Friday, 12 May 2017

‘An inordinate fondness for beetles’….how I got hooked on bugs

I knew I couldn’t avoid it for much longer. She was being very tactful, not asking, not pushing, encouraging me to do whatever I wanted, but I was going to have to break the news to her at some point. And I knew how weird it sounded. How positively - how unmarketably - awful it seemed as a subject matter for a novel.  Eventually I decided that the direct approach was best so I phoned her.  ‘Stef,’ I said. ‘About my new novel. It’s…well…. I’ve become really interested in dung beetles…’

To my editor’s credit, she took it on the chin. Stef is, perhaps, used to my obsessions since my first novel involved killer whales.  The blame for this new beetle mania lies firmly at the feet of my friend Professor Helen Roy, who happens to be a world leading ladybird expert. Helen and I were out for a coffee one day; I was feckless, a bit lost, anxiously kicking around for inspiration for a new novel, and she was talking about her work on an alien, invasive, damaging species of ladybird, the Harlequin. As I listened to Helen, it occurred to me that having a sinister ladybird expert in my next book might be quite fun. But Helen, it turns out, is rather protective of her ladybirds, even the scary, invasive kind. She loves them deeply. The idea of a sinister ladybird expert clearly made her uneasy because she swiftly – almost seamlessly - introduced me to her friend Darren Mann, head of Life Collections at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. And Darren, it turns out, is a leading authority on the dung beetle.

In the musty back offices of the Museum of Natural History, all dark wood and tall windows, Darren showed me tray after tray of shiny, boiled sweet dung beetles, some as tiny as pin heads, some huge and lacquered and majestic. He explained their vast global diversity, their extraordinary, hidden world, how essential they are to our ecosystem, how vital in fertilizing and clearing British farm land, and how unrecognized they are, how threatened and misunderstood (there between 40 and 50 species of dung beetles in the UK alone and we are currently – madly - wiping them out with cattle wormers). Dung beetles, he explained, are also richly symbolic creatures: the scarab, the ancient Egyptian symbol of rebirth and renewal, is a dung beetle. The ancient Egyptian sun god, Khepri, pushes his dung ball sun up over the horizon and buries it again each night, only to rise again the next morning. As I listened to Darren in those timeless Oxford museum back offices, the smell of camphor in my nostrils, specimens and journals and beetle-pinning equipment all around us, I knew I had my next book.
Of course, The Night Visitor isn’t just about dung beetles. It is about two very different women:  a glamorous historian and TV presenter, Olivia, who becomes locked in a confusing battle with her sixty year old research assistant, Vivian, as they try to write a biography of a Victorian murderess. It is about academic obsession, ambition and powerful women; lies, revenge and moral slipperiness.  There is a Victorian Diary, a holiday in the South of France, a Gothic Sussex manor house, a stalker, a lost rescue dog. But the beetle metaphor is there throughout, underpinning this unfolding human drama.

In the end I managed to include some ladybirds (they are beetles after all): Helen explained how the Harlequin ladybird has grown to mimic other ‘harmless’ ladybird species so effectively that even experts like her sometimes have trouble identifying which is which.  You could say the same for many humans...

I don’t really choose my inspiration, it chooses me:  I didn’t mean to obsess about dung beetles but that moment in the Museum offices, looking at the trays of beetles, listening to Darren, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Beetles make up a quarter of all the species on earth. When the famous Edwardian scientist J.B.S. Haldane was asked by theologians what the natural world could tell us about its Creator, he replied that God, should he exist, must have an ‘inordinate fondness for beetles’.  Having just spent two years talking to Coleopterists, gazing at these beautiful iridescent creatures and researching their habits and habitats, all I can say is: ‘me too.’

The Night Visitor is published by Quercus on 4th May 2017.

Professor Olivia Sweetman has worked hard to achieve the life she loves, with a high-flying career as a TV presenter and historian, three children and a talented husband. But as she stands before a crowd at the launch of her new bestseller she can barely pretend to smile. Her life has spiraled into deceit and if the truth comes out, she will lose everything.  Only one person knows what Olivia has done. Vivian Tester is the socially awkward sixty-year-old housekeeper of a Sussex manor who found the Victorian diary on which Olivia's book is based. She has now become Olivia's unofficial research assistant. And Vivian has secrets of her own.  As events move between London, Sussex and the idyllic South of France, the relationship between these two women grows more entangled and complex. Then a bizarre act of violence changes everything.

Follow Lucy on Twitter @lucyatkins

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