Henrietta Rose-Innes on ‘Green Lion’, Cape Town and the Natural World

Describe your book in one sentence
In the shadow of Table Mountain, a zookeeper grows obsessed with a lioness – the last of her kind – in a story about species loss, bereavement, animal magic and the human desire for connection.
 Why did you write this book?
 I was intrigued by the idea that, as humans grow estranged from the natural world and as we lose more and more wild species, we seem increasingly to mythologise nature. We value the images of animals and long for almost mystical communion with them. This feels connected in a profound way to the human condition of loss and desire for connection, and our helpless wish to preserve the things we love from death. In a way, then, as well as being about ecological concerns, Green Lion was an attempt to deal with my own anxieties about bereavement. My late mother’s spirit hovers over this book.
Where do you find inspiration?
The landscape of my home town, Cape Town, especially the mountain at its centre, is an important presence in this book and in a lot of what I write. The lioness, Sekhmet, is based on an old photograph of a taxidermied Table Mountain lion on display in the South African Museum – the last of the species to be shot in the wild. My mother used to work as the artist at that museum, and I spent a lot of time there as a child. I always wondered about the ghostly lion in the black-and-white photo, and one of the most satisfying moments in researching this book was when I was allowed in to the London Natural History Museum vaults to see the original stuffed specimen.
 Have you always written?
I wrote stories and poems when I was a child. In my twenties I looked for other vocations; I was drawn to the biological sciences, but I could never settle on one route. Writing presented itself as a way out of this dilemma. If you’re a writer, you don’t have to choose; you can dip your toes in many different waters. 
Which writers do you admire?
I was very happy to quote some writers I love in Green Lion’s epigraphs. The poetry of Margaret Atwood, Randall Jarrell, Christopher Smart and Stephen Watson; the oral accounts of kabbo; Herman Charles Bosman’s stories; the Golden Legend and the work of ancient Egyptian scribes … all these profoundly influenced the feel of Green Lion, and the atmosphere of its world.
What are you doing when you’re not writing?
I travel quite a lot – not least, I go regularly back and forth back and forth between South Africa and the UK, maintaining lives in both places. I’m also busy finishing a PhD at the moment, about urban wilderness spaces, which requires fieldwork in some curious, neglected corners of the world. When I can, I like to visit mountains.
The super power you wish you had
The ability to freeze time. I’d like to steal an extra secret day for myself, every now and then when I really need it, while the rest of the universe is on hold.
Describe your writing routine
I don’t have much of a fixed routine. I like a long leisurely lead-in – a many-coffee morning – before I begin; and I can work late into the night. I’m usually quite a slow, daydreaming writer, but I can panic quite productively when a deadline looms.
I like to collect visual images related to my topic. For this book in particular, the imagery was important, and I spent a lot of time searching for lions – paintings of St Jerome, Durer etchings, ancient Egyptian statuary, Victorian taxidermy, vintage photographs of zoos … I have quite a collection.
What are you currently reading?
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. I confess it sat on my bedside table for a while and thus is very overdue at the Norwich Library, but now I’ve started it I’m contemplating not giving it back.
Name the book you’ve re-read the most
I’m not much of a re-reader, in truth; I feel too oppressed by the building mass of the still-not-read. I don’t even keep many books, unless they are very special – I like to release them in public places or in charity shops when I’m done. The ones that stay on my bookshelf are often there for sentimental reasons, keepsakes and reminders.

Posted on April 19, 2017 by jimena in , , , , ,

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