Veterinarian-turned-children’s author Gill Lewis has long been interested in exploring her place in the natural world. Her latest novel, Gorilla Dawn, transports young readers to the jungles of central Africa, where orphans are forced to join bands of rebel mercenaries and toil for precious minerals. The tale focuses on broad issues of corruption, destruction, and rebirth as told through three unlikely friends —Imara, who protects the rebels; Bobo, the son of a missing wildlife ranger; and Kitwana, a baby gorilla they hope to protect. Lewis recently spoke with PW from her home in Somerset, just outside the city of Bath, England, about the ties that bind the human race, the power of technology, and the honesty of her young audience.
On your website you talk about how you kind of stumbled onto the idea for Gorilla Dawn when you were reading an article about coltan mining. How did that first image you had change as you were researching the book?
It’s an area of the world I’ve loved. I spent some time in Zambia— that must be 25 years ago now. Before I had my children, we spent some time up in the north at a chimpanzee rescue center. It’s such a sort of fascinating place; I wanted to go back for many years. But I was reading an article that said your mobile phone is killing gorillas — how the minerals in our phones from Brazil and also the Democratic Republic of Congo were displacing people from the land and killing the wildlife. Billions of people all over the world are using this technology and it’s having a huge impact. I sort of thought, there’s a story in there, but it seemed huge, almost too big a story to tell really. And I think, as a writer, you’ve got all this sort of information and facts, but it only really becomes a story when you find that character to tell the story. And that’s where Imara comes in.
I was in contact with some people from the charity War Child and I read about a girl in the Congo who was kidnapped from her family. There’s quite a lot of beliefs in superstition and witchcraft and the gang saw her as sort of a lucky charm. They thought she was a spirit child and she protected them, so she was left untouched and she escaped. And reading through about other children who have suffered other traumas, depressions, psychoses – that’s how Imara came into my mind. Obviously with a children’s book, I couldn’t go into all the sorts of abuse a girl might have. She and so many of these other children in the Congo, when they go back to their families, the family is very wary. And especially women. Women who have been raped are not accepted back.
Many writers have a tendency to anthropomorphize animals in their stories. Why was it important to you to present the animals in your books as more realistic and not overly humanized?
I think it depends on the book that’s being written. There are some books where animals have been heavily anthropomorphized, which I love. Watership Down — I love that book. War Horse. And those books are done very skillfully and they use the animals to reflect on our own human nature. They can be very powerful. But I haven’t gone there with these books. I wanted the animals to stay as they were without human perception.
How do you reconcile that for the passages that are told from the gorilla’s perspective?
That was difficult. I did research quite a bit for gorilla psychology. It was human observations, but from watching gorillas closely. But also, as our closest relatives, they’re known to grieve, chuckle, play, be very caring. I suppose I do anthropomorphize my own thoughts, but I could allow that a little bit because of such a similarity between us and gorillas. And in the book, Kitwana is detached, especially in the first part, very much in her own mind and wrapped in her own problems.
In Gorilla Dawn you’re making a statement about the negative ecological impact of coltan mining, a mineral used in cell phone manufacturing that is found in the Congo. Do you consider yourself an activist and, if so, do you participate in other efforts to educate people on these topics beyond writing?
I sometimes wish I was more of an activist. I like to think the books that I write create awareness and I hope what I write will connect people and make them take action. I met Bandi Mbubi, a refugee who founded a charity called Congo Calling, and now he’s campaigning for laws to make sure there are no conflict minerals used. I do fundraising for various charities. Last September, I did the Great Gorilla Run — 400 people dressing like gorillas and running five miles through the streets of London. We had quite a few stop-offs just getting selfies. And I do quite a few school visits and the children have taken it on themselves to write a letter to their MP (Member of Parliament). It’s very important to have an impact in your local issues. I think children often feel very powerless: “I don’t have a vote, I can’t do anything.” But children can have a really powerful voice.
How long were you a veterinarian? What got you started writing and when did you decide to become a full-time author?
I qualified in 1991, and I was probably practicing about 18 years. At the end, I was doing the vet work part-time. It was quite a slow change, I think. Going way, way back, when I was a child, anything that swam or flew I just wanted to learn about it, pick it up, hold it. I remember drawing pictures, but I found writing and reading quite a struggle when I was a child. Probably until I was 11 or 12, it just didn’t click. I had a lot of grammar mistakes. But I loved the animals and I think I found the sciences easier to do. Right or wrong.
The work was brilliant. I was able to travel to different parts of the world, meet different animals. And there’s always this sort of story there. You don’t quite realize it at the time, but being a vet people can share their stories quite deeply with you. It was that access to stories which I found fascinating.
And then I had children and I had less time to do the vet work, and I was telling them stories. I wrote a picture book for a competition and it got published, and I thought, “Oh, this writing is easy!” Many years later and many rejections later, I went to a year-long writing course after realizing I needed to know how to edit my own work, how to shape it. If you’re procrastinating then suddenly the laundry becomes really interesting. In the summer, I’ve got a little tree house that I write in. There’s no internet, there’s no doorbell, there’s no phone. So that’s great.
