Nicola Davies is many things. A zoologist, a writer, a singer, an ambassador, a past presenter of a children’s wildlife programme on TV. With over 30 books to her name, from an especially entertaining non-fiction series illustrated by Neal Layton, to novels, picture books, and poetry (the jewel in the crown that is A First Book of Nature, illustrated by Mark Heard), she is also someone who can make people cry.
Well, wouldn’t you be with a picture book which opens with a mugging?
I won’t say more about The Promise, other than that the tears were profoundly good tears, and if I had to sum it up, I’d describe the book as one part Melvin Burgess, one part Rachel Carson. Now that’s quite something for a picture book, don’t you think?
I recently asked Nicola about her new book, and – more broadly – about the issues that drive her to write, and here’s how our conversation flowed:
Playing by the book: Your new book, The Promise, is “a picture book about transformation, the transformation of landscapes […], the transformation of human hearts and the possibility of change“. Can you tell us a little more about the book, how it came into being, and what you hope it might achieve?
Nicola Davies: It’s a bit of a saga… My wonderful and best beloved editor at Walker, Caroline Royds (who is responsible for more wonderful books than any other editor of her generation) asked me if I’d be interested in writing a picture book version of The Man Who Planted Trees [by Jean Giono/PBTB]. I knew the book very well but hadn’t read it for years.
I re-read it and loved it all over again but knew that a) I didn’t want to retell someone else’s story, as it felt like a species of theft, and also I’m an author – so I have a fairly substantial ego – and I wanted something that was mine and b) I felt I wanted to write something for a modern world where most people live in urban or semi-urban situations.
For my research on Gaia Warriors [a book Nicola has written about climate change, with an afterword by James Lovelock/PBTB] I’d read about and talked to a lot of people involved in planting and preserving forest around the world so I knew I lot about the role of trees in regulating our atmosphere and also about the amazing transformation that they can bring about in local climate in urban and desert situations, bringing down temperatures and creating rainfall. So all of that was in my mind like soup.
But at the time I was also not well; I had a big and very horrible shoulder injury, and was up to my frontal lobes in hideous painkillers, so I went for a week’s holiday (something I don’t really do much) and just lay in the sun for a week. I wasn’t even consciously thinking of the book I would write. However, I got back, sat at my desk and knew this was The Day.
I didn’t make notes. I didn’t think. I just wrote and in about three hours I had The Promise. I rang Cas, read it to her and I realised the silence on the other end of the phone was her crying. Since then I think we’ve dropped one line, but everything else has remained unchanged.
One of the reasons I feel so unrestrained about singing the praises of my own book this time, is that it feels like it almost came from somewhere else and down my arm. I know in my SOUL that it has a really important and powerful message that can work across all age groups. When A First Book of Nature was published, I said in my speech at the launch that it had important work to do in the world, helping parents and children to reconnect with the simple profound joys of nature.
But I think The Promise has an even wider message, not just about our relationship with the environment but our relationship with ourselves, and that we can change; that a bad beginning doesn’t have to dictate a bad end. Something that I’ve seen the best teachers in the most deprived areas trying to convey to their pupils and a message that comes up again and again in my fiction.
Playing by the book: Yes, I couldn’t agree more.
Listening to your passion, would it be fair to describe you as a campaigner as well as an author?
Nicola Davies: I wouldn’t describe myself as a campaigner. I’m too much on the sidelines. I have been more involved politically and environmentally in the past. But I just get too upset and too angry and then I don’t help.
So telling stories that speak to ‘one heart at a time’ is the best way I can use what I am and what I can do with my life. I wish I’d seen that 20 years ago!
I hope The Promise is going to be the first of a line of picture books with big messages that work across ages. I’ve always said I would rather write one picture book that speaks to a generation than win the Booker, and that’s absolutely true; the problem with picture books is getting them out there, getting people to know about them.
So little children’s writing gets a serious review in the UK press. When the children’s entries for the Costa were reviewed on Radio 4 the presenters thought it was acceptable to say they hadn’t bothered to read them!
