Monthly Archives: March 2013

A conversation with Esther Woolfson : Queen of the Corvids


It was 2008 when I read Esther Woolfson’s first book Corvus: A Life with Birds and was enchanted by her observations of birds, both ‘tame’ and wild. Her writing is crisp and observant, never sentimental, yet full of feeling. Through her eyes, we felt the gift that her birds are and felt with her their loss. As I was writing my own book that features birds, I often thought back to Chicken, Ziki and Spike and the avian friendship that they and Woolfson shared. So I was very excited to hear that she had a new book coming out this year – Field Notes from A Hidden City: An Urban Nature Diary.

In it, Woolfson explores a year up close of the urban nature around her home city of Aberdeen, looking closely and thinking deeply at those animals that are the closest thing city-dwellers come to nature. She mediates on the intersection of urban lives with rats, slugs, starlings, rooks, squirrels, foxes and jackdaws using the Taoist principle of wu-wei, or ‘masterly inactivity’. She questions our prejudices and folkloric distrust at some animals and apparent regard for others. With a philosopher’s art, she also examines what it is to be human when one regards the actual prescience of animals we thought had none. The chapter on the late fledged Jackdaw a perfect microcosm of what it is to love wild things, yet to be apart from them.

Field Notes from a Hidden City is a lyric and sometimes haunting read.

Esther kindly shared some thoughts with me about her new book and her special relationship with birds.




Sandra, I’m delighted to be doing this interview—thank you so much for asking me.


My new book, ‘Field Notes From a Hidden City’ is— on one level— an account of a year in the natural life of the city where I live, Aberdeen in the northeast of Scotland. On another level, it’s an examination of our feelings and attitudes towards the species with whom we share cities and takes the form of a diary, interspersed with discrete chapters about particular species and ideas. I look at the lives of city birds such as sparrows, gulls, pigeons and starlings and at creatures humanity tends to dislike, such as rats, spiders and slugs. I write about climate and latitude too, about invasive species and our attitudes towards town and country.


My dear old companion, Chicken the rook, is 25.  She’s fine although her eyesight is less acute than it was. She’s still vocal and friendly and delightful. Ziki, my young crow is now a sturdy, large and very beautiful bird.  He’s still nervous and I suspect that that will always be the case because of the circumstances of his youth. He found a voice after about a year and is a very vocal bird now with the full range of crow sounds. He loves music and has his own radio and CD player (operated alas, by me. I’m sure a corvid could learn to do it, given time.) He’s devoted to his rubber mice (which I now buy at Hallowe’en-they’re sold as scarey items for children. The very delightful man who translated ‘Corvus’ into Brazilian Portuguese, sent me a whole consignment of mice of all sorts and colours for the birds to play with.) He has a collection of polished stones which he moves about from place to place and hides. He looks wonderful and I hope that this is some indication of his general well being.


(I do still have 14 elderly doves-they’re as ever, pottering about, nipping out for a quick whirl round, bathing in the garden in the freezing rain…)


No-one new creatures have come my way because now people tend to phone from walks to tell me that they’ve seen a small bird on the ground and I’m able to tell them that it’s most probably learning to fly, and should be left alone. I would always take in a creature in need— the last one I had dealings with was a very small jackdaw, but alas, he didn’t survive. (There’s an account of him in ‘Field Notes.’)


I wouldn’t call it an experience of augury exactly, but I have had a sense of communication which was quite beyond anything I could have imagined. With Spike the magpie, I often had a sense of the presence of another mind and consciousness, which isn’t as fanciful as it sounds because magpies are such cognitively able and self-aware birds.  (Research findings show that magpies are among the very few creatures who can recognize themselves in mirrors—there aren’t many who can—us, some of the higher primates, and magpies.) It has left me with a feeling of deepest respect for these remarkable creatures.


My writing process is very disorganized. I can spend a long time following one idea or researching one small aspect of a topic. Writing’s always a mix of terrific anxiety and great delight—the actual writing is characterized by a mixture of both and by the constant desire to do it better, to make a sentence better, to be lucid, and concise and true.


I always write in my study, the room I share with Chicken (who potters to and fro and will often come to stand beside me as I work.) I can look out at the garden and the birds and hear the sounds of a not-too-noisy city.  Towards the end of writing ‘Corvus’, I decided that the ancient, saggy dining chair I used as a desk chair wasn’t doing my back any good and so I bought a lovely comfortable desk chair which makes me feel like a minor tycoon but reminds me too that I’m not, I’m just another wee writer, striving away in a quiet room.


