A morning with an author – Lauren St John
by Joseianne Facchetti
“You will write a book when you are 18,” Lauren St John’s teacher used to tell her – “So as a kid I believed her.” Lauren wrote her first book when she was 22. When asked if it is hard to write she answered “Writing books is harder than wrestling alligators.”
“It is important to hold on to your dreams. It is only by working very hard that you can make your dreams come true.” As a young child she wrote a list of what she wanted to do in her life and still keeps that list. She also explained that to write well you have to read incessantly.
Lauren St John is the author of several books on sports and music, as well as the children’s series – The White Giraffe, Dolphin Song, The Last Leopard and The Elephant’s Tale. Her plots are set in Africa where the beauty of nature and animals is juxtaposed with the danger that the fictitious characters of Martine and Ben overcome in these stories.
Grade Six and Senior One St Joseph Sliema students listened and watched slides of Lauren St John’s childhood on Tuesday 4 May. The 10- to 12-year-olds were so absorbed, quiet and attentive that when I clumsily dropped my pen on the floor it made an embarrassingly loud noise.
In her talk, Lauren St John told anecdotes of her extraordinary childhood in Zimbabwe and the work she does for Born Free Foundation. “The thing I have in common with Martine is that we both really, really love animals.” When Lauren was eight she had a pet python that once tried to squash her to death. When she was 11 her family moved to a farm/game reserve. There they had 16 antelopes, two ostriches, six horses, a pet giraffe, a baby lion, baby monkey and a water hog that loved dirtying everyone with mud. There were crocodiles on the riverbank and everywhere was full of snakes and spiders.
After the first talk Lauren signed the books. Hannah, a Senior One student, told me she read all four books in a week and really enjoyed each one. Enya a Grade Six student said, “I read three of the books and now I am reading the fourth one. I love them because I love adventure stories, stories about animals and Africa. When I was reading them my Mum used to tell me to go to bed but I couldn’t because I wanted to keep on reading especially the last book – The Elephant’s tale – which I finished in a week”.
Later, while we were talking to the junior school headmistress, Sister Cecilia, two girls walked in to give Lauren a plant as a gift, which they had just bought her.
During the break Lauren told me about the dark side of Zimbabwe and how she writes stories – “The 11-year-old boy I sat next to at school was massacred in the house we moved into. The house was a paradise but when you think that you moved into a place where people had died, when you know that you and your family could die any time, it is strange because you are poised between heaven and hell literally, in a weird sense. We once got a phone call in the dead of night – ‘Do you know what happened to the people who lived in the house before you, if you don’t move the same thing is going to happen to you’. If the dogs bark at night you didn’t know if within half an hour you and your family were going to be alive. At the same time I had this amazing incredible freedom in this beautiful place.
“I visualise things vividly when I write. I think it is very important to almost live the thing that you are writing about because if you see and feel it really, really vividly then the reader will see it and feel it too. If Martine is lying in an aeroplane I really try to be there too.
“What was really weird is that I always wanted to write a novel but could not think of an idea. I could never think of a plot or characters. I tried writing a novel in my mid-20s but it was so bad that it basically cured me of the idea. I would have these characters I did not like and when they came to speak to each other they had nothing to say.
“However, one day when I was in London, Christmas shopping, a picture of a white giraffe and a girl came into my head. These things are God given. I really do think that this first fiction book has been some kind of gift in a way. I went home and I wrote it down on a piece of paper. At the time I was working on a project I was struggling with so I thought maybe every Saturday I’ll sit down and write the story. The first Saturday came and I wrote the first chapter almost as it is in the book. The rest of the book I changed quite a bit but not that chapter. It was like a weird shock for me – where did that come from? It was such a lovely feeling, I just wrote it like I was seeing a movie. I was supposed to go back to my project but kept saying maybe I’ll spend the afternoon writing more and then I couldn’t stop because it was so much fun. I had this strange feeling that the story really existed and all I had to do was listen to the words. The whole thing came out in a month.”
Lauren St John was invited to visit schools in Malta, to talk about her childhood experience, her love for animals and how and why she writes.
This visit was organised and sponsored jointly by Merlin Library and Orion Children’s Books.