adventure writing mean to you? Would you have considered yourself an adventure writer before being shortlisted for the Prize?
Thomas: All fiction is a source of escapism, but adventure fiction provides the ultimate escape. Great adventure writing can sweep you away – make you keep turning the pages long after you might have switched out the light. But an unforgettable adventure is not just a masterclass in propulsive story-telling, it will also widen your experience of life – let you inhabit new characters, and introduce you to worlds completely different to the one you know.
My previous five books were all crime novels set in Gibraltar and the wider Mediterranean, following the adventures of a lawyer called Spike Sanguinetti, whose work takes him to some dangerous, if sun-drenched, corners of Europe (tough work, researching those!). Although the Spike Sanguinetti novels are adventures, they’re also mysteries with a strong investigative element, so ultimately were classified as crime rather than adventure fiction. The Plant Hunter, however, has an adventure at its very core – a quest that places intense demands on the protagonist, forcing him to travel great distances and overcome continual danger. So I would say I was a fledgling adventure writer before The Plant Hunter, but had never gone the whole hog (sorry to mix animal metaphors!).
WNSF: Are there any particular books or authors which have made a lasting impact on you?
Thomas: When I was a boy, I loved the books of Willard Price. They really deliver on the adventure front – travel, danger, and a thrilling new world of wild animals (and sometimes plants) to discover. Then I got into Graham Greene. Unfamiliar settings, exquisite prose, the dubious motivations of his flawed, floundering characters.
WNSF: Can you tell us about any adventurous experiences in your life? Have they influenced you as a writer or your writing?
Thomas: With regard to this book, I was influenced by a trip I made to Shanghai many years ago. An old friend was working as a junior lawyer out there, and he invited a group of us to stay over Christmas and New Year. On my first night in China – Christmas Eve, as it happened – I became separated from my friends. In a rather inebriated state, I naively assumed I’d be able to find my way back to the flat on my own, but it quickly became clear this was not to be the case. Suddenly this massive city of 20 million people, with its unique blend of high-rise buildings, pagodas and French-inspired boulevards lined with plane trees, became a labyrinth.
As I wandered the freezing streets, panic set in. I tried to call my friends for directions, but everyone had either crashed out or turned off their mobiles. No taxi driver was able to help me, as I couldn’t explain where I wanted to go. No hotel would accept me either, as I’d left my passport at my friend’s flat for safe-keeping. So as midnight beckoned, I ended up creeping into the reception area of a random apartment block. Crawling under a large sofa in the corner, I promptly fell asleep.
Some hours later, the concierge spotted my toes sticking out, and woke me up. In retrospect, I suppose I was lucky he didn’t report me to the police. In fact, he took pity on this lost, foolish and slightly drunk foreigner, and offered me a mug of sweetened tea. We saw in Christmas Day together, chatting in our respective languages, unable to understand a word the other said. Eventually, one of my friends woke up, and talked me through the route home, but the dizzying sense of awe and disorientation that I felt that night in Shanghai has never left me. I tried to give Harry Compton that same sense of dislocation when I came to write the book!
WNSF: The Plant Hunter is historical fiction, why did you choose to write about this time? Or that particular place in this time?
Thomas: I had no particular intention of becoming a historical novelist; I just happened to go to a lecture about the King’s Road, Chelsea, through the ages, and was fascinated to learn that a big-money exotic plant trade had thrived there in the 19th century.
I began reading about Victorian and Edwardian plant hunters, and, very quickly, was hooked. These men (and occasionally women) were intrepid adventurers faced with just as many obstacles and perils as Indiana Jones – but with rare plants as their quarry, rather than antiquities.
The whole set-up seemed extraordinary, particularly as so many of the plants that they risked their lives to find we now take entirely for granted. The only way to write a novel that evoked their adventures was to set it in the period in which they took place. So I had to become a historical novelist in order to achieve that aim.
WNSF: How do you make sure your characters, their voice and actions, sit comfortably within the historical context?
