Q & A
These are questions I get asked a lot, so I thought I’d answer them all here. Then you’ll have to come up with new ones!
Did you really have a pet giraffe when you were growing up?
Yes, I really did! Her name was Jenny. You could get within about six feet of her but you couldn’t touch her. We lived on a farm that had a hundred acre game reserve on it and I used to spend hours and hours there riding my horse, reading, painting or just watching the animals. One time I was sitting leaning against a tree, lost in a book, and Jenny came up behind me and put her head around the trunk. I looked up and saw a pair of giraffe eyes level with mine. I’m not sure which of us got more of a fright and a second later she was bounding away, but the magic of the moment has stayed with me ever since.
Have you ever ridden a giraffe?
Uh, no! But I’d like to. But only if it were completely surrounded by big squashy mattresses so I’d have a soft landing if I fell off. Having said that, I’d very much like to race through the moonlight on a sweet-natured white giraffe like Jemmy.
How did you become a writer?
It’s kind of a miracle, because I spent most of my school days staring out of the window, dreaming about being a pop singer or a famous horse rider, and trying to come up with ever more ingenious ways to get out of doing homework and escape from the grounds of my boarding school. I left when I was 16. However, I absolutely loved reading and I had a wonderful, inspirational English teacher. Because of those two things I always had it in my head that I’d write a book one day. My mum persuaded me to go to journalism school when I was 18 and I wrote my first book when I was 22.
I bet you think that’s really old!
Do you prefer writing for kids or adults?
I enjoy writing for adults but I absolutely love writing for children. It’s incredibly rewarding. I get the best letters from kids and it helps so much when I’m battling to meet a deadline.
Where do you get your ideas?
People always ask writers where they get their ideas from, but most writers I know have too many ideas. I certainly do. That doesn’t mean they’re all good ideas – in fact, most of them are really bad – but every other week I think, Oh, maybe I could do a book on this singer I think is amazing, or maybe I should investigate this injustice that I’ve read about, or maybe I should write a new children’s book series on…mmm, now that would be telling, wouldn’t it?!
Inspiration comes from the world around you, from newspaper or magazine articles (it’s definitely true that fact is stranger than fiction), from world events, from things that move you deeply, and from conversations with friends and family. For instance, I’ve just read a thriller where Harlan Coben, the author, said that the idea for the plot, which was about whether or not parents should monitor what their kids do or say online, came from a dinner party conversation. The book was a No.1 bestseller.
Do you have any advice on how to write a book?
The one you’ll hear from a lot of authors is, write about what you know. That definitely helps, but to me the most important thing is a love of reading. There are no good writers who are not good readers. In my opinion, reading teaches you about plot, characters and pace better than any writing school could do.
When I was growing up, I never went anywhere without a book. My favourites were adventure stories like the Famous Five and Secret Seven, and horse books like The Black Stallion and a brilliant Patricia Leitch series about a chestnut Arab horse and a girl called Jinny. We were stuck out in the middle of the African bush and my parents didn’t have much money, so I’d often read books to the end and then just turn around and start from the beginning again.
Who’s your favourite character in the White Giraffe series?
Ben, because he’s an outsider who’s had an awful time with bullies and yet he’s stayed true to himself and never stooped to their level. He’s honourable, brave and kind and doesn’t waste a minute of his day worrying what other people think of him. He’s also an incredibly loyal friend, which I think is important.
Are you like Martine?
Not really. The main thing we have in common is our love of animals and a passion for saving them. Also, she’s a bit of a tomboy, which I was too.
Does Alex du Preez get out of jail and take revenge on Martine & Jemmy?
Like I’m going to give that away!
Do you have any pets?
I’m completely obsessed with horses. I’m always running up to police horses on the street! I used to dream about being a cross-country event rider at the Olympics. Still do, actually. But I also love dolphins, warthogs, and all cats – from leopards to domestic moggies. Oh, and I adore parrots. Unfortunately, cats and parrots don’t tend to get along.
What was it like growing up in Africa?
I grew up on a 1,000 acre farm that had a 100 acre game reserve on it, so that part of it was bliss. Along with Jenny, our giraffe, we had warthogs called Miss Piggy and Bacon, pythons, a goat named Goat who we rescued from the RSPCA and scores of horses, dogs and cats. I had a black horse called Morning Star who was the single best thing about my childhood.
Most of our animals were adopted or rescued or came to us with injuries. I had a box full of veterinary supplies and I was always patching up antelope wounds or bottle-feeding orphaned baby calves or monkeys or lambs. It was bliss. But I also grew up during a war, so that part was tough. Any time anyone I loved went out the door, I knew I might never see them again. When the war ended, I realized I’d been afraid for about eight years.
Are you going to write any more adventures about Martine and Jemmy?
Yes, there are four books in the series. The White Giraffe, Dolphin Song, The Last Leopard and The Elephant’s Tale. They’re all set in a different African country and they all involve the conservation of a different animal. It’s my hope that my books inspire young people to want to help animals and visit Africa.