The Lady and the Octopus: An Interview with Author Danna Staaf

Jeanne Villepreux-Power was never expected to be a scientist. In the early 1800s she took up natural history and solved the two-thousand-year-old mystery of how of the argonaut octopus gets its shell. Follow her story in the new nonfiction The Lady and the Octopus: How Jeanne Villepreux-Power Invented Aquariums and Revolutionized Marine Biology.

Today author and marine biologist Danna Staaf joins us to share her journey writing this inspiring title. Read on to hear about her research and to watch an introductory video!

Which came first, your interest in argonauts or your interest in Jeanne Villepreux-Power?

Argonauts! I became fascinated with octopuses around age ten, and I read everything I could get my hands on. In Jacques Cousteau’s Octopus and Squid, I read about this unusual octopus mom who builds a shell to carry her eggs. When I was training to be a marine biologist, I spent a month at sea and once pulled up a live argonaut in one of the ship’s nets. The whole crew came to look at her. Later I came across Claude Arnal’s brief biography of Jeanne Villepreux-Power. I was immediately captivated by this woman from two centuries ago who had been so interested in argonauts and other marine life that she invented a whole new way to study them.

What was most challenging about writing this book?

I have to confess that history was my least favorite subject in school. I struggled to memorize the names of monarchs and battles, while I had no trouble memorizing octopus species. So the historical research for this book was the biggest challenge for me. I had to read the timeline of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars over and over again to make sure I was getting everything right. But it was also incredibly rewarding. I found that world events became much more interesting to me when I could link them with Jeanne’s life. Now I can remember that Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815 because it led directly to Jeanne sewing a royal wedding gown in 1816!

In researching a book of this length, going down research rabbit holes is inevitable. Can you share any rabbit holes you found particularly fascinating?

Oh, I fell down a whole warren of them. Did you know that that the tides in the Mediterranean Sea are more impacted by the local geography than by the moon, so when it’s high tide on one side of the Strait of Messina, it’s low tide on the other side, just a few kilometers away? Did you know that an engineer named Charles Condert developed a type of scuba gear a hundred years ahead of Cousteau’s Aqua-Lung, and made many successful dives before dying in a tragic underwater accident–the first known scuba fatality? Did you know that Benjamin Franklin carried around a little container of oil in his walking stick, so he could impress people by pouring it on rough water and calming the waves? But I think my favorite research detour was Anna Thynne. She’d studied geology for years, and became fascinated with corals because she saw them as living rocks. I love her account of collecting corals, which I didn’t have room to include in the book: “With a needle and thread I fixed the Madrepores [corals] on a large sponge, that there might be no damage from collision, and then placed them in a glass jar filled to the brim with water. . . . During the journey [home from the seashore], I had the great pleasure of seeing them expand their tentacula most happily; and they arrived both at Clifton and London in a most flourishing state.”

Did your opinion of Jeanne change over the course of working on the book? If so, how?

Yes, it did. When I first began to read about her, I thought of her as a victim of sexism, both during and after her life. And she absolutely did have to contend with sexism, but as I read more of her writing and her peers’ writing about her, I became very impressed with the extent to which she successfully advocated for herself. Of course, she had two significant forms of privilege that helped her do so—she was white and wealthy. Now, I think that the reason we know as much about her work as we do, and indeed the reason I had enough material to write this book, was her own determination to publish her work and get credit for it.

Jeanne was conducting her research well over one hundred years ago. What do you think she’d make of the present-day state of science?

She’d probably be delighted by the marine laboratories all around the world, where observation and experimentation on live animals is the norm! I bet she’d be very keen to go out in the ocean with scuba gear or in a submersible, to study animals in their own environments. She might also be surprised by how specialized science has become. In the 1800s, Jeanne and her colleagues tended to pursue wide-ranging studies. She worked with rocks, weather, fossils, plants, insects, terrestrial vertebrates and marine invertebrates. Today, most scientists focus on a single discipline.

I also think Jeanne (who lost much of her work in a shipwreck) would be very happy about electronic backups.

If you could go back in time to meet Jeanne, what would you most want to ask her?

I’d ask Jeanne to tell her own life story in her own way. Her surviving writings are so limited in scope that I had to make a lot of educated guesses to fill in the gaps. If she were willing to talk about it, I’m so eager to know what she would say about pivotal events in her life: leaving the village of Juillac (where she spent her childhood), sewing a princess’s wedding gown, meeting her husband James, moving to Messina. What additional memories might she treasure, that we perhaps know nothing about?

I’d also like to know if she was ever seasick, as seasickness has been one of the great discomforts of my life as a marine biologist.

Praise for The Lady and the Octopus

Watch this Video Introduction!

Connect with the author

Danna Staaf is a marine biologist and science communicator. She wrote Monarchs of the Sea: The Extraordinary 500-Million-Year History of Cephalopods and created the science outreach program Squids4Kids. She lives in San Jose with her family.

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