Thomas: Victorian plant hunters faced many dangers and disappointments over the course of their expeditions, and I wanted my protagonist to have a similar experience. At the start of the book, Harry Compton is young and a bit naïve, but his experiences forge him, and eventually he rises to the challenge of becoming a successful plant hunter – and a better man. Hopefully, Harry sits comfortably within the historical context of the period because he is learning as he goes along – he has little knowledge and absolutely no preconceptions about the strange world he plunges into, so is able to report on the unpleasant aspects of it (like the opium trade with China) with the same shock and surprise as we might feel now.
As for the tone of the book, that took a bit of time to get right, as my previous novels were all contemporarily-set. I wrote an early version of The Plant Hunter in the first person, which I attempted to write in a 19th-century voice. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, and ultimately it didn’t work. So I decided to try rewriting it in the third person, and suddenly things seemed to zip along nicely! I suppose it’s about finding that balance between making the writing clear and easy to follow, but also sufficiently free from anachronism that it feels appropriate to the period.
WNSF: Can you tell us about a particular relationship between two characters in your novel and how you made it feel genuine?
Thomas: My wife read all the early drafts of the book, and was always keen to make Clarissa Lockhart – the young widow Harry meets in China – a more active participant in the story. Then my editor suggested that Clarissa could have a financial stake in the plant-hunting expedition, which was a vital addition, I think, in balancing her relationship with Harry. Because ultimately it’s character and relationships that remain in the mind of the reader, when the thrills and spills of a plot are long since forgotten. And after all, what greater risk can two people take than to fall in love? In fact, my wife and I were watching Casino Royale the other night (D. Craig version), and even with such a thrilling action film, we were saying the scenes that really resonated – and endured – were the quieter ones between Bond and Vesper.
WNSF: A strong sense of place is vital to any great adventure story. What role does research play in your writing? How did you make your setting feel realistic?
Thomas: When researching my previous books, I made sure to travel to the locations where they were set, and take copious notes. My wife and I went everywhere from Gibraltar to Albania to Morocco, and I have reams of notebooks filled with observations and details that found their way into the novels. Sadly, that method is not (yet?) available to historical novelists. So I relied on contemporary accounts of 19th-century China, and Victorian Chelsea, then let my imagination do the rest. That said, I did visit Shanghai once (see earlier answer!). Although the modern city is clearly very different to the place it was 150 years ago, I felt I could conjure a sense of it from memory, and I like to think that the dazzling, baffling bustle of one of the exciting cities on earth is something that has remained essentially unchanged.
WNSF: We find that adventure often crosses into other genres, including crime and historical fiction. What kind of books do you like to read?
Thomas: I enjoy adventure and crime novels – from Alexandre Dumas to Robert Louis Stevenson to PD James… and of course, Wilbur Smith! I have a particular penchant for literary fiction that is in reality just a very good example of the above – Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, or Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, both of which were shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Or The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid – a thoughtful, well-written book that just happens to be a thriller/mystery. I also find myself strangely drawn to novels featuring protagonists whose lives are starting to unravel – Martin Amis, William Boyd, David Szalay…
WNSF: What would you consider the upsides, and the downsides, are of being an author?
Thomas: The upside is the thrill of making things up, and inhabiting new lives and worlds – unbeatable. The downside is uncertainty as to whether anyone is going to pay to read what you’ve written!
WNSF: What would you say is the hardest thing about writing? And the easiest?
Thomas: The hardest thing is quashing the self-doubt. The easiest is the writing itself – it’s such fun to do. Better even than reading – or watching films!
WNSF: What has been your toughest criticism as a writer? And your greatest compliment?
Thomas: My toughest criticism has been silence. When you send something out to someone, and they simply never reply! My greatest compliment – maybe getting onto this shortlist!
Would you like to read more? Thomas wrote a piece, The Victorian Plant Hunters Who Were No Shrinking Violets, for the Daily Express, here.