Q: Is there a particular book, author, or film that had a particular impact on you in your childhood?
A: As a child (a phrase which, incidentally, makes a completely false distinction between how I acted when I was under 14 and how I act now) I devoured - not literally - just about any fantasy book going. It started with The Faraway Tree books and quickly progressed up the credibility spectrum to The Dark is Rising. I'm still unsure whether the Enid Blyton was entirely healthy, but it was all part of the amazing and constant literary diet supplied by my mother. Later on it was Ursula le Guin and David Eddings...and then I discovered Terry Pratchett, beginning a one-sided love affair that Sir Terry is thankfully still unaware of.
Oh, and I loved the film The Dark Crystal. I recently found a copy and re-watched it. Great stuff.
Q: What did you enjoy most at school?
A: Easy: English, Art and Biology. I still do two out of three.
Q: What is your earliest memory?
A: Hang on....I'm sure I used to know this one.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to tell us about your pets, past or present?
A: We had a dog called Sadie. Sadie buried disreputable objects in flowerbeds. She chased our neighbour's cat down the garden, receiving such a bad clawing that we had to put her in a bath of diluted disinfectant. She could look more comfortable in an armchair than anyone, person or animal, I have met since. In winter she would hog the fire and nearly pass out with the heat; and even then she had to be told to go and lie somewhere else. She regularly moulted enough hair to mitigate several oil slicks. She once climbed onto the dining table and ate the contents of the margarine tub and sugar bowl. She would roll in anything as long as it smelt bad enough. One summer we took her to the beach where she spent a happy hour drinking seawater. Then she spent an extremely unhappy night having rampant diarrhoea on my grandparents' rug. She once dived into the river and only discovered it was frozen when she hit the ice. She chased anything that went away from her fast enough. This included several cars, many rabbits and, sometimes, joggers. She caught one of each. (We apologised to the jogger, who got slobbered on.) When any of us came home she would hit us at a flat trajectory out of the door: a huge, grinning bundle of energetic, squeaking enthusiasm. She used to sleep in my bedroom and once managed to get into bed with me during the night. I woke up in the morning to find her head on the pillow next to mine. She did not have good morning breath. One Christmas, as we all sat down to dinner, she ate Auntie Mary's present, which was a large box of chocolates, and threw it up under the table.
In short, Sadie was a proper dog. It was an honour to have known her.
Q: What is the most unusual job you have done?
A: I'm an ecologist and now, excitingly, I seem to be writing novels. These are both the most unusual jobs I have done, and prove this on a daily basis.
Q: What is your most treasured possession?
A: My ability to rise above material concerns. Yeah, right.
Q: Can you list three things we don’t know about you?
A: I imagine so! I can barely think of three things you do know about me. Oh, all right...Erm...
So there, that's three, and I'm not even past the feet!
Q: Do you have any hobbies.
A: Oh, lots! I always loved walking and still do. Most of the others seem to involve getting injured. I used to fence (with swords, not with bits of wood, wire and little 'U' shaped pins) but broke myself. I used to rock climb but...erm...broke myself again. I tried snowboarding once and broke my wrist. I now do archery, which is great - I nearly broke myself, but didn't.
Q: When did you first start to write stories?
A: I'm one of those irritating, smug people who always thought they would get around to writing. I remember when I was 10 and at Primary School I wrote a piece that the teacher (Mr. Dixon) read out in class, saying it could have been taken from a novel. I thought "Wow. Really?" and then became an ecologist and forgot about writing - except for an aborted attempt at a fantasy book when I was 22 and some very silly Christmas plays that I sometimes wrote with my friends*.
(*Or "mentors" as they now insist I call them.)
In 2003 a friend persuaded me to write a science journalism piece for a New Scientist science writing competition (naturally about water voles). I was utterly stunned when someone phoned up four months later and told me I'd won it. The article was published, I felt good, and then I forgot about writing again (I had voles to study).
But I started writing properly - meaning just for me, with a view to being good at it – about seven years ago. I borrowed my house-mate's laptop and wrote a short story about a possessed snowman (no, really). I was ridiculously happy with it and entered it for a major competition...and it utterly failed to get anywhere. I suspect that it wasn't very good. Anyway, I settled down and wrote a lot more stories and then, a year or so later, I wrote a piece about a teddy bear in a graveyard. That story won the 2008 JBWB spring short story competition and gave me a real boost. By then I was already hooked, but that story seemed to change something in my head: a kind of "Ooh, I might be good at this" feeling.
