Adrift in a world that's stranger than fiction
Writing children's fantasies is not simply about making it all up, says novelist Inbali Iserles. Travelling provides her with the vital research that helps breathe life into amazing stories
Sunday 07 March 2010
It's 32C, 91 per cent humidity and I'm trussed up from neck to ankles in suspiciously unbreathable "light weather" gear. My feet are lost in hiking boots and drenched in sweat. I blink against a greasy film of Deet, liberally applied to my exposed face, and which – propelled by perspiration – is on the move. Despite this, a mosquito has found its way to my cheek and, slapping it, I discover a floret of blood on my hand – my own.
I am one of six travellers, a guide and a machete man trudging through the labyrinth of the Amazon's primary rainforest. The Amazonian city of Manuas is 15 hours away, over land and water. The rabies vaccine that I obediently endured before my flight to Brazil was recalled at the last moment, leading to a flurry of additional treatment and doubts over my future health – but rabies is far from my mind. I am almost in a daze, mesmerised by the heat and the cacophony of trills and hoots overhead.
I walk just behind the machete man, as he hacks a path through the tangle of clutching branches. He leaps back unexpectedly, crashing into me. A large, black and brown viper, a bushmaster, has reared up ahead. The snake is furious – the machete man stepped on its tail, invisible against the mulch of the forest floor. One of the most poisonous of South America's snakes, its venom can kill a man in hours. And here we are, in the interior. No anti-venom; no medical staff; no helipads nor landing strips. Why did I get myself into this mess? Because I'm a writer.
My trip to the Amazon found its way into the pages of my fantasy adventure, The Bloodstone Bird, where schoolboy Sash and his sworn enemy, Verity, travel from the backstreets of London to a mysterious tropical island. The smells, sounds and contours of the rainforest provided a subtle toolkit. This helped me to develop the world of the story, to enhance its credibility – because vitally, in fantasy, there are still rules. If anything, fantasy must cling to verisimilitude and the appearance of authenticity even more than realist literature. Let's call it the "fantasy paradox" – magical fiction has to be sharper, more vivid, in order to be believed. After all, this genre asks so much of its readers. Follow me, it urges, to a land of magical cat lords, vampire pirates and curious portals to far-flung kingdoms. The most persuasive fantasy is firmly rooted in reality, and that's where research comes in.
Exploration in the name of research invariably affects the traveller's view. It is a self-conscious affair and there is a risk that this will inhibit the writer's experience, fuelling deconstruction as against passive absorption, like the film studies student so fixated on technique that she scarcely follows the narrative. On the plus side, purposive travel is a powerful talisman – for a writer, at least in theory, there are no bad experiences. The disastrous, the startling, even the banal can help to fortify a sense of place, provoking unexpected tributaries of the imagination. In short, it's all good: or that's what I tell myself when things go wrong.
I have found that it's often the unanticipated details that provide the most value, and that's a good argument for keeping travel plans as flexible as possible. While researching the sequel to my feline fantasy, The Tygrine Cat, I travelled from Lower to Upper Egypt, following the Nile and the temples of the pharaohs who hailed cats as gods. Set against the backdrop of thousands of years of rivalry between ancient feline tribes, The Tygrine Cat follows the adventures of a young cat called Mati, who finds himself lost and alone on an English marketplace dominated by a gang of street cats. The ferals soon discover that Mati is no ordinary cat, and the sequel, The Tygrine Cat: On the Run, to be published next January, follows Mati and his friends to the land of his ancestors.
Other tourists were surprised to find me distracted by temple cats, sometimes more absorbed in a wiry, whiskery tom by the bins in the Luxor complex than the jaw-dropping magnificence of the antiquity. Yet it was not this architecture that found itself on the pages of the book. Rather, the feline characters with their unique attributes; the colour and shape of the Nile amid undulating desert; the curious heat that seems to escape from the sand itself. It is this throbbing heat that becomes associated with the feline tribes; with their unique powers. When warmth rises from the land, there is danger in the air: the feline spirit world is calling.
