A Conversation with Nicholas Drayson about his novel, A Guide to the Birds of East Africa
Would you describe yourself as a birder?
I'd describe myself as more of a naturalistI like nature as a whole and in all its parts. I get just as much pleasure in watching a wasp hunting for spiders, a family of baboons, or the colors of the New England fall as I do in seeing a bird that I have never encountered before. The great thing about birds, though, is that they are easy to see and study. There are lots of them, they can be found nearly everywhere, most of them fly around happily in the daylight, and they make such great noises.
What made you decide to write this book?
Ten years ago I finished my Ph.D. and married the world's most beautiful Antarctic lexicographer, Bernadette Hince. Bernadette had just accepted a job as publications editor in an international agroforestry research center in Kenya, and we moved from Australia to Nairobi. I had done a lot of nature writing in Australia but, having no job and no work permit in Kenya, I decided to bite the literary bullet and write a novel. This situation also allowed me to spend a lot of time looking at Kenya's spectacular wildlifeincluding its birds. When we left Kenya a year and a half later, I took with me a manuscript (Confessing a Murder, Norton, 2002) and experiences that I knew would one day turn into another book.
Your book is set in Africa, but its main character is Asian. How come?
An enormous diaspora of people has flowed from the Indian subcontinent to Africa, as well as to other parts of the world, over the past hundred years. Many of the "Asians" in Kenya arrived early in the past century to help build the railway and thus have been established there quite as long as the white population. Kenya is a country of many tribes, and you could argue that the Asians and the whites now fit in as two of them. When I decided to write a book set in Kenya, I wanted to acknowledge this.
How long did it take to complete?
I started A Guide to the Birds of East Africa about five years ago but, typical of what happens when I write, another project somehow overtook it (Love and the Platypus, Scribe, 2007). I got back to it in 2006 while staying in Cambridge, England, where Bernadette had a research fellowship at the Scott Polar Research Institute. I finished it last year. It seems to take me about a year and half to write a novelwhich sometimes seems crazy because you can read it in a few hours.
Do you enjoy writing?
When I started writing my first novel, it was so much fun. I was used to writing nature stories for magazines and had just finished a major academic dissertationall of which involve considerable research and attention to detail. When I realized that with a novel I could just make everything up, it felt great. Freedom! But it's hard work too. Like many writers, what I really enjoy is not so much the writing, but having written.
A Guide to the Birds of East Africa it doesn't really sound like a novel at all. Why did you choose that title?
Unusual for me, the title came firstit popped into my head while I was still living in Africa. We'd made friends with the Dutch artist Ber van Perlo, who was working on illustrations for an African bird guide (Birds of East Africa, Collins), and something about the rhythm of the phrase stuck in my head. Rhythm is very important to me, both in music and words.
Do you have a favorite bird?
That depends on where I am. At home in Canberra it would have to be the Australian magpiefor its matchless song. I can look out my window and see perhaps a dozen different kinds of parrot; yesterday twenty yellow-tailed black cockatoos flew over, making their deliciously mournful cries. On the other hand, when I'm staying with my sister in England, I love to hear the sound of rooks and jackdaws coming home to roost in the evening, in the sycamores beside the old church. In the United States, I just can't get enough of the hummingbirds. As for Africa, well, perhaps you can guess from the book.
You live in Australia, but you grew up in England?
Yes, I've lived nearly half my life in Australia now. I consider myself very lucky to feel at home in two such different places. The England I know is so much more than London, and the Australia I know is so much more than beautiful beaches and magnificent deserts. And it's not just the land, it's the people. Plus, of course, Australia is heaven for a naturalistand it's just so different from the Northern Hemisphere.
What would you say is the central theme of A Guide to the Birds of East Africa?
When I look back, the themes of all my novels seem to be the samebasically they are love stories. But I like to try different styles and voices, so this one is much funnier than my previous novels. And it's always important to me to work hard on the plot. I do so enjoy a good story.
When readers finish A Guide to the Birds of East Africa, what do you hope they will be feeling?
Happy. Not because they enjoyed the book or because they think it a great work of literature or even a good story (though all these things would be nice), but just happy with life. Bad things happen in this book, but in many ways the book is about the goodness of people and the triumph of that goodness.
Any plans for your next novel?
I'm working on a couple of books at the momenta crime story set in Sri Lanka and a sequel to A Guide to the Birds of East Africa. I wouldn't like to go on the record and say which one will be finished first.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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