I interviewed environmentalist Nicola Davies, author of 80 children’s books and trained zoologist, who worked at the BBC Natural History Unit as a researcher and presenter. Nicola has lectured in creative writing at Bath Spa University and was the first recipient of the Special Libraries Association’s award for Outstanding Contribution to Children’s Non-fiction. In 2018 she had four picture books longlisted for the Greenaway Award.
Nicola: It’s an environmental fantasy novel for older children and adults. Set in a world where communicating with animals has always been possible, it presents a conflict between those who want to listen to the voices of nature and those whose vested interest lies in not doing so. In other words…not soo much of a fantasy! Writing a fantasy fiction allowed me to deliver stronger messages to my readers than non fiction.
Leslie: How is the story connected to your trip to Borneo?
Nicola: In a sense The Song That Sings Us is connected to every place I’ve visited, every experience of the beauty wonder and fragility of nature. But the sections in the book for which I drew on my experiences in Sabah were those set in rainforest with a strong animal heroine, Enkalamba who is a forest elephant. I saw many Asian pygmy elephants in Sabah and the problems they face as their forest home is destroyed and turned over to palm oil production.
Leslie: What changes from your father’s time did you see in Kinabatangan? Tell us about the wildlife and the people working to preserve it.
Nicola: My father saw the primary gallery rainforest when he visited Borneo in the 50’s. Huge trees meeting over every river. Now in Kinabatangan the primary forest has been logged, only secondary rain forest still remains, in pockets and strips along the river banks. Luckily this forest is still able to support populations of primates, such as silver leaf monkeys, proboscis monkeys and orang utans and wonderful birds like Rhinoceros hornbills. It is a fabulous place. The main organisation working to protect the forest and the wildlife is HUTAN supported by the UK conservation organisation The World Land Trust. Together they buy forest, plant trees to restore it and support local people to find sustainable ways of making a living that enhance the forest and wildlife and enrich their own lives.
Leslie: What has made you the creative person you are today?
Nicola: That’s hard for me to answer. I always wanted to make things. I was the youngest of three children, and there’s a decade between me and my nearest sibling, so I didn’t have playmates at home and my parents were quite old to have such a small child and often not well. So I played alone… made things endlessly, pictures, puppets, costumes… and I read. I lived in my imagination and in the nature that was in our garden. I loved animals and plants from the very start. That, I think, I was born with.
Leslie: Where do you draw the creative ideas from that feature in the range of books you’ve written? Do you have a daily routine/habits/tics/eccentricities to help your creativity? How do you ensure that you remain fresh and innovative as a writer?
Nicola: Making a living as a writer is a slog. You just have to keep turning out the books and trying to promote them. Keeping your soul alive while doing that year on year is hard. Trying to find time to recharge and reboot is hard and harder since Covid. I have a very puritanical approach to work. I go to my office at 9 and I don’t leave it until 5, 6 , 7. But I tend not to work at night because then I’m just tired the next day and it ends up being counter-productive. I run, I swim, I cycle and I get in or on the sea which is just 3 miles away, at every opportunity I can. I look at art a lot normally but since Covid I haven’t been in a gallery. LONGING for it!
Leslie: How did your environmental writing begin? How has that side of your writing grown and developed over several books?
Nicola: I’ve never really written about anything else. It’s what I can about what I KNOW about, and all the travelling I’ve done has been aimed at seeing animals and habitats. Of 80 plus books only a handful aren’t about the natural world. I began writing for a children’s natural history TV programme for the BBC that I was presenting and the books grew gradually out of that.
Leslie: How have you tried to teach social awareness/justice in your writing without being didactic?
Nicola: Yes very much so. I’ve written picture books about refugees, about bullying, about disability, about disadvantaged developing-world children. Increasingly I always try to put environmental issues into their human context. Eg: my book about albatrosses Ride the Windaddressed the issue of by catch from the point of view of the small-scale artisan fishers whose activities are driven by need, but result in the death of many seabirds. My hummingbird book drew a parallel between the Latin American diaspora and migration to the US, and hummingbird migration.
Leslie: Tell us about your smallholding and any animal stories you haven’t mentioned so far. Why are animals so important to you?
Nicola: I used to have a small holding not really very far away. I kept sheep and chickens and had a large veg garden. Many of the things that happened in that time went into my series about an imaginary city farm Siver Street Farm run by three children. Far too many stories to fit here. Now I live near the sea. My husband has a fishing boat and we fish for food in the summer and grow veg. But our only animals now are three egg laying chickens and the wild birds in our garden. ..
Next week I interview Lewis Stockwell about his Natural Aesthetic Canoe Journeying, his deep involvement in nature and his CFS-M.E. condition.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
A signed copy of Love’s Register is available in pounds sterling here.
The paperback in other currencies is available here.
For other ebook reading devices here (all currencies).
Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Ragehere.
The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Backhere