Interview: Nicola Davies

Nicola Davies has successfully combined a lifelong love of nature with a keen interest in writing and her adventures have taken her around the world.  She was one of the original presenters of The Really Wild Show and has written a range of children’s books, including nature books for younger readers, non-fiction biology books for 8-12 year olds and a number of fiction books. She took a break from her recent sperm whale watching expedition to the Caribbean to speak to Book Events for Children. 

Is it true that you were one of the original presenters of The Really Wild Show?  Given your love of animals, was this an amazing opportunity for you?

Yes I was, with Terry Nutkins and Chris Packham. I co presented the show for five years from when it began in 1985. We won three BAFTAS for the best kids programme and I’m still incredibly proud of that because as well as being one of the presenters I was also on the production team, coming up with ideas for the show and writing scripts for it. In fact I gave up writing my Phd on bats to join the show- which I’m not so proud of!

In those days RWS was almost all studio based so we brought animals into the studio with an audience of kids…great, great fun and wonderful to be so close to many amazing animals, but also lethal! It was a recipe for disaster sometimes…camels with diarrhoea, rabbits that turned vicious, birds that flew into the lighting gantry never to return. But there were some magical moments…playing football with a a cheetah cub, being wrapped in a 3 m python. The best bits for me though we’re with kids…I found I loved talking to an audience. And through writing bits of script I started to learn my craft.

How did you make the move from presenting to writing childrens books?

Through writing for RWS and then coming up with the idea for and writing three series of another series ‘Superbods’ all about human physiology. It was if anything even more fun than RWS …the producer was TONS TONS nicer and the whole process was relaxed and fun, whereas RWS had been very stressful and sometimes v unhappy.

I started out with Walker Books as a scientific consultant. At the time that seemed to me far more exciting than presenting which always looks glamourous from the outside but is actually rather dull. I was asked to consult on a blue whale book - the author made such a mess of it that Walker gave it to me and my first proper book Big Blue Whale was the result. That was in 1997 and it’s still in print, and published in about ten different languages.

Many authors describe a long and tortuous route to publication. How easy was it for you to get your first book published?

 I know! I see very talented students (I teach creative writing from time to time at Bath Spa University on their post grad Masters in Writing for Young People) who struggle to be published but I was incredibly lucky. I also had three adult novels published pretty easily off the back of a newspaper column I started in 1997 in the Independent. No clues on this one, but if you really want to you can track it down.

Could you tell us a little about The Walker Nature Series of books which you have written?

I’m not the only person who writes for this series…two of my buddies Martin Jenkins and Viv French are some of the other fab authors who’ve worked in these. I’ve written eight books in this series now and am just about to do another. The books are aimed at readers from 5 to 8, but I try to make the language in them interesting enough to keep older readers engaged too. The aim is to excite the interest of the readers, to get them wanting to learn more and there are a thousand ways to do this! Although these books are non fiction they can be written like stories or poems, they can be funny or sad. They are a huge challenge and are the most difficult of all the books I write…the amount of time spent per word is enormous compared with longer things. But the pain is worth it…it’s sooo satisfying when you find a way of writing that works…and then there’s the lovely process of collaborating with an artist and designer to get the book looking, reading, feeling just right. Of course the final ingredient is only added when the pages are opened and the words and pictures are read by a child. That’s the moment I like to think about as I’m writing, I imagine I’m talking very quietly to one child.

 Youve recently published a lovely book called A First Book of Nature, illustrated by Mark Hearld. Was this a very enjoyable book to write?

I think to say that this book was a revelation to write wouldn’t be an exaggeration!

When I began to think about those early experiences of the natural world, the really simple incredibly pleasurable things like putting your foot in wet sand, or kicking leaves, or pulling an acorn from its little cup, I realised that they were holistic experiences. By that I mean they were things that children experience with their hearts and minds and bodies and spirits all at once, and the only way to write about them was to use poetry. But I wanted the book to be accessible for v small kids as well as making adults remember those things so it was tough to write simply but elegantly. the revelation was that I could do it, that I could let go inside and write in this free way. Also the writing came out of a time when my daughter was dangerously I’ll, so I lived a double life then, in terrible fear and distress about my daughter but in this inner world of discovery and escape into my four year old self.

