| Lauren St. John and her niece Summer with a cheetah
If reading The White Giraffe transports you to a mythical world of mystery and adventure, a chat with its author does much the same. Lauren St. John, 46, was born in Zimbabwe and grew up on a game reserve called Rainbow’s End. Today she lives in London and is being compared to Enid Blyton!
A golf correspondent with The Sunday Times, Lauren forayed into books with non-fiction titles on music and golf. She penned The White Giraffe series not long after. In 2011, Lauren bagged the Blue Peter’s Favourite Read and Book of the Year award for Dead Man’s Cove, the first in a mystery series.
A t2 chat with the animal lover on not just animals, but books, cultures, children and, most importantly, conservation.
The White Giraffe (2007) is your first venture into children’s fiction — how did the book come about?
One day I was walking down the streets in London and this image just crossed my mind of a girl on a giraffe. I just thought, wouldn’t it be the most amazing thing in the world if you could actually ride a giraffe?! Slowly the whole story just came about….
Why did you choose a white giraffe for your book?
It’s kind of a typical writing thing. I wanted the giraffe to be special in some way. So I actually started off with a talking giraffe, and then I thought no, maybe if it had some more magical power, it would be better. But then on second thoughts, I didn’t want to go down that kind of a fantasy route. Finally I said to myself, hold on, I can make it a white giraffe which is also a rare kind.
You had a pet giraffe — Jenny. Did you ever ride it? Any other pets?
I had eight horses, eight pigs, six cats and a goat whom we called Goat (chuckles). There were a number of other animals too, like warthogs called Miss Piggy and Bacon, then pythons... basically, animals rescued by the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). So our house was always full with guests.
I don’t think anyone has ever really ridden a giraffe, no, not even me! My dad says that years ago in one of the Tarzan movies of the 1960s, Gordon Scott had actually ridden a very young giraffe.
How similar is Martine to you when you were an 11-year-old?
That particular part of my childhood when I lived at Rainbow’s End (Gadzema, Zimbabwe), from the age of 11 to 17, was an incredibly special time for me. It was hard but at the same time very beautiful, special and magical.
Is the game reserve in White Giraffe, Sawubona, inspired by Rainbow’s End?
A lot of people ask me that. But Sawubona is an entirely imagined world. It’s just that I know that area (Africa) and the culture and the combination came up beautifully.
Have you ever come across an actual African Sangoma (traditional healer)?
Ah! Yes, many in Africa… I think it is something very interesting about African and Asian cultures and there is a big difference between what westerners perceive as supernatural and in cultures like Africa where things are considered spiritual. I personally consider it to be quite a beautiful part of the culture.
The Last Leopard, The Elephant’s Tale — the last two books in the series convey a message...
They are all about issues that I am passionate about and care for, and they are all about animals. I helped rescue two leopards and take them back to Africa. I am fascinated by elephants and I find dolphins the most intelligent beings.
It is important for us to pass on a very strong message to future generations. Our children are now facing terrific challenges in their life and we can equip them in many ways to face further changes by teaching them about conservation and how to save our world. Sometimes I worry that we are not doing enough. In schools, besides the mainstream subjects like math, science or literature, I think we must also teach them how to preserve the planet.
You have penned another children’s series — the Laura Marlin Mysteries. What inspired this one?
While I was writing The White Giraffe, I was living in Cornwall, England. It’s probably the closest to Africa I have been in England, the place is quite wild and rugged. I used to walk at night through the little alleys there and found it kind of spooky, yet beautiful and fascinating. I thought it would be amazing for a children’s story to have that kind of a setting and that’s how Laura Marlin came up.
Dead Man’s Cove, the first book in the series, was adjudged the Blue Peter’s 2011 Favourite Read and Book of the Year….
None of this seems real to me. It’s intimidating! I almost expect someone to give me a tap on my shoulder and say this isn’t your destiny, you just ended up with someone else’s luck. I don’t know how I managed to get this award. But I feel really proud and it’s very, very special.
How did you start out as a writer?
As a child I desperately wanted to write novels. When I became a journalist I started by writing non-fiction books, but what I always wanted to do was write stories. I would think of ideas that were a bit strange and by my mid-20s I actually did write a book, but never published it.
My first book (Shooting at Clouds: Inside the European PGA Tour) was about golf. Then I wrote a couple of books about sports and music before I took up fiction.
Tell us about your novel for adults The One Dollar Horse... how did that come about?
I am passionate about horses, and absolutely love them. And the book is not just for adults, even my younger readers would enjoy it, I’m sure. One really hard thing about living in the UK is I don’t have a horse.
Amongst all the fiction characters that you have created in your books, who is your favourite?
This is quite a tough question. I love all of them, Laura Marlin, Martine…but I think I love Ben (Martine’s best friend in The White Giraffe series) the most. Ben is this gentle soul, a true friend….
There is an Indian connect (Ben) in The White Giraffe series and a Bangladeshi (Tariq) in the Laura Marlin books…
The first time that I went to India, with my mother, we went to Rajasthan, Pushkar. It was completely magical, and since then we have been totally in love with India. She still keeps going back to India almost every year. I also had an Indian best friend when I was in college, so I guess all of this actually adds up to the Indian connect.
In fact, I went to Kerala only last November.
You are being compared to Enid Blyton…
I think she was extraordinary, she told the most amazing stories. I remember how much joy Blyton’s books brought me when I was young. So if my books are being able to do the same, I think it is just amazing.
Favourite author: Eva Ibbotson (Journey to the River Sea)
Favourite children’s book: For Love of a Horse by Patricia Leitch
The book you are reading right now: Skellig by David Almond
A book you wish you had written: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Favourite animal: Horse
Pets that you currently have: Three cats
One place that you would love to visit again and again: India
Your message for your young readers: Follow your dreams
Do you think Lauren St. John is the next Enid Blyton? Tell firstname.lastname@example.org