I now interrupt my regular schedule to bring you a special interview. As promised, here is my email chat with H.S. Toshack. If you love animal books, and especially if you enjoyed Watership Down by Richard Adams, seek out the Paka Mdogo stories. You will not be disappointed!
Allison: What took you to the Caribbean, Africa, Thailand, the Middle East, and now Portugal?
H.S. Toshack: Here’s a general answer to begin with: a desire to engage with worlds beyond the one I grew up in.
Why those particular places, however? They all offered a combination of rich experiences and equally rich professional opportunities – in other words the chance to work with words, books and young people in new ways and in fascinating settings.
I can now move easily through all of those worlds, in both my memory and my imagination. Sheena and I have been back to Africa three times now, in the Paka Mdogo stories. We’ll possibly go to Thailand next; but I’d very much like to return with her to the Caribbean, where she was born. The Middle East? Yes – there are lots of adventures to be had there. Portugal? Well, that’s a place to retire to, and neither of us is quite ready to do that. (Sorry – I’ve strayed somewhat from the question…)
Allison: What is your best most vivid memory of each place? Why?
H.S. Toshack: The Caribbean: Scuba diving through a dark, coral-fringed tunnel and coming out seventy feet down a sheer wall into clear blue water among shoals of bright, busy fish. That, too, is a rich and different world: I’m trying to figure out a plausible way of taking Sheena there; and together we may be able to do it justice in words.
Africa: Sitting among chimpanzees on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. I felt very much put in my place – they looked deep into my eyes, then through me as a creature of little importance.
Thailand: Walking the track of the Death Railway through Kanchanaburi and towards the Burmese border. There are many ghosts there, and no birds sing.
The Middle East: Sand dunes. Sand dunes beyond sand dunes. Always changing.
Portugal: Fado, as heard in the barrios of Oporto. Fado? A very mournful, sometimes satirical folk style, much in keeping with the current mood in the country (as elsewhere, sadly).
Allison: How did you come to know so much about meerkats and the other animals you wrote about?
H.S. Toshack: Meerkats – by reading. Many of the other animals – by spending time among them, on our many free-range safaris.
Allison: How did Sheena come into your life?
H.S. Toshack: At the risk of being too lengthy, here’s the story, as told within a poem (also free-range) I wrote about her some years ago:
(From a party with another party brewing)
To my car,
On a New Year’s Eve,
Under hot Caribbean stars,
Hear a mewing
Shivering in the shadows and the clear night air
A kitten –
Black and white it seems,
But the light from the new constellations
Dapples it indigo and sea-wash blue.
My mood turns sentimental when I hear its cries,
See the fleas in its matted fur
And the fear in its star-bright eyes.
I must pluck it from its plight:
It must come home,
Come home with me
(At the risk of another of its lives
Since it is night
And I am between parties
With miles to drive
On bad roads where people are mad with rum
Did it curl and settle in my hands
When I stooped and picked it up?
I remember it so: whether it did or not
I have no way
And it could not have guessed
Where it was going…
Allison: The Meerkat Wars has a strong theme. How did you avoid being preachy in your message?
H.S. Toshack: By letting Sheena do all the preaching (and there’s a fair bit of it – she’s very opinionated).
Allison: What is one thing I haven’t asked that you would like readers to know about you?
H.S. Toshack: ‘What do you enjoy most about writing?’
Finding the best words, putting them in the best order…and then, the next day, finding even better words and a better order.
Allison: I absolutely love The Meerkat Wars! Thanks for the opportunity to read it and to interview you. I will be buying the first two books about Sheena.
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