“You don’t just want to show a bunch of freaks”: an interview with Edmund White

On a recent visit to New York, ALEXANDER MATTHEWS sat down with the acclaimed gay author Edmund White.

Edmund White

Before my interview with Edmund White, I walk along the High Line in Chelsea. I do this partly because it is my first time in New York City – and a stroll along the High Line is the kind of thing one does on your first time here. But partly, too, because I’m gnawingly nervous: looming ahead of me is a conversation with one of the greatest gay writers on the planet and I’m not sure I feel up to the task.

I first discovered White in the Cape Town Central Library, when, as an 18-year-old, I was hungrily searching the stacks for gay sex scenes. Some thoughtful (and presumably queer) sod had labelled the spine of every vaguely homoerotic book in the fiction section with a pink triangle – this helped my quest inordinately. Under “W”, there was White’s luminous, exquisite (and incidentally not-very-explicit) novel, A Boy’s Own Story. Much later, I read his personal memoir, My Lives, and what was then his most recent novel, Jack Holmes and His Friend. (Since our chat, an even newer one, Our Young Man, has been published.)

Weaving between the tourist throngs clogging the blustery spring afternoon, I feel woefully underprepared. Because aside from more than a dozen works of fiction, White has written essays, journalism (for American Vogue, Time and plenty of other titles), plays and biographies (including ones about the legendary French writers Genet and Proust). He’s a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was made Officier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French. Only three books in, I’ve barely scratched his oeuvre’s surface.

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PERIODICAL: Ryan Fitzgibbon

BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

I remember when I first met Hello Mr. It was summer 2013 on a London visiting when I was browsing a magazine rack.

The cover was simple: a masthead, a slogan (about men who date men), and a portrait of a moustachioed young man. Amidst the other gay magazines sitting on the shelf – glossies with their exercise workouts and straight celebs in flirty poses, their ads for adult entertainment and gay (boat) cruises – this was something radically different: roughly iPad-sized, with charming illustrations, striking portraits (of guys with their clothes on) and smart, thoughtful stories (about romance and breakup, about new beginnings and old friendships) with copy laid out so that it breathed.

It was the kind of journal you wanted to read, not idly flick through; the kind of journal you wanted to keep on your shelf. If magazines were at a school, then Hello Mr. didn’t belong with the flashy gay gang of Attitude, GT and OUT; it seemed more naturally at home hanging out with stylish, slightly nerdy Apartamento and Offscreen – even if though these titles dealt with vastly different subjects. In some ways it was a brother of Butt, the iconic, now-defunct print title “a fantastic magazine for homosexuals” (which has since mutated into an online community) – though Hello Mr. seemed a younger, more serious and gentler sibling, more interested in relationships and love than his cruisey older brother who bared a delicious predilection for smut on its pink sheets.

Hello Mr Cover

Two years later, when Hello Mr.’s fifth issue has just rolled of the printing presses, I’m in the window seat of a noisy Williamsburg diner having lunch with editor-in-chief Ryan Fitzgibbon, keen to find out the back story of this special little title.

Skinny, with short blonde hair and painted fingernails (that perhaps pay tribute to Hello Mr. cover star Perfume Genius), Fitzgibbon takes me right back to the beginning. He was designing books and graphics at design agency IDEO’s head office in San Francisco. Having recently come out, he was living right in the queer epicentre of the Castro; the debate around marriage equality – and Prop 8 – was raging. As a 23-year-old, he recalls being “very intrigued and engaged in the conversation but didn’t see the direct relation to my immediate life. I basically didn’t have plans to get married, right? So what content is there for me as a young gay man? The LGBT titles didn’t really match to my lifestyle, values, interests at the time.”

Through his extensive travels – ping-ponging from SFX to the likes of India, Brazil and Singapore – he saw there was nothing on international newsstands that was filling this void either.

Having left IDEO and been turned down by a prestigious design research programme in Italy he had applied to, he decided to make the leap and start the kind of gay magazine he wanted to read. He moved to Melbourne, Australia, inspired by its thriving design scene and similarities to San Francisco. A Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign raised more than $26,000 so that he could produce the first issue.

