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Denzil Walton is a freelance writer who lives near Brussels, a place that has a poor image among many of his fellow English men and women, although that has more to do with the institutions based there than the actual place. I began by asking him what he likes about the city and what, if anything, he dislikes.
“I actually live in a small Flemish town about 20 km to the east of Brussels, near Leuven. It’s a totally different world there from Brussels. However, I do like Brussels when I visit it for business. It has a certain energy about it, undoubtedly linked to the major decision-making institutions there. I like the wonderful diversity of the city, and of Belgium as a whole. For example, recently I attended an English Carol Service. It was in a Flemish church with a South African choir leader and readings in English, Danish, French, Dutch, Polish and German. For me, that event encapsulated much of why I enjoy living on continental Europe: not just the diversity but the interdependency. It’s not all wonderful, of course. I get frustrated sometimes with the bureaucracy here, a lot of which is linked to there being three official languages and a stunning complexity of federal, regional, provincial and municipal governments.”
For most of the people I interview on this site, writing is a secondary source of income or a career path adopted following retirement. Denzil has made his living as a writer for many years. How does he view those people who take up writing alongside, or after, a different occupation?
“With total respect. I admire anyone who takes up a new skill or develops an old one after retirement, whether it’s writing or something else. There’s certainly no thought of ‘competition’. There’s always more room for more authors and more books!”
On his business writing website he says: “I love writing, whether it’s to convince, encourage, inform, or simply make complicated subjects understandable.” Which of those aims does he regard as most important?
“They are all equally important, depending on the writing task and target audience. If I’m writing a newspaper article on self-driving cars then my primary goal may be to explain how they work and the potential benefits and challenges of this new technology. If I’m writing a more technical blog post on electricity grid networks then the readers will be fully acquainted with the subject but might be more interested in me informing them of the latest developments or political discussions in that area.”
Does he see a potential for danger in “writing to convince” which could be construed as propaganda? How would he view the difference between the former and the latter?
“In the Business-to-Business sector in which I work, my ‘writing to convince’ is focused on convincing a potential customer that a particular product is going to meet their requirements. In other words, it starts by defining what a customer needs. For example, they might need a ½-inch air operated diaphragm pump for a particular application. The product brochure I write will hopefully convince them that my client’s ½-inch air operated diaphragm pump fits the bill perfectly. It’s not a case of selling them a 1-inch pump just so that my client can earn more money. That practice belongs more to the Business-to-Consumer sector where there is more writing to convince consumers to buy something they don’t really need. I am not active in that area.”
Denzil makes no secret of his great love of nature. That’s what inspired his series of books and the website he created to “encourage a child” to participate in various nature related activities. What was his own inspiration for this passion?
“I think I was inspired by nature herself. At a young age I suddenly became fascinated by the birds and butterflies in the garden and wanted to know more about them. I don’t remember being inspired by a person. In fact, as my interest in nature developed, it was me who inspired my parents to show more of an interest in nature! However, once I began to show an interest in nature, I was inspired by some of the great nature writers that I read when I was young. My first inspiration was Henry Williamson. His most famous book is Tarka the Otter but he wrote a series of nature books that I found wonderful. Then I discovered the delightful books of Gerald Durrell. These days my favourite inspirational nature authors are John Lewis-Stempel, Patrick Barkham and John Lister-Kaye.”
What does he see as the dangers that children face from spending too long glued to their screens?
“There is increasing scientific evidence that over-use of screens can lead to children experiencing behavioural problems, attention difficulties and sleep disorders. As being in front of a screen is a sedentary occupation,obesity is a risk. And if the screen-time is exposing a child to violence, there is the risk of bullying or even greater aggression. I believe that adults can experience negative side-effects from too much screen time too. I started avoiding screens in the evenings after realizing they were affecting my own sleep patterns.”
And what are the benefits of engaging with nature?
“In this respect I’m indebted to the work and books of Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle in which he coined the phrase ‘nature-deficit disorder’. He describes the benefits of connecting children with nature as including improving mental acuity, enhancing creativity, reducing depression, fighting obesity, and simply promoting overall health and wellness. Oh and simply having fun!”
Are there benefits also for the adult who takes up the challenge of “encouraging a child”to engage with nature?
“I think being with a child in nature can help an adult discover their ‘inner child’ and enjoy a welcome break from the stresses and anxieties of their life. It’s also a great ‘natural medicine’ in the fight against depression – and time outdoors is actually being increasingly prescribed by doctors! Encouraging a child to engage with nature – for example by watching birds together, as I describe in my book – can strengthen bonds between adults and children. And as I mentioned above, being in nature is such fun! Adults can’t fail to be inspired themselves when they see and share in a child’s amazement and wonder at the natural world around us.”