What made you decide to write for a younger audience?
I don’t know why I’ve always gravitated to writing for children. I never had the thought, “I want to write a novel for adults.” I suppose there’s some deep and dark reason. Maybe because I’m stuck as a 12-year-old that’s why I write for children. But I think I have a good sense of how I was as a child and how I saw the world. I suppose I’m fascinated by that age. I remember it very clearly. And also it’s just such a brilliant audience. I love that audience. They keep you on your toes and they tell you as it is. I don’t think it matters if you do or don’t have children to write a cracking children’s story. It comes down to knowing how to think like a child.
There are some very violent aspects of Gorilla Dawn. How do you go about taking these visceral, brutal details and making them digestible for children?
I think that was the hardest thing, in writing the book — knowing it had to be a book about violence and really horrible things. And I didn’t want to shy away from that because that, in essence, is part of the story. I had doubts before starting the story and then I was watching my friend’s eight-year-old son on a computer game and it was one of those things: killing as many people, stabbing as many people as you can. This is just violence for the sake of gratification.
I realized, well, actually children see these violent images on the TV, they play them in computer games. So that’s when I thought, “Yes, I can tell this story. These things happen. Children know these things happen.” And more so than with TV and film, if a child starts reading a book and they’re not ready for it, if it’s not right for them, they tend to put it down. They’ll choose what they’re ready for. With Gorilla Dawn, it does take you to some dark places.
Was there anything in your earlier drafts that you ultimately thought was just too harsh to convey to young readers?
I was very aware as I was writing that there were things I couldn’t write about. The abuse that women suffer — I couldn’t write that for this age group.
When I did the first draft, the very first chapter was a village massacre. My editor said, “You can’t have a village massacre in the first chapter.”
“Well, can I put the massacre in the second chapter?”
“Well, that’s all right.”
You do worry if you’re making things authentic, if you’re skirting around issues, if as a Western person you’re not understanding what’s going on. When I met Bandi Mbubi, I remember feeling terrified. He’s from the Congo and now I’ve gone and written this book. But after he read it, he wrote to me and he just said, “This is how it is.”
Ultimately, if you write completely about your own experience in your own life it leaves you with a very narrow margin. You have to do your research and talk to people as much as you can. And I think, ultimately, you need to tap into being human. One of the biggest things I wanted the story to tell was actually about globalization. We are all connected. Resources come from all over the world. What we use and what we do has an effect on someone, on some animal, on some habitat elsewhere. You can’t build walls. If we don’t look after other people and communities then it’s going to accelerate the worst problems of climate change.
Gorilla Dawn is told in three perspectives – Imara, 14-year-old Bobo who joins the rebels while in search of his father, and the baby gorilla Kitwana. Why did you feel it was important to include those three points of view instead of a single or omniscient narrator?
I think this is the first book that I have split up the narrator. Imara was very much someone who was enclosed in her own mind. She wouldn’t have been able to know what Bobo was thinking, so I needed Bobo’s perspective on things to know what it was like to grow up as a wildlife ranger’s son. I needed to show what Imara thought of him and what he thought of Imara. For child readers, it’s easier to get that narration sitting on that person’s shoulder and seeing it through their eyes. I feel I connect to characters more when I know what they’re feeling. And Kitwana is the gel in that whole thing because the book is told in past tense, until right at the end where we suddenly change to the present tense and first person as well. What happened was in the past. It’s part of the healing process. And I wanted then to bring it into the present day. That was purposeful.
All of your books have some common themes about animals and how humans fit in and negatively impact the natural world. Do you usually begin your writing process by deciding, “OK, today I want to write about gorillas,” or is it a broader theme?
Especially for Gorilla Dawn and Moon Bear, both were initiated by reading an article in a magazine. It becomes a cascade effect, you almost can’t stop researching. You find out so many different things about history and geography and about people and cultures. Just constant questioning about the world. You never know where the story is going to come from. I try to read around lots of conservation issues and charities and [engage] in conversation with other people. I’ve never really thought, “Right, I’ve got to go off and find a story!”
Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
I’ve got one coming out in the U.K. this spring called A Story Like the Wind, and it’s a novella with illustrations by Jo Weaver. It’s a sort of modern-day fable or fairytale about the refugee crisis happening all over the world, but specifically boats coming off the Mediterranean, based around an old Mongolian folktale, Suho and the White Stallion, about the horse-head fiddle. My story is set on this inflatable boat and there’s a boy with a violin and he’s telling the folk story, but each part connects to some of the passengers in the boat. People will say it’s a different type of story, but it’s really the same as my other stories. I think there’s a definite rise in hatred and fascism and racism and a blocking off of understanding of other people. But this story is about what allows us to look beyond that, see what other people are thinking and feeling. It’s about the power of music to overcome oppression and how we can connect.
Gorilla Dawn by Gill Lewis. Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy, $16.99 Jan. 31 ISBN 978-1-4814-8657-6