Gill Lewis has quickly established herself as one of the top animal writers for this children, selling over 160,000 books since her debut Sky Hawk published in 2010. Gill's novels have won and been shortlisted for many awards, including the Red House Children's Book Award,The UKLA Book Award, and the Branford Boase Award. Gill's most recent book, Scarlet Ibis, was described by Lorna Bradbury in the Telegraph as 'perhaps the most uplifting novel I have read this year'.
Gorilla Dawn, published in September 2015 tells the story of Imara and Bobo, two children living with a band of rebel soldiers in the African jungle. When an orphaned gorilla is brought to their camp they swear to protect it. But in their war-ravaged world, can they ever find true safety?
Visit Gill Lewis's website at www.gilllewis.com.
In this interview Gill Lewis talks to Graham Marks about storytelling, animal behaviour, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Gorillas and ethical trading.
It occurred to me, reading up on you, that your back story seemed to be almost as interesting as the plot lines for your novels. Where did you grow up?
Nothing too exotic, really. I grew up just outside the city of Bath, in the southwest of England. Actually in a very…what seems to me, a very ordinary house. But we had a huge, huge garden, which went down to this scrubby little woodland at the bottom. It became an area where, as children, we’d run and roam with other gangs of children. Looking back, although it was ordinary, it felt magical at the time. I wanted to grow up in a jungle but it became my safari park, really.
You’ve said that you felt like you weren’t taught the right kind of things at school and you spent a lot of your time looking at nature.
I did. I’ve got a big problem with education in the UK because children are overly tested all the time. And now the government going back to testing four year olds, which is just absolutely crazy. I was one of those children who found reading very difficult. We had the reading test books, the Ladybird books. For some children, those are great because you progress from one book through the next, to the next, to the next, and suddenly you’re going, you’re up and running.
But if you can’t read very well you’re stuck on books about incredibly dull children going out making sand castles. I didn’t want to be reading about children making sand castles. I wanted to be out there fighting dragons and enjoying the books that I saw my friends enjoying. I never felt I was allowed to read them. I almost felt I didn’t have permission because I hadn’t got to that stage. I wanted to read but I wasn’t allowed access to. It put me off reading as a child, which is such a shame. I see it now with so many children who have been put off reading because they’re not allowed to read for enjoyment.Because I was so turned away from books, I spent a lot of time living in my own head trying to make up the stories
I loved primary school because you could write stories and they weren’t marked so much for the grammar, they were space for your imagination and the creative process; but the moment you got into secondary school nobody was interested in the creative processes. It was all about the grammar and the spelling, which I wasn’t very good at at the time - and I’m still not very good at it now, but I’ve got great copy editor! It got to the point where I wasn’t allowed to take the English ‘O’ Level because it was deemed that my English was too poor to be able to do it.
Oh, the judgment…the judgment!
I know. I want to scream at children, ‘Don’t judge your future on what results you’re getting because you’re about so much more than that!’. I went down the sciences route because they were easier for me, especially biology as it’s very much a visual subject. You could just get the notes down in bullet points, and so in the sciences I found that I seemed to do better.
When I finished my ‘O’ Levels I didn’t really know what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. I felt that writing certainly wouldn’t have been an option for me. I was quite lazy as well, and it was only when I got to the ‘A’ Levels that I pulled my finger out and started to see that if I did a bit of work I could actually make some progress and get where I wanted it to go.
You obviously have a very active imagination…did you find that the sciences fed that?
Whether you are involved in the sciences or the arts, the creative process is important, especially if you’re developing new ideas or technologies I didn’t really see a division between science and the arts at all.
One of the subjects I loved when I went onto veterinary college was anatomy, because I loved how the skeleton and the muscles and the nerves and the blood vessels all built up. I thought it was incredible how the whole body is put together, as well as the comparative anatomy of different species. It is fascinating.
What turned the story-telling engine back on for you? What was the switch?
I missed a lot of reading as a child but then when I had my own children I would go to the library, take out a whole load of picture books, and we’d sit there looking through them. It was seeing that light switching on when I was reading to my own child. I’ve got three children now, I told them all stories and I let them tell me stories. That’s what brought the storytelling back. Reading to my own children got me back into thinking, ‘Oh, this is how to tell a story…’ I’ve always loved that creative writing or storytelling process. I always say storytelling because when I was younger I used to write stories, but I also used to draw comics and lots of images. It wasn’t so much the writing, but the storytelling process that I liked.
