Dr Amy-Jane Beer, biologist and nature writer, talks to me about being a Country Diarist, her writing habits and her book project
When and how did your interest in nature and biology begin?
My very earliest memory is of a butterfly window sticker, like stained glass, stuck on our living room window. I can still picture it… a small tortoiseshell. My mum was very keen on nature generally but wildflowers in particular and we used to name them as we walked, so I had that drip-fed from an early age.
I did a biology degree at Royal Holloway College and never even contemplated studying anything else. My interest in the subject grew – in my third year everything just clicked into place and I started doing a lot more reading around the subject and getting a real sense of the big picture. I decided to stay on at Royal Holloway to do a PhD. Part of me knew I wasn’t going to be doing research forever but I wanted to continue the privilege of learning day in day out for a while. My research was about the development of the nervous system in sea urchin larvae so there were some collecting trips to the beach but most of the work was done using an aquarium in the basement of the college.
How and why did your move from science to writing happen?
I don’t think I’d ever really stopped being a writer. I still have my primary school exercise books and they are filled with pages and pages of writing. At the fork in the road for O and then A levels choices, I chose science and suddenly the door to more creative stuff seemed to shut. Then through my degree and PhD, writing became all about precision, empiricism and truth. Towards the end of my degree, one of my tutors took me aside and said that I was getting credit for my ability to write confidently and persuasively even though he wasn’t always sure I knew what I was talking about! That stuck in my mind.
While I was doing my doctorate, someone suggested I send off some things I had written, and I was paid for them. So I started thinking maybe this was a job I could make something out of. The day I submitted my thesis, another tutor who was writing for a company launching a new wildlife magazine, Wildlife of Britain, asked if I would be interested in doing some proof-reading for it. I went along and ended up with the job of assistant editor, then within a year, editor. I fell on my feet and no-one was more surprised than me.
Back in 2014 in an interview with BBC Wildlife you said you had “no idea” how to become a natural history writer… and I wondered whether you still feel like that?
There are so many different routes into it, I think. I came at it from a science background and before I became a nature writer I was a science writer and brought along a package of experience, broad biological learning and critical thinking. I think you do have to have something more than just a desire to be a nature writer.
As a nature writer, how important is it to have an area of expertise?
It is important, but I wouldn’t say that the expertise has to be scientific. Jini Reddy, author of Wanderland, writes about nature from a more spiritual point of view and that’s equally valid… or it could be an artistic point of view or a fascination with words and language. For most people I think it’s a slow process, or it was for me. There aren’t many people like Dara McAnulty who pop up aged fifteen with the complete package. I feel like I’ve finally settled on the kind of writing which fits me best… but I’m nearly fifty.
You are one of the elite group of Guardian Country Diary writers… how did that arise?
It was a suggestion of the lovely Patrick Barkham who I have known for a few years through New Networks for Nature and our work on the People’s Manifesto for Wildlife. About three years ago, I wrote a piece of about 1200 words without any particular outlet in mind. He thought the style fitted that of Country Diary and put me in touch with the editor. I think at the time they were looking for more women contributors so again, I got lucky. Initially I was only commissioned for one piece at a time which was quite hard work because I had to anticipate what I might see in a month or two’s time and not overlap with what the regulars would write.
I’m not very good at keeping a regular diary of things I’ve seen – meticulous diary keeping seems to require a more orderly life than mine! Part of it is being a mum – I’m always being pulled in many different directions at once. I have very little time to experience nature solo and five years ago that’s what I thought ‘nature writing’ was. I’m trying to avoid using the ‘lone enraptured male’ trope as I don’t agree with some of what Kathleen Jamie has said, but a lot of people don’t have much opportunity for solo time in nature or long stretches of secluded writing time. But that means you just have to find a way that works for you.
What are your writing habits? When and how do you write?
It’s pretty chaotic. I’d love to be the kind of writer who has a routine but I don’t. I do quite a lot of editing for scientists who are writing with English as their second language and that provides me with important income, so as those jobs come in, I have to do them. And there’s always something getting in the way of the writing I most want to do. Lockdown is difficult because I’m used to having the house to myself, and headspace. I find it really difficult to write if there’s anything going on around me so my productivity has been pretty poor recently. But I know I’m very fortunate… I’m safe and well and so are my loved ones.