 I work on an iMac and am always devoted to the current one as long as it behaves and doesn’t do anything odd to throw me into panic, as these things do from time to time.


I try not to have any superstitions but I’m never certain where adherence to routine blends imperceptibly into superstition…


The whole process of writing is fairly slow for me, or I think it is but considering that some people take ten years to write a book, perhaps it’s not. I’ve always envied people who can write incredibly quickly but I just don’t. Having said that, I’ve had to learn to respond quickly to requests for pieces—it’s just part of being professional—or trying to be.



The main books of my childhood were classics—‘What Katy Did’ and ‘Anne of Green Gables’, “Alice in Wonderland’ etc and I loved the ‘Chalet school’ books which were already out of date when I read them, tales of an impoverished young English teacher who, after their parent’s death, takes her small sister to start a school in the Austrian Tyrol in the years before the Second World War. They were classic school stories in some ways but in others, had a great deal to say about the terrible poverty of parts of Europe after the Treaties of Versailles and Trianon, and the eventual rise of Hitler.  My father was a terrific buyer of books and I began to read adult books when I was about eleven—everything from American politics to Mishima and Tanizaki.


I think that every single book one reads influences one’s writing in some way. In choosing what you read, you’re choosing what you’ll write—not in the sense of being derivative but in the general sense of the standards you’re going to expect from your own work.


For years, I wrote fiction, mainly short stories and didn’t really consider writing anything else until ‘Corvus’.  (There’s one story on-line, called ‘Chagall’, it’s on the website of the now defunct organization The Scottish Arts Council.) I enjoy writing fiction but realized only after I’d begin writing ‘Corvus’ that I love the research involved in following the obscure by-ways of a topic such as the taxonomy of molluscs or the history of ideas relating to human attitudes to the natural world. I’ve found the scientific aspect of it all entrancing and am now very interested in relationships between the arts and science.


You asked about spending a day with a character from a book—I’ve had such fun with that!  My ideas change from minute to minute, from being a child in Avonlea with Anne from  ‘Anne of Green Gables’ to wandering the streets of Manhattan with ‘ The Catcher in the Rye’ hero Holden Caulfield. (I’d be the one to understand that his problem was the fact that he hadn’t been able to grieve properly for his brother—we’d talk about it endlessly while wandering the corridors of the American Museum of Natural History…)  It’s probably indicative of the kind of books I read, but I’m not sure I’d want to spend much time with many of the characters. I do like Sabine, Parsifal and Phan from Anne Patchett’s ‘The Magician’s Assistant’ though— they sound delightful.


At the moment, I’m writing various short pieces that I’ve been asked to write—various blogs and journal entries and so on. As far as larger projects, my mind’s on it somewhere. I’m always hoping that someone will come along and tell me what to do and then, obediently, I’ll do it but of course it’s never going to happen…


Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me Esther, I know I can’t wait to read what you write next.





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A conversation with Essie Fox




Saved from the Thames one foggy London night, Pearl grows up at the House of Mermaids – a brothel that becomes the closest thing to home. But despite being cosseted and spoiled by the Madame, come her 14th year, Pearl is to be sold to the highest bidder. Orphaned twins Lily and Elijah are on a rare trip to London when they meet the ethereal Pearl. And the repercussions of this chance encounter will bind all their fates together, in a dark and dangerous way. Bewitching, gothic and sensual, this is a tale of love and betrayal in a world where nothing is quite as it seems.



Tell us a little bit about where you got the first glimmer for Elijah’s Mermaid?


It was in my editor’s office, on the day when we were going to lunch to celebrate a two book deal with Orion.  At that point, I hadn’t thought too much about what might be coming next. The Somnambulist, my first novel, had sold very fast indeed and I’d hardly had time to catch my breath. But when I was asked, I suddenly thought of a painting that used to hang on my wall when I was a teenager. That painting was ‘A Mermaid’ by the artist J W Waterhouse – and goodness knows why the thought came to me, but that image led me to describe a story based upon a girl who becomes the muse of an artist obsessed with mermaids and water. 


How long did it take to write? Do you write in a flash or mooch an idea along?


It took me about eighteen months in all – although a good six months of that was taken up with research and some unexpected delays due to family commitments. I found the breaks to be very frustrating because once I get into writing a book I really don’t want to do anything else – I like to write and write and write.


Can you give us here at The Velvet Nap an idea of your writing process?


