Animal Antics: Maxwell's Otters, Goodall's Chimps (and the Dogs of 'Ellen and Arbor'
As regular readers of my blog will know, I end every 'Diary of a Novel' entry with a Bookmark highlighting what I've been reading this month. As a passionate reader as well as writer, I love the opportunity to share books that I've discovered and, of course, to hear your recommendations too! This month, however, it feels like a paragraph just won't be enough. The book I've been reading - or more accurately, the audiobook I've been listening to - has raised so many ideas that are relevant to my own work, it feels only fair to devote more detail to its discussion. If you're an animal-loving reader like me, I hope this one will be barking up the right tree!
Ring of Bright Water is a book that many Scots will have read at some point in their lives, although technically I still haven't read it - thanks to the fabulous free Borrowbox app from my library, I downloaded the audio to play everywhere from in the car (driving Miss Gypsy!) to painting my watercolours. Its author Gavin Maxwell was an eccentric and according to some sources difficult character, and at first I feared it would be difficult to empathise with someone so coolly aristocratic. Yet I was touched by Maxwell's sincerity when he lost his beloved dog Johnnie. Grieving deeply, Maxwell decides that his isolated Highland home - Sandaig in real life but named Camusfeàrna in the book - would be the perfect place for an otter. When his travels as a writer take him to Iraq, he brings a cub home with him and the 'bright'ness begins!
Ring of Bright Water was first published in 1960, and to contemporary readers it will be clear that there are ethical as well as practical problems in taking a young animal halfway across the world to a new habitat, however well-intentioned its owner may be. Yet Maxwell's love for Mij, the first otter to live at Camusfeàrna, shines brightly out from his writing and I was impressed by how unapologetically he depicts the depth of their relationship. In my own life, I have always felt that the connections I have with animals are every bit as precious and profound as those I share with humans. Of course, we are not the same, but then neither are any two people! For me, families aren't born but made, and if you move through life together it doesn't matter whether you have fur or feathers, scales or skin.
A modern work of fiction that also explores this theme is Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Her narrator is the child of 1960s researchers (not a good decade for animal rights!) and the book's twist (spoiler alert!) reveals that her beloved sister Fern is actually a Chimpanzee! Chimps also appear in a documentary, Jane, that was recently shown on Netflix and touched on similar issues about how human animals connect with others. Reflecting on her life as a researcher, Jane Goodall speaks seriously about raising her infant son and how she was inspired by examples of motherhood around her: including Fleur, a chimp mother she had been observing for years!
Ultimately, I am heartened that writers and scholars can be taken seriously when they acknowledge how individual, incredible and inspiring other animals can be. In my novel Ellen and Arbor, Ellen is an anxious young woman and Arbor is a neglected dog: they work together to learn the art of living freely. One of the trickiest but ultimately most rewarding parts of writing the book has been deciding how to chracterize Arbor correctly. She must not be simply sweet, and nor should she be anthropomorphised. Why would you need to, when dogs - like otters, chimps and the rest of the animal kingdom - are full of character just as they are? Certainly, I have to guess at Arbor's feelings and motivations, but that is the case with human characters too!
Perhaps our personal perspective is just that: personal. I believe that we enlarge our worlds and minds exponentially by embracing what we can learn from all the lives around us.
Line of the Week: my favourite lines that I've written this week (although whether they make the final cut will be a different story!)
'Black isn't really black ...' Now here's an interesting development that has only come about in draft three. I've decided we need to hear from Arbor herself! My book focuses on Ellen's perspective, but when I started rewriting the beginning I felt that seeing things from a dog's eye view would make for a great experiment! At present, the introduction opens with Arbor alone at night, lying inside the shed where her neglectful owners keep her. 'Black isn't really black,' she reflects as she looks into the darkness. Before long, 'alone' won't really be alone either!
And here's a bonus early paragraph from Ellen's point of view: prone to panic attacks, she has a long road ahead of her in more ways than one!
'She drove past dense forests of needle-fine fir trees, saturated with emerald despite the snow on the hills. The road before her was bare of both markings and other vehicles. Freedom, Ellen thought. The thought frightened her.'