What was your favourite book or character as a child and why?
My favourite book as a child was an old cloth-bound copy of The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico. As a child I struggled with reading, but there was something hauntingly magical about Sir Peter Scott’s illustrations inside the book. The first colour plate shows a girl holding a snow goose, with the backdrop of wild marshes behind her. Because I was fascinated by wildlife and animals, I wanted to know who this girl was and why she was carrying the goose in her arms. The words were quite difficult for me at the time but the illustrations and the world and story Gallico created pulled me through.
What are you currently reading?
I never seem to find enough time to read, but I am trying to make more time. Recently I have been trying to read for half an hour each evening curled up on the sofa with a cup of tea. It’s a wonderful way to unclutter the mind and fall into another world. I also listen to audiobooks on car and train journeys. I have just finished Elizabeth Laird’s moving book Welcome to Nowhere, a story about members of a Syrian family caught up in war, and their struggle to find safety. Laird’s writing is rich and deeply layered, and inspired by Laird’s work and research in the refugee camps in Jordan.
You started working life as a vet. How has that experience influenced your work?
The deep emotional connection between people and animals, whether pets or wildlife, that I have witnessed during my work as a vet has influenced much of my writing. Animals can often be a bridge to bring people and communities together, and this connection is worked into many of my stories. Those who work in the firing line in conservation inspire me too, such as the men and women rangers who risk their lives protecting the gorillas, wild habitats and local communities.
How important do you think it is for children to have experience of nature? With the countryside and animals, whether they live in an urban city or wilderness?
It’s not just important, it’s vital that children have a relationship with the natural world and learn to treasure it and wonder at it. Protection of biodiversity of the natural world is the single most crucial issue this planet faces. We rely on the natural world for the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, the resources we use, and our physical and emotional health. Only by developing a love of the natural world, will children want to protect it. It is vital to make space for nature in urban and rural areas. Some of the urban wildlife reserves such as the London Wetlands Centre have been a huge success in bringing the wild into cities. There is not enough emphasis on the natural world in the school curriculum. It needs to be brought in from nursery right through until sixth form, not in a didactic way, but in a way to inspire wonder and creativity and for young people to see the links between natural history and all the other subjects.
And tell us about your route from vet published author.
It was a very slow and circuitous route! I loved stories as a child, but because I struggled with reading, had poor spelling and grammar, and my handwriting was illegible (being left handed, I smudged all my work) I never thought I would be ‘allowed’ to become an author. I also loved to tell my own stories in comic format, and I remember a teacher telling me comics weren’t ‘proper’ books! At secondary school, English lessons focused on analysing literature and language, but we never did any creative writing and unfortunately, I lost interest in writing and reading. It was many years later when I began reading to my own children that I fell in love with books again and rediscovered my love of stories and storytelling. After many thousands of words and many rejections from publishers and agents, I enrolled on a creative writing course where I learnt that writing is re-writing. Yet, even now, I don’t begin with the words when I write a story, I begin with pictures and draw my characters and storyboards. I need to visualise the story before I can tell it.
Does writing become easier with each book you publish?
No! It presents different challenges. But the monster of self-doubt still sits on my shoulder whispering in my ear and feeding off my worries.
You write for different age groups. How does that work for you: does the idea for the book or the intention to write for a particular age group come first, or do they develop and intertwine simultaneously?
I don’t think too much about it. When you write for children, you are not really writing ‘for’ children, but ‘as’ a child. You are writing the world as seen by the age of the child protagonist. So, for example, in Murphy and the Great Surf Rescue, I am writing as a six year old, dealing with the worries of jealously and friendship in a school setting. In Gorilla Dawn, I am writing as a twelve year old, witnessing some truly horrific things and feeling powerless in an adult world.
And what does a typical day look like? Where do you write, and how long does it take to complete a book?
There really is no typical day! I usually have the hours between 9.30am and 3pm for writing related work. However that is divided up into some actual writing, school visits, answering letters and emails, walking the dog, getting the car serviced etc. When I am writing the first draft of a story, I need about an hour of faffing about before I sink into the story. I think that’s the time when the writer unhinges the brain from all the peripheral things and sinks into the subconscious for storytelling.
In the summer I write in my tree-house where there is no wifi, phone-line or doorbell. In winter, I write in a spare bedroom, where I can get horribly distracted. It takes about nine months for me to write one of my novels for 8-12 year olds. About a third of that time is for research, a third for writing and a third for re-writing.
What’s the best part of being a writer for you?
The best part about being a writer is the connection with readers. I love hearing from them and they inspire me to keep writing. The best part about writing is before the real writing begins: discovering infinite possibilities of a story, the explosion and cascade of ideas and questions, the meeting of new characters, the creation of new worlds. It’s like magic.
And are there any down sides?
Sitting down all day. I have writer friends who have walking treadmill desks. I’m not sure I could walk and write at the same time. At least I have my personal trainer, Ned, who barks at me when he’s bored and makes me go out for a walk or a run every day.
Tell us something about you that will surprise or shock us.
My English was apparently so terrible that I wasn’t allowed to take the O-level at school, because I might have pulled the overall grades of the school down.
Your next book, A Story Like the Wind, seems a little different to your previous books, focussing on the refugee crisis with an underlying message of empowerment and responsibility for each of us to stand up and make our voices heard. Where did this book’s story begin?
This book began as an idea several years ago when I came across a Mongolian folk take about the origin of the violin. It was a story about the power of music and stories to overcome oppression. The story swirled around in my head, but I couldn’t think of a way to tell it, until I saw a Syrian refugee playing his violin in front of a barricade at a border control. The image was very powerful, showing how music can cross barriers of language, intolerance and hatred. So, the Mongolian folk tale weaves through the lives of a group of refugees on a small boat bound for the promise of a safer shore. Although it is a little different to my other books, it still shares the common themes of humanity, and it is only through building a better and safer world for people, that we can hope to protect and save the natural world.
What one thing could each of us do to help, whether a young reader, a teacher, a parent?
Spread kindness and understanding into the everyday. Small acts of kindness make a difference.
Jo Weaver’s beautiful illustrations merge lyrics and musical imagery with the expansive landscapes. Can you talk a little more about the role of music in the story?
Yes, Jo Weaver’s illustrations are stunning and atmospheric. Music is central to the story as it shows how music connects people across the world. One of the tales of the origin of the violin is that it evolved from the Mongolian horse head fiddle, a small cello-like instrument with two strings and played with a bow. It is thought that this instrument travelled across the spice routes and the silk roads to Europe, where it became the stringed instruments such as the violin, viola and cello. I thought it fascinating that stories and music have been traveling the globe for centuries, sharing our common humanity and celebrating our differences.
What’s next for you?
My next book is called Sky Dancer and is set in the uplands of Northern England. It is a story exploring the connection between the persecution of birds of prey and the management of moors for driven grouse shooting. The story is seen through the eyes of Joe, a gamekeeper’s son, who begins to question what it means for the landscape around him to be truly wild. I will be adopting a tagged hen harrier next year and raising money towards community education around the issues affecting these beautiful birds.
A Story Like the Wind written by Gill Lewis and illustrated by Jo Weaver is released on 4th May 2017, published by OUP.
To win a copy, click here (closing date 31.05.17).