I usually develop a ‘sense’ of what I want a novel to be about. So, with The Somnambulist my inspiration and starting point was a visit to Wilton’s Music Hall which then led to me becoming obsessed with writing a story that opened up in that very setting – and in its Victorian hey day.


From that point of knowing where a book will begin – with the time, the settings, and most characters already strongly in my mind, I then do a lot of reading around the era and genre. I read both fact and fiction, and I also watch any relevant films – until I feel confident that I’ve done enough to be able to set that research aside and fully immerse myself in the fictional world of my story.


I know the beginning. I know the end. But as to what comes in between, I generally have no idea. If I do make plans they often change when the characters begin to evolve and then lead me wherever they happen to chose; taking on views and a life of their own.


Where is your favourite place to write?


For the first draft, in bed! I find that in my bedroom, before I dress or fill my head with the interruptions of real life, then I am at my most creative. I have a little table on legs, much like those provided for hospital meals – and I find that is just the right height and size to hold my computer and coffee cup.


However, once that first draft is done, I prefer to work at my desk, which makes me feel more ‘businesslike’ about the whole process of editing.


So I take it you are not tempted to go back to sleep then? I know I wouldn’t be able to resist the Land of Nod.


Sometimes I get so tired  – staring at screen and ‘thinking’ can be exhausting, but when I’m in full working flow I like to stick with it  – for as long as it takes. Even if I do snooze off, I’m usually awake with a new thought for a phrase or plot theme within about ten minutes.


Are you pen and paper or computer – what tools are essential to your writing?


Definitely a computer. Before I started to write seriously, now and then I did try to write with a pen and paper. But, as I tended to scribble out as much as I wrote upon the page what remained was such a confusing mess that I never knew what was going on. By contrast, word processing on a computer enables me to revise my text as any times as I want to and still have a clean manuscript to read. It is simply the medium that suits my muddled writing mind. And love to see a computer screen with the text laid out as if a book. I find that so exciting.


I’m the opposite, pen and paper first, for me that clean published look gets me so excited I can’t see the forest for the trees, though I hate the typing up, it does give me a chance to revise in a slower way. A new Slow movement. What is the worst bit of being a writer?


I think the worst thing is closely linked to the best thing –


The best thing is when you first have a new idea for a novel and are full of inspiration and excitement.


The worst thing is when you are already well into writing that novel and you realise it’s never going to be quite the wondrous thing you imagined when in those first throes of excitement.


There is a lot of art in your writing. If money were no object, what piece of art would you like to own?


The Pre-Raphaelites are a great inspiration to both The Somnambulist and Elijah’s Mermaid. I love to see them in galleries. 


However, in my home I think I would prefer something more abstract – perhaps a Mondrian. Then again, from the Victorian era, I adore the J S Sargent portraits of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson. They are so full of energy. You almost feel as if Stevenson will walk out of the paintings and into your life. Now if that could happen – if RLS could appear in my home to tell me all about his life, his writing and inspirations – I would be very happy indeed.



Failing that, the gorgeous ‘Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights’ by the artist James McNeill Whistler is something very dear to my heart, having scenes set in Cremorne Gardens in Elijah’s Mermaid.


What is it about Robert Louis Stevenson that intrigues you?


It’s not so much the Treasure Island writer  -it’s the mind that constructed the tortured gothic world that opens up in Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. That exploration of the juxtaposition of good and evil is fascinating. But as a man, a real person, he seems to me very interesting – and to read why that is, here is a link to a blog that I wrote on the subject:



I love Whistler too, he had a wonderful falling out with Ruskin. London features vividly in The Somnambulist, what is your relationship like with London?


I adore London. Every single time I visit – at least once a week – I find myself thrilling to energy and motion everywhere. I can’t say I particularly enjoy public transport, but if I’m feeling rich then I take a cab. There’s no better way to see the sights of London.  I have favourite areas which I like to try and incorporate into my novels…a way of living there in my mind, even if I can’t in reality. But most of all, I appreciate all of the galleries, museums, libraries, restaurants and theatres. London is thrilling and there is always something new to discover – and for a historical novelist it is a constant source of new information and inspiration. 


Is there a novel sitting at the bottom of your drawer? What is it about and why is it sitting there?


No. But there are a lot of ideas sitting in the bottom drawer of my mind.


Are you a notebook keeper or do you keep it all in your head?


I do keep notebooks, but not for the story of the novel itself. That is in my head. The notebooks are full of jottings of phrases that I like, or snippets of dialogue that I might forget about if I don’t quickly scribble them down.