Hello Mr Spread 3

Why did he chose paper, I ask, when doomsayers were heralding the impending death of print.

“I felt like the biggest cultural gravity was going to come in something tangible. Making something that people can put on their coffee table, that they have with them in their bag, or read on the train says something and is a very visible badge that people wear,” he replies. “The values that come through the design of Hello Mr. have created that common experience that if you someone reading it, you probably know something about them that you could relate to if you’re also a fan.”

I suggest that people are less distracted when they read print, that it’s a lot more focused and intimate than online.

“I totally agree,” he says. “Hello Mr. is very personal and intimate but it has all these layers of ways that we relate to one another as a community – but being able to have the experience of doing that on your own time, and being a bit introspective while you’re reading it to be able to oscillate between looking outwardly at the community and looking inwardly.”

“The issue I always have with web is that it can be so reactive and that’s not always productive,” he adds. Although Hello Mr.’s website mostly contains blog posts (and the occasional story from the magazine), he’s keen to explore how “digital dialogues” can flow from what’s been featured in print, “hosting conversations about things that people have already spent time with”.

“It’s so easy to fall in love with the over-size magazines – they’re really pretty to look at, but they’re not really practical,” he says, when I comment on the compact dimensions of the mag.

“The aesthetic decisions really stem from the cover and how it’s very minimal and very simple” – in sharp contrast to the screaming cover-lines of other men’s and gay titles.

“Each issue has a really sort of quiet confidence about it,” he says. Seeing it alongside Men’s Health in Barnes & Noble “it’s just clear that it knows what it is and doesn’t have to prove itself or [promote] something that is on page 88. It just is what it is. And that filters through the whole magazine, to keep the fonts limited, the space comfortably set. And working with photographers and illustrators has been such a dream – it’s so easy because there’s a lot of creative people who feel strongly about the magazine existing and want to support it and so there’s a lot of really talented people in each issue.”

“It’s been really challenging going from a big culture such as IDEO where there’s over 500 people, support teams in place to help you do what you do, to being a one-man show, trying to get something off the ground and having very limited resources to make that happen,” he says.

“In the early days it needed to be a bit more sheltered to make sure that the integrity of what I was doing was being carried through. Because it was so different for the industry of gay magazines, I didn’t want to much outside influence to direct where it was going before it was even anything.”

Now that the mag is firmly established, with a clear sense of itself, he’s been able to expand his team – he works closely with associate editor Francisco Tirado and art director Zhang Qingyung, and hopes to bring others on board to free up time for more strategic thinking. “There’s so much I still do that’s in the weeds,” he says – this includes mundane customer service and sales tasks “where I’m not really using my brain; I’m just doing things to make sure people have their magazines.”

Having built a strong foundation with the early issues means he can take more risk “and be more experimental”, as well as increasingly mindful of “the various types of readers that we have” – considering “different viewpoints and whose picking it up”. Because Hello Mr. is sold in mainstream outlets and not just “your typical gay indie bookshops”, the magazine has developed a sizeable following amongst straight guys and women, he says.

“It was always intended to be a magazine for everyone. Even though the content was about men who date men, I intended it to be universal and relatable,” he says. “I think we’re getting better and better at highlighting universal themes”; this can sometimes involve “taking some pronouns out and making it relatable to anyone”. Also, when dealing with gay-specific issues, he believes the writing needs to be reflective and provide context, not assuming that all readers “are in on the joke”.

After Hello Mr.’s first issue, Fitzgibbon moved to New York when his Australian work visa ran out. The Big Apple was a natural choice – he wanted “to be in the centre of publishing, where it thrives and where I felt I would be the most supported”. When the mag was featured by New York shortly after the second issue launched, it felt like a good omen.

Hello Mr Spread 1

I ask him about commercial partnerships and advertising. In the first issue, he didn’t carry any ads, he says. “Being really hesitant in the beginning allowed me to carve out what it was I wanted in a partner,” he says. “The criteria are: do they support progress of indie ventures, like ours and the people we feature? Are they sharing the values that we have and genuinely wanting to support our community or be a part of it?”

