Journalism inspiring Fiction

by Joanne O'Connell, plus Angie Hockman talks about SHIPPED

My debut novel, Beauty and the Bin was partly inspired by my food journalism, particularly by a column I wrote for the Guardian, about giving up supermarkets.   

For twelve months, I whizzed nettles into pesto, baked my own bread, grew vegetables, and stocked up on everything from chilli flakes to tomato ketchup at my local independents. At first, it was about saving money (it was for the consumer affairs section of the paper) but alongside the savings (£2,000 in a year, by the way!) it allowed me to explore how to live and eat in ways that protect the planet.  

It led to so many inspiring conversations, with people like eco chef Tom Hunt, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of River Cottage, and expert forager Fiona Bird. I ate seaweed spaghetti on a Scottish Island, drank velvety smooth chocolate with a chocolatier in London, and learnt about everything from hydroponics to how much perfectly edible food gets wasted each year. And I didn’t just write about this stuff, the point of the column was to live it. So, my sourdough starter bubbled on the kitchen worktop, peas grew up the garden fence and the windowsills of my house became a blur of leafy salad greens (much of which ended up in Beauty and the Bin). 

Once the column was over, I carried on writing for the Guardian sustainable team, and begun to research my non-fiction food history book: The Homemade Vegan – which led me to connect with lots of climate pioneers all over the world.  

As a journalist and a non-fiction writer, you interview so many people. You’re looking for the real reasons behind what they say and do, and the privilege of the job is that it allows you an access to others from politicians to pop stars to the people eating surplus food from the supermarket bins.  But there are things you can’t say easily in journalism. You can report what people do or say but you can’t say for sure what they’re thinking. Plus, there’s a formula, which you must write to, there are fact checks and fast-paced deadlines.  

The more I thought about my writing, the more I realised there are things that novelists can say that journalists can’t. That sounds so basic! But this was my process. I knew I wanted to write a truthful, honest book about that awkward tug between family and friends when you're just trying to find your place in the world. So, I wondered if writing a novel for children was also a great way to share what I’d learnt about food, and climate-friendly ways of eating - a new way of writing the story. And I knew I wanted the story to be a fun, light-hearted, magazine-style read, which could inspire a reader or two (fingers crossed) but which didn't heap pressure on younger generations or worry them. 

But it wasn’t really until the final edit of the book that I realised how much the story had been influenced by my journalism work. The characters in Beauty and the Bin are nearly always either eating or putting food on their faces or feet; the family lives in a hydroponic growing farm, where Laurie, the main character, makes her plant-based beauty products from surplus food. And while I did of course know the idea for this book had sprung from my journalism and love of food, even I was surprised to discover that the word chocolate appears 91 times.  

‘You have two choices, Laurie. You can either get some food out of the bins to take to the party or you can get back into the car and sulk.’

Laurie got back into the car and sulked.

Unconcerned, her mum picked up the bags. ‘Come on, Fern,’ she said to Laurie’s little sister. ‘Last night’s rubbish should still be in the containers. We’re looking for bagels, salad, strawberries . . .’

‘Can I get into the actual bin?’ asked Fern, jumping up and down on the spot. Her bracelets, home-made from bottle tops, jangled loudly. ‘Like properly inside it? And throw things over to you?’

‘But you’re the lookout,’ said Mum. ‘What if the manager comes out and you don’t give me the signal in time?’

Laurie pulled her cardigan around her. Normal people, she thought, don’t slip around the back of supermarkets and take things out of the bins for free. She stared out of the window. It was nearly seven o’clock on a Saturday evening and the car park was busy. Shoppers were going through the shiny doors, into the brightly lit aisles to pay for groceries.

Her eyes rested on a girl and her mum – both dressed in this season’s statement jeans – who were trying to prise a trolley out of the rack. The mum kept tugging on the handles and then throwing her arms up, panto-style. Laurie couldn’t see the girl’s face but she was tossing her blonde ponytail.

She’s probably laughing, thought Laurie. Like I’d be, if I hadn’t been asked to climb into a bin and splatter myself with yogurt, custard and hummus. 

You can find out more about Beauty and the Bin here.

Joanne O’Connell is a journalist whose inspiration sprang from a year-long column she wrote for the Guardian called ‘Goodbye Supermarkets’, during which she met food waste campaigners, such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and eco-chef Tom Hunt, and presented a short video about taking her children foraging on a Scottish Island. She has written for The Observer, The Times, The Daily Express, The Independent and various glossy magazines, and is the author of The Homemade Vegan, published in 2016. She occasionally appears on television and radio, most recently on BBC Breakfast and Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.

Two authors inspired by travel in their work, YA author Angela Kecojevic and romance author Angie Hockman, talk about Shipped, a delightful romance novel with a heart-warming climate twist which is out now with Gallery Books. Kecojevic also talks about her forthcoming novel Train, published later this year.

OK, so let’s talk about Shipped. This was delightful escapism at its very best. The way you combined conservation topics with romance was a breath of fresh air, and the gorgeous book cover screams at days we can only dream of (at present!). Shipped has a truly exotic location. Can you tell us what drew you towards the setting of the Galápagos?

Sure! For my day job, I manage conservation and education programs for Lindblad Expeditions, a small-ship expedition cruise company, and a few years ago I had the great good fortune of traveling to Galápagos on a Lindblad voyage. I was familiar with the islands and the opportunities they afford to have up-close-and-personal encounters with wildlife, but I never imagined how profoundly the experience would touch me on a personal level. To have the chance to hike amongst endemic marine iguanas and past nesting waved albatross, snorkel with endangered Galápagos penguins, spot giant tortoises roaming in the wild, and more…and have the wildlife not be afraid of me…it gave me this feeling of being connected to nature and the larger world—a feeling that hasn’t left me. The Galápagos is one of the most special, unique places on earth, which is why I was inspired to share it with readers through the setting of Shipped.

