Meet the author: Dara McAnulty

The 16-year-old Northern Irish environmentalist and author of Diary of a Naturalist recently became the youngest-ever recipient of the Wainwright Prize for UK nature writing; here, he discusses Seamus Heaney, reading by candlelight and his annual pilgrimage to Mordor.

Dara McAnulty
Nature writer Dara McAnulty looks to the sky. Photo: Kate Peters
Photo: Kate Peters

There are writers who spend a lifetime waiting for their work to be acknowledged; not so for Dara McAnulty who, at 16 years old, has already been touted by his heroes – Robert Macfarlane most notably – as a nature writer to watch.

Which is to say nothing of his more tangible achievements: his debut book Diary of a Naturalist, a compelling hybrid of coming-of-age memoir and nature book from the perspective of a nature-obsessed young man with autism, won the Wainwright Prize for UK nature writing, was longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction, and earned McAnulty a medal for conservation from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

This week, to celebrate the eBook and audiobook release of Diary of a Naturalist, we got in touch with McAnulty to ask him about his literary heroes, the importance of writing in his life, and the “bliss” of being out in nature alone.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

The late and great poet, Seamus Heaney. Heaney’s poetry to me feels limitless, and once read, almost shape-shifts in the mind. His connection to the landscape and our culture makes his poetry a political and cultural documentation of the Northern Ireland conflict and our changing natural landscape. When I need comfort and clarity, I turn to Heaney. If he were alive, and I so wish he was, I know I would act with great foolishness meeting him, due to my unabashed admiration, and it would be wonderful.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

Well, being an author at 16 IS pretty strange – it’s not really a normal teenage trajectory. I was a games tester for our friends who designed and made the game Rory’s Story Cubes though, and noticed that the manufacturer had changed the position of the icons on the dice – I have a weird memory! I think I will have many strange jobs in the future and I look forward to them all!

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times.

Every summer for the last three years I have re-read Lord of the Rings. It’s become a sort of obsessive ritual; maybe next year will be different, but I do love spotting new details and sparks after each re-read. The Big Bang by Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest is the book I have re-read the most though. I am obsessed with Agatha Christie – I see a future of many re-reads. Being so young, I think I have an unfair disadvantage!

What the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Robert Macfarlane once told me to keep writing until everything becomes strange and unfocused – this was a revelation, and something which definitely influenced the winter chapter in Diary of a Young Naturalist

What makes you most happy?

Easy: being out in nature, sometimes with my family but mostly, now that I’m older, alone – with my thoughts, observations, a pair of binoculars and a field notebook. Just bliss.

What’s your biggest regret?

I don’t believe in regrets, really; everything is a lived experience which can illuminate and enlighten our future selves, for better or worse. We are human, and not everything we do will have the outcome we hope for. 

What’s your ideal writing scenario?

I dream of writing in The Long Room in Trinity College Dublin, or in the Round Reading Room at the British Library. Many people ask if I love writing when I’m outdoors, and the short answer is no (apart from broad observations) – I find it almost impossible, although I have tried and it seemed like an act of great contrivance.

...and your ideal reading one?

I can read anywhere – my body never really minds because my mind enters the book realm very easily, and that’s really all that matters. I do like reading by candlelight though, there’s something lovely about that. I think it helps to focus your mind.

What’s your favourite book you’ve read this year?

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman. It raises so many questions about the world we live in and although it’s a work of fiction, it contains many truths about modern society and human nature. You can get lost in his expansive world, but also connect it to reality in critical and elegant ways.

What inspired you to write your book?

Diary of a Young Naturalist was actually not at first written to be published, but the act of writing is of intense importance to me. I feel and experience everything through writing, nothing feels real until it’s scribbled down somewhere. Perhaps that is part of my autistic brain wiring. The need to observe, record and understand. I have notebooks scattered all over the house, so I’m never far away from a page to empty my thoughts onto. I foresee many books, whether published or not, in the future. At least I hope so!

Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty is out now.

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