A collage of black and white author headshots seen against a blue background.

Image: Vicky Ibbetson/Penguin

The best non-fiction can broaden our minds and deepen our knowledge, and this year, books offer to take us to new places too, including some destinations we never even knew existed. Behind these books are four first-time authors, all of whom are experts in their fields – with the writing skills to share their stories.

Nihal Arthanayake, host of the Penguin Podcast, spoke to CJ Hauser, Thomas Halliday, Mya-Rose Craig and Teresa Lim about their forthcoming books and what encouraged them to write them. For comedian and writer Hauser, it was a research trip taken after she left her marriage that inspired the titular essay of The Crane Wife. Hauser said, “I was interested in the things we turn into stories about our life when we look back and then base future decisions on, and why.”

Halliday’s book Otherlands swoops the reader hundreds of millions of years back into the past, bringing eras of deep history vividly to the page. “I want it to engender a kind of love for the planet,” he told Arthanayake, “because I’m just excited about the Earth and the way that it functions, and has functioned and will continue to function.”

Listen to the full episode of the Penguin Podcast

Also discussing the planet was Craig, whose ornithological memoir Birdgirl covers her family’s obsession with birdwatching as they live with her mother’s struggles with mental health. She told Arthanayake that the impacts of climate crisis upon bird life can be seen as a harbinger of how humankind will weather climate change.

“Birds are really struggling. Our planet is really struggling,” she said. “And we really are running out of time like even in my lifetime. I've seen various birds that have become critically endangered, all because of human behaviour, human interference in various shapes and forms. This is a species that would be thriving if it wasn't for us.”

Finally, Lim discussed the slow and patient process of telling her family’s story through hours of conversation with her relatives. The Interpreter’s Daughter is a story of Lim’s great-aunt Fanny, a woman who inhabited a world of sworn sisters, ghost husbands and 19th-century working class feminists. Sometimes these stories would land due to serendipity, she told Nihal, such as when she discovered her aunt’s watch. “If I hadn't seen it that day, if I hadn't picked it out… we wouldn’t have known who it had belonged to. She would have worn this every day.”

You can listen to the whole conversation above – and don't forget to subscribe to the Penguin Podcast, wherever you listen to podcasts, to be notified of future episodes.

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