Writing animal stories: Guest Gill Lewis talks about her relationship with animals, how she writes about them, and how her direction has changed in her new book, Moonflight.
Published by: David Fickling Books, 2023. Available from Amazon.
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Gill Lewis is the celebrated author of many animal stories. Her many very popular titles include Sky Hawk, Scarlet Ibis and White Dolphin. Her new book, Moonflight, takes her animal subjects into a new literary place – the world of fantasy. I invited her to write a guest post in response to my questions about how she works.
Interview: Gill Lewis presents ‘Moonflight’
Berlie: What was the spark of the idea that inspired your new book, Moonflight?
Gill: Moonflight is the story of a young rat named Tilbury who must return a cursed stolen diamond to its rightful owners to save rat-kind from a terrible fate. Perhaps this story was sparked by my new interest in jewellery-making during lockdown. I was fascinated by gemstones and read about the Koh-i-Noor diamond, within the Crown Jewels. Queen Victoria acquired it through deception from the then eleven-year-old Maharaja of the Sikh Empire, Duleep Singh. This diamond has a long and bloody history and many myths and legends are told about it, each legend told differently by people of different countries who claim it as their own.
It even has a curse upon it, such that no male member of the royal family dares to ever wear it. But of course, a curse itself is a story, one of guilt, lies and bloodshed, a reminder of the many stories that lie hidden beneath the current narrative. Moonflight is a story of little Tilbury searching for the truth in a world of so many stories.
It’s hard to say exactly the moment that I first discovered Tilbury. He certainly hid in the shadows, too timid to venture forward. As a writer, I am learning to trust the story, not to stare too hard at it, because the subconscious mind needs you to be busy with other things while it tames the shy story-beast and tempts it out into the light.
Transition to adventure story
Berlie: Moonflight is an exciting adventure story which takes us on a different sort of reading journey. Can you describe how you make the transition from writing a child-centred story to an animal character-based one?
Gill: I think this transition to write as an animal character was very easy, as Tilbury is so anthropomorphised that he is essentially a child in the image of a rat. He has the strong emotions of feeling small, a child in an adult’s world.
However, the new experience for me, was world building – creating a world in the London Docklands, a world invisible but parallel to our own. It was wonderfully liberating to be released from detailed research and create my own rules, landscapes and facts.
Berlie: Tell us a little about Tilbury’s world?
Gill: Tilbury is one of the Dockland Rats who live out their lives on the docklands alongside the Thames. I had to decide how their world worked and the rules that govern that world. The Thames has been a global trading river for centuries, bringing back objects from other countries, many stolen or gained by force or deception. I imagined a gemstone, a black diamond, that had been stolen by a famous rat two hundred years ago, a diamond that carries great power and a curse. I needed the diamond to be locked away and so I invented a gilded cage with intricate locks that lies beneath the wharf at Tilbury Docks, a cage that is only revealed at the lowest of low tides.
I needed there to be a story around this diamond, one that connected all the Dockland Rats in a ceremony whereby rats reaching a year of age would try to unlock the cage, retrieve the diamond and release the Dockland Rats from its terrible curse. So I discovered I loved world-building – the infinite possibilities of story.
For instance, in Sky Dancer, I wanted to explore the conflict at the heart of landscapes used for driven grouse moors. The protagonist Joe is a gamekeeper’s son, and he navigates the different sides of the conflict surrounding grouse moors.
Berlie: From garden beasts to animals in the wilderness, from animals in captivity to pets to animals close to extinction – how do you choose which to write about, and how do you begin your research?
Gill: New stories ideas can be shy beasts. They don’t like to be looked directly in the eye, and often scuttle away into the shadows. Sometimes you have to pretend you aren’t even interested in them at all, and have patience and wait for them to be ready to come to you.
For me, what I choose to write about varies from book to book, but my research always begins with questions, questions, questions. My research often takes longer that writing the book. Most often, the idea is sparked by something I have heard or read about that makes me want to question more.
For example, in Gorilla Dawn, my interest was sparked by reading an article that said, ‘your mobile phone is killing gorillas’. I had been ignorant of the mining of coltan, one of the minerals used in the production of components for tech devices. I had many questions that threw up answers revealing a murky world of child exploitation, environmental damage, governmental and global corporate corruption. The magic happens when you find the child protagonist to tell the story.
Specialist knowledge of animals
Berlie: I know you are a vet, and have always loved animals. How much does your ‘inside knowledge’ of animals and their behaviour affect the way you have written about them in your books? How important is your specialist knowledge?