As a vet, you chat with the clients - it doesn’t matter whether they own cats or dogs or they’re farmers or whether they are dealing with wildlife they always have stories to tell. I have always loved hearing different people’s stories, how they came to be, what they were doing. You listen to these stories and people who seem unremarkable are actually incredibly remarkable in what they’ve done with their lives. As an author you feed on that, don’t you?
That is, at the base, is what it’s all about. Storytelling is hardwired into our DNA, isn’t it…we need it. It’s how we learned everything.
Yes. I think you’re right. You think back to when people were painting pictures on cave walls, that led to the sharing of ideas and experiences that makes us human, didn’t it?
It absolutely did. So, to drag this conversation back on course…are you a vet and an author?
No. I wouldn’t have time now. My husband is a vet, so I still get to help him if he needs an extra pair of hands…I still feel connected to the veterinary world.
Did you put that career on hold to start this career?
It was a little more of a phasing in and phasing out. I found it quite difficult to continue being a vet with three children because you often have to be on-call…I gradually became part-time and as I spent that time with the children I started drawing and telling the stories. One side of my life slowed down and the other took over.
By my count, and you’ll have to correct me if I’m wrong here, you’ve had four novels and a picture book out in four years. Is that right?
The picture book happened quite a few years ago - 2002, I think - I sent a text in for a competition. I didn’t win, but the picture book was published. I remember thinking, very naively, ‘Oh, getting published is really easy…’ Famous last words! Then it took about five years, and about ten drawers full of rejection letters, to get my novels published. I did an MA in creative writing at Bath Spa University, and that’s where I really learned to rewrite and craft. Then Sky Hawk was published in 2011, and I’ve had one book a year after that…Sky Hawk, White Dolphin, Moon Bear, Scarlet Ibis, and now Gorilla Dawn.
Are you a fast writer?
No, I’m very, very slow. I do lots of research…my research takes probably three or four months, then my first draft takes usually about three months and the rewriting takes about three months. When I sit down I try to write a thousand words a day and I probably end up writing 600 words a day. My brain is working faster than my hands are. The writing is the hardest part.
Do you actually work in a tree house?
I’m not there right now because my tree house doesn’t have wi-fi signal, which is why it’s perfect. I get horribly distracted by Twitter and Facebook. When I head over to the tree house there’s no phone, no distraction.
So your office really is up a tree!
It was in a tree, but the tree fell down….we had a bad storm, but luckily I wasn’t in at the time. I looked out the morning after the storm and it was one of those odd things, you look out and you think, hmm, there’s something different outside…my tree house was on its side. My husband took the tree house out and put it up on some stilts among the trees, so it’s more of a shed on stilts at the moment.
One thing I found interesting about Gorilla Dawn was how you got inside the head of a wild animal – was that difficult to do?
Yes. It is hard to get inside the head of an animal. The first thing I try to do is think about using all the senses that an animal has - the sight, smell, sound - and try to think, what is that animal’s primary sense? How is it seeing the world? For instance, when you think about a dog, they have got this incredible sense of smell; the scent centre in a dog’s brain is probably about the size of a walnut. It has a special lobe for smell, whereas ours is just a tiny area. Dogs can tell who’s been in a certain area, how long ago they were in a that area, which direction they have gone in and how far away they are. It’s just incredible when you start to think how an animal perceives the world around them.
Gorillas are probably one of the more similar creatures to us. They are very bound by family ties, very protective of their families and they have got similar sensory perceptions to ours. I suppose when I was writing about the gorilla I thought it would feel exactly like a human child, if a human child is taken away from their parent…I would imagine that a gorilla would have exactly the same emotions when taken away by someone they don’t know. It must be fear, terror, wanting to be with their family group.
My first book was about an osprey, and you have to try and think about the senses that an osprey would use and the difference in how it would feel about everything. You think about how birds know when there’s a storm coming, for instance… all birds have hollow bones and so I think they feel these delicate pressures within their whole skeletal system. They feel the pressure and know there’s a storm approaching, and they’re also so attuned to the different feel of the wind currents over the mountains.
