Article published on May 4, 2016.
An evocative meditation on the English landscape in wet weather by the acclaimed novelist and nature writer, Melissa Harrison.
Whenever rain falls, our countryside changes. Fields, farms, hills and hedgerows appear altered, the wildlife behaves differently, and over time the terrain itself is transformed. In Rain, Melissa Harrison explores our relationship with the weather as she follows the course of four rain showers, in four seasons, across Wicken Fen, Shropshire, the Darent Valley and Dartmoor. Blending these expeditions with reading, research, memory and imagination, she reveals how rain is not just an essential element of the world around us, but a key part of our own identity too.
Our resident BookLifer, Paul Cheney, read and reviewed Rain by Melissa Harrison for us recently, describing it as a ‘call to get back outside, regardless of the weather’ – read his review in full here.
Paul asked us to forward some questions for Melissa, which she kindly answered:
After two works of fiction this was your first venture into non-fiction; was it a completely different process writing this book?
Some aspects were the same: the process of finding a voice and creating a narrative structure and a set of images that will carry the reader through the book. I tend to read a lot of natural history for my fiction, so that wasn’t too different; I’ve gone on walks for fiction research too, so that was also the same. I found it easier in one key regard, though, which is that I wasn’t making anything up, something I find really hard when writing a novel. I enjoy redrafting and editing fiction, but making things up is still challenging for me!
What made you choose the subject rain?
I read a lot of books about landscape and the countryside – we have a proud tradition of ‘nature writing’ in this country that stretches back over 200 years. But it struck me that most of it takes place in fair weather. It didn’t seem a totally accurate reflection of what it’s like here, and so I suppose I wanted to redress the balance a little and investigate what England is really like in the rain, when most of us have scurried away indoors.
Did you visit all the locations in the book with good weather as well as rain?
Dartmoor is somewhere I’ve known and loved since childhood, so I’m familiar with it in all weathers. And Shropshire was somewhere I visited a lot over a ten-year period. Wicken Fen and the River Darent were places I went to specifically in order to walk in the rain; I was lucky with Wicken, but the Kent walk took a couple of trips.
Is this the first of a series of books with the National Trust?
Rain is a singleton at the moment, although it was a lot of fun to write, so who knows?
Are you an avid reader?
Of course! I don’t think it’s possible to write well without reading extensively.
Who are your three favourite fiction authors?
Oh, this is my least favourite question! It’s just not possible to pick favourites. Writers bring such different things to readers, and I need all the writers I love in different ways. Hilary Mantel, Jon McGregor, Evie Wyld and Cynan Jones all take my breath away, though.
Who are your three favourite non-fiction authors?
Again, I can’t pick favourites. I love Alice Oswald’s poetry, though; I think she’s probably our most important living writer.
Which author do you turn to for inspiration?
I don’t turn to a single author. For me, ideas come from such a range of places: from going on walks, historical research, music, books, conversations with friends, film and television – even Twitter. It’s about being alert to the tiny ringing bell at the back of your mind that signals something worth looking at a bit more deeply.
Can you tell us anything about your next book(s)?
I’ve started writing a new novel, but I don’t want to say too much about it yet. Sometimes having an idea feels like running around with a balloon full of air: if you let too much out, by talking about it, you’re left, like Eeyore, holding a rather limp and useless thing. I’m going to keep the air in my balloon for now, if that’s OK!
What other projects are you working on at the moment?
This year I’m editing four anthologies of writing about the seasons, published by E&T with The Wildlife Trusts. Matching up extracts from great works of literature, classic nature writing and submissions by new writers so that they illuminate one another and work as a collection is a challenge, but so far I’ve found it really exciting. I can’t wait to have all four finished books as a set.
Rain has now been announced as part of the Wainwright Prize 2016 longlist, so congratulations as well as thanks to Melissa. The full longlist is as follows:
Being a Beast by Charles Foster (Profile Books)
Coastlines: The Story of Our Shore by Patrick Barkham (Granta)
Common Ground by Rob Cowen (Penguin Random House)
Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane (Penguin Random House)
Landskipping by Anna Pavord (Bloomsbury)
Rain by Melissa Harrison (Faber & Faber)
Raptor: A Journey Through Birds by James Macdonald Lockhart (HarperCollins)
The Fish Ladder by Katharine Norbury (Bloomsbury)
The Moth Snowstorm by Michael McCarthy (John Murray)
The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (Canongate)
The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks (Penguin Random House)
Weatherland: Writers & Artists Under English Skies by Alexandra Harris (Thames & Hudson)
The shortlist will be announced on 30th June, with the award ceremony set for August.
About the author
Melissa Harrison writes a monthly Nature Notebook column in The Times. Her debut novel Clay (2013) won the Portsmouth First Fiction Award. Her second, At Hawthorn Time, was shortlisted for the 2015 Costa Novel Award. She lives in south London. At Hawthorn Time is published in paperback by Bloomsbury.
Rain by Melissa Harrison, published by Faber & Faber in association with the National Trust on 3 March, 2016 in hardback at £12.99
Read more of Paul’s reviews by searching “Paul Cheney” on nudge or visit his new blog: Halfman, Halfbook
nudge list May 2016: What’s new in Irish Writing
The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District by James Rebanks – Wainwright longlist 2016
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