Non-Fiction Storytelling? An Interview with Dr Dominic Walliman
Our apps often tell a story – in a linear way like Artie’s Magic Pencil, or in snippets, like Astro Cat’s Solar System and Artie’s World. With Astro Cat especially, we had the challenge of making physics facts into a flowing, readable adventure through space. But of course, Astro Cat began life in the print world! We spoke to Dr Dominic Walliman, co-creator of the book series (illustrated by Ben Newman, pub. by Flying Eye Books), about telling non-fiction stories with Astro Cat, and on his YouTube channel, Domain of Science…
Can you describe how you got involved with the Astro Cat project?
In 2011, sitting on Bristol docks outside the Arnolfini, Ben said he wanted to make a book about space and asked me if I wanted to write it. I think he asked me because I’ve always been telling everyone about all the interesting science I was learning. Writing a space book sounded like the best thing ever, so I jumped at the chance.
Did you have any previous projects that you could draw inspiration from?
Nothing like this. The only book I had written before was my PhD thesis. But I had a lifetime of explaining science to people who were interested and a few years of teaching in a university, so I think these experiences helped. The key trick is to find out how to explain the science at the right level for your audience.
On a related note, are there any other science writers who you looked to when writing Astro Cat?
There was no-one specific, but I always enjoy it when I see someone who can explain complex topics in a simple way. I read a lot of science books and there are some great ones by Jim Al-Khalili and also by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw. I have seen Jim and Brian give talks and they a great public speakers too, and I think this translates to science writing.
What do you think are the biggest considerations when writing non-fiction as opposed to fiction?
When we pick a subject I want to make sure I include everything in that subject so that the reader gets a complete picture, and an excellent foundation for future learning. The hardest thing is working out what to include and how to fit it all in which is a different challenge to writing fiction. And I have to make sure I get all the facts right! On top of that we always try and work out how to include the best elements of stories into the science to make it more engaging and fun. This is when we developed the ideas of the characters and tried to include little stories and humour in each of the pages.
What stories did you grow up with? Any related to science or STEM in general?
When I was a young chap I read all the classics: Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and Tolkien, and I also really enjoyed comics and graphic novels like Tintin, Asterix, and Calvin and Hobbes- one of the best series ever made in my opinion. I also used to read loads of dinosaur and nature books, and was really into encyclopaedias. I had this one encyclopaedia of natural history that I used to pour over, memorising all the facts. The blue whale is the largest animal that has ever existed on earth, the peregrine falcon is the fastest with a diving speed of 390km/h or 242mph!! And I used to ‘know’ that the smallest mammal was the European Shrew which weighs just 2g, but I just looked it up and it is actually called the Etruscan shrew! It shares the title of smallest mammal with Kittl’s hog-nosed bat, from Thailand, which is about a inch long. That’s the size of a large bumblebee!
And in terms of your reading habits now… fiction or non-fiction?
Both! I tend to keep at least one fiction and one non-fiction on the go. I’m currently reading Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Universal: A Journey Through the Cosmos by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, as well as a bunch of free ebooks from the Institute of Physics about different physics subjects that are really interesting, and it’s so cool that they are freely available.
And now you’re telling a very different kind of story – your YouTube channel! How does writing scripts differ from writing for print?
Actually they share a lot of similarities. An aspect that they both share is building a hierarchy of knowledge. You start with a target audience and make an assumption of what they do and don’t know. Then you build information on top of that base of knowledge and you have to make sure you don’t bring in anything they won’t understand unless you explain it properly. The only difference between writing Professor Astro Cat and my YouTube channel is the choice of target audience. But then more differences are introduced through the delivery style.
You cover some complex topics in your ‘Map Of…’ series, and in the Astro Cat books you had to break down similar ideas for a very young audience. How do you approach making these topics less intimidating to those who might not feel confident with the concepts?
My approach is that you can explain anything to anyone, as long as you start in the right place and are realistic about how deep you can go. For example, quantum physics is hard, but you can at least explain why it is interesting and important, and what it describes and solves without having to go into the nitty gritty details. I find it all fascinating and really rewarding, so most of all I want to show other people what I love about these subjects and hopefully leave them interested to find out more.
It is a shame science is intimidating to many people. I think this is because we were made to feel bad when we didn’t do so well in a test in school. Learning stuff about science shouldn’t be about doing well in a test or improving your ‘intelligence’, it is just about discovering how this amazing universe works for its own sake. I’m still very confused about a lot of science and that’s okay.
Can you give us any sneak-peeks at the stories you’ll be telling next?
There are so many things I have planned! There is another Prof Astro Cat book in the works- I can’t give any details yet as it is early stages but it should be a whole lot of fun. And on the ‘tubes I really want to delve into quantum physics more as I love the subject and think I’m in a good place to talk about some interesting topics.
Thank you so much! We’ll keep an eye on the Domain of Science to see where our brains will be taken next!
The latest book in the Astro Cat series, Professor Astro Cat’s Human Body Odyssey, is available in the UK now, and coming to the US/Canada very soon!