Nicola Davies enjoys solitude. “Almost all my positive memories are solitary…And almost always in nature.” In one of her clearest memories, Nicola is six and sits at the edge of a clifftop barley field while on holiday with her parents in a coastal village in Wales. “I remember sitting near the field and watching the winds moving the barley and the sun going down over the sea and having a visceral sense of my own mortality. But also somehow very connected with that—a sense of the earth going round and me being on it and me being a part of it whether I was alive or dead.”
Of course, Nicola did not have the vocabulary at the time to articulate her new-found awareness, but as a children’s author she’s not surprised when kids share their profound thoughts. “I often try to remember how emotionally complex and layered they already are. They really don’t know very much about the world. They haven’t got much experience. They are looking and thinking and feeling and that has to be acknowledged and respected.”
I met Nicola in Washington, D.C. in October 2015, for the Green Earth Book Award ceremony where her book, The Promise, was honored. We sat down for a Skype chat last month while she was at home in Wales.
Patricia: How does your passion for nature seed your writing process?
Nicola: I wouldn’t have had the first idea how to answer that question more than five years ago. All I know is that I need to get my brain in a particularly decoupled state for it to work. I need to put lots of things in there. I need to do lots of research, but very often the germ of a story is something completely unpredictable. Which is why it’s necessary to not be at your desk the whole time. You need to be looking outwards, and not just doing factual research, but looking at other artwork. The art that inspires me to write is very often pictures or sculpture.
P: So you need a visual stimulus?
N: Actually an emotional stimulus. I am more and more keen to make the links between the natural world and our emotional lives. Partly because those stories are more pleasurable to write and partly because when I write stories like that the response from my readers is greater. Because of that response, I’m more and more desperate to find an emotional silver bullet that will make people get the message about caring for the planet.
P: Why do you write for children?
N: I still experience that physical pleasure of curling up with a book or looking forward to curling up with a book which is almost better, but I still don’t read like I read when I was nine, with that absolute intensity. And I remember that experience of reading. And to be the creator of that experience for other human beings is huge!
P: How does the germ of an idea become a book?
N: The Lion Who Stole My Arm is a story about the problem of living with man-eating lions in East Africa. I was researching another book—and very often I find it’s a kind of chain reaction thing—when I came across a research project in East Africa by a woman called Colleen Begg who was working with local people to change their behavior to keep them safe from lions. Actually the things that she was encouraging them to do seemed pathetically obvious really, but because of the local belief system it was hard to get them to do it. When they [followed Colleen’s advice], they started being safe from lions and they started then changing their attitude toward lions. Instead of being terrified of them and angry with them, they started being really rather proud of the fact that they were sharing their environment with this animal that was famous across the world. Okay, this story I want to tell, but I wanted to write it from the point of view of a child in [an East African] village…I liaised very, very carefully with Colleen to get the facts right, but what I needed was a central character based in reality. Quite by accident, I found a photograph of a little boy taken by an American photographer…and in this photograph the little boy’s looking very solemn—he’s ten years old—and his left arm is missing. He was attacked by a young lion when he was five. It grabbed him by the arm and dragged him into the bushes. The boy had one arm free and punched the lion in the face and the lion let go. Finding that photograph gave me the backbone of the narrative for that book.
P: Which book is your favorite?
N: The Promise is the one that’s in front of my mind at the moment because that’s doing a very good job across a wide range of ages. And it’s doing a good job in terms of its environmental message. Also in terms of its human rights and personal development message. For instance, Amnesty International in the UK has just picked it up as one of their core texts for 2015.
Also Tiny Creatures, a picture book about microbiology [winner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science Books & Films Prize for Excellence in Nonfiction]. My aim with Tiny was just to do the very, very basic, to say to the very youngest children there’s a whole world that’s invisible. And it’s invisible not because it’s magic, but because it’s too itty for you to see. And it’s really important. The reason your mum and dad are always saying wash your hands before you eat dinner and cover your mouth when you sneeze is because of this tiny stuff and the stuff that it can do. So I deliberately didn’t use [the words] bacterium or virus, I just used the word microbe. There is the whole [concept] of scaling to give [readers] an idea of just how tiny microbes are. Here’s the good stuff they do: make cheese, Daddy’s beer, your yogurt in your breakfast, make bread rise, and give us quite a lot of the oxygen we require. They also do nasty stuff like give you diseases, but here’s how you can prevent them. It was a really difficult book to write…and when we published it I kind of was ready to get my head down behind the parapet for all the microbiologists to throw things at me. The very first review we had was from a microbiologist who put something up on Twitter about how wonderful it was.
P: What would you like your readers to know about you?
N: I’m not fussed about my readers knowing about me. As long as they read my stories and get them, there’s nothing they need to know about me. It’s all there on the page.