This week’s author interview is a flashback to when I interviewed Tania Unsworth For my Research Secrets slot in Writers’ Forum, issue #233 Jun 2021. Tania talked to me about how in-depth research permeates every aspect of her novel, The Time Traveller and the Tiger, published by Zephyr.
Tania told me that even before she began writing the book, she knew she needed to tell part of the story from the point of view of the tiger. But she didn’t want him to be a creature of whimsy or magic. She wanted him to be real. Or as close to real as she could manage, given the impossibility of knowing exactly what it’s like to be another animal. It was important for her to learn as much as she could about the physical characteristics and behaviour of wild tigers.
To do this she started by revisiting two classic books: My India the memoirs of legendary tiger hunter-turned conservationist Jim Corbett, and Peter Matthiessen’s powerful Tigers in the Snow. Then a quick google search turned up The Tiger by John Vaillant. Tania told me the latter extraordinary, beautifully written book was full of information and imagination-triggering insights. It also had a lengthy bibliography enabling Tania to source less well-known – but vital – texts, such as Richard Perry’s The World of the Tiger and Spell of the Tiger by Sy Montgomery.
Tania explained she did far more research for The Time Traveller and the Tiger than ended up in the novel, filling her notebook with pages and pages of unused facts, along with drawings of various jungle creatures, because she approached the research in a broad, almost scattershot way, happy to go down any number of online rabbit holes, or wade through scientific accounts detailing how tigers are able to see in the dark or the life cycle of bamboo trees.
“I wasn’t always sure what I was looking for, but I knew it when I saw it; the spark of something I could use, the sudden reshaping of an idea. Casting a wide net in this way made the research process far more dynamic. It didn’t just provide authenticity for my story, it also helped me discover how to tell that story.”Tania Unsworth
Along with books, Tania scoured YouTube for clips of tigers roaring, growling and ‘chuffing’, and watched documentaries such as David Attenborough’s Dynasties to get a sense of the physical presence of tigers – the way they move and sound and react to their environment.
Her book is set in the jungles of central India, and initially she thought it would be enough to go through Google Images for pictures of ‘Kipling country’, and do a thorough online search on the flora and fauna of the region to find out what a banyan or a peepal or a sal tree actually looked like. But she soon realized that this wasn’t going to be enough. Tania revealed spending a week in Kanha and Bandhavgarh – two tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh changed everything.
“Setting is important to me as a writer, particularly in this book, where the beauty and fragility of the natural world is a big part of the story itself. You can’t tell what the jungle smells like (wild basil and warm grass) just from looking at pictures. And no audio recording of birds and animals can compare to standing in the forest and hearing them for yourself. The notes I made during my week in India transformed the second draft of my book and helped to bring my story to life with a hundred details. The way that termite mounds glitter with tiny fragments of mica. The sound of dew dropping from leaf to leaf in the early morning. The shafts of sunlight pouring through the trees like columns in a temple…”Tania Unsworth
Her trip wasn’t just useful in terms of providing authentic details. It also gave herideas for plot and character development. For example, the villain iis a man called Sowerby who operates out of a remote hunting lodge. She had a lot of fun describing his study – a ghastly collection of knick-knacks and furniture, all made from animal parts. The inspiration for this came from a visit to the Museum of Science in Boston where I’d marvelled at the reconstruction of a gun room belonging to a certain Colonel Colby, crowded with animal skins and trophies.
When Tania googled ‘objects made from animal parts’ she came across hundreds of old photographs of items – from chairs to waste-paper baskets – that had been constructed out of various wild creatures. Discovering this long-ago trend for grisly home décor gave credence to my description of Sowerby’s room.
You can read my review of The Time Traveller and the Tiger on my blog here: Book Review: The Time Traveller and the Tiger.
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