Award-winning writer Patrice Lawrence reflects here on her involvement in our Trans.MISSION II project, drawing inspiration from the work of Dr Sarah Ayling, Professor Lindsey McEwen and their team of experts at the DRY project, to create a new story and film.
What made you interested in doing this project?
It’s completely different from anything I’ve been asked to do as a writer for children and young adults – so it was an utter joy to be asked. I am a geek at heart and love research so being able to explore a subject I only had basic knowledge about and being allowed to ask loads of questions was just up my street. The project already incorporated story-telling and oral history, so it was a good fit.
I also remembered the drought in 1976…
What did you hope to achieve together?
As a writer, I am passionate about portraying voices and perspectives that are under-represented in mainstream fiction, especially working class young people including those from different ethnic backgounds. Although many young people from Black and Asian- heritage backgrounds may have roots in countries already affected by drought and flood, their voices often seem missing from everyday discussions. I was particularly shocked by the way Ugandan climate change activist, Vanessa Nakate, was cropped out of a press photo alongside young white activists at the World Economic Forum in January of this year.
I wanted to write a story that could start a conversation with young people who aren’t engaged in the discussions already by thinking about how everyday life will change in the future. This project started before Covid-19, of course, but since then we’ve experienced many different types of human behaviour including our abilities to reassure ourselves that a disaster in another part of the world – albeit only a couple of hours away by air – won’t affect us.
Have you done anything similar before?
I worked in the charity sector for 20 years, mostly promoting social justice and equality in services for children and family. I had to develop and deliver training on tough subjects such as racism, discrimination and stereotypes. I wanted to encourage open and honest conversations, so the way in was via stories, fictional and true.
I also wrote and directed a short film about smacking children. I’m against it but the point was to provoke a conversation with families who were pro-smacking. Again, I had to think about how I told a story that had a clear viewpoint but left room for discussion.
Did you enjoy art / science in school?
I enjoyed art and creative writing. I struggled with science which is a pity as I think I hadn’t found my learning style. I passed Chemistry with a B, though. I honestly think that if I’d managed to tell myself stories about the elements and their behaviour, I would have found a way into the subject earlier. I am infinitely curious – I do want to know why and how and what if. To be a good writer, you have to be a good observer of detail, just like scientists.
What do you think are the biggest barriers at the moment for communicating science?
I took my daughter to an exhibition of kinetic art when she was nine months old. It was full of giant bubbles and dangly things and whirly things. It was great! When we’re little, we may have the chance to explore how the world works through play, often backed up by fun educational programmes on channels such as Cbeebies. It’s when we’re older, that the difficulties start.
Firstly, if you’re not great at science at school, it can elevate the subject to something incomprehensible, that shouldn’t be understood by non-scientists. My memories of physics lessons are wave machines. I had absolutely no idea that physics was relevant to my everyday world. New Scientist events are fantastic for challenging this, but can only reach a limited audience.
Secondly, and more obviously, science – or at least its findings – becomes politicised. The core science can become lost as it’s interpreted and used by different parties of interest and the media (including social media) that report it. Opinion can become fact regardless of how far it is from scientific credibility.
Which scientists / artists do you look up to?
Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock. I almost fell over when I turned on the TV and saw her presenting a Do Weeally Need the Moon?. I’m from an ethnic background that has often been negatively stereotyped, including through the use of pseudoscience. It was powerful enough seeing a woman presenting a BBC science programme, let alone a woman that looked like me.
What other examples of art meeting science have inspired you?
Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In 1951, a sample of Henrietta’s cancerous cells was taken without her consent and used to develop a line of cells – HeLa – that have been used extensively for scientific study ever since. It’s also a story about being poor, female and African American at a particular point in history as well as exploring the ethics behind scientific discovery and the author’s own challenges as she unpicks the story of the cells and the woman who unwittingly donated them. The book pulled me into a subject that I knew nothing about – and didn’t even think I wanted to know about – but was a completely compulsive read.
What have you learnt from the collaboration?
Science tells stories. I loved the work the DRY Project conducted involving community volunteers, songwriters and storytellers. The interviews and oral histories made the subject relevant and important and I drew on them for inspiration. I am also much more aware of how much water I use. I had taken it for granted.
What’s been the biggest surprise?
With all honesty – that the area I lived in in east London is a potential flood area. I was one of the complacent ones thinking that I lived far enough away from the Thames not to be worried and that, anyway, wasn’t there a Thames Flood Barrier to stop that sort of thing?
As a city dweller, you become separated from the origins of your food, your water, the wider natural world. I used to live close to the 2012 Olympic Games site in London. As I sat cheering the US basketball team in the funky new stadium, it never occurred to me how much advanced planning was required to make sure there was adequate water following water companies declaring drought conditions earlier that year.
What’s been the best moment?
Seeing the film of Day Zero and Chips for the first time! See below!
What’s been the biggest challenge to overcome?
The Covid-19 lockdown hit in the last months of the project. The story had been written but there was still the film to make. The Hay Festival was cancelled which must have been an enormous economic and emotional strain for everyone. Staff were furloughed and there had to be a prompt rethink of event programming.
So how do you make a film when you can’t go out and film? The story is told first person by a teenager, so I roped in my daughter to read it. On incredibly short notice, with limited technology, family snaps and film clips, Adrian Lambert made a fantastic film that made me burst into tears the first time I saw it.
There was also the challenge of developing a creative piece that didn’t feel like pure exposition. I think I may have been a challenge to some of the scientists as well, as my books for young adults are all contemporary and set in London without any particular science focus. But that, to me, is the purpose of the collaboration – to bring people together to communicate in different ways to a diverse audience.
What do you hope people will take away from seeing your piece?
In fifty years’ time, will it be socially taboo to wash your hair every day? Will rice and strawberries be luxuries in the UK? What is our local environment telling us already? Sometimes, we focus on the dramatic side of weather change, but what are the adjustments we make so gradually that we don’t notice? Do we really want this to happen?
I want Year Zero and Chips to start a conversation but particularly with the young people who aren’t going on climate marches. What if chips become extinct?
Would you work with a scientist again?
What have you learnt about each other’s work?
Scientists are passionate about their subjects. They are also optimistic. The world of a scientist and a writer are similar in some ways – deadlines, limited and sometimes, precarious funding and working within the boundaries of larger organisations that have multiple interests!
How will this experience change your approach to work in future?
I think the issues from this project will slip into future books – characters hurumphing when taps aren’t turned off, food availability, drought conditions. I also love exploring unknown and hidden stories, so hopefully I’ll have a chance to write about activists and scientists that have been ignored.
Patrice Lawrence is a writer and journalist who has published fiction both for adults and children. Her writing has won awards including the Waterstones Children's Book Prize for Older Children and The Bookseller YA Book Prize. In 2019-2020 took part in the Hay Festival's Trans.MISSION II project, merging science with art to find new ways of communicating cutting-edge research.