To help me imagine what it was like to fly I went on a paragliding course [laughs]. It was amazing because you have to run down a mountain and the wind lifts you up into the air. But I arrived late, missing the practice day, running down a slope and just taking off a little bit; the day I arrived you had to run off a cliff. We had a bit of tuition and then I was on my own, running. Then there was this amazing feeling when suddenly the ground lifted away from me. So for Sky Hawk and Gorilla Dawn I had to get into the head of an animal…the other books are more a human’s perception of the animal.
It must be quite hard not to anthropomorphize an animal that you’re trying to be, which you managed not to do with Kitwana, the young gorilla; was that hard to do?
Yes. You never know if you get it right, and I wanted to keep it to quite short little excerpts, little windows into the gorilla’s world to show the gorilla’s viewpoint and how they perceive humans - would a gorilla look at humans as a similar type of ape to themselves? How would they look at a human expression and translate it? Because gorillas are always looking for body language and for signals, and it must be very difficult to read human’s body language.
A silverback is very posturing, to show that he’s the dominant one, yet how would the gorilla then see these smaller apes who have appear to have quite a lot of power over the bigger apes? That must be quite confusing for a gorilla who certainly expects to see the larger apes in control. It would be a very confusing world for an ape trying to compare it’s own world to ours.
Did you get up close and personal with a gorilla?
No. I haven’t been to see them. I almost did, I had an opportunity to go out and do some conservation work, but then we had family illness and I couldn’t go. I did a lot of research, talking to other people who had been to see them and reading lots of books about their behavior, their biology, and how they are in the wild. I don’t think seeing gorillas in the zoos can translate to how they behave in the wild situation at all.
But you have been to Africa.
Yes. Many years ago went to the northern part of Zambia, where they have a chimpanzee rescue centre. It’s right on the Congo border and many of those chimpanzees had been captured in the wild; they were trying to rehabilitate, but they wouldn’t release them back to the wild at that point. They were keeping them in large areas to give them the best quality of life that they could.
Like in Sky Hawk and Scarlet Ibis, Gorilla Dawn also has an animal as one of the lead characters, but it seemed to me that the human characters were the ones you were examining more closely. There is a lot of sociology and psychology and even magical thinking in this book.
I don’t know whether you find this, too, but for me the moment when the character walks into your head then the ideas and information become a story and that's when it takes off. It is a strange process, character finding, isn’t it?
I’ve done lots of research and I felt I knew there was a story about the trade of conflict minerals. But there comes a point when you let your mind go a little bit loose and you have to stop thinking. That’s when Imara walked into my head, this girl with a scar down her face. I didn’t really know very much about her. I thought ‘I’m going to have to write about her and find her story’. At that point I didn’t know what her past was; she was so damaged by what had happened that she had this very critical voice in her head talking to her, berating her, telling her that she wasn’t good at anything, that she wasn’t a very nice person. She was battling this voice in her head. She’s a very complicated character to write… but yet she is fascinating, I think.
I’ll say, and without giving too much away, I still can’t work out if she’s suffering from an illness or has she been convinced that she’s possessed?
I think she feels she’s possessed…she had this hugely traumatic experience and that in itself has led her to hearing voices and seeing visions. In some cultures if you hear voices, you see visions, you’re mad; in other cultures you’ve got this enhanced ability. Personally I don’t feel there’s a magical element to it, I think it’s her, it’s within her. It’s what she’s created as a result of the trauma she’s been through.
Every reader is allowed to have a different version…I really liked the John Muir quote at the beginning of the book: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe’. It seems to me to be a companion to EM Forster’s ‘Only connect’, and is actually the core of the book, that there are connections everywhere that shouldn’t be ignored.
Yes. I have to admit, until I read an article about it I had no idea there was a connection between our mobile phones and computers and the coltan trade for tantalum. Tantalum is mined in many countries, but especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo; many of the mines are controlled by armed groups, and many of those armed groups are funded directly or indirectly by the big international, multinational electronics companies. Those companies are basically funding and perpetuating the violence, which has dramatic, devastating consequences for the people, the natural world and the gorillas.
