In my Research Secrets slot in February issue of Writers’ Forum Aliya Whiteley told me about her debut non-fiction book, a fascinating insight into fungi entitled, The Secret Life of Fungi: Discoveries from a Hidden World.
Aliya usually writes speculative fiction such as her horror short stories Fearsome Creatures from Black shuck Books (Oct 2020) and her novel Greensmith from Unsung Books, which deals with seed banks and viruses and the current global threat to diversity. (Nov 2020). She explained she had no plans to write a non-fiction book on any subject.
Her novel, The Beauty, imagines a future in which fungi and humanity combine, and since its publication in 2014 people have sometimes sent her photographs and news clippings about fungi. She has always been interested in the subject, but the way it resonated strongly with readers really struck home.
Aliya was contacted by an editor at Elliott & Thompson who had read a few of her novels and thought she might be able to bring something unusual, elements of strangeness and surprise, to a non-fiction book about fungi they had planned. This interest from an editor just gave her the push she needed.
As can be imagined fungi is a huge area of knowledge – fungi are connected to all aspects of life and death on this planet – and Aliya knew there was no way for her to approach an expert level of understanding in the time she had available for writing the book so she looked for what she could bring to the project. She started with an overview from Oxford University Press’ A Very Short Introduction To… series, and made loads of notes.
“I decided to concentrate on different angles that would allow me to concentrate on using language in a lyrical and involving way. I wanted to get readers excited so they might go and read further if they wanted to find out more.”Aliya Whiteley
She split the information she discovered from her research into three main areas: ‘Erupt’, ‘Spread’, and ‘Decay’. ‘Erupt’ dealt with new life and new beginnings, futuristic and ongoing scientific developments, and people who have found a growing love for fungi through cooking and foraging. ‘Spread’ loosely covered all sorts of fungi from around the world. ‘Decay’ dealt with their role in death, in illness, and in dark literature. These categories really helped Aliya to get her thoughts together and turn it into a cohesive book.
Aliya revealed she found fungi in space a fascinating area of study, and the NASA website helpful. She said:
“Just searching for ‘fungi’ uncovered so many interesting articles, developments and proposals. One of my favourites involves plans to grow habitable shelters on Mars from radiation-resistant fungi.”Aliya Whiteley
A tip for other non-fiction writers which she found useful was to take notes by hand. She explained created a better link between the vast subject of fungi and her brain, and enabled her to get a handle on some very challenging material, such as scientific or medical papers. A few days after taking those notes, she would try to describe what she had learned in her own words, just to see how well she had grasped the information and if she could do the trickier aspects of the subject justice. This enabled her to concentrate her thoughts, and also develop some confidence in them.
Aliya’s latest science fiction novel Skyward Inn published by Solaris Books is released on 16th March 2021. To find out more about Aliya and her books take a look at her website: www.aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com and you can follow her on Twitter: @aliyawhiteley and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/aliyawhiteley
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