Nicola Harvey is an experienced media executive, producer and writer working across digital, audio, print and live events.
She’s also the author of Farm: the making of a climate activist which chronicles Nicola and her husband Pat’s journey after they leave their inner city Sydney lives to farm cattle in rural New Zealand.
But Nicola’s book is far more than a memoir; it’s actually a deep dive into food, farming and climate change and the many challenges Nicola faced while trying to become a cattle-farming environmentalist.
Speaking from her farm in New Zealand, Nicola talked to Australian Rural and Regional News contributor Serena Kirby about the writing process and the incredible amount of work that went into writing her book.
She also offered some wise words to other first-time authors.
ARR.News: How did your media background help in getting this book written and published?
Nicola Harvey: I’ve had a 20 year career of just working my way up a ladder, learning the skills, learning the craft. Not only was I learning the skills of how to really stretch my storytelling and improve my reporting capabilities, but I was building a network, making contacts and I was building trust with people who were rising up the ranks alongside me.
When the time came that I felt I had a big enough story I reached out to a contact who I’d worked with for a number of years. She paired me with an editor, Marika Webb-Pullman, and I cannot thank her enough. That’s what the 20 years were all about – getting to the position where someone trusted me enough to recommend me to another colleague of theirs. And I have to add that it was a very happy relationship.
ARR.News: With all that was going on with the farm how on earth did you find time to write? How did you record information and were you jotting down notes as you went?
Nicola Harvey: My formal writing hours involved 5:00 am starts and then I’d write until my daughter woke up – she was about six months old at the time – so some days I might get an hour, some days, it’d be three or four. Then, when I was deep into the project, I’d carve out a couple more hours during the day and try to do five hours writing a day.
In terms of recording all of the information I’d love to say I had a really fancy method for doing it. I didn’t. My research documents were links that I posted to myself in the Messenger app and then I’d have notebook after notebook of just notes and observations. And, when I was out on the farm my Instagram account was where I was posting regularly and writing about what I was looking at so that acted as a record for me to refer back to.
ARR.News: Your book has an extensive number of research references. Did you print copies of all those research reports and how did you keep track of them when inserting them into the book?
Nicola Harvey: For some of the reports I created a summary but for some of the very dense academic and scientific reports, I printed copies. I kept three large boxes of documentation as I needed something tangible to refer back to, especially when the editing notes came back and I had to restructure the whole book. I actually used a piece of software called Scrivener, which is incredible. I highly recommend it to anyone who’s writing big projects as it helped me arrange all the footnoting and everything in a very user-friendly manner. I could pull big chunks of the story out of the chapter and pull it into another chapter and all of the information would move with it. I can’t recommend that program highly enough. It was a life saver for me.
ARR.News: Writing a heavily researched, non-fiction book takes a lot of time. Do you think you spent more time researching than writing the book?
Nicola Harvey: I think it was probably about equal in the end because of the rewrites. It also depends on how you quantify research. You know, research began for me as soon as I got off the plane when we first arrived in New Zealand from Australia because the process of observing and trying to understand our environment, my environment, and trying to understand and read the signs of what the land was telling us was a form of research in itself.
ARR.News: I really enjoyed how you referenced the change of seasons to convey the passage of time. Was that something that you decided to do from the outset or did it just happen as you went along?
Nicola Harvey: I purposefully wanted to structure the book around that passage of time because that was what was most noticeable. To me, when I moved from the city onto the land, the seasonal changes were very defined. I don’t think people necessarily notice or appreciate that if you’re living in urban spaces. When your business is either farming or your life is lived around the land you notice these things so I wanted to use that as a narrative device through the book in order to try and encourage people to appreciate how different knowledge systems can be when you’re living outside the city.
ARR.News: Now that you have time to look back is there anything that helped or hindered your writing process?
Nicola Harvey: I’d have to say that I think I got in my own way and perhaps this is something that other writers can empathise with. You think you’ve got something and then the doubt starts creeping in and there were moments where I couldn’t find the story amongst all of the information.
That’s why you have a good editor and that’s why you have people reading what you’ve written and feeding comments back into your work. Even though there’s just one name on the cover of the book, it’s more often than not actually a deeply collaborative process. When I realised that and I opened myself up to it, it filled me with a bit more optimism that I could finish the book. I came to realise that the book didn’t need to change the world. It just needed to be a good story.
ARR.News: And how do you find the process of writing? Does it energise or exhaust you?
Nicola Harvey: There’s a moment when I get into a rhythm, where I can lose hours. It’s the tunnel and I find it exhilarating and, you know, I just love it. That’s that moment where you think, oh, this is like the best thing – this is the best job in the world. And then afterwards you feel exhausted because you’re literally pouring everything into it and you’ve often been sitting there tense because you don’t want to lose the flow and don’t want to forget anything so I’d have to say it’s both exhilarating and incredibly exhausting.
ARR.News: Now that your book is published, do you have advice for other first time authors who are embarking on a book-writing journey?
Nicola Harvey: Absolutely! Do not underestimate how much work is involved and how much of a labour of love it has to be. The reality of the publishing sector in 2023 is that the advances are small – if they exist at all – especially for narrative non-fiction. The process of refining the document requires that you do so much work after you think you’ve finished and often it requires you to employ your own fact checker and your own sub editor. I would say to other first time authors – ‘eyes wide open’!
And don’t forget to register for your library royalties and be prepared to hang in there for the long ride. If it took you three years to write it, it might take you three more to see the book’s potential so embrace the years after you’ve released a book. You never know what’s going to happen to that story and what it will lead to.
Related story: Review – Farm – the making of a climate activist
This author interview is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.