Allison's Book Bag

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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:
I walk
(From a party with another party brewing)
To my car,
On a New Year’s Eve,
Under hot Caribbean stars,
Hear a mewing
And find
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
And starlight).

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
Of knowing;
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.

When Cadence Group first contacted me about reviewing The Meerkat Wars, I also had the option of requesting a guest post or an interview. Given that the only guest post that I have featured appeared in January 2010, I thought it might about time to offer one again.

After I finished reading The Meerkat Wars and started preparing teasers, I realized that far too little information existed online about this talented author. I wanted to know more! Immediately, I emailed Cadence Group to ask if I could also interview H.S. Toshack. The answer was yes. Expect an interview in about another week.

In the meantime, enjoy this special post from H.S. Toshack.

I’m advised that each of my blog posts should be unique. I’ll try to make this one different from my others, then – but I’ll quite possibly stray back into things I’ve already said somewhere else (sorry in advance), and particularly into areas that are important to me as a writer, since some of them are always important, and matter even when I’m writing a blog.

Let me play safe to begin with, however, and make a point I know I haven’t made elsewhere.

We shouldn’t write unless we have something worthwhile to say. That’s true of blogs as well as essays, poems, novels – and journalism; and in respect particularly of the latter an additional point is that we shouldn’t try too hard to find something to say. Journalists who do that can find themselves stretching both the law and human decency in pursuit of a ‘story’ (as I write this, the official inquiry into phone hacking in the U.K. is trundling on in the background).

Of course this is far from a new idea. Thomas Hardy, whose stories are always worth the reading, saw story-tellers as ‘Ancient Mariners’ who are ‘not warranted in stopping Wedding Guests (in other words, the hurrying public’ unless they have  something unusual to tell.

Sheena says something similar in her yet-to-be published Little Book of Aphorisms: ‘You have no excuse for not writing when you have something to say. The converse is also true.’

You know who Thomas Hardy is. But Sheena?

Sheena’s the clever and cheeky little cat heroine of The Meerkat Wars, the latest book in my Paka Mdogo series for children…and young adults…and old adults. She knows what she’s talking about: in all three stories so far she says some very important things.

‘How can she? She’s only a cat,’ you’re maybe thinking. ‘That comment about writing and not writing – that doesn’t even sound like a cat!’

Well perhaps you’re right there – she may have to reword that adage before she publishes it: she does need to speak with an authentic voice. But an authentic voice for a cat doesn’t need to be restricted to a series of miaows. It simply needs to be the voice the cat would have if cats could speak; and more importantly it needs to be the voice that particular cat would have, saying the things that cat, and only that cat, would say.

If I tell you that in Paka Mogo – Little Cat Sheena has very firm ideas about how old members of a community (in this case, a pride of lions) should be treated; in The Gradual Elephant she ponders the problems of growing up (for a young elephant…and for a young anything); in The Meerkat Wars she lectures two warring meerkat tribes on why they should learn to live peaceably together; then you may accept that at least she deals with some substantial topics.

When I wrote that last book I very much had in mind what’s happening in such disparate places as Palestine, Egypt, Bahrain (I’ve just returned from five weeks there) and, nearer to me and on a thankfully much smaller scale, Glasgow. Here’s what Sheena has to say to the Duwara and Utongo meerkat tribes, who have begun to fight because each believes it lives under The One True Sun:

     ‘You are very close to destroying one another, just because each of you believes your own tribe is better since it lives under a better sun.

     ‘If you knew that you were living under the same sun, maybe that belief would change. Maybe you would begin to see that the things you have in common are much more important than the things that make you different. Maybe you’d do more sharing and less shouting. Maybe you would learn to live for the future rather than in the past.’

I hope her voice, there, sounds authentic (as defined earlier); more importantly, however, I hope you’ll agree that she’s saying something worthwhile.

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