I certainly wish Denzil the very best of luck with this new and exciting project. Here is my review of the first book in the series:
Do you know a child who spends too long glued to some kind of screen? Be it smart phone, tablet, lap top, gaming machine or the TV in their room, we can all agree that too much screen time is bad for them. Do you wish there was something you could get them excited about that would have the benefit of separating them from their screens whilst providing fresh air, exercise and a new outlet for their natural curiosity?
Freelance writer and nature lover Denzil Walton may have the answer. His new little book entitled “Encourage a Child to Watch Birds” is a delight. It is, too, the first in a series of books that have the aim of encouraging us adults to encourage children to take part in activities other than spending time attached to their screens. Yet to come are: “Encourage a Child to – study small mammals”, “– enjoy creepy-crawlies”, “– learn about trees”, and “– care for the planet”.
Meanwhile “ – Watch Birds” contains 10 increasingly advanced suggestions for ways to interest children aged from 7 to 12 in discovering facts about birds by observing their behaviour and listening to their songs. From watching ducks in the local municipal park to feeding the birds that visit your garden or balcony, to constructing nesting boxes, the book explains the dos and don’ts of caring for wild birds. Written in accessible language, it would suit a grandparent, uncle or aunt who wants to help their grand child, niece or nephew to develop outside interests.
It takes about 30 minutes to read the book but it will provide hours of pleasure for you and that special child as you progress from watching (not feeding) the ducks to using binoculars to observe birds of prey in action or dissecting owl pellets to identify the kinds of animals they feed on.
Buy at Amazon.co.uk
Buy at Kobo
Buy at Amazon.com
My latest date with an indie author arrived a bit late, but was well worth waiting for, as I am sure you will agree. I am grateful to Sylva Fae for interrupting her holiday to answer my questions.
Sylva grew up in Lancashire where, “[If] there were hard times for my parents . . . they kept them well hidden from me and my brother. I had a simple but fun childhood, and I look back with fond memories. My parents were artists who had a love of travel and the outdoors. My dad especially loved travelling and would prioritise holidays abroad over buying expensive toys etc – he wanted us to experience new places and learn about other cultures first hand. My mum was the driving force behind buying a farm, which became a sanctuary for injured wildlife and unwanted pets. When not chasing hens and goats out of the house, we often went on adventures around the local moors and would play in the fresh air while my mum sketched the landscape.”
She now lives in Cheshire and owns a woodland in Shropshire. I wondered how that came about and what were the pros and cons.
“When my eldest daughter was a toddler we booked onto a supposedly child-friendly campsite. It turned into a nightmare of rules and regulations with tents regimentally spaced in a crowded field, then there was a horrendous rainstorm! Faced with keeping a rowdy toddler entertained in a tent, we gave up and came home. We had envisaged a relaxing camping experience, sat around the fire as the sun went down, space for our daughter to run wild and have fun, but instead we got the opposite. With a little research, we discovered that there were companies selling plots of woodland. We spent the summer pottering around different sites, until we found our vision of the idyllic woodland camp, hidden in the Shropshire countryside.
Everyone thought we were mad buying a woodland, and they’re probably right but we love it.
We have created a camping area with a fire pit and benches, that is enjoyed by many of our family and friends. Our three girls have the opportunity to experience a little of the childhood we had. They run wild, climb trees, make dens and have learned to cook on a campfire. It’s great to get them playing and learning new skills in the fresh air rather than slaves to technology, like so many other young people nowadays.
Drawbacks? None that I can think of. The woods provide us with a safe place to camp, fuel to heat our house over winter, and as an investment, the value of the land has more than doubled in the nine years we have had it. The only thing I wish was different is that we’d done this years earlier.”
When I asked her about the challenges involved in her past career as a teacher of children and young adults with special needs, she explained how she “fell into this line of work quite by accident, mainly because most of the other teachers were daunted by the challenge the groups presented.
“I never saw disabilities or learning difficulties, I only saw people who approached learning in different ways.
I planned my lessons to enable them to achieve at a rate and in a meaningful way to each individual. It was incredibly rewarding but also frustrating in that the current education system doesn’t fully recognise the achievements these young people make.
The lessons I learned from working with groups of this nature have enhanced my life, and the skills I now carry forward are valuable in many situations.”
Many of Sylva’s books are based on stories she created with her young children very much in mind and contributing to the process. I asked how she thought they compared to traditional children’s fiction like Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five” and “Secret Seven” or more recent works like the “Harry Potter” books.