Gill: My love and fascination with animals started very young. As a child I always loved drawing animals, painstakingly trying to capture each feather on a bird or the jointed legs of a beetle. I remember being told to draw faster and forget the little details, but for me the details mattered, they explained how animals worked, how they moved and how they behaved. So I followed my love of animals and science and trained to be a vet. I loved anatomy and physiology and later used this knowledge in my writing to try to imagine the world from an animal’s perspective.
However, I think for me, the years of working as a vet gave me a deeper understanding of our own human species, and our connection and relationship with animals. Animals become vehicles for our human emotions, bringing the worst and best in humanity. It is not unusual for us to be stoic about human bereavement, but the death of a much loved pet often is a channel to navigate deep human emotions. In the world of conservation, the biggest hurdle is the conflict between humans battling for different land use.
So my ‘inside knowledge’ from training as a vet, is not just a deeper understanding about the animals, but a rare and privileged insight into us humans, a very complicated and interesting species.
Writers as teachers or educators
Berlie: You write wonderfully imaginative and evocative stories, which give the reader knowledge of animal behaviour as well as of moral choices. How conscious are you of your role as an educator?
Gill: I would never consider myself as an educator, and don’t really see it as my role of being an author. I’d like to think my books don’t tell readers what to think, but instead make the reader ask questions, and make them more curious about the world. The research for a story has taken me on a journey, where I’ve gained knowledge and questioned my own thoughts and beliefs. When I write, I want to share what I have learned and questioned, not to ‘educate’ per se, but to raise awareness, engage with others, and hopefully be a part of a greater conversation and action to help protect the wild world on this planet.
I think the vehicle of story is so important as a vector of knowledge because if science is our understanding of the world, then art is our emotional connection with it. We have to care for something first, before we want to protect it, and ultimately that is what I’d love my stories to achieve – I want readers to engage and care about the issues I have explored and written about.
The writing process
Berlie: Can you describe your writing process in Moonflight?
Gill: The writing process for this story was very different from my others. For my other books I have always known how the story ends, have a fair idea of how it starts and I know a few key events – a little like buying a bus ticket – knowing your destination and a few stops along the way. But for Moonflight I had no real idea where the story was going. It grew and grew into a manuscript of 150,000 words. Each twist and turn of the story were as new and as real to me as it was to Tilbury. Characters erupted into scenes wielding swords, and ship-rats sang sea shanties (badly) to me on mountainous seas.
The first draft grew legs in all different directions. Of course, in the end, the story needed serious editing and the wonderful Liz Cross came to the rescue with her editorial surgical tool kit. It was a long and bloody operation!
Moonflight is lavishly illustrated by Pippa Curnick, whose rats are utterly perfect. It is as if Pippa can see right inside my head.
Gill Lewis’ recommendations
Berlie: Do you have any favourite ‘animal’ stories and authors that you would love to recommend to young readers, and why do you love them?
GIll: There are so many animal stories and fantastic authors and illustrators that I love, and I will not be able to name them all.
So here’s a list of some authors and their books, and I’d urge readers to explore these authors’ other books.
- Dick King-Smith: the Sophie stories. They are heartfelt stories about a girl who wants to be a farmer. I love the gentle, yet laugh out loud humour. The nativity scene still makes me laugh thinking about it.
- Nicola Davies’ books: both her fiction and non-fiction are powerful stories about our human connection with the natural world. I particularly love the books she has collaborated with the artist Cathy Fisher – Perfect is a beautiful book addressing the emotions of disability within families. It’s unflinchingly honest, yet full of love.
- Lauren St John: Wave Riders is a great eco adventure and I loved hearing about Lauren’s sailing adventures while researching the story.
- Jackie Morris and Robert MacFarlane: The Lost Words – Morris’s art captures the essence of the animals and plants accompanied by MacFarlane’s poetry. A book to dive into again and again.
- Michael Morpurgo: A master storyteller – I do love War Horse. Morpurgo’s animal characters reflect our own humanity.
- Linda Newbery: Lob (illustrated by Pam Smy) is a poignant yet gentle book about loss and our deep connection with the natural world.
- Sita Brahmachari: Corey’s Rock (illustrated by Jane Ray), set on Orkney, is a deceptively simple story with many strands of loss and belonging.
- MG Leonard: Spark – a great eco thriller about bird watching.
