Emily Hawkins, author of A Natural History of Fairies, shares her process for bringing an entire fairy world to life!
Where did the idea for A Natural History of Fairies come from?
I’m really fortunate that this gem of an idea was actually gifted to me a couple of years ago by the then-publisher at Frances Lincoln, Rachel Williams. We had worked together years before at Templar Publishing, when I was the editor on the Ology series of books, which are well known for blending fact and fiction. When Rachel decided the time was right for a ‘scientific’ book on fairies that describes them as ‘real’ creatures who play a part in the natural world, she knew who to call – luckily for me! And I was so happy when Jessica Roux signed up to be the illustrator – her delicate, nostalgic style was just perfect for the book.
What was your research process like for this book? What surprised you most?
The research process made a refreshing change from my usual way of working. I’m used to writing ‘straight’ non-fiction, where you have to be very meticulous – I normally spend a lot of time cross-checking sources to make sure I have all my facts right. But obviously when ‘researching’ fairies, the whole thing was a bit different, and much more flexible.
It was a real pleasure to dream up all of the different fairy species, imagining where and how they might live, and how they might survive in the wild. But many of these imaginings were actually based on real science, and real creatures. For example, the fairy life-cycle is obviously inspired by that of butterflies and moths, their honeycomb-like bones are based on those of birds, and their different methods of camouflage and defence also echo those of other creatures. So there was still a lot of research to do, even if it was more about birds, butterflies and plants than about fairies!
In particular, I loved learning how the coloration of real-life caterpillars protects them from predators. In our book, the tail of the swallowtail fairy flutterpillar is based on the citrus swallowtail caterpillar: to avoid being eaten by hunters it mimics a bird’s dropping. And the rainforest nymph flutterpillar is inspired by the amazing hawk moth caterpillar, which is a snake mimic. If you look at a photo of this caterpillar it’s quite astonishing how successful a mimic it is.
What is your process like for paring down so much information into bite-sized pieces for young readers?
The paring-down process is always a challenge, but it’s one that I quite enjoy. You just need to be a bit ruthless. I started my career as an editor, so I’m quite used to getting out the red pen! When I’m writing I continually read my work aloud, as if I’m reading to my kids, to make sure it’s engaging. One of the bigger challenges, actually, was deciding which types of fairy to include in the first place – the book has a global scope, so the possibilities are endless. Quite a few fairy species didn’t end up making the final cut.
This book is notable in that it walks the line between fiction and non-fiction. Why was it important to present this information as though it’s non-fiction?
Presenting the book as a ‘found’ volume written by a botanist from the 1920s gives it a sense of authenticity, as if the information you’re finding out could – just possibly – be real… so the non-fiction style really adds to the magic.
Obviously you have to be careful when presenting fiction as fact, especially to children. But it’s amazing how sophisticated youngsters can be when distinguishing between reality and the world of make-believe. I’m sure some little ones will take the book at face value, but I hope that older readers may appreciate the real-life natural history references while enjoying separating the truth from the fantasy. It’s kind of a game really, working out how much of it is ‘real’.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
My first proper job was as an editorial assistant in a small publishing company. If you’re just starting out in your career, then looking for a job in publishing might be a good way to go. That way, you can learn about the industry from the inside and make some useful contacts before going it alone as a writer. Other than that, I’d encourage aspiring authors to get to know the competition – read as much as you can – then you can try and make something a bit different. Also, if you’re pitching to a publisher or an agent, make sure you’ve done your homework to check that your proposal is a good fit for them.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just started work on a really exciting project in the world of myth and folklore. The illustrator is Lauren Baldo, who created the amazing artwork for I Am Not A Label, by Cerrie Burnell. I don’t think I’m allowed to say much more about it at the moment… but watch this space!
About the author:
Emily Hawkins is a writer and editor of children’s books for all ages. She wrote the New York Times bestseller Oceanology, as well as several other titles in the Ology series, which has sold over 16 million copies worldwide. She holds a first-class English degree from Nottingham University, and now lives in Winchester with her young family.