Q&A with Helen Scales (Hendry) - Part II 1998–99, PhD 2001–005

What writing projects are you currently working on?

I’m just starting my next narrative nonfiction book, which will be about the deep sea. Also, brilliant artists are now working on the illustrations for two shorter titles I’ve written that will come out in 2019, including my first kids’ book.

Was it a difficult decision to embark on a career as a full-time writer?

The tough part wasn’t making the decision to go freelance and write full-time, but trickier was sticking at it early on when things were slow. It took ages until I felt I could legitimately call myself a writer (maybe book 3) and I still do other things, like lecture and make radio programmes and podcasts.

It’s true that as a writer you open yourself up to criticism but I’ve toughened up, adopted the mantra ‘you can’t please everyone’ and learned the life-enhancing writers’ trick of not reading reviews on Good Reads or Amazon (a few people on there can be really mean).

Is there anything from your time as a Part II that particularly sticks in your mind?

Laughing my head off with one of my best friends when we were grappling with slippery gobies and shrimp in saltmarsh pools on the Norfolk coast field course.

Did your time as a Zoology student here help you make the transition to being a full-time writer?

I was part way through my PhD when I rather unexpectedly realized I enjoy writing and talking on the radio. I took the chance to try out various different things; I wrote for Varsity, made my first (terrible) radio shows for the university radio station, I even had a go at making TV programmes for a local cable channel. So I left the zoology department with a PhD and ambitions to write a popular science book and make radio programmes for the BBC.

Writing the PhD was in itself useful preparation for writing a book. A thesis is aimed at a very different, much smaller audience, but it’s still a lot of words!

What are the vital ingredients of a good popular science book?

Helen Scales, photo taken by Ria Mishaal (Part II 2001–02)

Popular science can be so many different things, it’s tricky to pin it down as a genre (some people even insist there’s no such thing as a popular science writer, just a writer who writes about science and examines how the world works). All the really great science books nurture a sense of wonder and curiosity, without talking down to the audience or flying way above their heads.

Who would you most like to review your next book, and what kind of things would you like her/him to write?

Someone fabulously influential and famous, who millions of people take book-buying advice from. Maybe Barack Obama! And obviously, I’d love him to say he enjoyed it so much he couldn’t put it down. It would also be nice if he said it opened his eyes to how the deep sea is the most fascinating and astonishing place, that it matters and urgently needs protecting.

What are you most proud of that you have managed to achieve so far?

Career-wise, reading out my book Spirals In Time on Radio 4’s Book of the Week was a dream come true. I’m also quite relieved to have got at least one question right on Christmas University Challenge.

Ideal evening out??

Either live music (ideally a gig by the Kings of Convenience) or a storytelling night with stand-up comedian Daniel Kitson.

Part of the world you would most like to visit?

I’d love to go to the Galapagos Islands — surely, a necessary pilgrimage for all zoologists. I’d also like to pay a visit to the deep sea.