Q: Did you enjoy writing The River Singers?
A: Yes, I absolutely loved it. Initially I some sort of weird, internal prejudice against writing "a book about animals". But I quickly realised that there’s no such thing: a story is a story and it doesn't matter whether characters are animals, humans or anything. The fact that they happen to be animals, of course, dictates the details of the world that they find themselves in. But stories unfold a certain way and characters think and feel and react to them; readers relate to the characters and as long as there's a level of connection and understanding then hopefully everything works and it's fun to read. And writing about water voles is great because the problems they face tend to be life-threatening. Their world is an odd mixture of beautiful, extremely dangerous, very familiar and quite alien. It lets me place my characters in strange and difficult situations and then look to see what sort of people they are. Once I'd grasped the above points I felt like a complete twit for ever having been reluctant to start.
Q: Why do you write?
A: I think that it's some sort of disease. Every day that I don't write I feel guilty, like I'm wasting my life. There's a part of me that's only happy when I'm sitting at a laptop with words in my head, music on and fingers tapping. Or when I'm reading over a manuscript, trimming out words and getting the sentences flowing properly. It's amazingly satisfying. Sure, there are sessions where the words won't come. But just occasionally you can write 2,000 words in one, amazing sitting. (And delete most of them next time you edit, but that doesn't matter.)
In short, ever since I started writing I haven't been able to stop. Despite numerous requests.
Adventurous, exciting, and bursting with charming illustrations - this is a book you'll want to treasure for ever. The River Singers is Tom's first published novel. More books will follow.
Just the sort of book I would have loved as a child. — Gill Lewis, author of Sky Hawk
A hymn to nature, written with compassion and flair. — Lauren St John, author of The White Giraffe
The River Singers is a compassionate celebration of nature and a gripping story. It's uplifting and sad and Moorhouse takes you right into a world of creatures "as sweet as apples and as brief as day”. — Martin Chilton, The Telegraph.
When their uncle Sylvan pays an unexpected visit, young water voles Kale and Strife know something exciting must be about to happen. Little do they know that soon they'll be running for their lives, as a new danger threatens to destroy everything and everyone they care about.
This thrilling follow-up to the highly-acclaimed novel, The River Singers, will transport readers into a vivid world of riverbank creatures, where excitement and danger are never far away. Contains beautiful black and white illustrations by Simon Mendez.
This is a lovely story, beautifully written... I'm already looking forward to a third story. Can the river singers avert catastrophe? Read the book and see. You won't regret it, I promise. There's a world to remember here — Jill Murphy, The Bookbag
Sometimes authors get asked to give talks. Usually, in my case, it's to talk to children about water voles. This time, however, some good folks from Cambridge University wanted me to explore some ideas about different types of knowledge when writing about animals and nature. So, having written and presented the talk at the ASLE conference, I thought I'd share it here. Hope you enjoy it!
(Basically it's lots of pontification but there might be something interesting in there - only one of my audience fell asleep. I'd usually consider that a good result, but then it's only a 15 minute talk.)
What I want to explore in the next fifteen minutes is a question I hadn't actually really considered until very recently – and then I only considered it because I had been asked to give this talk. The question I have in mind can be phrased one way, which is: How does an author mediate the difference between factual and embodied knowledge when creating a story. And in having – now – given this issue some thought, I think this question is absolutely the same as asking: What is an author actually doing when they write a book? Quite simply, I think the balance between factual and embodied knowledge, and how writers navigate this, may well go right to the very heart of what writing, and stories, are all about as a process and as a product.
Okay. Well, I should now own up entirely and admit that until a few months ago I had never heard the terms “factual knowledge” or “embodied knowledge” before. So more for my own benefit than anyone else's I'd like to attempt a couple of definitions. Within the context of any sort of authorial enterprise, I define factual knowledge those things an author knows about the subject of their books that are the product of what authors normally call “research into the topic”. So when Hilary Mantel wrote Wolf Hall, she needed a very thorough factual knowledge of the historical events that occurred during the reign of Henry VIII. And at the other end of the authorial credibility spectrum, in order to write my children's books about water voles I was able to draw on the eight years I spent during my PhD and post-doctoral studies researching water vole behavioural ecology. Knowing how much a water vole weights, how long they live, whether they are social or solitary, and what sorts of predators eat them are absolutely crucial to building a world that the readers believe, and in which the story can take place. However, while knowing these things might be crucial, and neither Wolf Hall, nor my own books would work very well without them, factual knowledge on its own is clearly not sufficient for the creation of a story. There is obviously a key difference between a text book on water vole biology, and a fiction story in which the water voles act as characters.