I understand that youve had some amazing adventures, including studying sperm whales. Have these adventures been a great inspiration for your writing?

I’m sitting at a bar in the Caribbean as I write this! I should be on board a boat called Baleana watching sperm whales, but shortly after I boarded her last week I got sick and had to come ashore. But I did see sperm whales again before I had to leave the sea. And I’ve seen all sorts of whales from the decks of that boat and other boats over the last thirty years. Starting with humpbacked whales in Newfoundland, then Blue whales in the Indian Ocean and then sperm whales…fin whales, minke whales, dolphins of many kinds, flying fish, frigate birds, boobies, turtles… So many deliciously lovely happy making creatures. And the sea itself, endlessly fascinating and mysterious. Every voyage carries with it a promise of adventure and discovery.

I absolutely adore travelling to different countries, seeing new animals and habitats and meeting new people from different cultures. Dominica, where I am now, is one of my top favourites. It’s a little jewel of an island …mountainous and covered in forest, ringed with turquoise sea and full of the kindest most welcoming people you can imagine. And boy can Dominicans party? I was here at Carnival last time I came. No one slept for three days of dancing. In March I was in Colombia researching a book about manatees…out on the mighty Amazon in the flooded forest canoeing amongst the flooded tree tops. Bliss. In September I’m going to Borneo to see the conservation projects run by the World Land Trust as my new role as a WLT ambassador (no jokes about fererro rocher chocs please, my boyfriend has done them all several times) and take a look at Orangutans for another book in the same series as the manatee one.

What prompted you to write Gaia Warriors? Is climate change an issue close to your heart?

Having just told you about my travel this year which gives me a carbon footprint the size of most of North America it seems a bit daft that I wrote a book on climate change. But I did, because it needed doing and because Walker Books asked me.

It was so upsetting so painful to write, to confront the terrifying possibilities and certainties of global climate change and in particular the ghastly prospects of mass extinction that we could face. I don’t want the world to be stripped of her diversity I literally cannot bear the idea. For two years after I wrote the book I don’t think I flew anywhere. But the work that I can do, my part of the big mosaic of solutions, is to make people aware of the value of nature and to do that best I have to travel. So my travel now is linked to work, to books to communicating and all of it offset by contributions to the WLT. I know it’s not perfect, but having thought and worried about it, that seems to me the best use of my time and talents.

The frustrating thing about climate change is that we could turn it round, it is possible, and it would create energy security for us, a lower impact economy and a fairer world. There really aren’t any negatives to attacking this problem with the ferocity of warriors in battle.

What are you working on at the moment?

My research in Dominica is for a book called Whale Boy for Random House. It’s set on an island…not quite Dominica but a bit like it, and is about….no can’t tell you yet. It’s dangerous to talk about a book before its cooked! I’ll be writing it madly when I get back. But I never work on just one thing at once…I’m also starting to hatch a book about pigeons also with Mark Hearld ( he LOVES pigeons), editing another  walker nature story about snakes and starting the research for a novel set in North America in the 19th century and another Walker nature story on bald eagles. There are a couple of other things cooking too….

Can we look forward to seeing you at any book-related events for children over the summer?

I have such a heavy writing schedule this year that it’s hard to fit anything else in apart from the research for it, but I’m doing an event at the Edinburgh Festival in August and then some work on community opera again in Scotland in October. I’d love to have done the Hay Festival this summer but at the time they asked me I was due to be in the US so couldn’t do it. Maybe next year.

I did a course in story telling last year and have been trying out my skills on audiences and schools. It’s so very close to what I do with live audiences anyway but I’ve loved extending the way I work with audiences and keen to do more in future. I’ve been adapting and re writing traditional selchie stories - I’ve always loved the idea of beings that can exist in sea and on land - and telling them. Ultimately I’d like to incorporate some songs into this too, as I love singing, but I’m working up to it.

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