Dara McAnulty: They asked, ‘Do you want to turn your blog into a book?’ I was like, ‘sure’

The award-winning author takes Patrick Freyne on a beach walk to talk about writing, autism and the wonder of the natural world

I’m walking on a beach in Co Down with Dara McAnulty, the 18-year-old author of the award-winning memoir Diary of a Young Naturalist. It’s a sunny day. He’s got binoculars around his neck. As we walk, he points out where the seals come in at low tide and he tells me about the birds who frequent the beach — turnstones, endangered curlews, oyster catchers and sanderlings. I tell him I recently heard a corncrake. “I heard one once in Rathlin [island],” he says. “It was magical. There was once one in every field.”

Diary of a Young Naturalist, which won the 2020 Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing and the 2021 Best Narrative Non-Fiction Book of the Year at the British Book Awards, is a beautifully-written book that follows McAnulty’s life over a year, season by season. It’s about the replenishing power of nature and the need to protect the planet, but it also deals with the hard time he was having as an autistic teenager dealing with bullying, coping with a big family move and managing his mental health. He’s about to publish the second of two children’s books, A Wild Child’s Book of Birds. It’s a follow-up to Wild Child: A Journey Through Nature. Both are gorgeously illustrated by Barry Falls and McAnulty found them “a lot more fun to write”.

His memoir involved a lot more emotion. It began as a real diary, a daily blog. “When they asked, ‘Do you want to turn your blog into a book?’ I was like, ‘sure’, thinking at the time, it’d be a small thing, that I’d write it pretty quickly ... Little did I know that I enjoyed writing a lot and I just kept on going ... I told myself I would be completely honest in the book and put everything that was me into the book, and that does get tiring after a while because I went through a hard period during the Diary, and I felt I had an obligation to write it down.”

I struggle with bright lights. Neon colours really do not mesh with my brain. Out in nature everything’s more muted

He’s been someone who writes for almost as long as he can remember. “Because I didn’t like speaking to people.” He laughs. “I’ve gotten better at it, but I really did not like talking. So I wrote things down. I would write all that was going on in my mind ... I had all these ideas ... I was taking notes about nature. I tend not to experience anything fully the first time around, so when I write something down, I relive it again. It helps me understand exactly what’s going on.”


There are pros and cons to this. Reliving things is nice when it’s a happy experience, less so when it’s something painful. In the Summer section of the memoir, he says, “I was mentally not okay. And I feel like that feeds into how I was writing. I was a bit manic in my writing. I was a bit chaotic. Sentences didn’t always line up properly. I remember when I was doing the audio book, Summer was really hard to read aloud because of how I was writing it.” He laughs. “And then when you get to Winter, I was so much more calm. I sort of see myself improving as the diary goes on.”

Did he realise he was having a hard time when he was writing it? “I think anybody who’s ever had mental health difficulties knows that you don’t know you’re in the pit until you’re out of the pit,” he says. “There’s a specific bit in the book when [the family] was just about to move [house] and I accidentally crush a grasshopper. And I still feel that pain, of wrenching myself from my home and losing a sense of place that really hurt to my bones, and the bullying ... I sort of just wanted to put it on the page. I still don’t understand it if I’m completely honest.”

He has always found solace in nature. One of his earliest memories is of seeing the shadow of a blackbird through the curtains. “It’s that zone of memory where your parents have to fill in half of it for you. I remember most of it perfectly, but it feels like it’s a fuzzy thing. Did this actually happen? Is this a dream? I watched a blackbird shadow through the curtain. The street light had lit it up. It was early morning. And I ran outside to see the blackbird and it was singing on an electric pole. And I remember, really vividly, how incredible this bird was. Every day, I’d just listen to it and one day it stopped singing because blackbirds don’t sing all year round, much to my great disappointment. I was so confused. I did what I knew how to do, which was read ... to try to work out why it stopped singing. It started my thirst for knowledge where I wanted to learn everything. I know now that it’s impossible to know everything but at five, boy did I try.”

Why is nature so soothing? “I’m autistic, and a lot of the colours and the sounds in cities and human landscapes I really struggle with. I struggle with bright lights. Neon colours really do not mesh with my brain. Out in nature everything’s more muted. Where we are now there’s not that many massively bright colours. And so I can actually slow down I can process everything a little bit more. I can actually think rather than constantly having to process everything that’s coming in at me.”

How does he think about being autistic? “It’s just the way I am,” he says. “Sometimes I experience things a little bit more intensely. Sometimes I mess up in conversation. Sometimes it helps me see patterns in the world around me ... I’ve never really thought too much about it. Obviously my brain works a little bit differently to other people. But I’ve never really let that get in my way. It’s just when other people get involved it’s a problem. I have had autistic people coming back to me saying they really like my book. It’s hard to describe how special that is to me.” He laughs. “And obviously autistic people are all different from each other. I’ve met autistic people who love loud noises. I on the other hand cannot stand them.”

The old idea of ‘talent’ is a bit of a lie. It’s all about the hard work you put into something that makes you good at it

We stop at some rocks so that The Irish Times photographer can take some photos. McAnulty bends down and points to some tiny shrimp in a little pool of water in the rock. I ask, because I know nothing, “What exactly are shrimp?”

“Little crustacean things. They grow. They get bigger. They have exoskeletons and when they grow they’ve got to shed their exoskeletons. These are little baby ones.”