So what is also required in a story, that isn't present in a text book – or at least to nothing like the same degree – is, I believe, a whole tonne of embodied knowledge. Now I have to admit I ran into difficulty when trying to find a sufficiently limited definition of what embodied knowledge actually is. The usual example seems to be of riding a bicycle, where the body reacts to the situation and performs the action without the need for conscious intervention (much like Daniel Kahneman’s System 1, for those who have read thinking Fast and Slow). The problem there, from a writer’s perspective, is that if you start looking for examples of such embodied knowledge you tend to find that it’s present in almost everything a character says or does, because to a very large extent characters react subconsciously and intuitively to the world in which the author places them. So I suggest that for characters in books the idea of embodied knowledge can be broadened to “that understanding, shared between the author and the reader, of how human relationships work, and how characters intuitively fit into their wider situation; and how the world that characters find themselves in shapes their outlook, their actions and beliefs”. That’s the premise on which I’m basing this short talk, but I'd be very happy for anyone better informed to correct this definition in due course.
In the case of Wolf Hall, the embodied knowledge is present in the readers' understanding of how the structure of court life, and wider social context of kingly power and societal expectations all lead Thomas Cromwell down a particular path. And when writing about water voles, embodied knowledge is that which gives them an intuitive bond with the world in which they live…it’s what makes them leap for the water, without the need for thought, when a shadow passes overhead. It’s what makes it obvious that burrows are safe, and grasses are tasty and that they are children of their deity, who they call the Great River. I’ll clarify these things for my characters in a second, but the point I’m trying to make is, that to my way of thinking, embodied knowledge refers to the gut feeling of the author and the reader as to how characters’ relationships with one another and their environment actually work to govern their actions at a subconscious level.
It's the same thing as saying “Imagine a ten-year-old child who has grown up in a post apocalyptic landscape where food and clean water were limited...now imagine that somebody has just handed this child a Marsbar and a bottle of Evian. How would they react?” I think most of us would intuitively sense that the reaction would be rather different from the average ten-year-old in contemporary Britain. And the interesting thing for me about this example is that if you could take the contemporary ten-year-old and place them in this post apocalyptic world for even a week, and gave them a Mars bar their reaction would be completely different to the same 10 year old who hadn't had this experience.
So our understanding of embodied knowledge tells us that the ten-year-old herself does not need to be a fundamentally different person to react quite differently to two different situations. There is, if you like, a common and understandable humanity in the interplay between the character of the child and the world in which she finds herself. And so, to some extent, no matter how alien the world, as long as there is a recognisable and comprehensible response to it, we would all feel satisfied that a sufficient appreciation of the knowledge embodied in the scenario had been served.
The example I just gave is one of a fantasy world. And fantasy authors in some senses have things very easy in terms of factual knowledge. JRR Tolkien didn't need to do a lot of factual research for Lord of the Rings. He didn't need to go out and see what colour an orc is in real life, or whether the longevity of elves means they are less likely to form monogamous relationships. Nobody would have criticised him if his descriptions of Rivendell or Hobbiton included details that weren't present in the real thing...because there isn't a real thing. On the other hand, fantasy authors have things very hard indeed when it comes to embodied knowledge, because the world they build has to make consistent and coherent intellectual and intuitive sense to the readers. The rules have to be rules that could be predicted to follow from the type of societies being created, and the rules cannot be violated by the author once set – or the whole world will lose its credibility. What a fantasy novel allows an author to do, then, is to place human characters in a completely novel setting, and have them face all sorts of trials and tribulations that don't occur in the course of the lives for the majority of the readership. I mean I have to hope that nobody here has been hunted through mountain passes by cohorts of goblins. Similarly nobody here has embarked on a quest to destroy their prized possession, while being guided by a murderous, schizophrenic, ex-fishman jewellery obsessive. These things, thankfully, tend not to happen in the rather safe British environments we live in.