“It doesn’t feel like the brands we’re working with are doing us a favour; it feels like they’re really interesting in reaching our market because of how engaged the community is,” he adds. “I think it’s been really clear to brands our audience is really invested in what I’m doing and if we recommend someone or something it goes a long way.”

Right since before the magazine’s print launch, Fitzgibbon has spent a lot of time and energy nurturing its social media presence, particularly on Instagram (where it now has more than 60,000 followers) – which has proved a prime platform to showcase brands. It worked with HBO to capture behind-the-scenes moments of its gay series Looking, and also partnered with Thailand’s Tourism Authority which wanted to reach an LGBT audience.

Hello Mr Spread 2

Hello Mr. has reader events all over the world – after our chat, Fitzgibbon is due to head to Toronto; others have happened in LA, London and Berlin. Although “not incredibly lucrative”, Fitzgibbon says, “the purpose of them is to create awareness and build connection to the readers, and within the community to each other. I always say Hello Mr. is more than a magazine, it’s a community.”

Its biggest bash is the annual Hello Love party in February. Initially conceptualised as an “Anti-Valentine’s”, it evolved “into a celebration of just getting together and having fun”.

I ask Fitzgibbon what advice he’d give to others considering starting their own magazines.

“You really have to focus on building that loyalty form that audience that you are trying to reach,” he says. “I’ve always tried to create this with the people I’m trying to create it for so that it feels like it’s theirs. And I think the key is being really transparent and co-creative with your audience.”

G is for Grief

BY CHRISTINE EMMETT

Arguably, Helen Macdonald has written the most popular grief memoir since C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. It’s a small genre, really, approached by those for whom loss is already a formidable part of life. And as with any genre, it has its classics – Lewis, Joan Didion, Julian Barnes – authors that have in many respects sealed their reputations by documenting what Barnes himself calls “that banal, unique thing.”

But Macdonald’s book, H is for Hawk, has been hugely more popular than most of its predecessors, and part of the reason for this is that her narration of grief is enmeshed in an account of her training a goshawk. Goshawks are notably tricky and irritable companions, and the sub-plot for Macdonald’s own story revolves around the author T.H.. White’s disastrous attempt at falconry, illustrating how relationships between humans and animals can become unbalanced and destructive.

So as readers measure Macdonald’s grief at the sudden loss of her father, the reader tracks the fragile partnership of Helen and the hawk. Much emphasis is given to the discipline of falconry, a mutual respect and restraint shared between the falconer and hawk, involving a slew of falconry terms and language: jesses, sails, pounces, trains, creances, crines, bating, muting, hooding. A striking aspect of the novel is this quite obscure jargon – rendered accessible through Macdonald’s writerly style.

“I made a few decisions while I was writing,” Macdonald tells me, “and one of those decisions was to not explain everything, particularly specialist falconry terms, various species and various ‘natural history’ type terminologies.” She tells me how the impulse to avoid cluttering the text with explanations comes from her reading of military techno-thrillers (think Tom Clancy), in which readers are treated as though they’re experts in the field:

“[Those books], they’re always full of military jargon, but they never explain what those things mean. I think it’s a generous act – one of the problems with nature writing is that quite often you get the feeling that the author is basically too happy to explain; like aren’t you lucky to have me to explain this to you! I didn’t want to go that route, so I just decided to put it all down and hope that people would find the context meaningful.”

It’s an effective strategy, and it’s one of the aspects of the book that immerses you in that space forged between animals and humans. Too often in everyday life, this space of compromise is understood as the responsibility of the ‘tamed’ or ‘domesticated’ animal. So we’re left with feelings of suburban uncanniness when the loveable family dog kills the neighbour’s toy-pom, or when, as in Macdonald’s narrative, the hawk unknowingly flies into the neighbour’s plot, hunting animals that belong to someone else.

I think what’s interesting to me about it,” I tell Macdonald, “is the extent to which you can share a kinship with animals and feel that you have domesticated them, but there is always a level of wildness which remains. They don’t have the same feelings about death and life, and because we’ve brought animals into our spaces we somehow expect them to abide by our social contracts.”