If we are supposed to value children and want them to read, then surely the most important writing is for children, and that writing should be valued?
Playing by the book: I couldn’t agree more with you Nicola! Perhaps we should campaign on this together?!
But actually, when I mentioned being a campaigner, I was thinking of your work for the World Land Trust. Can you tell us a little about your role as a World Land Trust Ambassador – what the charity does, and why you want to be involved with them.
Nicola Davies: I’ve been giving the WLT [World Land Trust] the lion’s share of my PLR [Public Lending Right – a fee which goes to authors, generated by their books being borrowed in UK/Eire public libraries/PBTB] for years. But I was incredibly flattered when they asked me to be an ambassador. This simply involves telling people about what they do. I wish I was truly famous then I could tell more people but I do what I can.
They’re such a simply ‘does what it says on the tin’ organisation. They work with the people who live with forests and wildlife to protect both. Sometimes that means buying the land, sometimes it means working carefully within existing and quite legally and culturally complex systems of indigenous land ownership, but it’s never top-down conservation, never the westerner telling the ‘natives’ what to do. And its incredibly successful. I think it’s very telling that WLT is the only conservation organisation that dear, lovely David Attenborough endorses.
I worked with WLT to research my book The Elephant Road, based very closely on their work in the Garo hills in NE India to safeguard elephant habitat and forest based livelihoods for local people.
Then I went to Borneo to see the amazing work WLT are doing with Borneo based organisation Hutan to make a continuous corridor of forest along the Kinabatangan river. It is really heartening to hear how committed the Bornean locals are to find ways to keep their forests, their wildlife and clean up their rivers. Of course the founders, Viv and John Burton, know all my old colleagues from the BBC Natural History Unit so it feels like going back to my roots sometimes too.
Playing by the book: Your passion for the natural world started when you were young, and you’ve argued – as have others who care about our environment – that our “passion for the natural world goes right back to our childhood“. How do we / can we engage young people with the natural world, when all the evidence suggests children are spending less and less time outside?
Nicola Davies: I think parents’ perception of danger is a big factor here. When I was a kid, I had scabs on my knees ALL the time. I was always bumping myself or cutting myself and nobody ever made a fuss. It was part of being a kid. I was allowed lots of unsupervised time, to just bum about in the garden or the fields and BE. Actually statistically not much has changed since the 60s; there is not a paedophile behind every bush and dealing with risk – for both adult and child – is an essential part of being human.
Richard Louv, an American author and campaigner (a real one), published a wonderful book called Last Child In the Woods all about the value of just BEING in wild or semi wild place, and what happens to kids who don’t get it. Its a must-read for anyone who cares about this stuff or who has children.
So my advice? Cut back on the activities and let a bit of your garden get messy and overgrown, so your kids can crawl about in the brambles and make a den out of a rusty old bit of tin roof – and just let them get on with it!
Playing by the book: Was there much time for books in your childhood or were you always outdoors?
Nicola Davies: I was the youngest of 3 by a decade. My parents were old to have me and my mum was sick from the time I was 2. But we always had gardens – my dad and grandpa were great gardeners and countrymen so there were veg plots and flowers – and I was left to roam in them. I was also very bright and a bit weird, I suppose. I didn’t make friends easily (I still don’t) so I was very, very solitary (my mum made cakes and sandwiches for my 6th birthday party and nobody came…really NOBODY).
SO, when I learned to read I LIVED the books I read. And when I was outdoors I was trailing around talking to myself singing invented songs and making up some bonkers story. Really – perhaps it’s no wonder I didn’t have any friends!
As an adolescent (we’d moved to Suffolk by then) I got kind of obsessed with landscape, and I’d walk in the fields staring at the shape of them and how they fitted together. I wanted passionately to be able to paint landscapes. I remember reading The Lost Domain by Alain Fournier at 17 and wanting to paint that sense of mystery into the rolling West Suffolk hills around me.
