We Sat Down for a chat....with Gill Lewis
We are so delighted to welcome Leeds Book Award winner, Gill Lewis, to our blog. Gill is the author of Sky Hawk and White Dolphin.
Today, we've asked her a bit about writing White Dolphin, being a vet, writing in treehouses and accidents on the Zambezi! Her answers are a real treat for everyone!
Little M: What made you want to write White Dolphin?
Gill: It's difficult to pin-point the reason I wanted to write White Dolphin. I think much of the inspiration came from childhood holidays on the Gower where my father grew up and kept a small boat for many years. I have many fond memories of going out on the Lougher Estuary and listening to the calls of the wild marsh birds and sleeping under the stars in that boat.
White Dolphin is dedicated to my parents and to our boat. I also spent some years working as a vet in Cornwall and was inspired by the landscape, the wildlife and the people.
In fact, White Dolphin was initially going to be a story for much younger readers about a girl who could 'talk' with dolphins. But the more I researched, I realised that a more powerful story could be told by keeping the dolphin true to its own nature.
My research also revealed the fragility of our endangered ecosystems beneath the waves. I was shocked to discover that less than 1 percent of the oceans has some form of protection. Overfishing and pollution pose huge threats to marine environments. For many years our sea beds have been 'out of sight and out of mind'. However we are beginning to realise just how much damage has been done and that by taking measures now, we can restore the balance before it is too late. Just recently, Sir David Attenborough has issued a plea to then government to secure 127 marine protected areas around our coasts. So, I suppose, in the end, I wanted to write a story about the threats facing our marine environment, and to use a dolphin to tell that story.
Little M: Why did you pick a white dolphin?
Gill: I chose a white dolphin for a few reasons. Partly, I needed the dolphin to be recognisable. I did consider giving the dolphin a distinctive notch in the dorsal fin, but as I wrote the story, I liked the idea of Kara looking for signs she thinks are connected with her mother. Hence the white dove feather, then cowrie shell and then ultimately the white dolphin. Albino animals are quite rare in the wild, but they do exist. An albino orca, thought to be about sixteen years of age has recently been sighted off the coast of Russia.
Little M: How did you come up with the characters’ names?
Gill: The character's names…sometimes names just pop into my head and feel 'right' from the very beginning. Sometimes I have to work hard at finding a name. Kara's name was quite easy, as it is the Cornish meaning for 'Love', and it is love that threads through the story. The boat is named Moana, from the Maori name for 'ocean'. Aunt Bev's name came from a friend's mother whose character is very similar! I'm not saying who, though!
M: You write in a treehouse! That’s amazing. How did this come about?
Gill: I do write in the tree house…in the summer! It's too cold in winter. I have had some unwelcome visitors…firstly the squirrels' nest and more recently an overwintering hornet. There is only one way out from the treehouse and my exit was blocked by a massive angry hornet! I like writing in the treehouse because it has no internet, so I can't get distracted by Twitter/ Facebook etc.
M: Have you ever swum with dolphins?
Gill: I have never swum with dolphins although I would love to swim with them in the wild. I have been very close to them in boats and the thrill of seeing them leaping alongside never leaves me. I have swum with seals around the Scilly Isles. It was a magical feeling as they twisted and turned around me, pulling at my flippers with their teeth.
M: Do you still work as a vet?
Gill: I don't work as a vet the moment. :0( I wouldn't have time with writing and also being a mum too, although I do miss it. Luckily my husband is a vet too, so I help him out from time to time, so I feel I still keep in contact with veterinary work. I do miss meeting the owners and their animals, but I don't miss being woken up for calls at 2am though!
M: What was one of your most memorable vet experiences?
Gill: There are so many memorable vet experiences, from scary to sad to heartwarming, life affirming moments. But there is one moment that particularly stays with me, because it was at a time of change and I felt I was a witness to some of it. Cornwall is a rural county with many dairy farms, some suckler herds of cattle and sheep farms. Once, there were many small family run farms with small herds, but as profitability in the farming industry decreased, farming intensified; big farms became bigger and many of the small farms were pushed out of business.
I remember visiting a farm high on Bodmin Moor to inspect every cow in the farmer's herd for a particular disease. I couldn't drive up to the farm, as there was only a very rough track. After walking half a long muddy mile, I found the farmer sitting on a milking stool, milking a cow by hand into a bucket. I really felt I had stepped back in time. The farmer had no holding facility for his cows, except for an old cowshed where his cows were fed.
When I arrived, the twenty cows of his herd were all out in the field next to the barn, and I remember feeling exasperated thinking I'd have to go and help bring them in, and I had other calls that day too. So I asked him how would we get his cows into the barn, and he asked which cow I wanted first.
Then he proceeded to call each cow by name. When he called out 'Daisy!', one cow put her head up and ambled in. This happened for each cow. Each knew her own name. After examining all his cows I was invited into the farmhouse to have a cup of tea, and there, standing in the middle of the kitchen was one of the cows, eating cabbage peelings out of the sink as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
At the time, it seemed I was witnessing a piece of passing history, a farmer in tune with his environment and his animals set against a world of increased intensive farming. However, in recent years there seems of have been a slight shift, towards organic farming, less intensive land use and increased welfare for animals. It's something I hope will continue.
M: Have you got any tips for readers who would like to become vets?
Gill: For readers who want to be vets…firstly, it's a great job. You come into contact with so many interesting animals and people and have the opportunity to travel to some amazing places. I would say, however, to keep your options open. If you want to be a vet, the chances are that you love animals, and so it’s worth considering other jobs where you work with animals, such as RSPCA inspector, wildlife photographer, ecologist, marine biologist, veterinary nurse, working with horses etc.
There is a lot of competition for places at vet school, so you have to be dedicated and usually have to achieve high grades in three sciences at A level. This shouldn't put you off if you are very determined. I didn't get the grades I needed at first and had to re-take my A- levels. It seemed a huge slog at the time, but was definitely worth it. Also, if you have work experience days, ask about visiting a local veterinary surgery. You usually have to be in year 10 plus to do this. Work experience can give you a useful insight into the job.
M: What did you do when your canoe split in two on the Zambezi?
Gill: Ah ha…when my canoe split in two in the Zambezi! I didn't actually learn of the canoe's fate until a little later in the day. I was paddling the same canoe as my husband. Unbeknown to us, our canoe party approached some rapids, and we were in a situation where we were in the middle of a wide stretch of river and had no choice but to head straight down the rapids. Everything was going to plan, except for the fact that the canoe had no spray decks (to keep water out of the canoe) and no buoyancy within.
So water filled up in the canoe and the canoe sank, leaving us swirling down the rapids. We were then stuck on a small rock in the middle of the Zambezi for several hours awaiting rescue. Luckily there were no crocodiles or hippos around to keep us company!
Rescue came in the form of a fisherman whose own boat then broke down and we were drifting toward the Victoria Falls. We managed to paddle to the Zimbabwean side of the river, but then had problems getting back to the Zambian side as we didn't have our passports! The worst thing was losing my camera to the Zambezi as I had taken some lovely shots of elephants crossing the river and a huge monitor lizard and beautiful bee-eater.
M: And in case you're wondering what Gill is reading right now?
Gill: I'm reading Gangsta Granny with my youngest and the illustrated Life of Pi with my eldest at the moment!
Gill, thank you so much for these answers and photos. They were really interesting!
You can find out more about Gill Lewis on her website - it's in the treehouse!
And, for younger readers or teachers, you can find activities linked to both books on the Reading Agency's Chatterbooks site.