It gives me great pleasure to welcome Jane Wilson-Howarth, author of the children’s book Himalayan Adventures, to Linda’s Book Bag today.
When sixteen year old Alex’s parents ask him to deliver a mysterious package to their animal research camp in the Nepalese jungle, he and his twelve-year old brother James do not know the trouble they are about to face.
An unsuccessful ransom payment leads to an arduous journey through the crisp forests of the wild west of Nepal in pursuit of the terrorists who have kidnapped their parents.
Even with the help of their friend Atti, how can three children rescue the parents from armed kidnappers?
An Interview with Jane Wilson-Howarth
Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag, Jane. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing. Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?
I’m a medical doctor and when my new husband took me off to a small town in central Sri Lanka I envisaged making a difference, working hard to improve maternal and child health in a rural community. But we arrived in the middle of two wars and some days I’d see nearly 200 patients, sometimes six, depending on what threat the local insurgents had made that week. I was an under-employed memsahib and thought I’d attempt to write a book about an expedition to Madagascar I’d organised the previous year. Dervla Murphy used one of my photos in her book Muddling through in Madagascar so I had a contact in John Murray publishing. The writing flowed – perhaps aided by lack of distractions. I had no TV, a very limited social circle, sometimes there wasn’t even electricity. The book that emerged was Lemurs of the Lost World. Since then I’ve been fortunate in also having three travel health guides, another travel narrative and a novel for adults published.
When did you first realise you were going to be a writer?
I have a zoology degree as well as a medical qualification and all my early writings were about animals. My first publication was in an academic journal and it was about tiny cave-dwelling, dung-eating creatures. I also wrote some pieces for local newspapers about my first expedition – to the Himalayas; these made my Dad proud. I am mildly dyslexic so never imagined I’d ever write a book but Dad was passionate about the written word and our home was lined with book so I always felt it was a worthy aspiration.
Without spoiling the plot, please could you tell us a bit about your latest children’s book Himalayan Kidnap?
Brothers Alex and James take a call from a stranger instructing them to bring a ransom to their parents’ research camp in the jungle of lowland Nepal. The kidnappers take the money but the parents aren’t set free and the boys set out on an arduous journey in the crazy assumption that somehow they will be able to sneak their parents away from armed terrorists. It isn’t just the Maoist insurgents that endanger the boys. They have to navigate through Kiplingesque jungles that are home to top predators and cross a swirling river where other unseen threats lurk. This fast-paced adventure is peopled with kindly and not-so-friendly Nepalis and the boys meet many of the wildlife stars of the Himalayas. The book is aimed at 8 – 12 year olds.
How do you go about researching detail and ensuring your books are realistic?
They are all based on my personal experience, and conversations. I am a magpie for snippets of stories and experiences which pop out of my memory unexpectedly.
Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?
I am not a great planner – not in life; not in my writing. If I plan too rigorously I am in danger of producing something that reads like a scientific or medical report. I have to think myself into a scene and let it flow. Then I have the huge labour of editing and restructuring and honing the story. It is probably not a very efficient way of working – I was struggling with my memoir A Glimpse of Eternal Snows for a decade – but the story that finally emerged was powerful and it has appeared now in three editions in four continents. Reviewers often remark that my writing is atmospheric; it is the descriptive prose that I find easiest and most enjoyable to write.
What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?
Routine is not a word in my vocabulary. I grab time when I can although some days I just don’t have the fire in my belly and know I’d be more productive attending to the hovering or the laundry. I write at my desktop in a little first floor room surrounded by untidy piles of papers and books. I look out on an aging silver birch tree which attracts birds. My favourites are flocks of tiny goldcrests which come to pick at the bark. They are Britain’s smallest birds and they are absolutely beautiful.
You’ve written several non-fiction books as well as adult fiction. Why did you choose a children’s genre for your latest fiction?
I write to unwind and I was going through a difficult patch at work. The local health authority decided to close down my GP surgery and my patients were distressed and bereft. Lots of tears were being shed – including by me. We had a large number of folks with mental health problems on our list and although I was supposedly only working half time it began to feel as if my patients’ problems we coming home with me. I started writing an adventure story. When I’m writing about an exotic place I go there in my head and it was like taking a holiday for an hour or two. I started reading the story to my then 10-year-old and he was enthusiastic and demanded new episodes every night. It was hard to keep up but it was a good spur to churning out the story.
What are the challenges of writing for children?
It is said that writing for children is like writing for adults, only harder. Children need pace. The vocabulary needs careful consideration. You can’t make many assumptions about your reader’s knowledge-base, and you can’t lecture them. In making the older brother, Alex, my narrator I increased the challenges, especially in giving him an authentic 16-year-old’s voice. Fortunately I have a faecal sense of humour so that transferred across to the boys nicely.
Your children’s books exemplify adventure, travel and nature. How important is it for children to experience those aspects of the world, at least vicariously?
I am passionate about wildlife conservation and I take delight in encounters with animals – even with small creatures like wrens and dragonflies and dung beetles. I believe meeting such wild “characters” allows children to grow to love the natural world too. I hope through meeting the less well-known species in the book (gharials, springtails, sloth bears, skinks) my readers will be inspired to protect our world, and even venture out into parks and gardens to see what lives there. I want to show that it is still possible to have adventures in the real world: everything that happens in the book is possible. Finally I slip in references to the challenges of poverty and caste so that readers from the industrialised world may think a little on how fortunate they are.
How much has the travel you’ve done influenced the way you write?
All my writing has a travel theme. I love to describe exotic places.
As a seasoned traveller yourself, what advice would you give to those wishing to combine travel and writing?
The most important thing is a small note book and a couple of pens – I’m always loosing mine. Impressions written at the time, and snippets of overheard conversations, are so much fresher and more alive than anything the memory records, and it is the seemingly small trivial details that bring scenes to life. I’m not much of a diarist but am in the habit of writing letters home – or, more recently, blogging here – and often I go back to these contemporary accounts of my experiences to improve my writing. Latterly I have travelled with a small laptop but I still find writing with a pen and letting my pen go where it wants can produce some of my most interesting prose.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
I am a slow but catholic reader. I enjoy Young Adult novels. I love novels with a strong sense of place and with evocative descriptions of scenery. I’m currently reading Sunset Song.
Do you have other interests that give you ideas for writing?
I love the outdoors and wildlife spotting and I enjoy rowing. Sometimes situations – falling into the river, or diving into deep murky water to try to retrieve my glasses – lend themselves to being absorbed into an adventure story. I enjoy messing about in white water – canoeing and rafting – I’m a trained SCUBA-diver and have served as a volunteer cave rescue warden. I was once lost in a Nepali cave for 13 hours. My caving experience and the sensations of plunging into turbulent water are worked into the action in Himalayan Kidnap.
If you could choose to be a character from book Himalayan Kidnap, who would you be and why?
I’d be Atti – the strong quiet competent Nepali girl who joins the English boys on their quest.
If Himalayan Kidnap became a film, who would you like to play Alex and James and why would you choose them?
A young lean Edward Norton for Alex and a young muscled Brad Pitt for James – my sons wo were the models for the boys in the book would approve of these actors in “their” roles
If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that Himalayan Kidnap should be their next read, what would you say?
Exotic wildlife; brotherly banter; danger; dung-fight; scary jungle sounds; lost and alone; terrorists; cliff-hanging; page-turner.
Thank you so much, Jane, for your time in answering my questions.
About Jane Wilson-Howarth
Jane Wilson-Howarth lives in Cambridgeshire where she writes, teaches medical students and, for about 30-hours a week, works as a general practitioner.