My parents fostered my love of literature. They came from working class families in Wales where music and literature were very valued. My Dad taught me Keats poems, and whole sections of Longfellow’s Hiawatha, and my Mum bought me Thomas Hardy and DH Lawrence’s animal poems. My Dad played the Dies Ire from Verde’s Requiem at ear-bleeding volume every Sunday morning, and Kathleen Ferrier singing Blow the Wind Southerly. My parents both died when I was in my mid 20s and never lived to see me become human; I was pretty vile until I hit 40. But all that I am now – my writing, my love of painting of landscape and of music – comes from them. I’m the same inside as when I was 8.
Playing by the book: What nature writers/artists for adults or for children do you turn to nowadays for a dose of delight, excitement or understanding?
Nicola Davies: I return time and again to J. A Baker’s The Peregrine. I don’t very often get to the end because the writing makes me stop and think and re-read. It’s one of the few things that make me want to write apart from poetry – Ted Hughes, Seamus Heany, Kathleen Jaimie, John Heath Stubbs, Vernon Scannel, Les Murray… Its a long list!
I read a lot of nonfiction. Richard Holmes is a god, and my old friend Richard Mabey always tells me something new. Simon Barnes‘ work is wonderful too – full of insight and warmth and humour. But it’s actually visual art I find most inspiring – I’m a frustrated painter inside really. Landscapes are still my great love. The little water colours of the Yorkshire landscape that David Hockney did when he first came back from LA were just ravishing, I was physically enraptured, blown away, knocked out by those.
And Peter Doing – his visionary tropical landscapes are astounding. I went to Australia when my kids were small and got exposed to aboriginal art, not just the Northern Territories figurative stuff but the Western Desert dreaming pictures, and they opened my eyes to all manner of things. My favourite artist there is Pansy Napangardi, making pictures of astounding beauty, scale and vision, with deep meaning, just sitting in the desert in a flowery frock. The day I sell film rights or win the lottery, that’s one of the first calls: to the gallery in Sydney that sells her work.
Playing by the book: It’s fascinating to hear how important art is to you, as I’m particularly interested in the role of illustration in your works – a role which is perhaps extra important given their message about the beauty of nature. Your books have been illustrated by a panoply of stellar artists – Marc Boutavant, Salvatore Rubbino, Mark Heard, Brita Granstrom, Neal Layton, Michael Foreman, and Laura Carlin to name but a few. How do you work with your illustrators? What sort of (if any) collaboration is there?
Nicola Davies: I don’t draw any more. I regret not keeping it as part of my life and getting better, but it’s kind of too late to start the process of improving now, I think. And I am now rubbish at it. But I do have a passion for images and when I finish a book I have a really strong sense of the emotional and intellectual job that I want the illustration to do.
Luckily Walker Books let me have a big say in who we use and even more luckily I’ve worked with some brilliant people. The amount of contact varies. Sometimes I never even see the illustrator, but sometimes we chat and meet. Indeed, increasingly it’s the latter. Most of the people you mentioned, especially Mark, Brita, Neal and also Emily Sutton, I worked with and met and talked to about our vision of the book. Salvatore took pictures of my old house by the river in Tiverton and made them the illustrations for Just Ducks!, so he made that book like an autobiography, which was so lovely.
But it would be wrong to say I have any influence on their work and I wouldn’t want to. Illustrators have to let the text speak to them and have their own relationship with it.
Working with Laura has been wonderful. We had very little contact while she was working on The Promise, but I saw her work in progress via the designer of the book, Liz Wood. I saw Laura’s journey, and that was a great privilege. I remember when we were deciding who should illustrate it, well, seeing Laura’s work, I knew at once she was the one
The way she defines space is extraordinary and The Promise is all about how the small scale influences the big, and Laura understands that totally. We spoke at the same conference in January this year and I have to say hearing her speak about her work was so inspiring. I always say great art, certainly the art I like, has to come from a real place, rooted in the identity, the experience, the LIFE – and Laura’s work is entirely consistent with her as a human being. She wears her wisdom and her insight so lightly and her work comes from a deep sense of personal truth and outward looking. We’ve started talking about a new book, which I’m desperate to write.
Playing by the book: That sounds incredibly exciting, Nicola – I can’t wait to hear more about this!