This antagonism is interestingly represented in Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom. One of Franzen’s characters, Walter, passionately advocates curbing human population growth which, he believes will inevitably result in environmental destruction, suffering and death (the campaign bizarrely only gains momentum, when Walter’s adherents mistakenly adopt the proto-fascist slogan “cancer-on-the-earth”). Similarly, Walter later canvases his suburban neighbours to stop their pet cats from hunting wild birds. Both campaigns seem to be doomed from the outset, reflecting something about Walter himself, but also the contradictory ways in which we understand ourselves, animals and the natural environment.

“Cats are fascinating in this regard,” Macdonald tells me, “because they do kill billions and billions of birds, mammals and reptiles every year. And yet in many places this is just seen as ‘natural behaviour’. Now this is interesting, because obviously it is a natural instinct [for cats to hunt], but people claim it’s acceptable because it is ‘natural’. And of course it’s not natural in the sense that [in developed countries] the cats are all well-fed, and so the population of cats in an area is often much greater than the natural prey can support. So cats can have a devastating effect on local ecosystems.”

“But if you look carefully at any of the cultures surrounding animals in today’s human world, there are all sorts of contradictions,” she explains. “We give things our own meanings, we give things human meanings, and yet underneath they’re not us – they’re never us. And the same goes for the hawk: hawks aren’t domesticated, so they come to stand for these remote symbols of wildness, ferocity and rarity, but if you get to know them, they are really complicated and bewitchingly idiosyncratic creatures. And as I say at the end of the book, we should value them because they’re not us – they’re nothing like us.”

It is perhaps this radical difference that both Macdonald appears to cleave towards in the book. Macdonald’s training of the hawk allows her to remove herself from society in the midst of her grief. “It was an imaginative immersion” she accedes, “in the book she [the hawk] was everything that I wanted to be: solitary, independent, slightly murderous – and she didn’t experience human emotions. I wanted to be more like her than a person.”

This awareness that the natural world could serve as a mechanism for radical isolation, rather than a fluffy return to essential humanity, is one ways in which H is for Hawk breaks the mould of generic nature/animal memoirs. “People have asked me before, what did the hawk do? Sometimes people pick up the book and expect it to be a heart-warming story about how I was very very sad, and then somehow a hawk made me feel better. Obviously that’s not what happened.

“The hawk was a kind of vehicle for radical dislocation and escape. I think that if there hadn’t been a hawk, I would have found some other way to run away. I needed that time to become a different person. And I think anyone who’s suffered a loss knows it: you never get over losses. This nonsense that you’ll get over it someday – I think that’s dangerous. You have to grow and become a new person – a person who incorporates that grief and loss within you. And that was what the time with the hawk was about.”

In a sense, then, what Macdonald manages in her book is to contextualise our contradictory relationship towards animals and nature in terms of the contradictions surrounding discourses of death and grief.

“We do have a weird relationship to death” she notes. “We don’t see it ever, unless it’s very personal. People die in other places, animals die behind walls in slaughter houses. We very rarely witness death anymore. And I think that’s a very interesting phenomenon. One of the things that happened with Mabel [the hawk] of course is that because she was hunting – as I say in the book, when goshawks catch animals they don’t kill them cleanly they just start eating and at some point the animal dies. So I had to run along and put these animals out of their misery.”

“So, I was seeing death daily, which would seem a very ironic thing to do. You know, to run away from death and yet somehow put yourself in its way. But it was a great mystery and it was a sense that… As I say in the book, I felt very accountable and responsible for those deaths; it was a very sobering experience. But also it gave me this incredibly strong realisation that, you know, none of us are here very long.”

I ask Macdonald whether part of hunting with the hawk wasn’t about putting herself in a position where, rather than grieving, being on the receiving side of death, she could elicit it, control it. But the word control is anathema, so she jumps in: “A lot of people seem to think that falconry is about control, that it’s about subduing the wild fierceness of the raptor. That kind of understanding is utterly alien to me. Rather, it’s about a partnership with a creature that at any point could just fly away. So to me, it’s quite an enlightened relationship.”