McAnulty thinks curiosity is at the bottom of everything he does. “The greatest motivator of doing something is curiosity,” he says. “The old idea of ‘talent’ is a bit of a lie. It’s all about the hard work you put into something that makes you good at it, and I think curiosity is the thing that gets you to do stuff. If I wasn’t curious about nature, I wouldn’t have spent all my time out there and then I wouldn’t have written about it.”

Why did he enjoy writing the children’s books so much? “I just wanted to show how incredible the natural world is, without the tendency of the nature documentary to say at the very end [he puts on a deep voice] ‘and they’re all going to die’. I feel like most people know that the world is in danger at this point. But I wanted to give people the motivation to work to protect the planet. Children inherit the earth, so I want to instil wonder, so when they grow up they’ll want to protect this world as well.”

One of the themes in Diary of a Young Naturalist is his own struggle to know how to help the planet. “I was set on the idea that if I want to help the world, I’ve got to be out in the streets, protesting and making angry speeches. Then I sort of realised [that] the other way of motivating people is through art and writing. If we save the world, a big old hypothetical ‘if’, what was the reason that we did that? If we did it because of fear, what happens when the fear is gone? But if we save the world because of wonder, wonder persists after the danger is gone. We’ll be more likely to protect future generations again and again afterwards.”

He thinks that many adults’ lives are hindered by an idea that “joy” is a childish emotion. “A lot of people think it’s not okay to feel joy. This idea of wonder, of asking the question why,” he says. “It’s something that you do a lot as a kid. Why is the sky blue? Why is lightning? But as we get older, we feel embarrassed to not know something, so we sort of put that wonder at the back of your mind. Pride gets in the way. There’s this idea you should walk into a room and know everything that’s going on and feel confident. But in reality, we know very little. It’s important to ask the question, ‘Why?’ Otherwise, we learn nothing. Wonder is seen as childish, because it makes us ask the question: why is this like this? Not knowing something but being fascinated by it, not having a complete understanding, that’s wonder.”

McAnulty’s worldview is full of wonder. It’s a little bit mythic, in fact, and myths are very important to him. “Before the age of 10, I was reading fact books,” he says. “Have you ever seen the I, Witness books? I read all of them. I would just go out to the library, pick up five, go back next week and pick up another five. I just devoured them and then eventually I was like: okay, I’d better read something else. I had put all this information in my head, but I’d never really seen too much creative expression. And so I started reading myths, predominantly Greek, Celtic, Egyptian and a bit of Norse as well. Myths are one of my primary literary influences. I scattered it throughout the Diary and the Book of Birds as well. I love all those stories so much. It was sort of how I learned about humans, I didn’t talk a lot, which is kind of scary that I learned most of what I know about humans from myths.” He laughs. “But myth is where all ideas of human concepts can be condensed into their purest form.”

Could he elaborate about how myths helped him to understand people? “A lot of people are born with all their social skills intact,” he says. “They know how to navigate a conversation and what specific eye movements to use, their posture, how to communicate things in body language. I really did not have any of that. How to navigate a complicated social interaction, I really struggled with. But then, reading myths, I was drawn into this other side of human social interaction and people that I’d neglected. And that’s just pure, simple emotions that I hadn’t really thought about. I had it all down to this technical view that I almost wrote down. Myths sort of shattered that and revealed to me that we’re all rather complex. I was so used to my little fact brain putting everything in their nice little boxes, and labelling everything nicely, and organising everything perfectly and I thought I could do that with humans. You can’t.” He laughs. “Myths taught me that. They sort of myth busted it.”

Maybe I’ll become a communicator or maybe I’ll take myself from the public and live out my days as a science researcher

He has moved on from myths to novels, particularly fantasy and sci-fi. He loves Neil Gaiman. He’s just read The Lord of the Rings. “It has a massive nature focus for me. People say The Lord of the Rings is a bit slow, but I like to think it’s written from the perspective of an Ent [the big slow tree creatures in that series]. It’s almost like a tree’s perspective on the world.” He’s read the Dune series which also has an ecological message at its core. “At the back of the book Frank Herbert has a complete ecological analysis of the Dune planet, because Dune is essentially about climate change. It’s from the 60s, might I add”

What about his own literary future? He has another idea for an adult book. “It will be a difficult book. Possibly too ambitious. It may come out in the next three years or the next 10.” McAnulty laughs.

More immediately he’s been accepted into Cambridge University to study natural sciences, which he’s very happy about. And then? “I’ll do something in the realm of biology, but that’s all I’m prepared to say. Maybe I’ll become a communicator or maybe I’ll take myself from the public and live out my days as a science researcher. I don’t know. I’ll still keep writing, but it’s just whether people will see it.”

How does he feel about going to Cambridge? “A bit nervous. But the terms are only eight weeks. When I moved [house] in the Diary, I was full of terror and fear. And there’s a little bit of that, but it’s a lot less. I’m excited to explore somewhere new.”

As we’re talking about this, we’re back on the busy roadway to his family home. He stops to pick up a dead butterfly from the path. “A small tortoiseshell,” he says. He puts it gently on to the stone wall. Why did he do that? “Just a bit of respect. A bit of respect goes a long way.”

A Wild Child’s Book of Birds written by Dara McAnulty and illustrated by Barry Falls is published by Pan Macmillan

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne is a features writer with The Irish Times