I write better in the mornings so if I can get myself up at six or earlier that’s when the thoughts flow most freely and my mind is less cluttered. For my Country Diaries, my slot is the fourth Saturday of the month and I have to submit at ten o’clock in the morning on the previous Sunday. Usually I’ve got something in my head so I get up early that Sunday, usually at six, and I know I’ve got four hours to write it. I’ll have been thinking and planning for a few days before that and I may have gone out to look at something particular – but giving myself a period of time close to the deadline for the actual writing seems to work for me.
For the longer form stuff, I have lots of notebooks but they don’t run chronologically and are all over the place. I quite often start writing a piece or a chapter in the middle. A thought will come and I just blurt it out. I nearly always write at least twice as many words as are needed for the finished piece. I heard someone describe it as shovelling sand into a bucket, then tipping it upside down and carving a sandcastle out of it.
How is your work time more usually apportioned between regular columns, pitching to new outlets, writing your book et cetera?
I probably spend a third of my working hours actually writing, then a third doing other work which keeps the bills paid like the editing, and then a third doing what people like to think of nature writers doing, being out there and having thoughts. I record a lot of voice notes and so I do a lot of talking to myself in the woods and by the river. I’ve become less embarrassed about people hearing me doing that now. Sometimes something comes out of my mouth without seeming to pass through my brain, and it’s like hearing someone else say it, and I think, ‘That’s the germ, the idea’. That’s why recording it is important for me, the slower act of writing it down would change the thought as I have it. In something like the Country Diary, with just 360 words, there’s only really space for one idea and you use the other 350 words building up to it or leading off from it.
You’ve talked about the challenges of working during lockdown. Have there been opportunities as well as challenges?
There’s been the opportunity to share more. But I was conscious especially in the first few weeks of lockdown, that for thousands of people it meant four walls, no garden and no view of anything that was green or natural. In comparison with that, I live in a complete idyll. Looking out of my office window there’s the woods and down the bottom of the road there’s the river. So our location started seeming like the most ridiculous privilege and I wasn’t sure people would want their noses rubbed in that. I was cautious to begin with and then there was a flurry of requests for small snippets of writing.
How important is social media for your work?
Most of my online output is Twitter and it has been really useful, particularly the ability to connect with like-minds, to ask questions and to be inspired. My experience of nature writers and the nature writing community has been 99.9% positive on social media and that’s been consolidated by my involvement in networking events like New Networks for nature and Bird Fair.
Which, if any, nature bloggers or influencers do you follow?
My main influence over the last ten years has been Robert Macfarlane. I first met him when he had just published Mountains of the Mind at a literature festival in 2003. I had fairly recently gone freelance and was writing natural history reference books and aspiring to write for BBC Wildlife which I had been reading since the 80’s. Before I heard Robert speak, I hadn’t really considered writing about nature from personal experience. I read his books from then on and followed him when he appeared on Twitter and we’ve become friends. He is so generous in his acknowledgement of and support for other writers, I owe him a lot.
Which recent nature and/or environment books have you enjoyed?
I’ve been reading Entangled Life, by Merlin Sheldrake which is due to come out in September. It’s about fungi. I’m very excited about that… the ideas in it are truly mind-blowing.
I’d also heartily encourage anyone to read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass for a potent blend of scientific and spiritual, Melissa Harrison whose writing is just a masterclass in clarity and my fellow Country Diarist Nicola Chester for place-writing – her words seem to grow out of the ground and often take my breath away.
What advice would you give to new freelance nature writers?
Whatever the cocktail of experience in your life is, use it.
On a practical level, as a writer you have an opportunity to review and refine your words before you share them – to say what you really mean. I’d really encourage people to practice doing that at length and then try and then do it ever more concisely. It can be hard work to convey a precise nuanced idea in just a sentence or two but making the attempt is very useful – you realise what is core and what is supplementary. It also helps you prepare mentally to be edited – that’s something a lot of people find quite difficult to begin with. Try and think of being edited as a positive thing, not a punishment.
Is there a new project you’re working on which you’d like to tell us about?
I’m writing a book about rivers – it’s called The Flow and it will be published by Bloomsbury. It has grown from a shorter piece I wrote last year which is going to be in an anthology edited by Katharine Norbury called Women on Nature. It was about going back to visit a river where a friend of mine died in a kayaking accident nine years ago. It is a natural history book but it’s much more personal than anything I’ve written before. We used to do a lot of white water kayaking before we had children and since losing Kate I’ve had to learn to appreciate rivers in a new way. I’m unlikely to go back to throwing myself off waterfalls every weekend. But it wasn’t until I went back to that river that I realised how much I missed it all. Progress is a bit slow at the moment, I’ve had to delay a lot of researching trips during lockdown, but it’s looking like it’ll be published in February 2022.