"When the fates of a snow leopard, a child, and
an ancient forest collide, the unimaginable can happen."
As a storyteller, I don’t tend to sit down with a ‘plan’ in mind. In fact, if I open my computer and think to myself, I’m going to write a book about… or the main character will be somebody who… chances are that I’ll be staring at a blank page for a very long time! For me, every book begins with heart – I need to feel something first, then I can begin to tentatively ask questions, explore, imagine, research and eventually attempt an early first draft. In a way, it feels to me as though the story already has a life of its own and is looking for a teller to work with, to be discovered, and so we try to feel each other out - as opposed to the other way round. Messy as it sounds, this is the sort of thing that’s going through my mind when I start.
In the case of Wildoak, the book has three main threads and it’s hard to talk about one without the other two because they’re so closely interlinked. In each case, I either saw, experienced or listened to something that moved me deeply, albeit in different ways.
Rumpus was initially inspired by a photograph of a wealthy woman walking her ‘pet’ cheetah and what I later discovered about the sale of big cats in 1960s London. It was hard to believe that you could walk into a department store and just buy a lion, tiger or leopard cub. I hated thinking of those wild animals cooped up in a smart flat, utterly confused as to why they were in such an unnatural place and unable to do anything about it. Silenced, in a way, by the inability to ‘speak’ human words.
The forest itself and the old oak stemmed from my childhood love of climbing trees barefoot, and the profound sense of peace and connectedness I still feel as an adult whenever I go for long walks in the countryside. But aspects of this thread were also inspired by a book called The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben and the research that’s being done on how trees ‘talk’ to one another. Early on, I started to think about the nature of communication, what it means to truly ‘understand’ one another, and the idea that everything ‘speaks’, just not the same language.
These kernels of ideas and questions marks were filling up the pages of my notebooks when a dear friend shared a speech with me by a man named Dr. Alan Rabinowitz. Dr. Rabinowitz talked about his childhood in 1960s New York, and how hard it had been for him to manage his stutter. He found it incredibly difficult to talk to humans, but had no trouble speaking to animals. During this speech he mentioned a specific incident at the Bronx Zoo which touched my heart to the core.
He was a young child at the time and found himself standing in front of an old female jaguar, locked inside the big cat enclosure. He described a particular moment of connection with her, in which he leaned forward and looked directly into her eyes – convinced that she too was full of intelligence and emotion but, just like him, unable to get her words out. In that instant he whispered something of a promise: If I ever find my voice, I will speak for you. And that’s exactly what happened. He grew up to become a world-renowned conservationist and co-founded the non-profit organisation, Panthera, which continues to this day to do exceptional work on behalf of big cats across the globe.
It's always hard for me to pinpoint exactly how a character evolves, the whole thing always feels like I’m stumbling through the dark, but I would say the tentative beginnings of Maggie as a character partly grew out of that encounter – a child looking into the eyes of a big cat and feeling a profound sense of connection, in spite of all their differences.
Initially, I wasn’t sure if I could do it, I felt as though I had more questions than answers (which is not a bad place to be as a writer starting a new project!) So, the first thing I did was to immerse myself in research. I dived into a wide range of first-person accounts detailing what it was like to grow up with a stutter; I interviewed speech language pathologists in the US and the UK; I worked with expert readers and with individuals from The Stuttering Foundation of America and the Stuttering Association for the Young. It took years and lots of drafting and re-drafting before Maggie finally evolved into her own sense of self, fully rounded on the page – a young person who loved animals, a person who grew up in the city but loved the natural world, a person who was empathetic, bright, curious and kind, and yes, a person with speech differences.
Early on I felt strongly that however the events of the novel played out, Maggie’s stutter needed to remain a constant in her life, shaping but not defining her. I think I felt this for a number of reasons, and in some ways Fred explains why when he says:
“Everybody has something about themselves they want to change, Maggie. Whether it’s the way they look, the way they sound, where they’re from, what they own or what they don’t.” He paused. “Some of us feel it more than others. But the truth is, and I believe this with all my heart, there’s room in this beautiful, complicated world of ours for all of us. Just as we are. In fact, there is a need for it.”
The world is filled with unique individuals. No two human beings are exactly alike – even twins are shaped individually by their own independent experiences. Many of us struggle deeply with the sense that we are in some way not good enough, don’t ‘fit in’, don’t belong or need to change or ‘fix’ ourselves in some way or other. In the end I hoped that Maggie would find a way to accept and love her whole self, immensely challenging as that might be for her. I hoped that she would, as Mary Oliver puts it so beautifully in her poem, Wild Geese, find her place within the world as one interconnected whole, her place within ‘the family of things.’
Because I believe Fred to be right. There is room in this beautiful, complicated world of ours for all of us. Just as we are. In fact, there is a need for it.
Christina Harrington grew up in the English countryside, mostly barefoot. She loves the natural world and believes that stories, much like the roots of an old-growth forest, connect readers and listeners in essential ways. She graduated from Oxford University with a degree in English Literature and has since worked for a national newspaper, studied printmaking and taught literacy to children with learning differences. She now lives in Maryland with her family and a dog who loves to eat manuscripts. WILDOAK is her first book.