Goldie Origins

Growing up in a birder’s paradise like New Zealand fostered Sean Monaghan’s curiosity and appreciation for avian life. In this interview, Monaghan tells our editor how the story of one spectacular osprey inspired him to write Goldie, his new novella available [in our January February issue, on sale now!]

by Sean Monaghan

Some years ago I came across a wonderful natural history book by Helen Armitage, Lady of the Loch—The Incredible Story of Britain’s Oldest Osprey (Constable, 2011), about an osprey, Lady, whose tenacity, endurance and patience was quite extraordinary.

The ospreys are migratory birds, traveling each year between northern Africa and Scotland. I understand that. Images I’ve seen of the Scottish winter would make the warm climes closer to the equator quite attractive to a bird of prey.

Scotland’s very nice, I hear, but I would be the same in winter: get me closer to the equator. In New Zealand we have milder winters and I still find myself seeking out warmth.

Coming from New Zealand, I’ve grown up surrounded with birds. They are the dominant natural fauna here. Save for a small bat, we have no native mammals, and save for one shy spider that lives only in the dunes, we have nothing venomous and out to bite you (I’m thinking here of our close neighbors in Australia, where it seems that every second creature you come across would love to inject poison into your bloodstream).

As with the Scottish ospreys, many of New Zealand’s birds are fabulously migratory. Some stay on the wing for weeks as they cross the Pacific from Alaska or Russia. I’m fortunate to live a half hour’s drive from Foxton Estuary, recognized as being wetland of international significance for the birds which fly in to breed each year. Plovers, knots, godwits, spoonbills and others. Over ninety species of birds call the estuary home (though those migratory ones, only for part of the year).

It’s a treat to visit and wander the path at the estuary’s edge and watch the birds feeding on the mudflats. I’m no birder, but there are plenty of others who are. They stride along with powerful lenses and cameras and identification books, and are always thrilled to share their knowledge.

I’ve learned more from their enthusiasm than from anything I’ve read.

The story of Lady and her endurance really engaged me. For one, ospreys are stunningly beautiful birds—one of the photos of Lady she looks like a grumpy teen, with her feathers seeming to be “gelled” into spikes, her upper eyelid slightly curved down and her bill a hook that seems ready to make short work of a hapless rabbit, weasel or starling.

Lady has a real personality, and she returns year after year from Africa to raise new chicks. A record-breaking twenty years. In the period related in the book, she accepts a new suitor, Laird, a much younger, but enthusiastic male osprey. Laird is somewhat bumbling. He struggles with catching fish. He manages to bash Lady’s head with sticks as he attempts to woo her with his clumsy attempts at nest building.

The story is a wonderful, moving document of an individual bird’s resilience in the face of a changing environment.

Reading about Lady’s trials and dogged toughness, I wanted to see if I could tell a story about that kind of tenacity.

Being a science fiction writer, I knew there were opportunities to borrow something of Lady’s story and give it a whole different take.

After a couple of false starts I found the place where there was a true story. I’ve always loved creating complex environments, and discovering the vast broken plateaus of Karella, and the ecosystems there was fascinating.

Reading about Lady’s trials and dogged toughness, I wanted to see if I could tell a story about that kind of tenacity.

As I’d borrowed from the Scottish landscape, I also freely borrowed from Venezuela and Guyana’s. The table mountains—tepui—in the highlands are remarkable for their scale and ecosystems. Already made famous in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, where explorers reach the summit to discover isolated worlds where dinosaurs have survived (Michael Crichton borrowed the title for his Jurassic Park sequel).

More recently, the tepui featured in the Disney/Pixar film Up, again with lost fauna and somewhat whimsical landscapes.

The tepui are home to the world’s tallest uninterrupted waterfall, Angel Falls (a version of which appears in Up). Looking at photos of the falls, you get a real sense of the sheer scale of the cliffs and the isolation they create for the mountain plateaus above.

Of course I happily took liberties the the landscape. This is on another world, after all. Karella’s mountains are higher, closer and much more numerous. The geological processes that carved up the old plateau are, trust me, quite reasonable. I think. The division between the ecosystems above and below, is just what you would find. The dense rainforests below, and the hardy and tough meadows and diminutive trees in copses clinging to the rocky surface above.

I did enjoy writing about Karella’s landforms, the flora, and most especially the fauna. The place and the story almost let me feel right at home.

I do hope you enjoy reading “Goldie,” and thanks for letting me share some of the story’s background here.

Sean Monaghan is a New Zealand-based writer of science fiction, fantasy, and thrillers. His work has perviously appeared in Asimov’s and elsewhere. Find out more about Sean at his website []

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