I should confess that research adventures can be far from glamorous. The Tygrine Cat: On the Run includes a tricky sequence where a number of cats stow aboard a container ship. To understand how this may be possible, I spent a rainy day at Felixstowe docks, quizzing seafarers and photographing vessels so immense they could scarcely be pondered by a self-confessed land lubber (more on this in a moment).
The Bloodstone Bird is a book that explores different levels of taboo and superstition. During the research phase, I attended a conference run by the Guild of Taxidermists. Sash's father in the story, Max, is a taxidermist working from a small shop on a forgettable London street. Although this curious trade is a source of intense embarrassment for Sash, Max embraces it with passion.
Talking to conference delegates helped me to gain an understanding of how they felt about their work – and it was a refreshing departure from the gun-toting-yokel stereotype that finds itself in the public eye. To grasp the technical process of taxidermy, I watched the "live display" (if you'll excuse the pun) with great interest.
Research is not just useful for obtaining convincing details to incorporate into description, it is also about identification with character. For instance, I am in the development phase of a Victorian thriller with a Darwinian sub-plot, and recently returned from a trip to the Galapagos Islands. Aboard the picturesque yacht The Beagle, named after the ship that brought the young Darwin there in 1835, I gazed with wonder at blue-footed boobies, inquisitive fur seals and saw nature imitating fiction in the Godzilla-like marine iguanas, "hideous", at least to Darwin's eye, as relayed in his The Voyage of the Beagle.
It had not occurred to me that, amid such wonders, I would submit to the scourge of seasickness. But, on one particularly rough night, I found myself rolling on my bunk, decidedly green and fearful of being catapulted across the small cabin. The experience meant I was probably better able to identify with the Victorian travellers about whom I was researching. How on earth did Darwin and his companions live on a ship – bigger than our yacht, but still terribly cramped – for almost five years? As I leaf through my notes, I see phrases such as this: "Centre of balance has sunk to the pit of my stomach. The world is spinning ... no point of reference, won't stop! Must remember the phosphorescence, makes me feel calm; dolphins." Makes me sound mad, more like, as though sinking into a feverish funk.
Yet it's fair to acknowledge that this stomach-churning episode may never find its way on to a page. Unlike travel writing, which seeks to throw new light on a familiar destination, or unravel the splendour of somewhere new, the application of research accumulated for novels can feel austere. The delicious, surprising and downright bizarre may fill the contents of numerous notepads, but the story must be rigorously honed. My rule is simple, and it's one that will be shared by a great many writers: if it doesn't serve the plot, it has no place within the book.
This research is not lost, contributing to the author's sense of location and even such intangibles as the zeitgeist of the story. Moreover, forgotten phrases and images can be rediscovered and used in future books, entering a vault of swirling scents and colours to which the writer has permanent access.
You're probably wondering what happened to the bushmaster. It wouldn't be fair to leave you in suspense. Disturbed from its slumber, the snake lurched at the machete man, jaws parted to reveal fangs glistening with venom. It locked on to the man's arm, its scaly body juddering in a frenzied attack. Without thinking I threw myself on to the snake, wrestling it away from the man as the guide and my fellow travellers cowered in fear. In a gesture of mercy, I released the bewildered bushmaster into the forest, free to resume its dark meanderings. I turned my attention to the injured man. Recalling a distant afternoon at Girl Guides for which I had won a bravery badge, I sucked out the venom and spat it against the forest floor, my tongue bitter as I grappled for my water flask. The man climbed to his feet, shocked but unharmed.
I hear a clamour of voices: did it really happen, just like that? To which I would offer one word of advice. Never trust an author in pursuit of a story. The lure of fiction can be overwhelming.
The Bloodstone Bird and The Tygrine Cat are both published by Walker, price £5.99. The Tygrine Cat: On The Run will be published next January
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