Thank you to H. S. Toshack (‘The Meerkat Wars’) for his willingness to be interviewed and his insightful answers.
1.) Why did you write this book? What initiated this particular burst of creativity?
Basically because I so much enjoyed writing the first two books in the Paka Mdogo series. I should talk about them first of all.
I lived and worked in Africa for ten years, and still miss the continent. Mankind may or may not have originated there, but I felt during those years that I had returned home. Waking up in the Serengeti or the Selous and stepping out of your tent onto the savannah and into the early sunlight is to emerge once more into a very young, and very pure, world.
Then there was Sheena. She was our cat in the Caribbean, and a very special animal (I have stories to tell). So when we moved to Africa she had to come with us. We couldn’t take her on safari. But I fell to wondering (much later) – what if we could have done? What if she had got lost in a Game Park? What adventures might she have had?
So came the first story, Paka Mdogo – Little Cat. It told itself, or rather Sheena told it through me: I had the very strange experience of being not a narrator but a medium.
Why did I enjoy writing it, then? Because it took me back to Africa; and because it brought Sheena alive for me once more.
The second story, The Gradual Elephant, came as easily, and as joyfully.
My third ‘burst of creativity’ began with a great unhappiness. I watch and read the news, and ask myself, ‘Why do we do these things to each other?’
‘Because we see other people, other cultures, other nations as very different from us,’ I answer.
‘But they aren’t, really,’ another voice inside me said, last year…and it was Sheena speaking.
So she began to tell another story, about the time she befriended the Duwara, a meerkat tribe, and found they were at war with the Utongo, a rival tribe – for several reasons, none of which she could see as justifying the terrible things they were doing to each other. She decided to do something about that.
2.) All your books seem to be for kids, why did you choose this particular genre?My earlier writing has largely been for older (pre-University) students – literature resources to help them prepare for those tricky things, exams. There’s been some travel poetry as well, including, of course, a collection of African poems. Writing for children, however…well that too is like stepping into a younger, purer world, where words are fresh and powerful for your readers, and there’s a good chance they will be amused by your jokes, however questionable.
3.) What was the most difficult part about writing a book?
These books? The research. I don’t find it easy to acquire or retain facts, so I had to make lots of notes. Then you have to be selective – there’s so much information out there. It’s easy to overburden your writing with detail. The story’s the thing.
4.) Do you have a favorite character in the book and if so why?
Obviously it’s Paka Mdogo – ‘Little Cat’ – Sheena. I’ve described her in the book blurbs as ‘a clever and cheeky little black-and-white cat’, and in my press release as ‘a cat for all seasons’; but only the stories can do her justice.
5.) What do you like the most about writing?
Enjoying the stories as they develop. Writing them is more like reading them: it’s an act of discovery. Then there’s putting together the words. And moving them around. And changing some of them. And giving them a last touch before ‘fixing’ them ready for printing.
6.) Where do your new story ideas come from?
Somewhere. Here’s a quote from Paka Mdogo, about Sheena: ‘She had a little dark place at the back of her mind where ideas were born.’ Me too.
7.) What advice has helped the most in your writing?
What I’ve taken from E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. The book is a direct, simple and authentic account of how fiction works.
8.) This seems to be your third book, do you have something new in the works?
More Paka Mdogo stories. I have a very clear idea of what the last book in the series will be about (it’ll be an enormously difficult one to write) – but I want to take Sheena to several places beyond Africa before that. Or rather, I’ll let her take me.
9.) Who is your favorite author and why?
Jane Austen, because of both her style (humorous, exact, elegant) and her narrative control (unfailing).
10.) What advice would you give for the want to be writer?
Enjoy your writing for its own sake.