authors, interviews

Emily Gale on Gisela Kaplan: Bird and Primate Scientist

Today’s visitor is author Emily Gale, author of books for children and teenagers. You might have read her the Eliza Bloom’s Diaries series, or the novel The Other Side of Summer. Emily Gale’s latest book is Gisela Kaplan: Bird and Primate Scientist, part of the Aussie STEM Stars series.

From the publisher:

Gisela Kaplan’s story begins in post-World War II Germany. Despite incredible challenges as a child, she retained a profound curiosity, care and compassion for all living things. Her captivating, ground-breaking scientific research on Australian magpies, tawny frogmouths and other iconic bird species, as well as primates, make Prof. Kaplan a world-leading expert in animal behaviour, especially of Australian birds. Professor Kaplan is on a mission to spread the word about how intelligent and surprising birds are, before time runs out for many of them.

How did you go about your research for writing about Gisela Kaplan? 

I love research and all the different pathways it can take you down. The first thing I did was to listen to a radio interview in which Gisela Kaplan talks about how she became so interested in Australian birds that it changed her life (Conversations, ABC: Talking magpies, grieving tawny frogmouths and canny galahs). She’s written several books on birds and animals so I got those out of the library and made plenty of notes. I searched the internet for research articles that she’s written, and I also found a clip from a documentary about her work rehabilitating birds (google Compass: Paws For Thought if you want to see some clips of Gisela with a tawny frogmouth and some juvenile magpies). To immerse myself in what Gisela’s early life might have been like, I watched documentaries and movies about Germany in the 1940s to 1960s, and I spent hours and hours walking by the river near where I live so that I could observe to birds, listen to their sounds, and make notes on their behaviour. Most importantly, I had lots of phone calls with Gisela. I asked her dozens of questions about her life and work. All the research helped me to know which questions to ask.

Have you meet Gisela Kaplan in real life? (And Pumpkin?)

I’m very sad to say that I have not met Gisela, or Pumpkin the sulphur-crested cockatoo, or the lovely tawny frogmouth who has lived with Gisela for over twenty years. I wrote this book during lockdown in Victoria when we weren’t even allowed to go more than 5km from our homes, whereas Gisela lives in NSW. While I was writing the book we spoke for two hours at a time over several sessions. The time would go so quickly because Gisela is a wonderful storyteller and has had such an interesting life. We also emailed each other regularly throughout the process, and we still keep in touch.

When you’re writing an autobiography about someone like Gisela (who’s had such a broad range of experiences and achievements), how do you choose what to put into the book and what to leave out?  

As the book is for children aged 10 and over I wanted to include plenty of information about what Gisela was like at around that age. She was born during the Second World War, in Germany, and had a challenging childhood in many ways involving poverty, hunger and bullying, so I wanted to spend time showing how she overcame those struggles. 

You can’t always guess what career a person will go into, or what twists and turns there will be along the way, and I wanted to show young people that even if the journey to being a great scientist doesn’t start when you’re very young, or if it gets off-track, it doesn’t mean you’re not going to get there in the end. Gisela’s career path has gone from opera singing to teaching to roaming the jungle in search of orang-utans, and that’s all before we get to her world-famous research into Australian birds. So my aim was to write about those life-changing decisions. 

Of course, life also contains boring bits, or sad times like losing loved ones and suffering illness. In science there can be long periods of time when your research is frustrating or slow. I skipped all of that and focussed on the highlights and plot twists.

You also write fiction for young readers and teenagers. Did you find it a faster or slower process to write a nonfiction book?

I wrote the book quickly for two reasons: first of all, I had a tight deadline, and there is nothing like a deadline to make me get on with it! Second, when you’re writing fiction the possibilities are endless. In one way this is an incredible freedom and something I enjoy, but it also means you can go down all sorts of wrong pathways or tie yourself in knots finding the story (you have a sense of what that is, but it’s like playing hide n seek without knowing what you’re looking for). But when you’re writing about someone’s life, the possibilities are limited and you have to work with the facts. So it’s a case of collecting the facts, looking at them and shaping them into a narrative that people will enjoy reading just as much as they’d enjoy a made-up story.

What are you working on next?  

I’m working on another middle-grade novel similar to the one I’ve just written with Nova Weetman (Elsewhere Girls) in the sense that it takes place now but also has a strong connection to the past. The story is about a girl in Year 6. It starts during 2020 and the setting is a Melbourne school, so I’m writing about lockdown and all the upheaval of remote school, and how strange our lives were during that time. And then come the ghosts . . . I’ve written novels with ghost-like characters before and it’s something I keep coming back to because I loved stories like that when I was roughly 10–14: this one is a little bit more creepy and mysterious than The Other Side of Summer, but there are three lovely dogs, two cats and an eccentric grandmother to balance out the haunting. Since writing about Gisela Kaplan, I decided that the novel also needed a bird or two.


Take a sneak peek inside the book

Hear Emily Gale talking about the launch of the book (YouTube)

Listen to the call of a tawny frogmouth (Wild Ambience YouTube)

Visit Emily Gale’s website for more about her and her books

Gisela Kaplan Bird and primate scientist, story told by Emily Gale (book cover)