But returning to you as a writer – I think you’re an unusual author, comfortable across a variety of genres, from poetry, to fiction, to non-fiction. What role does narrative play for you in writing, especially in writing non-fiction and poetry? For you, what is narrative, and how is it different (and similar) in your non fiction as opposed to your fiction?
Nicola Davies: Narrative is EVERYTHING. I’m always saying this but it’s the psychological carrier bag that humans have used to pass around truths, from information on how to skin a rabbit to the deep currents in our nature.
I think there’s a perception of narrative as plot, as the stuff that happens, but it isn’t. Narrative is a shape, a structure. It might be made of character, it might be made of plot, it might be made of a single vision. But narrative creates an emotional link with the reader, a channel down which information – fictional or non fictional- can be communicated.
Wordsworth’s poem Upon Westminster Bridge is a narrative. Nothing happens, no characters beyond the voice of the narrator, but it has a shape, a beginning a middle and and end, so you remember it AND the information it contains.
I went to the Children’s Media Conference this year and heard every TV executive say the word “narrative”. I’m not sure some of them had the first idea what that was, but there was a realisation that you can have all the techno wizzery in the universe but if you haven’t got a narrative that engages your viewers’ EMOTIONS, its all a waste of time.
I get very fed up of people talking about interactive media – when books are THE MOST interactive of all: reading isn’t passive. I can’t believe books have been beaten onto the back foot when we have the best, most sustainable and most intrinsically interactive medium of all.
But to get back to what you actually asked…
Narrative is the key. It’s an information delivery system, and whether the information you deliver is five made-up murders and the chase for the killer, or the life of a polar bear, it’s the same. There just isn’t a hard line between fiction and nonfiction, and as soon as you start to draw it you’re in trouble. What’s important is knowing what’s real and what isn’t – the provenance of the information, if you like.
Only grown-ups get their Y-fronts in a tangle over this. Kids get it. For instance, in my blue whale book there’s an illustration of two kids standing on a whale’s flipper. In what world can that happen? Air?? Water??? Where? Kids get that it’s story space, and in story space, stuff that’s real and stuff that’s not is mixed up. But they also get that the stuff you tell them whilst in that story space is true.
I remember running a session at the Tate Modern once and looking at an abstract painting by Lee Krasner. A little girl said “This picture is about [not “of” you notice, but “ABOUT”] what it feels like to be a bird landing in a tree, going fast, the going slow, and landing.”
So a 9 year old was quite at home with the fact that a flat abstract canvas can tell you something about time, space, speed and emotion all at once.
Oh how I love working with children!
Playing by the book: And talking of working with children, I’ve read that you’ve even written opera libretti as part of school workshops. What role does music play in your life? Can you tell me anything about the whisperings I’ve heard about musical adaptations of some of your picture books?
Nicola Davies: Music is huge. I sing with a little band now called Pangolin, although I’ve never had the belief or patience to learn an instrument. This means oddly that I listen to rather less music these days, as I’m always listening to a song over and over to learn it. But music has always had a huge role in my life – as a comfort, as a mood altering drug. And singing most days is becoming more and more important. Songs are another wonderful and very portable form of narrative. I’d LOVE to be able to write songs.
My next picture book – the ‘King Of The Sky’, which Mark Heard will illustrate – has theatrical potential. When I read it at a conference, the very strong reaction to the story made me think, “Ooo. I’ve got something here.” So I sent it to Karine Polwart, a fabulous singer-songwriter, to ask if she’d like to collaborate, and SHE SAID “YES!” – I couldn’t believe it. So now we’re looking into theatrical help from a director friend of mine and the plan is to make it into a musical, but using mainly voice (which Karine is brilliant at) to create something that children will be able to perform and make their own.
Playing by the book: Oh, Nicola, that sounds amazing – definitely something I’d travel to see (Festivals: Are you listening?!).
Thank you so much Nicola for such a lovely conversation today. I’ve gone away with a long reading/viewing list, and I didn’t need the hankies I brought with me this time! 😉