First, we had Otter Country, in 2012, a narrative journey on the trail of one of Britain’s most elusive mammals. Then, last year, Owl Sense came out.
When Lewes-bred author Miriam Darlington gave a talk about her second non-fiction book, last February at the Linklater Pavilion, I had an obvious question to ask her in the Q&A session afterwards. Which animal, I wondered, was she going to ‘do’ next?
“The albatross,” she replied. What a great subject, I thought: all that symbolism; all those romantic narrative possibilities. And what a lot more I’ll know about albatrosses after I’ve read it.
But it turns out that life isn’t that simple.
I’m talking to Miriam again, down the phone: she’s speaking from her kitchen in Totnes. She’s soon to return to Lewes, to give a talk at the Literary Society about what it’s like being a woman in a man’s world, writing about animals.
“When Otter Country came out, I was an oddity,” she says. “Nature writing was very much a male domain. I felt like I was a bit of an imposter.” So she wrote it in a way entirely her own. Not that it wasn’t full of otter facts; it was. But it was led by curiosity, rather than expertise. She started stalking otters, then she swam where they swam. She imagined how it would feel to be an otter. It was oddly mesmerising.
And Owl Sense is much more than a book about owls. “I researched it for five years, and I got to know a lot about owls,” she says, “even if I had to feign ignorance every time I asked an expert – always a man – for information. But while I was writing it my son Benji fell seriously ill, and it went beyond being just a nature book; it also became a book about trying to stop a family from falling apart.”
She’s been criticised in the national press for bringing her personal life into the story, but she defends that choice. “It’s not for me to say whether it was a memoir, or not,” she says. “But it was a story I felt I had to tell. And, anyway, nature writing needs to broaden its appeal or its current bubble of popularity might burst.”
So where does that leave the albatrosses?
On hold, it seems. “I was saying to people ‘I’m off to South Georgia soon, I may be gone some time.’” But then, for one reason or another, she “felt like staying at home for a little longer, and somehow a lot of poetry started tumbling out. Poem after poem after poem. So my next book – like my first – will be a collection of poetry. Whatever I write will have nature in it. But I’ve realised what I need to write about now is the wild nature that’s inside people.”
Lewes Literary Society, All Saints, 15th Jan, 8pm. lewesliterarysociety.co.uk