Gill Lewis, author of the award-winning Sky Hawk and White Dolphin tells us about the inspiration behind her extraordinarily moving new book Scarlet Ibis.
What’s the story behind a book? Where does the inspiration come from?
For Sky Hawk, White Dolphin and Moon Bear, I have a clear idea where the stories came from and what inspired them. With Scarlet Ibis, I’m left scratching my head. I don’t really know, is the initial answer.
The story gathered itself together from the deep recesses of my mind. After much research including many interviews and reading, it formed on the pages to become the story of Scarlet Ibis.
It began as a seed of an idea, as many of my stories do, with a character walking into my head, with a story to be told. In walked Scarlet Ibis. She introduced herself before I even knew what the story was going to be about. I sketched her and made notes…swirling ideas in my head, and then she told me her dream…a dream she tells her brother Red, every night…
I pull the duvet cover up around him so only his red hair and eyes peep out. “So what story is it to be tonight?” I say.
“Caroni Swamp,” he says.
I smile because there is only ever one story. I dim his side-lamp and begin. “One day,” I say, “we’ll find ourselves an aeroplane and fly up into the big blue sky. We’ll be like birds. We’ll fly above the roads and houses, above Big Ben and The Eye and London Zoo. We’ll fly across the whole Atlantic Ocean, all the way to Trinidad.”
“What then?” says Red.
“We’ll take a little boat out on the Caroni Swamp,” I say.
“Just you and me?” says Red.
“Just you and me,” I say.
Red smiles. His eyes are seeing the deep green waters and tangle of the mangrove trees.
“And we’ll wait,” I say. “We’ll wait for the sun to sink, turning the mountains of the Northern Range deep blue.”
“Just you and me?” says Red.
“Just you and me,” I say. “And as the light is leaving the sky, we’ll watch them coming in their hundreds and thousands. We’ll watch them settle in the trees like bright red lanterns as darkness falls.”
Red pulls his duvet tighter around him. “And we’ll always be together?”
“Always,” I say. “Just you and me in that little boat, as evening falls, watching the scarlet ibis flying back to the Caroni Swamp.”
For Scarlet, this dream is an elusive place where her mother can find happiness again. For Red, this dream is a place where he and Scarlet can always be together.
So where did Scarlet come from? How did she just walk into my head? What ideas did she form from?
When I think back to the time I was exploring the story and playing with ideas, I had just been reading a book called Between Two Worlds, the story of Alan Goffe, a brilliant black British scientist. My mother had known his wife and had met Alan Goffe on several occasions. She remembered him to be a charismatic, intelligent man. Sadly, he was only 46 when he died in a sailing accident in 1965. He had made huge contributions to the development of polio and measles vaccines and it was said that his untimely death probably set back vaccine development by many years. Alan Goffe’s story is an interesting one. His mother was from the Isle of Wight. A young white woman, she trained to become a doctor in the early part of the twentieth century. This was a huge achievement in itself, as women had only just won the right to join men to study medicine. (Women had previously been judged to be inferior in intelligence to men!) She then travelled to the Caribbean, where she met her husband to-be, a black doctor from a well-respected middle-class Jamaican family. Together, they set up practice in Kingston, London, at a time when most doctors were Caucasian males, and racism and sexism were rife. Both Goffe’s parents had been fortunate to grow up in supportive families where education and freedom of thought had been valued.
Goffe became a scientist at the forefront of research in the development of vaccines. He also fought for many altruistic causes, including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Freedom from Hunger.
His story made me ponder about all sorts of things; prejudice and discrimination, migration of people, what we mean by home, belonging and family, and above all the importance of education to enable individuals to take control of their future, and in turn be able to change the world around us.
At about the same time, I watched a documentary about young carers in the UK. Many children across the country are forced to grow up early because they care for family members who are disabled, chronically ill or misusing drugs or alcohol. These children support their families, both practically and emotionally, often taking on the adult role. As a result, many miss out on their education and struggle against stigma, prejudice and discrimination. They are invisible children, desperately trying to keep their families together. Scarlet walked onto my page from such a situation; a girl caring for her mother and brother, a girl desperately trying to keep her world together, a girl in need of love and support to allow her a childhood, an education and space to think and grow. Like all children, she deserves these opportunities.
Scarlet’s story became intertwined with scarlet ibis, London pigeons, her brother Red and Madame Popescu. I realise now, they have their own stories to tell behind the inspiration to include them in the story…but maybe that is for another blog post!
Scarlet Ibis is out now.
Before she could walk, Gill Lewis was discovered force-feeding bread to a sick hedgehog under the rose bushes. Now her stories reflect her passion for wild animals in wild places. She draws inspiration from many of the people she has had the fortune to meet during her work as a vet, both at home and abroad. Gill Lewis has a Masters degree in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University and won the 2009 course prize for most promising writer. Her first novel, Sky Hawk, was snapped up for publication within hours of being offered to publishers. She lives in Somerset with her young family and a motley crew of pets. She writes from a treehouse in the garden, in the company of spiders.