Similarly, when I suggest that she may have been hoping to exert a semblance of control over the general chaos and arbitrariness of death, she quite urgently denies it. “That’s a kind of beat death by becoming a killer – the old thing from all detective stories. No, that’s not what happened. I didn’t think about death in those terms. The hawk represented life to me. It was this very vibrant, living creature without a grieving past, without any human qualities, and that was an incredible escape.”

This is a fascinating claim, because to my mind, death is tangled up in life – what appear as contradictory motivations are precisely those aspects of death that are difficult to integrate in our self-understandings. And so I push this question: “How much do you think ascribing that kind of life-giving quality to the hawk has to do with the fact that the hawk is able to mete out death in a way that is not human?”

“Ya, I guess” she temporarily concedes. “I mean, what other animals work like that? I guess being caught up in grief is always about a little part of you that wants to exert revenge upon the world, but I don’t think that’s what it was –”

“But perhaps this is more about mastery? As though, if one could master –”

“No. I wanted to disappear. I didn’t want mastery. I wanted to not be me anymore.” She points me to a book review which offers a reading that’s more palatable. But I am trying to nudge her towards something perhaps more perverse about death: its capacity to wipe away our sense of order and control, and what I perceive as the integrally human desire to regain it.

But beyond my heavy-handing of this issue, this seems to me to be a patent issue about discussions on grief. At any point, as with any relationship, there are aspects and impulses that we exhibit that we can’t bear to acknowledge. And it is the myth of “pure” grief (as sorrow, as suffering) that seems to exclude a number of less honourable feelings.

One aspect we do agree on, though, is the absurdity of “healing in the wild”. “I got very cross recently,” she tells me. “Quite often, now, I come across arguments for saving the natural world because it’s good for our mental health. For instance: it’s been proven that depression can be helped by going out into the green for 20 minutes a day. It [this argument] reduces everything to a question of how well the environment makes people feel. And I think that’s incredibly dangerous. Unconsciously, I bought into that nature-writing chestnut: that if you are miserable, nature will heal you. That’s the structure of so many books on nature; that it’s this kind of Arcadian infinite source of solace and renewal…. No, I bought into that slightly with the hawk and I went too far. I just went way too far.”

Timothy Treadwell, documented in Werner Herzog’s film Grizzly Man, provides one example of “going too far”. Treadwell, an environmentalist and somewhat crazed bear enthusiast (“I’m in love with my animal friends. I’m in love with my animal friends!”), spent months living amongst grizzly bears, in an attempt to heal and escape. Yet, Herzog highlights how fundamentally he mistakes his relation to the bear colony; eventually he is attacked and eaten by the animals he so loves. Herzog summarizes this misinterpretation pithily:

What haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a saviour.

“Exactly,” Macdonald assents, when I bring up Herzog’s film. “But you know what? That film is very interesting, because when I watched it I thought clearly Treadwell hadn’t a clue about what nature might be or what bears are… But then neither has Herzog! Herzog is exactly as invested in a narrative of nature. For him it’s all death, disorder and horror. And I think both of those are lamentably flat readings of what the natural world is… And that’s what makes that film so fascinating: these two completely bizarre poles of natural history.”

Similarly, she points out another mythology implicit in our understanding of what the natural world is. “In the 70s and 80s, ancient forests [i.e. forests that had always been there] became hugely fetishised as historically and ecologically important areas… But it’s more complicated than that actually. The longer a forest has been there, the more complex its ecosystem will be, because it’s had longer to develop those communities. But it’s not that people were obsessed with ancient forests because of the life that was there now. [They were obsessed] because [the forests] reached back to a time – ancient Britain. It was this kind of romantic sense of the past still existing. And I think this romantic sense of virtual time-travel is really caught up in a lot of the cultures around nature.”

Similarly, cultures around hunting seem to produce their own array of interpretations. One of the impressive features of the book is that though it does not present a glamourous image of what is effectively hunting with the hawk, it does not hesitate in its portrayal. “How do you feel about hunting then?” I ask.

