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Q & A: James MacDonald Lockhart

Q & A: James MacDonald Lockhart

James MacDonald Lockhart, author of the rapturously received natural history title Raptor, answers a few questions for us.

Posted on 15th March 2016 by James MacDonald Lockhart

Can you describe Raptor in your own words?

Raptor is about a journey or, more accurately, a series of journeys I made to search for each of the 15 diurnal birds of prey which breed in the British Isles. Each species of bird has its own chapter and I go to look for each of the birds in a different landscape. The journey starts in the far north, in Orkney, where I watch hen harriers. I then wind my way south through Scotland, England and Wales as far south as a valley in Devon where I write about buzzards. The birds, for me, are a way in to writing about the landscapes I found (and sometimes didn’t find) the birds in. So I am as interested in these landscapes – the stories, history, ecology of these places – as I am the birds themselves.

How does your work as a literary agent affect your writing process?

I’m not entirely sure. But, inevitably, I spend a lot of time thinking about how books work in terms of structure, narrative, voice, subject matter etc. I’m certainly influenced and inspired by the writers I work with. Publishing a book myself has also given me more insight into what a strange, consuming, exposing experience that is. So I have more empathy and sympathy, I hope, with writers going through that experience themselves.

Raptor is a book that takes place outside – do you write en plein air?

I have a small notebook which fits in my pocket and I use this to take notes when I’m outside. I write quickly, messily into this notebook, often standing up. Rain smudges the print and sometimes the cold means it’s hard to write legibly. As soon as I’m back indoors, and my hands have thawed, I transfer these field notes to an A4-sized notebook, write them up neatly and fill them with more detail. I then use this neater version to work from when it comes to transcribing the notes into the book itself. I also carry a bird identification guidebook with me. And I’m constantly referring to this, checking and re-checking features of the birds, even for those species I’m very familiar with.

Are you working on another book?

Not at the moment. I’d like to, but nothing has clicked yet. To an extent it still feels like I am working on Raptor, writing pieces about it, talking about the book in public etc. I still feel immersed in the book and I’m not sure it’s ready to let me move on to something else. Though I recently cleared out some raptor-related research books and papers from my study. So maybe that’s a first step…

William MacGillivray is an acknowledged inspiration – and subject – for Raptor. It has also been compared to T. H. White’s The Goshawk, J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine and Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. Were you inspired by these books?

Yes, inspired, influenced and greatly moved by all three. They are very different books from Raptor. I envy their adherence to a single species and the intensity of focus that comes with that. Raptor spreads itself rather thinly across 15 different species and I sometimes felt like I was trying to write 15 different books, such is the difference between the birds. Even within the 3 harrier species there are fascinating ethological differences. But these three books: yes, I keep returning to them; I also greatly admire J. A. Baker’s other book The Hill of Summer where he writes about hobbies and sparrowhawks amongst many other things. I also love Helen Macdonald’s book Falcon with its wonderfully eclectic illustrations.

Raptors are not universally loved – many are shot illegally. Did you aim to win round some of those less-enamoured readers?

Yes, this was an important aim for the book. I hope Raptor offers a better understanding of the birds. It’s easy to generalise (and therefore dismiss) the birds. For instance many people I’ve spoken to revile sparrowhawks because they see them as voracious killers of garden birds. The reality of the relationship between the hawks and their avian prey species is more complex than this and I tried to explain this relationship carefully in the book. Each species of raptor has evolved to equip its predatory life in a different way, from the osprey plunging feet first after fish to the honey buzzard carefully extracting wasp larvae from the wasp comb. The birds are infinitely fascinating, exceptionally beautiful, and I hope the book conveys something of what remarkable creatures they are and in doing so allows people to see and appreciate them differently.

Raptor is subtitled ‘A Journey Through Birds’. Have you considered making a similar journey in another country? If so, where?

I’d love to travel more widely. I’m drawn to Scandinavia, it’s a place that has lodged itself in my imagination. The sea eagle population in Scotland is descended from birds reintroduced from Norway. So there is a link there across the North Sea. But I’m not confident of stepping into a landscape I don’t know and trying to write about it. Even moving house just 10 miles down the road it took me many months before I felt I had a grasp of my new surroundings, and some of the places in Raptor I went back to time and time again. A journey usually begins with a map spread out across the floor and I’m looking forward to the time when I start pulling OS maps off the shelf and imagining myself walking through their landscapes.  

It is hard not to be inspired by your book – can you recommend a day out for a first time raptor-watcher?

The North Kent marshes are within easy reach of London and are a wonderful place to see marsh harriers (all year) and merlins, hen harriers, short-eared owls (in winter). In the other direction (from London) the Chilterns now hold a large population of red kites, and you will very likely see buzzards there too. One of my most memorable experiences researching the book was watching peregrines in the centre of Coventry and there are now peregrines resident in many towns and cities up and down the country.

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