Monday, November 12, 2012

On leopards, a chat with Fransje van Riel

Recently I had a chance to read My Life With Leopards: Graham Cooke's Story by Fransje van Riel. Since I was a wee sprog I've always loved real-life accounts of people's interaction with animals, and folks like James Herriot, Gerald Durrell and Joy Adamson often had me spellbound, even if many of the stories didn't always have happy endings. Today I welcome Fransje to my blog, because after reading My Life With Leopards, I absolutely had to chat with her about the writing process. Welcome, Fransje!

For any nature lover, getting the opportunity to write a book like My Life With Leopards is a dream come true. How did this project come into being?

I received an email one morning from Graham, who I didn’t know then, and it took me some time to understand that he was writing to me because he thought I was working with baboons. He had just read my first book, Life with Darwin and Other Baboons (also a Penguin title), and mistakenly believed that I was Karin Saks, who I had written the book about.

Graham Cooke and Fransje van Riel
Whilst I was figuring this out Graham sent me a second email which included his CV, which had a photo of him and Poepface on it. Naturally I was immediately intrigued and asking after it, I slowly learned that he had raised two leopards cubs in the middle of the South African bush. Since I am a huge cat lover, both domestic and otherwise, my senses were piqued and so I came to know more about Graham’s feelings for Boycat and Poepface and the sense of loss he still felt after all these years. When I suggested that he write a book about his experiences, Graham said that he had wanted to do so for many years but that it  had never come about. He had though written a 10 000-word manuscript which he sent to me for appraisal. I knew it wouldn’t work the way he had gone about it and suggested that I write it. And so we began talking, emailing and meeting. I interviewed and taped him for a whole week and then I had the nuts and bolts of the story, so I could begin to start giving shape to the story. This was followed up by countless daily emails until I had the entire scene in my mind and was able to ‘become’ Graham and virtually experience his life with leopards in a very surreal way.

Getting into the mind of someone who's had all these experiences must be quite something. Something that struck me while I was reading was that you managed to very vividly evoke the bush. Were you able to eventually visit Londolozi? How do you slip into a person's skin in this way? 

Graham with the two leopard cubs he cared for.
I liken it to playing an acting role. You just find out as much as what you can about the character and become the part. Only then do you ‘see’ in your mind what and how things would have transpired (according to the information provided by Graham) and translate that into words. I admit that the experiences felt so real that it is as if I was there and knew the cubs and the other characters as well even though I have never been to Londolozi … I was told by someone that the old Tree House still exists, although I am not sure in what state, but I would love to visit Londolozi and visit the exact place where Graham’s old camp stood. I can only imagine it to be a deep and very moving thing to be so close to something that is so intangible …

Well, you certainly did an excellent job bringing across the cubs' personalities, and the very strong bond Graham had with them. And yourself, have you ever had any close encounters with big cats? 

Thank you, Nerine. I have had a few interesting encounters, yes. I was fortunate enough to meet up close and personal several cheetahs that had been rescued from abusive situations and that were cared for by my friend Lise Hanssen, who now researches the demography of spotted hyenas and other large carnivores in the Caprivi. Was also privileges to be present when she darted a large female hyena that she wanted to radio collar to study her movements on Google Earth. Fascinating to be so close! Also just last year I was on holiday in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park on the South African side only to have a large male lion come up the dune slope and walk right past my unit at less than 4 meters distance without any fence. I was astounded afterwards to realise that I hadn’t been scared as the lion had no ill intent at all and just traipsed past as a short cut to access his pride over the opposite dune. It goes to show that as people we are so out of tune with nature that we find it difficult to perceive large cats as anything but dangerous. In a sense that is what I do hope the book will bring about; a sense of respect and understanding for animals such as leopards. Yes, they are proficient at killing prey for food and yes, in our horribly overpopulated world we compete with them for space, but given the opportunity they are as capable as forging a close bond and develop trust with humans as some other, more domestic type of animals.

Each book an author writes is a journey. Would you say that writing My Life With Leopards with Graham has changed you in any way? 

Not changed so much, but certainly enriched. I feel a depth; very strong emotional feelings for those two leopards and I often think about them. I ‘see’ Boycat and Poepface walking along the riverbed and even more so in Zambia. It is as if their energy has somehow infiltrated in some areas of my life and sometimes this can still move me to tears.

Yours is certainly a special gift – being able to step into someone else's shoes to allow readers to see the world through different eyes. Can you share briefly how you came to be doing this sort of writing? Are there any special qualities you feel an author needs? 

I think it is a combination of reporting on someone/something (I also like to write travel features and my own travel experiences) and share that which I see with others, combined with a very strong sense of awe and wonder I have for the natural world, and wanting to impart that on other people who are open to it. As a child I was always writing notes and little poems although I completely forgot about my early love for writing and headed in an entirely different direction; working for an airline. That indirectly though brought me to Africa and that inspired me to write again. When I moved to SA in 1997 I wrote a travel story and to my own surprise managed to sell it. That was the beginning of many stories (see

During one of my trips to Kenya (on a stay-over as cabin crew) I recall saying out of the blue that one day I was going to write a book. I had no idea where it came from, but many years later I did, with two more to come. I think as with everything in order to do something well you need to have a genuine love and interest for that which you do. Maybe a little skill and experience helps too J

The one thing I do know is that as an author you need a hell of a lot of commitment, dedication and sheer discipline. Add to that a sprinkle of doggedness and a good dose of stubbornness… Once the words flow it all seems so easy, but behind any line, paragraph, page and chapter lies an unseen world of hard work, frustration, joy and belief in that which you are trying to get across.

See the Facebook page My Life With Leopards  and my website

Fransje van Riel was born in Holland but moved to the UK where she spent the majority of her teenage school years in the rural countryside of East Sussex.

After her return to The Netherlands, she started working as a flight attendant for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. Frequent flights to Africa revealed a long lost passion for wildlife, which culminated into resigning from the airline in 1997 to make the move to the African continent.

Here she embarked on a career in writing and, after publishing numerous wildlife and travel related stories for South African magazines, Fransje started writing Life With Darwin and Other Baboons, a book on Karin Saks, who dedicated her life to the welfare of primates and which eventually led to the production of Baboon Woman, a full-length British television documentary.

The book was published by Penguin SA and was translated in Dutch and published by The House of Books.

Fransje’s second book of non-fiction The Crowing of the Roosters was published in 2006 by South African publishing house David Philip and, consequently, in Holland by Arena Books. The Crowing of the Roosters was nominated later that year for Africa’s premier literary award The Sunday Times / Alan Paton Award.

In between writing freelance articles on wildlife, animals, travel and conservation issues, Fransje is active in raising awareness for several animal welfare projects, including rousing media interest for a local one-woman organisation called SAMAST, which is dedicated to consistent spaying of dogs and cats in Cape Town’s disadvantaged areas.

Fransje lives in a leafy suburb in Cape Town where she enjoys writing in the companionship of her three cats.

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