Henley Evans, your ambitious heroine, delights at sighting a giant tortoise in the wild. In your ‘acknowledgments’ section you talk about the Charles Darwin Research Station and the Galápagos National Park Directorate’s Tortoise Breeding Center. Can you tell us a little more about this?

The story of Galápagos is (sadly) one of destruction: early sailors hunted the famed giant tortoises to near-extinction. But the story is also one of immense hope. Scientists at the Charles Darwin Research Station—along with nonprofits, government leaders, the Galapagos National Park Directorate, and community members have undertaken extraordinary efforts to preserve native and endemic species like the Galápagos giant tortoise, and it’s because of these efforts that you can find giant tortoises thriving in the wild on certain islands today. It’s an inspiring example of what a tangible, positive impact people can make when we choose to take action.

Shipped is set aboard a cruise liner (Seaquest Adventures). As Henley finds herself falling in love with her new (and often challenging) environment, she makes a powerful decision to try and take the company in a different direction: eco-tourism. This may still be a new idea to many travellers. What is eco-tourism and how does it benefit our planet?

Eco-tourism is travel, most often to wild or remote places, that promotes responsible exploration and conservation of the natural world. The travel industry on the whole gets a bad rap (for good reason!) for its negative impacts on the environment. But travel can be done sustainably and responsibly, and there are eco-tourism companies out there leading the way. Lindblad Expeditions (the inspiration behind my fictional cruise line in Shipped), for example, is a carbon neutral expedition-cruise company that has been committed to sustainability, responsible travel, and environmental conservation for more than 50 years. So if you want to travel, but also want to do so respectfully and sustainably while contributing to preservation of the environment, choose eco-tourism!

In Shipped, Henley and Graeme battle with the expectations and stresses of everyday life. Yet their priorities change as they find themselves falling for the beauty of the Galápagos and each other. As an author, and having researched the environmental work that takes place on the islands, what effect has this had on you in today’s world?

Learning about the incredible conservation work in the Galápagos—and witnessing its successes first-hand—has made me more hopeful for the future. I think it’s easy to get sucked into the endlessly bleak news cycles of devastation and destruction, but the fact is that the future of the planet rests in the hands of people. We can have a better tomorrow…if we choose. Even seemingly small, everyday choices like reducing single-use plastic consumption, recycling, and opting for sustainable goods and services (and voting in elections!) can add up to making a big difference if enough people join in. And that’s a very hopeful, empowering thing.

Conservation efforts are clearly dear to your heart, and this shows throughout Shipped.  Do you have any more adventures lined up for Henley or are you working on something new?

I’m currently working on something completely new! My next romantic comedy, Dream On, is coming out from Gallery Books in summer 2022, and follows a woman who wakes up from a coma with memories of a picture-perfect boyfriend who isn’t real, only to meet him months later. This one takes place in Cleveland, Ohio, so quite a bit closer to home than the Galápagos! After Dream On though, I would love to return to the world of Shipped—if not in a sequel, then perhaps in a standalone rom-com set in another wild, remote part of the world…stay tuned!

Authors are always looking for new and exciting ways to highlight conservation and climate issues, often taking us on adventures spanning all four corners of the world. Yet what about the earth beneath our feet? This still remains uncharted territory.  Whilst Shipped takes place on a cruise liner, my upcoming novel, Train by Angela Kecojevic, uses another form of popular travel to raise awareness on climate change.

Inspired by Jules Verne’s 1884 classic novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth, I wanted to explore a frozen planet, often referred to as a ‘snowball’ planet. The idea that Earth’s core could be habitable led me to the creation of a high speed train that would break through Earth’s crust and explore its depths.

Train focuses on a group of international teenagers summoned to the only remaining train station in the world: Station X. Here, they must train for survival. Their mission: to fix a dying planet. Their destination: the centre of the earth. Train will be published by the Untold Group later this year.

Angie Hockman is a RWA Golden Heart Award® winner. Her professional background includes stints in law, education, and eco-tourism, but these days you can find her writing romantic stories, enjoying the outdoors with her family, or dreaming of her next travel adventure. She lives in Northeast Ohio with her husband, young son, two cats, and one ornery golden retriever.

Angela Kecojevic is the author behind award-winning adventure park Hobbledown in Surrey. Two YA novels are upcoming with the Untold Publishing Group, including Train and Arc. She has also written ‘The Laughing Shepherd’ (OUP 2020) for the Oxford Reading Tree programme. She lives with her family in Oxford, working as a school librarian.

Climate Change in the News

Why oil giants are swapping oil rigs for offshore windfarms [The Guardian]

Here’s how to talk with your kids about climate anxiety [Grist]

PhD opportunity to produce a commercially credible TV drama script, working with themes from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals  [BBC Writers Room]

Renewable Energy Had a Record-Setting Year Despite... All This [Gizmodo]

I Was a Climate Change Denier – This Is Why I Changed My Mind [Vice]

A Glimpse of America’s Future: Climate Change Means Trouble for Power Grids [NY Times]

What is a billionaire’s role in saving the planet? [Grist]

The Climate Fiction Writers League is still looking for volunteers: a graphic designer and a curriculum developer! Check out our opportunities at Jointly Earth.