Ann Lingard is that all too rare breed of person today; a polymath. A zoologist by education, she has worked as a journalist and broadcaster. Her name may be familiar to some as during the mid-1990s, she wrote the column ‘Walking the Dog’ for The Oxford Times magazine Limited Edition and presented a Radio Oxford Saturday show about the countryside .

Since 2001, she has lived on a small-holding in North-west Cumbria with her husband John Lackie, where they keep Hebridean and Herdwick sheep and run a consultancy together that specialises in bringing together scientists and creative practitioners. A keen walker/mountaineer, she weaves rugs and wall-hangings using fleeces from her own and local sheep. Last, but by no means least, she also writes novels.

The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes is her fifth, and rather extraordinary. In contemporary Cumbria, she explores the interweaving lives of Lisa, an achondroplasic (dwarf) mathematician, taxidermist Ruth and Madeleine, a widowed sheep farmer. It is a rich, absorbing, intriguing novel that takes us into the worlds of academia, science and rural Cumbrian communities.

It brings together many facets of Ann’s different interests and it is clear that she has spent most of her 60 years observing, absorbing and pondering what goes on around her. She also has the writing gene; as shown by her ability to create and sustain various intriguing plot strands, her descriptions of nature and ability to capture dialogue. I find it difficult, therefore, to understand why she has had to resort to self-publishing this novel.

The answer is apparently to do with the supposed unpopularity of science. Publishers don’t like it, thinking it will be difficult to sell, according to Ann. “A commissioning editor at a well-respected publishing house absolutely loved it. She loved the description, the story, but she said it was impossible to sell complex stories.”

I find this difficult to understand. There is indeed a lot of science in the book, but as a non-scientist, I found it fascinating.

It was interesting to see how Madeleine changed from the practically mute depressive in the opening pages to confident farmer. Lisa was my favourite character — and not just because of the way she deals every day with other people’s attitudes towards her dwarfism. All of them felt like real people, whom I would want to know. And they were dealing with authentic issues; from everyday problems like relationships and family rivalry to the impact of foot-and-mouth on the local Cumbrian community and the implications of unravelling the genome for people like Lisa. One of my favourite scenes in the book is when two of Lisa’s friends compose a piece of music based on her genomic code and she and Ruth gently poke fun at it afterwards.

Ann, who lived in Islip for ten years, likes what she calls the balance of Oxford and the proximity to some fantastic libraries. “What I didn’t like and still don’t like is the busyness; too much traffic, too many people and people not having time to stop and talk.” She thinks it’s important not only to do that with people, but also to stop, look and question what is about you. “If you go to Islip and walk across the fields down to the river, you’ll find sea urchins and little shells,” she said. “There are so many wonderful things to stop and think about.”

Her arts-science liaison work is very important to her. “I think art and writing are different ways of getting across to the non-scientists what is so exciting and important and challenging about modern science.

“There are an awful lot of books with Victorian science in them, but I feel, ‘Let’s move on’. The world is run by science, really.” Her knowledge of the natural world shines through in the book. Where did she pick it all up? “My father was a biologist and taught biology and, looking back on my childhood, whenever we were out places, I suppose he was always poking around things and showing me things and that was just part of life. I suppose this observing and thinking about things came from that.”

I’ve been doing a bit of observation myself and wondering why the singer Cheryl Cole can be persuaded for £5m to ‘write’ a series of romantic novels, while absorbing, clever writers like Ann Lingard have to self-publish. How do publishers know science won’t sell if they don’t even try?

n The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes is published by Pen Press at £8.99. Ann will be speaking about science and history in fiction at the Oxford Literary Festival on April 2 with Oxford writer Rebecca Abrams, whose novel Touching Distance tells the story of an early medical pioneer.