Writers On Writing / Seeing the world through nature with Inga Simpson

We chatted to award-winning writer and author Inga Simpson, ahead of her online course, Writing Nature, about nature in writing and what parts of it inspire her to put pen to paper.

You’ve written both fiction and non-fiction, with strong ties to nature in both. Do you find the process of writing nature into your work easier for either of these genres?

All my writing seems to come from my connection to nature. Nature seems to write itself in – it’s the human story that I have to work at! Non-fiction, particularly nature writing, is easier in some ways. It’s just an extension of how I live my life – close to nature and paying attention.

I keep a nature diary, which includes my reflections – like a daily practice. I’m always doing that in my head. But I do feel the shadow of the great nature writers I admire; knowing that I don’t measure up. And I can get bogged down trying to capture all the details right in front of me accurately. There’s a freedom to writing fiction. Things emerge more subconsciously, deeper truths. I need both I think.

There is a long history of using nature in literature for emotional and aesthetic purposes (I’m thinking Mary Shelley, Herman Melville). Who/what are your influences when writing nature into your work?

I’ve always been drawn to books with a strong sense of place, and to authors who write about the natural world authentically, which stems from their own deep experience. From childhood, Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings were major influences, as well as Australian classics like Blinky Bill (Dorothy Wall), The Nargun and the Stars (Patricia Wrightson) and Storm Boy (Colin Thiele). Melville’s Moby Dick and Jack London’s Call of the Wild were really significant to me, and to an emerging desire to write.

I studied Australian literature at university and was always most interested in writing the landscape. Tim Winton, and Gillian Mears, who I wrote a thesis on, influenced my own writing voice. But it has been nature writing that has had the biggest impact, its ecological focus. Writers like Rick Bass, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, John Muir, Mark Tredinnick, Eric Rolls, Kim Mahood, Kathleen Jamie, and the poetry of Mary Oliver, who I’m pretty sure was some sort of angel.

Trees seem to feature quite strongly across your work – is this your own preference or is there something about trees that makes them great to write about?

I probably can’t help that! Trees are how I see the world and central to my imagination. I feel better when I’m among them. And my language seems to lend itself to writing about trees. A combination of how I grew up and what I read, and then making a tree change in my mid-thirties. My book, Understory: a life with trees (2017), tries to make sense of that.

Practically, trees are a good indicator of the type of country you’re describing and they are full of life: birds, mammals, reptiles and insects. Trees seem so still but they are actually pumping nutrients around, converting sunlight and sugars to energy, carbon dioxide to oxygen, growing, flowering, producing leaves, shedding bark, and communicating with each other. There is something magical about trees that are hundreds of years old – a gnarly old man banksia or a towering mountain ash – they have absorbed so much. Trees are sentient beings to me, a way of connecting with a world much larger and more enduring than my own.

Inga Simpson is the author of Understory: a life with trees (Hachette, 2017), about her decade spent living inside a south east Queensland forest, which was shortlisted for the Adelaide Writers Week Award for Nonfiction. Her novel Where the Trees Were (Hachette, 2016) was shortlisted for an Indie Book Award, and longlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award, the Australian Book Industry Awards, and the Green Carnation Prize. While Nest (Hachette, 2014) was shortlisted for the Courier Mail People’s Choice Award, the ALS Gold Medal, and longlisted for the 2015 Miles Franklin Literary Award and the Stella Prize. Inga’s first novel, Mr Wigg, (Hachette 2013), was published following her participation in the 2011 QWC/Hachette Manuscript Development Program. It was shortlisted for the Indie Debut Book Award and had recently been optioned for film.

Inga was also the winner of the (final) Eric Rolls Nature Essay Prize. She has PhDs in creative writing and English literature. Her short work has been published in Review of Australian Fiction, Griffith Review, Clues, Writing Queensland, Chicago Review and the Dictionary of Literary Biography. She has been teaching writing workshops for over ten years.

Enrol in Inga Simpson’s online course Nature Writing, Wednesday 6 December to Tuesday 12 December 2023, online.

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