That’s why I used that quote. Everything that we do, everything that we use, is connected. You can’t pick out any one thing and put it to the side. Lots of people don’t know about this connection between mobile phones and gorillas - I didn’t – and it’s a really important one to make because, just by using this technology, each of us is responsible. I think that, exactly like fair trade coffee or dolphin-friendly tuna, there should be a conflict-free minerals.
Do you think your readership is going to be shocked to find out that their beloved mobile phone is actually responsible for such bad things happening?
I hope so! The great thing about being a children’s writer is the audience is often very aware and has a sense of injustice. Children often feel helpless in an adult world because their voice isn’t heard. I think it’s great to be able to say to children, “Well, look, you can do something about this. You can stand up. You can tell your teachers ‘we want conflict-free technology in our schools’.” I think that gives a sense of power to children.
All children are aware of the environmental problems in the world, and we all feel that there’s nothing we can do, but there’s lots that each person can do. I’m currently preparing a list of activities for my website children can get involved with and find out what they can do to have their voice heard. I’ve got a lovely connection with a campaign called Congo Calling, which is all about the conflict minerals and the trade in conflict minerals.
Was this one of the prime motivators or the prime motivator in writing the book, getting kids to be more aware?
I don’t think it was a prime motivator because you don’t want to come across as dictating…then you would just write an information book about it. If you read a piece of information, you read it, you store the information in a part of your brain - learn something, deposit it. The great thing about fiction is that, when you read a book, when you follow somebody’s story, their journey, suddenly you’re walking either in their shoes or right beside them.
That is very powerful, to show what it’s like to live like somebody else, to show the hardships…what you do is take a reader's hand, you take them through the story to some pretty dark places, and you lead them safely out the other side. You hope that they change. You hope they think about things in a different way. That’s what I want to be able to do.
There was a moment when Bobo was talking to his dad and I sat back and thought, I’m absolutely sure I could never have done that with my dad, and I don’t even know whether my kids could have done that with me. I wondered whether you thought that in western society we lack the emotional vocabulary that your characters have?
Just thinking about talking to my own children…there are times, where you feel something important needs to be said…things that you really want to get across, those moments of urgency. I think they do happen.
But I think between Bobo and his father it’s far more of a slightly old-fashioned relationship, perhaps a more respectful relationship between him and his father in a way. Bobo wouldn’t answer back or anything like that.
This is possibly a difficult question to answer, but who do you think is going to win the battle for Africa?
I think it’s very difficult because it’s such a huge continent made up of many different countries. When you think about somewhere like the Democratic Republic of Congo, I think there has to be the worldwide answer because it has trillions and trillions of dollars worth of mineral resources. It has the ability to actually call the shots, but instead what’s happening is a new colonialism. Other countries are using the instability within the Congo for their own benefit.
That instability is having devastating effects on the people and the natural world in Congo. Somehow Congo has to be able to find the peace within itself, but to be able to do that there has to be major changes in the way the outside world works with the Congo. That is the crux of it. I don’t know the answer, I don’t know what the outcome will be. It is so easy to be very negative and say, well, human nature is human nature and this will go on. At the same time I have seen some amazing inspirational people who are making changes… men and women, wildlife rangers who go out and they risk their lives on a daily basis for the local communities and for the wildlife.
People like Bandi Mbubi who works for Congo Calling who is going out to European governments to say we must have conflict-free minerals and directives to ensure conflict-free minerals are used by electronics companies. That’s where I think the hope lies, with people who are trying to find a peaceful way forward. It’s a huge task isn’t it?
Will the people in the Congo get to read your book?
That’s very interesting because as an author you worry if you get the tone right if you’re writing about a different country, a different culture…you think, have I done it or have I made a big mess up here? I met Bandi Mbubi, who is a Congolese refugee in this country and he said that he’d read my book and it was the first one that portrays his people as he sees them. I thought, great, I feel I got that part right, which was very important to me. He said he would like people to read Gorilla Dawn in his country, but in French, the official language there. The book has only just come out, so I don’t know whether it’s available in French yet, but it would be great if it could be.
Thank you Gill Lewis for talking to Just Imagine