N.E. David’s first novel, Birds of the Nile, is a literary treat that weaves a bird-watching motif through a deeper narrative of human longing. A departure from his more comedic novellas—popular on his side of the pond—this is a story of inner journeys with a pinch of politics and a dusting of love.
We meet main character Michael Blake in a vulnerable state: coping with blindness and night terrors, alone in his Egyptian flat. Then a mysterious woman steps out of his past, and we are drawn into the events surrounding a bird-watching trip that is anything but the easy transition into retired life he had hoped for.
A former British diplomat, Blake soon finds himself mixed up in the Egyptian uprising. And because I don’t want to give too much of the story away, let’s just say that Blake and his companions find themselves having to make some hard choices that are really more about tests of character than political leanings.
N.E. David’s prose throughout the book is clean, crisp, with just the right amount of sensory detail and a subtle tension that pushes the narrative along like a bird on a breeze. Overall, this is an impressive offering and aspiring writers would do well to dip into his blog, where he chronicles his writing life.
His energy seems boundless and his humor sly, but engaging. I couldn’t help but want to find out more, so I caught up with him for a bit of Q&A before he jaunted off to Iceland in search of the Northern Lights. Here’s what he had to say:
AUTHOR TALK WITH N.E. DAVID
Q: One of my favorite parts of the book is when your main character, Michael Blake, is picturing his fellow passengers as different types of birds. What bird would you be?
A: I’m a Green Woodpecker – always have been, always will be. Fantastic looking bird but difficult to find in my part of the world. Not that I’m fantastic looking by the way! Or difficult to find …
Q: How much of Michael do you see in yourself? Are you an avid birder? An outsider (several of your stories are set in foreign countries)? Regretful of the decisions in your past or driven by them?
A: I see a lot of Michael Blake in myself – I’m the same age and I think like him in many ways. And yes, I am an avid birder and I took my telescope and binoculars with me when my wife and I went on our trip on the Nile in 2009 and I had the same birding experiences as Michael Blake. The similarities tend to end there however. I’m not an outsider and I can’t think of a single (important) decision I’ve ever regretted. I have to admit I’m driven, though – but that’s to do with the need to write.
Q: I understand the choice to make Lee Yong’s background Malaysian. It ties into the Desert Lark concept that you reveal later in the book. I am curious to know if she started out that way or if you conceived of her as another nationality?
A: Lee Yong was always Malaysian, even before I started writing the book. This proved useful in that I could then portray her as the daughter of a rich Malaysian industrialist. Being financially independent means she has choices about what to do and her decision to abandon her academic career in America and return to look for Reda is significant.
Q: Explain the attraction to Egypt. Why fix on it after your trip? Was there some further tie to the country?
A: I found Egypt a fascinating place. Being an author, I took a notepad and pen with me and made notes along the way – mostly about the people we met. I’d had an incident with my eyesight at one point and a plot began to form in my mind ie. what would it be like if an avid bird-watcher was to go blind? I wrote the story up when I got back but it was when the revolution kicked off in 2011 that things got a real boost and I was able to finish it off. I’ve no further tie to the country. I keep being asked about a sequel, but that’s not on the agenda. I’ve told the story I wanted to tell.
Q:You made a point to state that you have no political agenda. Are you seeing a backlash because of your take on the conflict in Egypt or is this preemptory?
A: No, no backlash. It was the story of the three individuals that interested me, not the political conflict. What the revolution did was make everything that much more dramatic. With that in the background, people’s actions acquire a heightened importance because the stakes have been raised. This means that we get to see more of their underlying character. All three – Blake, Lee Yong and Reda – are forced to make decisions that shape the rest of their live. And that’s what the novel is really about.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about how you made the leap from novella to novel and why you shifted from comedy to drama?
A: What you’re seeing is the order of publication and not necessarily the order in which things were written. I’ve actually completed five novels but the other four are not yet in a good enough state to let loose (I’m working on it!). Although I must admit, the novellas were a form of ‘practice’ for the real thing.
When you talk about comedy, I presume you mean Feria. That’s actually a one-off and I’ve never attempted another humorous book. It was fun though, and maybe I should try it again but for the moment I’m completely focused on my ‘serious’ works.
Q:As I was reading the book, I had flashes of Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter, Carver’s Cathedral and even Souief’s Eye of the Sun. I could also see signs of Hemingway in the cleanness of your prose. Did any of these writers influence your work?
A: I’m afraid I’m not familiar with the pieces you mention (I’ll have to look them up). Of course I’m aware of Hemingway and I read a lot of his work when I was younger (I’m flattered by the way). I do attempt a ‘clean’ prose style, it’s true, but if I were to model myself on any one author it would be Richard Yates. His Revolutionary Road has to be the best-written book I think I’ve ever read. He tells us the story with such economy of style and yet such a richness of description. The prose is so good you don’t notice it and it doesn’t get in the way of your enjoyment of the action. If only I could achieve his mastery …
Q:What is your reaction to the expanding role of authors in book marketing? Are you seeing the same push in the UK to leverage social media (twitter, blogging, etc.) and do you find it effective?
A:Yes, social media has become de rigueur for all but the most successful authors in the UK – we ignore twitter and blogging at our peril. I give a talk at literature festivals entitled ‘The Modern Author – A Skill Set For The 21st Century’ in which I highlight the need for authors to do far more these days than simply write a good book. The key question for a publisher faced with two authors competing for the same book slot is Which one do I choose? Never mind the quality of the book, the answer is the one with more market presence ie. an active twitter account, a Facebook page and an up-to-date website. I don’t much like it but that’s the reality. I’m personally not too sure of its effectiveness either although I am aware of some authors who do well out of it.
Q: I’m a big fan of small presses, particularly those willing to take risks. Who stands out as a risk-taker and do you have any favorites?
A: I’m only aware of one small press – and that’s Stairwell Books. They were willing to take a risk with me so I think they’re brilliant!
Q: I know that you are very involved with York Authors and are active in several literary festivals. You’ve now taken on the blog and the Book Talk program with Radio York. How are you finding time to work on your two novels in progress?
A: As anyone who regularly reads my blog (Writing Life) will know, the writing always comes first. I’m at the desk at 6.30 every morning and with a short break for breakfast I usually go through until 11am. After that I can start on all the other stuff.
As to having two novels at the work in progress stage, I only work on one at a time. Last summer I wrote the first draft of Mälaren, a story set in Sweden. That’s currently resting while I revise As Dad Lay Dying which is something I started a few years ago. When that’s up to speed I’ll go back to Mälaren and finish it off. I have a total of eight books in mind and I’m gradually working my way through them.
Q; As if you were tagging a blog post, give me what’s next for Nick David in six words.
A: Believe it or not, this is the hardest question of all. How about ‘Write, Eat, Sleep, Tweet, Die Happy’.
Find David on twitter @NEDavidAuthor or on Radio York for a monthly BookTalk with Elly Fiorentini. The next broadcast is March 10th. Check it out! And remember to pick up your copy of the book. Available from Amazon US and Amazon UK.
***If you are an author and would like to have your book reviewed, please send an inquiry to firstname.lastname@example.org. I am especially interested in small press publications and would like to feature more work by female writers and Indigenous peoples.