Fantasy novels provide the extreme end of the factual / embodied knowledge balance, because they require almost no factual knowledge. I'm not sure what the other extreme is – possibly memoir. But in fiction terms, the historical novel has to come close: I'm sure Hilary Mantel played a little bit fast-and-loose with historical fact in places, to serve the story better, but if she had strayed too far the criticisms from historians probably would have been scathing. And so she needed to have a lot of factual knowledge informing the novel.
But fantasy novels and historical novels both have much in common with each other, and with my own particular sphere of endeavour, animal stories. In each case the author constructs a world that is very different from our own, and the lives of the characters play out according to the rules of this world. In historical and animal stories the world actually exists, but is usually separate from ours, and so at least a little bit alien to us. In historical fiction the world is confined to the past – we are examining the motivations of people who lived in a different society, with different perspectives and different priorities, but who were still human. In animal fiction, the world is one that exists now, in the present, but we don't live in it. Also the characters inhabiting that world aren't human, and so could have a very different outlook on it, and relationship with it.
As an example of this, we have all gone for a walk down a river and enjoyed the calling of the birds, and the flow of the water, the sunshine and the way the reeds bend in the breeze. But as we're walking past, inevitably, some small animal somewhere is getting brutally murdered by a slightly larger animal. And if we were writing the scene on the river not from the human's perspective but from that small animal's point of view, the tranquillity simply wouldn't exist. The very same stretch of river would be a brutal and alien landscape filled with panic and death.
I think that it's this world building and the unfolding of the story, and the shift into the perspective of whatever world has been built, that goes right to the heart of what an author does. And it doesn't matter what the subject of the story is, if it isn't a pure fantasy then there will be some degree of factual knowledge used to create the world. In animal fiction, any book from Watership Down to The Animals of Farthing Wood will rely on some factual knowledge in order to construct the world. But not all “facts” about an animal can or should be used in the story. And knowing which to use and which to leave out is a matter for embodied knowledge. In the remaining time I want to use my water vole stories as an example of just this.
So, let me tell you some facts about water voles:
*Female water voles are territorial – they have a territory they defend with scent and with sharp teeth from other females who want to kill their pups.
*Male water voles are not territorial, but rather have a home range in which they roam around looking for females.
*Males do nothing to help rear offspring, and indeed are potentially infanticidal.
*Water voles live in burrows.
*Water voles eat 227 different kinds of plant. They spend a lot of time doing this because there's not a lot of energy in plants.
*Water voles are eaten by just about everything, and their primary defences are to jump into the river, or run down their burrow, or to hide in long grass.
*Water voles can't talk. They tend to communicate in postures and through scent marks.
*Rivers also can't talk. They are moving bodies of water.
*Water voles have been in the country for 10,000 years or so.
*We have lost over 98% of our water voles in the last 100 years.
*The primary conservation problem facing water voles is the introduced exotic species, the American mink, against which they have no working defences.
*Water voles have terrible eyesight. They have an excellent sense of smell. They have whiskers. They are covered in fur.
There you are, a selection of vole facts.
Now – imagine you are building a world for a children's story. Some of these facts are clearly relevant, and others are less relevant. Some of these facts can be incorporated explicitly, and some can be incorporated implicitly, and some simply cannot be incorporated. No eight year old wants to hear about infanticidal parents or polygynous relationships. That's too much reality and would detract from the story. But then how do you choose which facts are those you can use?
Well, the principle, I think, is actually rather simple – if the factual knowledge in any way contradicts embodied knowledge or the progression of the story then the embodied knowledge and the story are given priority: we ignore the factual knowledge and go with what “feels” correct for the story. Likewise if the factual knowledge is irrelevant to the story, it is omitted. As an example of this in practice, let's look at two of the facts I gave you. Water voles can't talk. Rivers also can't talk. Now these are – to the best of my knowledge – fundamental and verifiable facts. However, in telling my story I resolutely ignored both of them. In particular it would be ridiculous to even attempt to write any fiction book in which the main characters are animals but in which they can't speak. Because the whole point of writing the story in the first place is to place characters with identifiably human traits into a world with which we are unfamiliar and to see how they react to it. If you like, as I said, the story is like an experimental chamber in which we, the readers, can experience things that we otherwise would not be able to. We get to see what life is like for a water vole through engaging with them as if they were human. In order, therefore, for our collective human embodied knowledge of the natural world to be served, I had to ignore the fairly obvious fact that water voles can't speak, and don't have human levels of intelligence. Ignoring this fact allowed me to create characters whose personalities fit with the world in which they lived, and to explore the intriguing differences they would have with our own perceptions: that smells are far more important; that burrows that would be cold and claustrophobic for us are snug and safe for them; that deep underwater is a place of relative safety; that grass is delicious food, and herons are a fatal enemy. For water voles the river is their home, and their greatest refuge.
