Over the last decade, I’ve moved home almost as often as I’ve written books and the only constant about my writing environment has been my cats.
First, there was Felix, who part African wild cat. He was a day-old kitten when my mom rescued him from the streets of Mozambique and smuggled him into Zimbabwe on a light aircraft. A year or so later, I brought him to London, where he grew and grew until he was the size of a small leopard. He and I were inseparable. At the time I was living in a South-East London flat with a Rear View Window lookout, and I wrote a couple of golf books and Walkin’ After Midnight: A Journey to the Heart of Nashville with Felix lying on my desk watching me with his huge green eyes, like a leopard bodyguard.
Felix could be moody and because of his enormous paws and great strength was quite dangerous. Every so often his wild genes would kick in and he’d go on the attack. My friends were all terrified of him. He enjoyed ambushing them on the stairs. At the same time, they found him irresistible. Everyone wanted to win his love. It didn’t really work. Ultimately, he was a one-woman cat.
We moved to Greenwich, where he seemed to mellow and was content with chasing balls of paper through the paper chaos in my attic study as I researched and wrote my authorised, unauthorised biography of country rocker Steve Earle, Hardcore Troubadour, a life involving numerous arrest warrants and court documents attesting to six (now seven) marriages.
Unlike my previous study, which overlooked a pretty patchwork of flower-filled gardens and a doll’s house view of lives lived in the houses opposite, this one only had skylights, which suited me better. I love views but they play havoc with my concentration. If I’m facing a wall, as I do now, it seems easier to step into the portal of my imagination.
My book was published and life took a difficult turn. Reviews were great but sales weren’t. My journalism work dried up. Money was tight to non-existent. One wintry day, I was walking down the road when an image of a girl on a giraffe popped into my head. I thought: Wouldn’t it be the coolest thing on earth if you could actually ride a giraffe? When I was a child in Zimbabwe I actually had a pet giraffe and right there on the street the idea for a children’s book came into my head.
In the attic study, Felix watched as I feverishly embarked on this new project. I wrote The White Giraffe in one intense month. The rejections came almost as quickly. My then agent told me it was unpublishable.
Forced to sell my flat, I moved with Felix to St Ives in Cornwall, a place I’d never been but had heard was artistic. I rented an apartment, sight unseen, and arrived to find that it was right on Porthmeor Beach. I wrote in the light-filled upstairs bedroom, with waves crashing and seagulls screaming and ate my lunches on the beach. It was utter bliss. Felix roamed the alleys and faced-down the seagulls.
My time was divided between re-writing The White Giraffe and trying to put together a proposal for a memoir. I’d more or less convinced myself that my writing career was over, but in the absence of any other means of making a living I kept trying to improve the bits and pieces I was working on. One day I made a spur of the moment call from a phone box to a former editor friend, now working in New York. That call and a subsequent flight to New York changed my life.
Back to London we went, one of the hardest moves I’ve ever made. In Cornwall, close to nature, I felt a freedom I hadn’t experienced since leaving Africa. London felt dark, closed in. Felix brooded too, as we were forced to move three times in rapid succession. There were compensations. Five publishers bid for my memoir, Rainbow’s End, and a month later Orion gave me a four-book deal for my White Giraffe series. For the first time in my life, I felt like a real writer.
We moved again, but when I was in the midst of writing The Last Leopard it became clear that Felix was desperately ill. After two wrong diagnoses, I took him to a third vet who confirmed what I already feared: he had stomach cancer. I was totally devastated. When I told my friends he’d died, several broke down in tears.
I vowed never to get another animal, but that resolution lasted less than a month. Writing didn’t feel the same without Felix on my desk. Like everything else, it felt sort of pointless. But what to do? Felix had been so extraordinary that the idea of an ordinary cat, one who didn’t engage with me or watch over me, filled me with despondency. I read up on different cat breeds and decided that Bengals sounded most like Felix, both in build and in character.
When the RSPCA’s Ashford Cattery in Kent had an influx of Bengals, I went in search of a perfect cat. They had a dazzling array from which to choose. There were snow leopard Bengals with blue eyes, an orange one with black spots and vivid green eyes that looked like a cheetah, and other majestic ones with fancy patterns. There was only one ordinary one – a small, chunky Bengal with plain tabby markings and an annoyingly persistent meow. I cuddled each cat in turn and only took the tabby one out of his cage to be fair. Of all of them, he purred the loudest. Still, I rejected him out of hand as too dull and noisy.
While I was down the other end of the run looking at the magnificent ones, however, something amazing happened. The small Bengal jumped down from his high cage, snatched a box of treats from the pocket of a volunteer who was crouching on the floor, absorbed with another cat, then leapt back into his cage with the treat box between his paws. The whole thing showed such breathtaking audacity, athleticism and intelligence that I was totally blown away. I knew right then that he was the only cat for me.
I don’t think Felix would be offended if I said that Max turned out to be the best, smartest, most loving cat in the universe. If he’s not bringing me felt mice presents, he is asleep on his back in his bed beside my computer, his spotty belly exposed, and somehow he makes even the toughest writing day better.
I’ve moved twice since he came to live with me and now I write in a bright study at a desk overlooked by a metre-high white giraffe – not a real one, unfortunately, but a cardboard cutout promotional one.
Above my desk is a wooden plaque that belonged to my grandfather inscribed: ‘When you’re down in the mouth, think of Jonah. He came out alright.’ There’s also a Steve Earle postcard, a Tibetan prayer flag and lots of pictures of my favourite things – animals, Cornwall and Africa. So far Max has presided over the writing of The Elephant’s Tale, four Laura Marlin mysteries, The One Dollar Horse trilogy, The Glory and The Obituary Writer, my first adult novel.
Recently, ago, I relocated yet again – this time only as far as the sofa, where I was recuperating from a serious foot injury while working on a teenage horse novel. The good thing about being in the living room is that I’m watched over by a mural of life-sized Argentinian wild horses, so I don’t have to look far for inspiration. And, of course, I have Max by my side.