For my Research Secrets slot in the national writing magazine, Writers’ Forum #235 Aug 2021, I interviewed Lev Parikian about how his research for a previous book helped him to structure his creative non-fiction book, Into the Tangled Bank, published by Elliott & Thompson.
Lev explained, Into The Tangled Bank, grew from his second book, Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? which is the story of the year he spent trying to see 200 species of British bird. It had occurred to him, while travelling the country researching the previous book that as well as the fascinating birds he encountered, the people watching them were worthy of study, whether they were novices with only a vague interest in what they were looking at or expert ornithologists with deep knowledge. It made him think of how we all experience nature in our own individual ways, so the broad idea of a book about ‘how we are in nature’ was born.
In honing the idea from that initial concept it occurred to Lev that he could weave together three stories: his own journey through nature; the people he met on the way; and some of the great naturalists of the past who devoted their lives to studying the mysteries of the natural world.
Lev told me his initial research included everyone he found who fell under the broad definition ‘naturalist’. He noted their dates, area of interest, where they lived, and how they might fit into the arc of the book. From there he whittled it down. He wanted it to move from the familiar and domestic – the wildlife we encounter in our homes and gardens and on our doorsteps – gradually outwards to take in a wide variety of habitats – not just the wild places like nature reserves and mountains and lakes and clifftops but local parks and zoos and even museums, where the wildlife is laid out for us to survey in close detail and at our leisure.
“I love birds, but the lives of twelve ornithologists might not have offered the range I was looking for.”Lev Parikian
Lev revealed it was important to him to cover a variety of disciplines. This is why he included Walter Rothschild, founder of what is now the Hertfordshire wing of the Natural History Museum; the great poet John Clare, who wrote with such power about the nature on his local patch near Peterborough; Thomas Bewick, the engraver whose illustrations were many people’s introduction to the appearance of birds and animals they would never encounter in the flesh; Sir Peter Scott, a man of extraordinary breadth and founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (among many other achievements); Gavin Maxwell, who by all appearances preferred the company of otters to humans.
The places he visited became gradually wilder – from the rather genteel surroundings of Charles Darwin’s English Heritage house in Kent to Skokholm, a small island off Pembrokeshire which was the first bird observatory in Britain, and is home to a couple of hundred thousand seabirds and just a handful of humans.
During his week on Skokholm, he was torn about how best to spend my time. He was writing about his own experience of the birds, so wanted to spend as much time as possible outdoors looking at the birds and picking the brains of Richard and Giselle, the observatory’s wardens; but the island has an extensive library, filled with the works of its founder Ronald Lockley and much more, all of which he wanted to read. It was impossible to do everything.
“At the heart of the book was a desire to reflect the various ways we experience nature, whether actively (yomping across a boggy moor hoping for a glimpse of a disappearing curlew) or passively (slumped on the sofa listening to David Attenborough describing the sex lives of aardvarks). And really all that was required in that department was to observe people (including myself) as keenly as I observed nature. There was a fair amount of eavesdropping, but I also made a point of striking up conversations whenever I had the opportunity (and when appropriate) and listening to what people had to say.”Lev Parikian
Lev explained he found recording all this information difficult and admits he is not naturally organised. But he does have a notebook, which he carries with him most of the time, and whenever possible he jots things down. He also makes use of technology which he said he finds indispensable.
“I took a lot of photographs with my phone to remind me of particular settings or encounters, and if I overheard something particularly interesting or funny it was generally quicker to jot it down in the Evernote app on my phone.”Lev Parikian
He described the process of writing Into The Tangled Bank, as absorbing everything like a sponge and then squeezing it out afterwards. The trick, he claims, is knowing which is the good stuff.
To read my future Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.