And this brings us to the Great River herself. Even for humans rivers have always been the source of life for our communities. They bring water to drink and fish to eat, they carry away our waste and allow easy trade routes to form. It isn't so long ago that rivers were at the very centre of most people's lives. But as important as they are for us, they are far more important for a water vole. When I was writing the River Singers my mother asked me “what mythology would a water vole have”. And as soon as she asked this, I knew that it was something I'd overlooked, and that their mythology should be indelibly bound to the river they live on. This is because in human societies when times are uncertain or dangerous we have always used gods to offer some sort of explanation or consolation. It's the idea that if you live well, according to the gods' strictures, then the god will offer some sort of reward. In Christianity the reward is in heaven. In other religions the reward may be that the god won't simply become disgruntled with you and decide to wipe you out. In either case it's a pact. And so, because in real life the water is the water vole's primary refuge from predation, the river Herself becomes a deity. But this river isn't a new testament god of love. This river can also rise up in rage and smother the banks. She is a terrible, indifferent and brutal god who encourages them to fight for their lives – and only once she has pushed them to their limits and they have battled though, are they worthy to call themselves her children. So while, of course rivers cannot talk, it nevertheless makes perfect sense to the readers – or at least I hope it does – that some of my characters can talk directly to the river, much as proponents of ancient religions offered direct sacrifice to the mercurial gods they worshipped. The water voles are living so close to nature, and so close to death, and are so dependent on their god for their lives, that it makes sense that the river god should be almost a factual entity in the story. Again, it's an example of where factual knowledge isn't sufficient for the story to make intuitive sense, and so we ignore the facts.
I appreciate that I've only really been able to explore the very tip of this. I wanted, but didn't have time, to explore how aware writers are of this interplay while they are actually writing. In brief, I currently have three books published, and another coming out, all of which were written before I had any explicit awareness that such things as factual and embodied knowledge actually exist. And so clearly writing as an activity does not rely on an explicit understanding of how every component of the process operates. Put another way, writing in some senses is just something you do, and you get better at with practice. This isn't to say that there isn't an consciously intellectual component to writing a story, because there absolutely is, but more that this process doesn't work the way that a lot of people probably think it does. The musician Nick Cave said that he's not interested in that which he can explain – he said “Once you're understood a song it's not of much interest any more”. And I think this is also true of writing – for an author writing is a process of trying to explain their intuitions about life in a story. In a sense, it's an exploration of the very embodied knowledge we've been talking about. As I say I'm out of time, but if anyone is interested in pontificating further on all this, I'd be very happy to talk to you.
I'll skip the usual apologies and statements of how I don't really deserve to have a blog, given how infrequently I update it, and will get straight onto the scattered bits and pieces that seem to have comprised my summer so far, and which are all making me a happy author.
-A massive "thank you" to the wonderful people at the Heart of Hawick book awards for shortlisting The River Singers. It's great that so many children voted for it!
-An equally massive "thank you" to PJ and Justin at Authorprofile, and to Jim Sells at the National Literacy Trust for the three days of events-training they provided this year. Guys, it's been emotional. And more importantly you've armed me with the wherewithal to go out and give all those school events (shout out here to Steyning Grammar, the Priory School, and the Reedham and Little Thetford primary schools - you were all ace).
-I was VERY excited to find myself on Sarah Lean's list of top ten animal frienship stories in The Guardian. Thank you, Sarah!
-And finally, and definitely not least, my third novel, Trickster (which comes out in February next year), now has a cover! If you are reading this in July you are one of the first people to see it! I think it look pretty special, but I'd love to hear what you think of it! Please do let me know @puttypaw on Twitter.