Little M sat down for a chat...with Rachel Campbell-Johnston
Little M adored The Child’s Elephant and she’s crossing fingers for a Carnegie 2014 shortlisting. She had a host of questions for its author, Rachel Campbell-Johnston.
Rachel Campbell-Johnston: I have spent quite a lot of time in Africa, perhaps most memorably when I was invited as a journalist to go to Kenya and write about the setting up of a “Born Free” camp in the dry thorn forests by the river where Joy and George Adamson had reared their famous pride of lions. Also, shortly before I started writing the book, I was asked by a charity, Send a Cow, to go to northern Uganda to interview the children who had returned to their villages after fighting as soldiers in the Lord’s Resistance Army. I drew heavily on the diaries that I wrote in both these places for The Child’s Elephant. I tried to make it as true to life as possible.
Little M: Have you ever seen or touched an elephant?
Rachel Campbell-Johnston: I first saw a real elephant in a zoo. My mother took us. My sisters and brother and I were all standing and gawping and trying to feed it the soggy bits of the sandwiches we didn’t want. I don’t really remember what I felt about it. But what I do remember is suddenly turning to my mother and seeing that she couldn’t even bear to look. It made her too sad to see such a magnificent creature trapped in captivity. There were tears in her eyes. But she pretended it was just the sun.
Later, in Africa, I saw elephants in the wild. To see them browsing in the distance sends shivers down your spine. They look so massive and powerful and yet so patient and peaceful. You feel as if you are in the presence of some prehistoric force. Then, as you draw closer you smell their thick musky smell. It prickles the hairs on the back of your neck. I longed to go up and touch one.
But then, one day, a small group of them shambled into the yard of the farm where I was staying. I ran out to get closer and one of the cow elephants charged. She made a farm tractor look more like a toy to be smashed. And I had to run for it. That was my first practical lesson in their awesome strength.
Little M: What is your favourite animal from the African savannah, and why?
Rachel Campbell-Johnston: I suppose I would have to say the elephant. The more I have read about these animals the more wondrous they have come to seem to me. They are so gentle, so intelligent, so sensitive. As one of the characters in my book says: if elephants ruled this world it would be a better place.
Rachel Campbell-Johnston: I was brought up on a farm with my sisters and brother. It was quite a lonely childhood and my animals became my best friends. I had a fat white pony, a dog with no teeth, a useless billy goat, a goose with a twisty leg, and every year we would be given a lamb to bring up. When our mother wasn’t looking, we would sneak them up to our rooms. They would wee on the floor. I thought about how much I cared about all these childhood pets and all the animals that I have kept since when I was writing The Child’s Elephant.And I suppose, very sadly, I was moved to write the book too by the fact that the elephant is threatened with extinction. I wanted to help children to understand these animals better, to make them realise how important they are.
Also, as a journalist, I have sometimes had to write about armies of child soldiers in Africa. It’s so hard for a British child to imagine what it is like to live in a country at war where, one minute everything is normal and the next the whole world has changed. It’s like living in a nightmare. But the courage of the former child soldiers whom I interviewed inspired me. I wanted to write something that would show that, however dreadful the things they have sometimes done, it is not necessarily their fault.
Little M: If you had to be someone from your novel, The Child's Elephant, who would you be and why?
Rachel Campbell-Johnston: I would definitely be Muka. I based her character on one of my best friends. And I really liked her because she was so fierce and feisty and wild – like the elephants, she could never be tamed.
Little M: Is there anyone (or anything) you couldn't have written this novel without?
Rachel Campbell-Johnston: I couldn’t have written this novel without my dog. I have a scruffy grey lurcher called Flea and she lies by my feet when I am writing. I thought about my relationship to her a lot when I was writing because really my book is all about how powerful and strong the relationships between humans and animals can be.
Little M: Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
Rachel Campbell-Johnston: Try not to think about who might be reading your book too much. Remember it’s just you and the characters that matter at the moment of writing. Try and tell their story as truthfully as you can – even if sometimes it makes you cry.
You can read Little M's review of The Child's Elephant here.