“So the cultures of hunting in Europe are extraordinarily varied and cause enormous amounts of invective, upset and concern,” she points out. “Obviously, I hunted with Mabel [the hawk]. I think, ecologically, it had almost no impact at all. But I have great problems with some of the cultures of hunting. I think trophy hunting is problematic, even if the money is used for conservation. That’s a personal view of mine, and I think it has to do with the animal being reduced to a measure of someone’s prestige and understanding of themselves; I think that’s kind of grim.”

I point out to her that these ideas about prestige, power and masculinity have a particular purchase in South Africa, where, as with any colony, narratives of the landscape often had to do with subduing, cultivating and conquering it.

“All those dreadful imperialist narratives that depend on you fighting the wild and carving out your place in it,” she notes. “I think that’s partly why trophy hunting rankles so much with people today. You have these visual images (and these ‘trophy shots’ are what the outrage always collects around) of people grinning by dead things. And I think it’s very clear to most people that we’re living in an age where that antagonistic relationship to nature, where nature needs to be controlled and cut down and to be kind of made ‘human’, this fight of civilisation – we know that it’s bogus now. It doesn’t make sense anymore, and that’s part of what supports the outrage. That relationship to nature just seems incredibly out of date to many people.”

But as we invariably turn towards the furore surrounding the killing of Cecil the lion and consider the dubiousness of the media attention granted to this one animal because it happened to have been given a name, she cautions that ecological thinking also can’t be delineated purely along pragmatic terms.

“The problem with pragmatic thinking is that it doesn’t attach you deeply to things, so we could talk about ecosystem services and how much a tree is worth… But ultimately, with people, that’s not as strong a grounding for trying to protect the tree as someone loving it. So when protestors started climbing up trees to prevent them from getting knocked down because roads were being built in the ’80s; that wasn’t because they thought that trees were worth money and could help them build the economy, that was because they loved the trees.”

In closing the interview, I ask her to comment on these various quandaries surrounding death and nature. “That’s a life’s work rather than an answer!” she smiles. “The scientist within me thinks, well, we should think about the health of ecosystems, rather than individual animals. And I certainly think there should be a sense of scale, but it is the case that as soon as you individually know a particular animal, it becomes very important to you, and I don’t think we should discount that.”

“So” she says, “I think one should always understand your own personal attachments to various parts of nature, and where they come from. And then you can try to see past them and try to work out, maybe, a dynamic balance.”

Macdonald is bubbly and talkative, and the interview races by. But our discussion doesn’t end optimistically. There’s a sense of impending loss, starkly in keeping with our subject matter. “It’s really dark times.” She tells me. “We’re screwing the natural world so fast right now. It’s deeply, deeply concerning.”

H is for Hawk is published by Vintage (UK) and Grove/Atlantic.

Photograph: Marzena Pogorzaly

Mission Impossible Five

BY WESLEY GUSH

It was clear from the moment I picked up The Impossible Five: One Man’s Search for South Africa’s Most Elusive Animals that I would have little trouble finding common ground with its author, Cape Town-based photographer, journo and novelist Justin Fox. He is a twelve-year veteran of Getaway magazine and I had done some “Big Five” wildlife guiding myself, enough to be similarly engendered with a keen interest in seeing the rarer and lesser-known of South Africa’s wide mammal variety. I was excited to hear just how Fox had made it his personal mission to track down and sight five of these extraordinary creatures.

Speaking to Fox over Skype, I ask him how he came up with the idea of going in search of what he has dubbed “The Impossible Five” – the endangered Cape mountain leopard, aardvark, pangolin, riverine rabbit and naturally occurring white lion. “Doing a lot of bushveld and game reserve stories [for Getaway] and having ticked off the Big Five, the Little Five and all the kind of ‘obvious’ animals, I started to move on to the slightly more interesting ones and eventually got fixated on the pangolin, because there was just never any chance of seeing one,” he explains. He had asked many game rangers about the pangolin, and been repeatedly told it was impossible, that he should forget about it. “And that was sort of the red rag to the bull,” he tells me. “I had to find one.” What started off as a search for the pangolin then progressed into the idea of an “Impossible Five” hunt – an attempt to track down those animals one shouldn’t have any chance of finding.

