Her home is strewn with tchotchkes (a wooden horse puppet, a painting of a TV hung beneath the TV, four dried purple allium blooms in an old milk bottle). The kitchen's window seat is carpeted with dog hair (it's a favorite hangout of her doe-eyed mutt, Rocky), and the floorboards groan. At the gleaming stove, the storied Nunes, Gilbert's husband of six years, is making breakfast. Silver-haired and bespectacled, he wonders aloud how many eggs he should cook. (Ask for one and he will deliver two, saying, "I made an executive decision.") He describes how, at a friend's cookout the evening before, a whole pig was spit-roasted. "They also served chicken," Nunes jokes, "for the vegetarians." Gilbert crouches to lament the state of Clifford, the very sick old tomcat who earlier barfed in the foyer, consoling him with a fingerful of cappuccino foam. In a pair of baskets, cats Zipper and Millie nap and stretch the morning away.
Above the first and second floors, but below the tiny crow's nest with its 360-degree windows, is the room that would be an attic if Gilbert hadn't had it transformed into a low-ceilinged study, with a central beam wrapped in tree bark and bookshelves carved to resemble twigs and vines. She calls the room the skybrary. The staircase leading up to the space is painted with a line from Emily Dickinson, one word per step: "The soul selects her own society—then shuts the door.
This is where Gilbert wrote her new novel, The Signature of All Things, the sweeping story of Alma Whittaker, a frank-tongued and plain-faced girl born in 1800. When Gilbert says, "I think a really large part of how the novel turned out has to do with where it was written," the room is reframed: The small windows are like portholes of a ship—perhaps like the one that took Alma to Tahiti; the book-lined walls are from the library where Alma feverishly studied Latin and astronomy; and the hulking wood desk, made from a smoothed slab of acacia, is the place where Alma applied herself to the study of moss variants Neckera and Pogonatum. Here's a file adorned with an image of Charles Darwin, whose work makes a cameo in the story, and here are rows of books about the history of Philadelphia, and herbaceous plants, and Beatrix Potter, a naturalist whose era overlapped with Alma's. Here are several colorful boxes, each filled with a thousand or so notecards. (In ninth-grade social science, Gilbert learned to do research by writing one fact on each card, allowing her to reorder them at will.) Here, in other words, are the raw materials of Alma Whittaker.
Today Gilbert resembles, if not quite a contemporary of Alma's, then someone plucked from a similarly distant time. Her green skirt falls to her leather boots, which she removes to sit cross-legged on the low bed in the skybrary's corner—"my favorite part of the house," she says. Barefaced, she's pinned her scribbly hair behind her ears, and now she presents the object that inspired the novel.
It's a massive old book, its leather binding rubbed raw in places, its spine embossed with gilded leaves and the words Cook's Voyages. The lifting of its cover produces a crisp snap, and its heavy pages weigh it open. Within them live dense blocks of type, ink drawings with lines fine as spider legs and the warm scent of ancient paper. The book was a gift from her great-grandfather to her father, a Christmas tree farmer in rural Connecticut. "It's way nicer than anything my family should have had," Gilbert says—which is why, as children, she and her sister were forbidden to touch it. And yet at some point during her childhood, she claimed it as her own: Scrawled in childish lettering on the book's front leaf is a ballpoint inscription that reads "Elizabet."
The volume is a 1784 travelogue of Captain James Cook's far-flung voyages through the tropics and beyond. When her mother moved a few years ago, she discovered what Gilbert had written, at which time she gave the book to her, saying, "I guess this belongs to you." Something in Gilbert stirred. The book had captivated her all her life—and now it seemed to glow with possibility.
"Creativity is a scavenger hunt," she says, the book filling Gilbert's lap. "It's your obligation to pay attention to clues, to the thing that gives you that little tweak. The muses or fairies—they're trying to get your attention. Something was saying I needed to pay attention to this book."
At first Gilbert thought, "I'm a traveler. I'm supposed to re-create Captain Cook's voyages around the world. I'll have to get my hands on a boat!" Except that book had already been done and it was called Blue Latitudes, by Tony Horwitz." Next, Gilbert thought, "Okay, don't travel the world. Do the opposite." We'd just moved to Frenchtown and I thought I'd write about staying put. Learn where I was in intimate detail. And as I started to write a proposal, I came upon a book that was exactly that idea."
These setbacks convinced Gilbert it was time to take a break, which suited her fine. "I was starting my garden," she says. "And all I wanted to do was know about those plants. That's how it began. I was, like, "It's not an adventure story—it's a botanical story." Cook's presence in the novel extends fewer than 20 pages. He was just the beacon Gilbert followed toward something greater.
Next: How Cook's journey inspired Gibert's new book