The story of Conspiracy of Cats (CoC) is set between Edinburgh and northern Tanzania. Edinburgh is my home town, so it was easy for me to write about it in a way I hope breathes some life into it for readers who may never have visited this beautiful city. Tanzania was a different matter entirely, because I haven’t ever been there.
Many years ago, way back when we brought home our very first PC, it came along with an Encarta disc. I spent a lot of happy hours sharing a chair with my daughter as we investigated the varied contents. That was the very first time I encountered Maasai warriors, their tribal finery and their semi-nomadic lifestyle. I found these beautiful men to be utterly compelling and used my local library to discover more. This is when the seeds of CoC were sewn… over twenty years before I sat down to write it.
The story, like the characters, developed and changed hugely over the years, always inside my head and usually as I lay in bed waiting for sleep. Inevitably perhaps I dreamed about Jos and Peter often. Especially Peter, who continues to show up in my dreams just begging for a sequel.
Fast forward to December 2013 and I was finally on a plane heading to Africa. South Africa was the destination and we arrived the day after Nelson Mandela’s funeral. The country was in mourning, but the welcome we received was warm and beautiful. The entire experience was a fabulous one.
We spent some of the holiday working in a rehab centre for wild animals. It was hot, it was tough, it was mostly about gruesome feeding routines and cleaning up the poop. Our room was right next to a small clan of hyenas, and close to the old lion who’d become a permanent resident. At night these two used to get into some sort of noise off. The hyenas would giggle, chatter and whoop, just meters away from our window. The lion would get into his low pitched rumbling roar, over and over. We were usually so exhausted it wasn’t long before sleep came each night despite the noise, but it was surreal lying in the pitch black, listening to these raw animal voices singing their wild lullabies.
I recreated some of the happenings we experienced there, for Peter and Jude when they lived with Henk. They were all raising Lulu the lion, rescued after poachers killed her mother and being readied for release back into the wild. They did the things we did. Day after day. The feeding rounds and the cleaning rounds. They were changed by the experience just as we were changed.
There is nothing more satisfying than working out that the gigantic lappet-faced vulture running up to me, flapping his truly enormous wings while shrieking loudly, every time I entered his enclosure, was actually trying to make me understand that he wanted a shower with the hose I’d brought in to assist in cleaning up the poop. Once I got the message this great big vulture used to turn his back on me, open his massive wings, and stand there while I cooled him off. After his shower he settled down and left me alone to clean. He was actually a baby, abandoned by his parents, because he fell from his lofty nest. A driver found him on the road and (bravely) brought him to the centre. He was less than a year old when I met him and, I like to think, we parted as friends.
My time in South Africa has never left me. The smell of the place, the colours, the views, the animals, the food, the wonderful people and the utterly amazing skies. It was these experiences that I mined when writing CoC. Memories that allowed me to create the environments that my characters move around in. Next time, I’ll head straight for Tanzania.