Lucy Hawking, who wrote her best-selling George fiction series in collaboration with world-leading scientists including her father, Stephen Hawking, has always had a knack for making science entertaining and accessible. Now, she has turned her attention away from adventures among the stars and toward our very own planet with her new book, Princess Olivia Investigates: The Wrong Weather.
Olivia Alez never wanted to be a princess – it’s so boring! So, when the Kingdom of Alez decides it doesn’t want a royal family anymore, Olivia is thrilled. The princess has always wanted to learn about the world outside the royal palace, but when she arrives in the city of Alez, it’s very different to the one she’s read about in books. What is causing Alez’s water supply to run out? And why is smog becoming more and more frequent?
To mark the release of Princess Olivia Investigates: The Wrong Weather, we caught up with Lucy to ask her our 21 Questions on life and literature. Below, we learn how she would love to serve Charlotte Brontë all the delicious food, being captivated as a child by the fantasy world of Narnia, and finding a way to make a positive contribution to today’s climate crisis.
Which writer do you most admire and why?
The writer I most admire... I’m sure everyone says this but it does have to be William Shakespeare. His grasp of human nature and the underlying reasons why people behave in the way they do never fails to amaze me. Added to his uncanny ability to parse the human mind and spirit are his convoluted but compelling plots, his beautiful prose and poetry, and the astonishing volume of his output.
What was the first book you remember loving as a child?
I read prolifically from a young age, but the books I remember transporting me as a young reader were the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. I was completely captivated by the fantasy world of Narnia, the characters, the adventures, and the sheer imagination of the whole universe Lewis presents. Despite writing in a very different age, C. S. Lewis still seems to speak to young readers today. He explores some very deep themes through his fantasy worlds, touching on human behaviour, the existence of evil, and the perils that our world could face in the future.
What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?
It feels quite a long time ago now that I was a teenager! I read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy around that age, and was entirely absorbed by the storytelling which was so vivid that it made the life of a 19th-century high society noblewoman seem somehow relatable to a gauche teenager living in the UK in the 20th Century.
Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path
I recently read Why Are We Waiting? by Nicholas Stern, a book about the terrible dangers of delay in implementing measures to mitigate the impacts of human-caused climate change. It made me decide I needed to think about how I could make a positive contribution to the climate crisis. As I’m an author who writes fantasy adventures with real science content, it seemed to me that I should stop writing about space travel to distant, fabulous planets and start writing about the planet on which we live.
What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?
I worked for a builder in the South of France, painting fences with creosote in order to earn enough money to get a train to London.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
"If you want to be a writer, you have to write." I think that’s brilliant advice. So many people say they want to be writers, but so few people actually sit down and write a book. It seems the best advice I could have had – or could pass on!
Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)
I’ve read The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford multiple times. I find it very comforting – I always read the same battered old copy which I’ve had for years. Nancy Mitford is so good at creating unusual, eccentric characters in an economical way, and the historical context forms an interesting backdrop as the Second World War breaks out and shatters their lives.
What’s the one popular children’s book you’ve never got round to reading?
I’ve never read James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl!
If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______
A gluten-free cake baker. My son was diagnosed with a gluten allergy when he was six. There were very few (edible!) gluten-free products available at that time to buy, so I started baking him gluten-free cakes, biscuits, pastries, and bread instead. Now it’s become a personal challenge, although I still haven’t produced an appetising gluten-free croissant.
What makes you happiest?
Sunshine on the flowers in my garden while my dog rolls about in the meadow grass and bees and butterflies buzz around.
What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?
I really like ice skating and I used to be quite good at it. I haven’t tried for years, but my white skates are still in the cupboard under the stairs so maybe one day...
What is your ideal writing scenario?
Peace suits me best for writing. However, I don’t always have a very peaceful life, so over the years I’ve learnt to filter out all distractions in order to get on with it. It’s important to me not to have too many rituals or ideals attached to writing, because then I’d find it even harder to get down to work.
What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?
I once arrived at an upscale dinner in a horribly smart London restaurant. I made the mistake of wearing black and white so as soon as I walked in, one of the other guests tried to order a drink from me. I was a bit flustered so I backed away, straight into a gentleman in a hat, trod on his foot, and spilt his drink all over him. I apologised and made an amazingly inane comment to him which I think was about motorways. I didn’t even own a car at the time, so I have no idea why I went in this conversational direction. To my chagrin, the man in the hat smiled and said "Hello! I’m Terry Pratchett!"
If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?
I would love to have dinner with Charlotte Brontë. I’d want to talk to her about how she used her imagination to create worlds that she could never visit and why storytelling matters. As food is a symbol of generosity in Jane Eyre, I’d make sure the table was laden with every kind of delicious food in the hope Charlotte would understand how welcome she was.
What’s your biggest fear?
I really don’t like elevators. I have a compressed panic attack each time I ride in one. I always take the stairs if I can.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
I’d like to be able to propagate kindness at the speed of light so that everyone (including myself) could have their stocks of kindness replenished whenever levels start dipping.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?
I’ve just finished Francis Hardinge’s A Face Like Glass. I thought it was a phenomenal achievement, such a complex fantasy environment with so many different intricate features.
Reading in the bath: yes or no?
Yes! Who says no to that?
Which do you prefer: chocolate or crisps?
Tough question but chocolate wins.
What is the best book you’ve ever read?
What inspired you to write your new book?
I had the idea while I was in the Himalayas, looking down from the rampart of a fortified mountaintop palace. That area is being very badly impacted by climate change, so I had the idea of a little princess, peering over the edge of the ramparts down into the valley and starting to piece together evidence as to why her world is changing.
Princess Olivia Investigates: The Wrong Weather by Lucy Hawking is out now.
Image at top: Flynn Shore for Penguin / iStock.com/kreinick - iStock.com/danilsnegmb - iStock.com/KristianSeptimiusKrogh - iStock.com/proxyminder