Sentient plants, by Elizabeth Kay

In the olden days, when typewriters and carbon copies and sending everything off by post was the way things were done, getting an agent was comparatively easy. It wasn’t something you could do by simply pressing a computer key; it took time, effort, nice plastic folders and a lot of typewriter ribbons. Not as many people bothered. I sent three short stories off to an agent, and was taken on straight away. She wanted me to write a book and so, full of confidence and the conviction that I could do something really different I went for speculative fiction, and my main character was an intelligent vegetable that could move and was used as a form of transport. I probably had some sort of plot, but I can’t remember it now. Astonishingly, she didn’t like it. I didn’t learn my lesson because, many years later, although I’d had a lot of short stories published and several radio plays broadcast I was still trying to do something radical. That time I set it 5 million years in the future; evolution had done its stuff, and my main character was an intelligent insect. That didn’t sell either, although it got me a distinction on my MA.

 Eventually the penny dropped, and I realised that readers need to be able to identify with the characters you create, which means finding parallels for human concerns. And then it becomes fun. Stray too far from the human condition, and humans lose interest. So how do you make a plant attractive? Especially when it's a cactus, and you give it a slightly prickly personality. Personality is far more important than appearance, although the reader does need to know what the character looks like. In Back to the Divide, I wanted a device for human boy Felix to get hold of some information whilst he was a guest in a tree house. First of all you need an unlikely name…

 …a weird and wonderful plant was growing in a blue ceramic pot on the window ledge. It looked like a succulent of some sort – a desert plant, anyway. Its stem was thick, bulbous, swelling out like a beer belly beneath rolls of pale green flesh. If it had possessed a head instead of a coronet of spiky leaves it would have looked like a football-sized statue of a sumo wrestler, or a jade Buddha. In the middle of the coronet sat one bright red flower.

    “Hello Socrates,” said Betony to the plant. “I haven’t seen you for ages.”
    “Socrates?” queried Felix.
    “What’s wrong with Socrates?” demanded the plant. “Good old-fashioned mythical name.”

 And a bit later, Felix is left alone with the plant and gets his chance to ask it something...

    “Are you just going to sit there reading, human?” demanded Socrates, dropping a dead leaf. “I thought I was going to have some interesting company for a change.”
    Felix grinned. “Is Leona a real person?” he asked.
    “She’s a riddle-paw.”
    “What’s that?”
    Socrates described Leona, and Felix realised that Leona was almost certainly a sphinx.
    “Why do you want a sorceress, anyway?” asked Socrates.
    Felix told him everything. His visit to Betony’s world the previous year, the need to find the reverse-marble hex… and the disappearance of the king and queen.
    “Hmm,” said Socrates, re-arranging a petal, “you’ve got a couple of root-tangling posers there, haven’t you? But Leona’s supposed to be very clever, she probably knows a royalty location spell.”

The last sentence caused great hilarity at my publisher, who thought all their clients would be interested in having a spell like that. I painted an appropriate Christmas card for them that year… You can play all sorts of jokes when you’re writing fantasy! Not all plants are friendly little characters, though, with a penchant for the occasional bit of indignation when they are not taken seriously enough. In Jinx on the Divide, the antagonist is a shape-shifting magical jinx box with a malign agenda, which can assume just about any form…

Nepenthes rafflesiana
    “Look at that pitcher, over there,” said Betony. “It’s absolutely enormous.”
    Felix looked. It was so huge it had to rest on the ground. “What do you think it eats?” he asked.
    Betony looked shocked. “Eats? What do you mean?”
    “Pitcher plants are carnivorous. At least, they are in my world. Ours are much smaller than these; they catch flies, which drown and then get digested.”
    Betony made a face, which quickly turned into an expression of horror as the implications hit home. “What do you think these ones eat, then?” she asked.
    “I don’t know,” said Felix. “Some pitcher plants have been known to eat frogs. Perhaps this one’s big enough to tackle small birds?”
    “And not necessarily that small,” said Betony, backing away. “I think you’re right about Rhino not being here. Let’s go.”
    But Felix was overcome with curiosity. Although physics and chemistry were his favourite subjects at school, biology came a very close third. Insectivorous plants fascinated him, they were just so weird. Despite the lid of the pitcher plant being firmly shut, he couldn’t resist going over to peek inside.
    “I wouldn’t,” said Betony, but it was too late.
    As Felix lifted the oval green lid a voice said, “Well hello.” It was so sudden and so unexpected that he nearly jumped out of his skin.

As with all writing, if you have fun there’s a very good chance your reader will too. I’ve been wondering what our lemon tree thinks about coming inside after spending the summer in the garden with her friend the fig tree… I’ll ask her in a minute…


Elizabeth Kay said…
I am currently in Greenland, where there are no plants to speak of. However, I hope to do a post about it next month.
Peter Leyland said…
Hi Elizabeth, I love pitcher plants and I knew I'd heard the word nepenthes before in another context. Here goes - 'a drug referred to in Homer's Odyssey as bringing relief from anxiety or grief, hence any substance seen as bringing welcome forgetfulness...' And it did for the flies as your characters noticed.

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