Since being awarded the Arts Foundation Prize in January 2021, many new opportunities have opened themselves up to me. As an author, the publicity side of writing is not something I have had much practice with. However, over this past year with an increase of interest in my work, I have made more appearances in public. Talking about my work on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Front Row’ was such an incredible opportunity to hone the public speaking side of being a writer, and really increased my confidence in talking publicly about my writing. This would not have happened without the Arts Foundation Award.
The term ‘Environmental Writer’ has also been useful for focusing my practice on what it means to write about ecology and about the marks we humans leave on our planet. I have never been comfortable with the term ‘Nature Writer’ because it seems to cast nature as somehow separate from humans, yet the two have interacted with and informed each other since the beginning of time. Having the right name for what I do came at an important point in my career and gave me permission to see my work as fitting into a genre of writing I hadn’t really aligned myself with previously. Now that I have a name for what I do, I have been commissioned to write about intersecting political and ecological issues relating to environmental concerns, and I feel that more doors will continue to open. This, again, is thanks to the Environmental Writing Award.
I am currently writing this letter from Hawthornden Castle in Scotland, where I am in residence as a writing fellow until early October. I was able to take this month-long residency because I was in a position to turn down paid work. This has allowed me to get a first draft – 46,000 words – of Greyhound down on paper. As I mentioned in my original proposal to the Arts Foundation, Greyhound is part memoir, part travelogue, part meditations on ‘place’ and the built environment in the Anthropocene, based around a bus trip across America in 2006. My diaries and photos from this trip along with detailed research will ask serious questions about the sustainability of roads, buildings, suburbs, cities and edgelands. Over this past year, I have had some really wonderful and insightful conversations about the topic of the ‘built-upon environment’ with both Shelley Warren and Chloe Aridjis, who originally nominated me for this award. I am grateful to both of them for their time and input. I am also grateful for the comments made by the judges when the fellowship was first awarded. Their feedback allowed me to see my writing through a new lens.
Of course, the most fundamental aspect of this award is the financial support. When the January instalment came through, I was able to buy a new computer. As a writer, I am lucky that I don’t need expensive equipment. However, I do illustrate my work with photographs, so it was important for me to have a computer powerful enough to store images. I now have this, and as a result I have been invited to contribute photo essays to several publications. Apart from a laptop, the only other major requirement for my writing is time. This is both the most precious and the most difficult to obtain and is without a doubt the single most important gift for a writer. This year I was able to turn down freelance work, which allowed me to spend time researching Greyhound. The depth of thinking and the extra time for writing that have come with this award have been absolutely invaluable.
Finally, as with any external validation of one’s craft, the confidence that comes with this is difficult to describe. I have felt that not only within myself but also among the writers, editors and publishers in my sphere that winning this award has taken my career a notch up. I am hugely grateful to the judges and to everyone at the Arts Foundation and the Yoma Sasburg Estate. This generous award really has been the difference between getting a first draft to my publisher and not. It is as simple as that. I hope this book, when it wends its way out into the world, might go some ways towards helping us rethink how to design a more sustainable future.