As a child what were the books that captured your imagination?


The first book I took out of the town library was The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley. I also devoured every fairy tale that I could get my hands on. And now Elijah’s Mermaid has themes that are drawn from The Water Babies, and also The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. I suppose I am quite as obsessed with water, with rivers and the sea, as is my fictional artist in Elijah’s Mermaid. But I hope I’m not as vile as him!


What three books do you feel have influenced your writing?


Ah, please see above for two. But if I think of another three –


The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins has always been one of my favourites, and is quite influential now regarding the novel I’m currently writing.


Affinity by Sarah Waters. Another Victorian theme, albeit by a modern day writer. The clever twist, the claustrophobia and the eerie nature of this book has haunted me since I first read it.


The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter – in fact most things by Angela Carter. The gothic, fairy tale darkness of her gloriously descriptive writing is something that always inspires me and never fails to draw me in. She weaves such a magic spell.


If you could spend a day with any character from a novel, who would you choose to meet?


At the moment, because I’ve been reading Wolf Hall, it would be Thomas Cromwell. 


But, for someone totally fictional, and not for the enjoyment, but simply to see what that meeting might bring, then it would be the pimp from my own novel, Elijah’s Mermaid. He is so despicable and I’m sure I might have been possessed by some unquiet spirit when he came to mind. Either that, or I am rather twisted!


If Elijah’s Mermaid is adapted for the screen who is your dream cast?


That’s so hard. Hmm, here goes, off the top of my head, though I’m sure to change my mind in the next half hour…


Elijah – Orlando Bloom, when he was a little younger

Lily – Claire Foy, or Andrea Riseborough

Pearl – Elle Fanning – I think. So hard this one. She must be pale and ethereal.

Uncle Freddie  – Hugh Jackman

Tip Thomas – David Thewlis

Augustus Lamb – John Hurt

Isabella – Emily Watson

Osborne Black – Christian Bale


What are you writing now?


It is called The Goddess and The Thief. It is about a young girl who is raised in India, until she is orphaned and is then sent back to England to live with her aunt, a spiritualist medium. Not only does she become involved in her aunt’s profession, but also with an audacious plot to steal a sacred Indian diamond which was given to Queen Victoria at the end of the Anglo Sikh wars. There are ghosts and visions of Hindoo gods. It is very dark and sinister.


That sounds intriguing. Victoria certainly had many treasures that belonged elsewhere. Mediums and Spiritualism appeared in The Somnambulist – what draws you to them?



I do find the whole business (and it was one heck of a business in the Victorian era) to be fascinating. Of course, men have always been intrigued as to whether there is a life after death. Ghosts exist in myth or literature going back over many centuries. But there was something about the nineteenth century that really allowed spiritualism to take wing. I firmly believe that one reasons for that is, somewhat ironically, the rapid developments in science that were going on at the time – such as in electricity – the telegraph – the telephone. These were inventions where an invisible ‘force’ or power could be transmitted as if through the ether. And, for a generation who believed without question in God and a Heaven, it was not so much of a leap of faith to think that – in due course – we might be able to communicate with those in the spirit world. Another historical factor was the American Civil War. All those thousands of young men having died, and the need for their families, lovers and friends to find some way to reconcile themselves to that, and all at a time when the three Fox Sisters had claimed to be able to hear and produce communications from the spirit world – and that claim being taken so seriously that they soon became an international sensation. 


The religions of Spiritualism was also important in the early days of the suffrage movement, with it being one form of profession in which women could openly express their views – both political and personal. 


And finally, there are the mechanics of the trickery and deceptions employed by many unscrupulous charlatans. It is amazing today, to see the crude methods employed and to think that people could be so easily fooled  – but they were not sophisticated as we are with regard to ‘special effects’ and also, and this is of vital important, they really wanted to believe. 


The presence of the house also is a theme in your work, any spooky stories in your old homes?


Funnily enough not in the old Victorian houses that I have lived in. But when I was a teenager there was a piano that used to play on its own now and then in a modern bungalow that my family lived in. That was horrible. I woke up sometimes in the night and heard it. I thought I was going mad. But then my brother and sister both experienced the same. Perhaps there were mice inside it!


Thanks Essie for a lovely conversation, next one face to face huh? What is your favourite place to have afternoon tea?


I wish! I would love that, Sandra. It’s got to be the V&A refreshments rooms – a beautiful restaurant to drink our tea and then all those wonderful treasures to see – and to be inspired by. 





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