- Piers Torday: The Wild Before – a great prequel to his Last Wild series.
- Nicola Penfold: Where the World Turns Wild, a futuristic gaze at a world where people are confined to cities
- Nizrana Farook: The Girl Who Stole an Elephant – a fast paced exciting adventure through the jungle with an elephant at your side.
- Julia Green: Seal Island – a beautiful story about connection with a young seal, and understanding family dynamics too. Green’s descriptions are so detailed that you feel you are there in the sea winds and smelling the salty sea.
- Susanna Bailey: Snow Foal – Bailey’s books use the connection between animals and humans to help address human problems.
- Hannah Gold: The Last Bear – a heartfelt story about loss and discovery and understanding of wild world. I do love a good polar bear story too.
- Bren MacDibble: How to Bee – a great and scary futuristic look at a world without pollinators.
- Paul Gallico: The Snow Goose – the story that made me become a reader – a story about a girl who finds an injured goose, set on the Essex marshes, against the backdrop of the Second World War.
Thank you so much, Gill, for such a fascinating insight into your work.
My thoughts on ‘Moonflight’
London, docklands, underground, teeming with rats. Tilbury Twitch-Whiskers is the seventh son of seventh litter, though to protect him his mother tells everyone that he is the eighth son. Tilbury’s task is to unlock the puzzle that opens the cage to the Black Diamond, which is known as the Cursed Night. Only the chosen one can unlock the cage and return the diamond to its rightful owners. But first, there is treachery, deception and murder to overcome. Tilbury is assisted by his brilliant and resourceful sister, Nimble-Quick.
The family is split when Tilbury’s brother is forced to join the enemy. Tilbury will be helped by Marfaire, the last of the guardians. But Obsidian, leader of the Golden Rats, another tribal enemy, insists that the diamond belongs to him. Exciting adventures come fast and tricky and dangerous situations are ingeniously handled by the young sibling rats.
Tilbury learns that he must never allow girls and women to take second place. He owes a great deal to his sister’s cleverness and courage; throughout the story it is Nimble-Quick who is the driving force in the narrative. She coaxes him out of the security of the attic and into the darker reaches of the forbidden territory that house the Cursed Night. It is Nimble-Quick who designs the silk wing which is central to the adventure. It is Marfaire, the old and wise she-rat, who carries in her head the map that will chart their passage to their destination.
So we have in Moonflight a thrilling adventure story about rats using their wits and fighting skills. It is a story of family values and loyalty, with a further dimension of justice and morality, taking us beyond the reaches of many animal-character books. Moonflight is destined to be a very popular and rewarding story for Gill Lewis’ many followers.
Writing your own animal stories
There are many different ways of writing about animals:
- Animals in their pure animal nature. This requires a deal of observation of the movement, sound, habits, food, awareness of one another: read, for example, a book like Tarka the Otter.
- Animals as companions, the relationship with its owner. See Kim Lewis’s Shep stories.
- Anthropomorphic stories, where animals talk, dress and behave like humans. Think of Wind in the Willows – the characters are like members of a Gentleman’s Club, but much loved.
- Animal characters, each with their own way of speaking and mannerisms. House at Pooh Corner, The Gruffalo.
- Animal character displaying identifiable animal characteristics, as in Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox.
- Animals as a community in a fantasy adventure. Moonflight.
- Animals and children co-existing, working together with equal powers in an adventure story – The Song that Sings Us.
- Magical stories where children shape-shift into animals – Ali Sparkes’ Shapeshifter Stories.
- Magical, spiritual animals who connect with and are inseparable from their humans, as in the Harry Potter and Northern Lights series.
I recommend visiting Gill Lewis’s website, and in particular, this page, which contains many links for you to follow in your research about animals.
Finally, think carefully about these important notions:
Humans are part of the animal world:
Red is the blood, Of your animal heart” – Robert MacFarlane, The Lost Spells
Animals are distinct from humans:
“Never forget that we are animals.” – Gill Lewis, Moonflight
And a hint of my own – strong animal stories never lose sight of the animalness of animals – the foxiness of foxes, the horseness of horses, the fishness of fishes. Work on this by choosing any animal (cat, snake, beetle, owl) and describing it with all its characteristics without mention what it is. Can your friend guess which animal it is?
Some of my own animal stories
You may be interested in some of my own animal stories:
Over to you
Gill Lewis has recommended some wonderful books about animals. What are your favourite books about animals? Tell me in the comments box below.