Briefly tell us about your book.
The What on Earth Institute of Wonder is about a gang of friends who kidnap a rare African forest elephant. If I tell you any more than that, I might ruin the story but let’s just say kidnapping an elephant is not an easy thing to do even when it is the right thing to do. Which I’m not saying it is. There’s also a talking kakapo, an eight-and-a-half-year-old doomsday prepper, a villain with a fondness for wearing Peter Rabbit pyjamas and a lot of underage driving.
What inspired the idea behind this book?
There was a young girl in my neighbourhood who seemed to have a knack for finding animals everywhere. A dumped puppy in a box floating down the canal. Lost cats and injured birds. I used to see her walking her chicken or sometimes budgerigar in the park. On a lead. I grew up with the story of Dr Doolittle which has since been made into many films. The thought crossed my mind, if the Animal Kingdom wanted to have a chat with us humans today, they would most likely contact someone like this girl. Because she’d be the one most likely to listen and understand what they had to say. I guess Greta Thunberg is in the mix there too somewhere. And Jane Goodall.
How did you go about developing your characters?
This book differed to my others as I began with a cast of characters, not a story. I had jotted down a number of ideas for characters in my notebook, all of whom were misfits. You could say The What On Earth Institute of Wonder is a celebration of misfits. The idea for Sal, my twelve-year old animal whisperer came from the young girl in my neighbourhood. With Bartholomew Stagger, I just had an idea for an out-of-step teen who holds old-school music concerts in his garage which absolutely no one comes to but he holds them anyway. Bartholomew believes he’s offering the world something good, something of value, so he persists. Roy Disaster boy, Sal’s little brother, is a doomsday prepper. I read something once about a young boy who spent all day watching YouTube videos on how to prepare for the Apocalypse. I thought that was a brilliant idea for a character. Then I put them all together and started to play around with them till eventually they took over.
Who is your favourite character in the book/series? Who are you most similar to?
I’m so fond of all of them. They really are a tight gang so picking favourites seems mean! I find Roy and his prepper ways hilarious. Sal has such so much on her shoulders it’s hard not to feel for her and Bartholomew Stagger is such a gentle soul. His Dad has big dreams for him, dreams which show clearly he doesn’t see who his son is. And how can I forget Hector, the talking Kakapo and key to the mystery arrival of the rare forest elephant. I also love the villain of the piece Mr Longhorn, despite the fact he’s a two-faced, child-hating despicable man. I have a feeling he had some trauma in his own childhood, which is why he wears Peter Rabbit pyjamas and clothes that look like he bought them from the children’s section. But there’s absolutely no excuse for those feet! Who am I most similar to? No idea. But just so you know, I have quite nice feet.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing process?
My writing process. Hmm. There’s this horrible thing where every new book feels like I’m back at the very beginning. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to write. I can’t remember how I did it last time. It’s horrible. This book was particularly hard because it came after Vincent and The Grandest Hotel on Earth which I wrote faster than any book I’d ever written. I fell into a hole for months and hated everything I was writing. It was very challenging. The way I crawled out was to get up early and just write. Write anything at all. I felt like a cat trying to cough up a fur ball. Usually I start a book at the beginning and write till I get to the end. My breakthrough came when I stopped trying to write the beginning. Instead I wrote a chapter in the middle when they were trying to leave town with the elephant. Suddenly, it all started to work. And it became the first chapter, even though the events are in the middle of the story.
How does this book compare to your other books?
In many ways, The What on Earth Institute of Wonder is very similar to my other books. It’s a fantastical, middle-grade, stand-alone novel that’s hopefully humourous and heartfelt. It’s more of an ensemble piece than previous works. And it also involves issues – the protection of animals and renegotiating our relationships with them, and the environment.
What’s some great advice you’ve received that has helped you as a writer?
I think it’s helpful to remember everyone’s first drafts are pretty terrible. The editing is where transformation takes place. All those thousands and thousands of incremental changes. I also heard the author Kate DiCamillo recommend a book called Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. At the time I was in that awful hole trying to write What on Earth so of course I bought it immediately. That helped me enormously in two ways. Firstly, it was a relief to know that even a writer as brilliant and successful as Kate Di Camillo has moments of doubt, runs into trouble along the way, and seeks out help, just as I was doing. And secondly, the message of the book itself which was fear is part of creating. It’s never not going to be there, so you just have to learn how to deal with it.
Lisa Nicol is an Australian author and sometimes documentary-maker. Her first novel for children, Dr Boogaloo and The Girl Who Lost Her Laughter, was a CBCA Notable and is currently being adapted for the screen as a musical. Her second novel Vincent and The Grandest Hotel on Earth was published internationally to much acclaim. Her latest novel, The What on Earth Institute of Wonder is out now.Lisa lives on the east coast of Australia with two out of her three children and a dusty old dog who smells worse than an elephant fart.
Nicol’s latest novel, The What on Earth Institute of Wonder is out now.