“I grew up as an Enid Blyton fan, I think I read pretty much every one of her books. I do have a few chapter books, aimed at a similar level on the go, but my main focus is producing picture books. My own children loved the rhyming stories by Julia Donaldson, and the repetitive Hairy Maclary books by Lynley Dodd, and I aspire to create stories that will engage children in the same way.
As her children get older she is adapting her style: “I wanted to create the picture books as memories for my girls of the stories we created together, but already they have outgrown them. I have a few middle school chapter books in the works and a young adult book half written. I must say that I do love the picture book style most of all, but maybe that will change as my girls grow.”
Asked when and where she writes, she explains that since taking voluntary redundancy from her teaching job she writes while her girls are in school – and continues:
“Well, that’s always the plan but inspiration seems to come mostly at night, so I often work in the evenings as well. I type ideas on my mobile phone as they come to me so I’m rarely away from writing. I love to ponder story ideas while I’m sat on a log at the campfire.”
Next we talked about the difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing:
“I was offered publishing deals by two small press publishers but I didn’t feel completely happy with either. I’m not sure what it was that held me back, but I decided to publish independently instead, and I’m glad I did as both publishers have since gone out of business.
I did discover a fantastic publisher through my good friend and children’s author Paul Ian Cross. The Little Lights Studio in Vienna has created a bedtime stories app for families, and I’m proud to have been a part of this project from the beginning. I have five stories in the app and I’m in the process of writing five more.
So now I self-publish books but have a modern publisher for online stories – it’s quite a good combination for me.”
Like all the best children’s books hers are prolifically illustrated – by the author:
“I spent a long time trying to find an illustrator to create the pictures I have when I write. I discovered several things – I am very picky about the styles I like, illustrators are justifiably pricey, and I only like the most expensive! Because of this I stalled for a couple of years, unable to afford what I wanted but unwilling to compromise. I then discovered I could create my own illustrations quite by accident. It started just as a bit of fun creating the story characters for my children, but after showing a couple of my writer friends, they gave me the confidence to illustrate my own stories. Cover design is really just an extension of the illustration process so I do that too.”
Editing, however, is something Sylva regards as too important to undertake herself:
“Editing is definitely something I seek support with.
I believe in supporting other authors and have always offered my services as a beta reader and proof reader to anyone who needs it.
Now we have a faithful network of friends who share skills on a pay-it-forward basis. My work is currently being edited by children’s author Millie Slavidou.”
Noting that Sylva’s website has been rather neglected of late, I wondered how much effort she puts into marketing, probably the most difficult aspect of publishing for us independents.
“You are right! I started the blog after advice from experienced author Lesley Hayes, to write every day. She persuaded me to set up the blog and has encouraged me from the start. As soon as I found the way to illustrate and publish my own books, my energies have gone into that, and yes my poor little blog has been neglected. This is something I want to rectify. My next marketing plan is to reinvent the blog and use it as an additional marketing tool.
I think our best marketing tool is interacting within our community. The more we become involved and support one another, the more help we receive with marketing of our own books. You get what you put in.
I particularly enjoy doing live marketing events, reading to children and answering their questions. Young children are my main audience so their feedback is the most valuable.”
When I asked about her reading preferences she produced a long list of independent authors, including some who have, or soon will be, featured in these ‘dates’.
“I love a good psychological thriller, I want to be kept guessing right until the last page. Since I started beta reading for my writer group, I have read around many genres, perhaps ones I wouldn’t have chosen previously but it has been a great experience. Independent authors like Lesley Hayes, Nico Laeser and Val Tobin are current favourites of mine. In expanding my genres I’ve also discovered authors like Susan Faw, Eric Lahti and Melanie Smith. Each has a different style but I have learned so much from each of them. I would love to meet any of my indie author friends, as I feel we have become friends despite never meeting in real life.”
I like to ask my subjects to reveal something about themselves that might surprise their fans – or, in the case of a children’s author, the fans’ parents. Sylva offers three things:
“My debut book Rainbow Monsters won the Chanticleer Little Peeps award for best in category.
Perhaps not surprising given that I own a woodland, but I run a bushcraft and wild camping group when I’m not writing.
I’m a secret geek! I won the US Navy cryptology challenge two years running despite having no prior knowledge of cryptology or related subjects. Russian newspapers speculated that the winners were being recruited into a top-secret government taskforce, and
my local newspaper suggested I might be a spy!
Of course I’m not a spy, I only did the challenge because I enjoy learning new skills and I’m tenacious in pursuing my goals.
I guess I apply this same tenacity and persistence to my writing too. There is no luck in becoming an author, it takes a lot of hard work and a willingness to learn new skills constantly.”