Among the former Rhodes Scholar’s twelve previously published works are stories set in Mozambique (the non-fiction work With Both Hands Waving, published in 2003) and Kenya (his first novel, Whoever Fears The Sea, published last year) as well as several South African travel and photographic books. How ironic, then, that number thirteen would turn out to be the one he would need the most luck for. “I actually went into this project extremely pessimistic, thinking that I would get a great story out of not seeing these five animals,” Fox admits. “I anticipated the book to be about the adventure and about the people along the way and about the science. So it was almost like seeing four and a half was a bonus.” A few pages in the middle of the book show beautiful colour photographs of Fox’s Impossible Five, including a camera-trap image of the Cape Leopard, the only one on the list that he was unable to spot more than a shadow of. Hence “four and a half”.

In terms of sales, and public interest, lucky number thirteen seems to be more than pulling its weight. “It’s the first one in a long time that’s really selling well and catching people’s imaginations,” Fox says. “My last book was a novel which just kind of trundled along, but this one’s been flying, which is a wonderful change. As a writer in South Africa you need a bit of luck occasionally to get books on a roll.”

I ask whether The Impossible Five was targeted at a South African audience in particular, but Fox says that he did in fact want to appeal to as wide a market as possible – though a certain peculiarity revealed itself among his South African readers: “What I do find is that South Africans are incredibly knowledgeable about the bush. They’ve got bird books and mammal books and tree books and insect books. They’ve been so many times that they really do know a lot. So obviously, first and foremost, this book does try to appeal to the knowledgeable South African reader. But I would like to pick up a foreign readership as well.”

The Impossible Five also makes use of several references to familiar characters like Bugs Bunny and Brer Rabbit, stories that I fondly remember my own grandfather reading to me when I was a young boy. Apparently, this is no coincidence; as Fox elaborates, “The other audience I’m hoping for is a younger audience … about 12 or 13 and up, and as a consequence I bring in a lot of my own childhood memories and childhood readings. I think it’s accessible to younger readers and I intended to make it as such.”

We chat about how the mission to find these animals ended up being a whole lot more than he’d bargained for. The first revelation, Fox confides, was the people, “These mad scientists who have dedicated years and years of their lives and are still out there, in the middle of nowhere, often going for months without even spotting the creature that they’re looking for and being completely obsessed with things like faeces. They’re weird loners, often quite isolated people, and they are fascinating.” The people he describes are passionate, single-minded and all a bit crazy. “You meet guys who write all their notes on their body because they don’t take paper with them into the field – it’s fantastic. Characters made in heaven for a writer,” he says. The second revelation was the idea that these animals are an inextricable part of a greater ecosystem, a food web of biodiversity in which everything fits together. “Every single animal is part of a cohesive whole and if you start taking any element out of it you start to damage it – maybe irreparably. So the book started off being about animals and ends up being about ecosystems, really.”

During his stay with Linda Tucker and her white lions on Tsau Reserve, Fox was exposed to people who seemed to have a mystical connection to the animals. I ask him about this and the idea of spirituality in nature. “I’ve been reading a lot of Ian McCallum’s writing and poetry where he talks about sacred groves and how we as humans in the 21st century still really need spiritual and sacred places for our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of the planet,” he tells me. Though not a religious man, Fox goes on to explain that there is certainly an element of that spirituality, which he came to understand better through this journey: “I picked up a lot from people like Linda Tucker about having a reverence and understanding of Nature that goes far beyond just looking for furry animals. It’s about our own soul and spirit and about how we need them more than they need us.”

So has The Impossible Five generated ideas for future projects? “I’m always writing a couple of books at the same time,” Fox says wryly. At the moment it’s a World War 2 novel and a poetry book, both of which he admits are going in completely different directions to The Impossible Five. Yet the popularity of TI5 has given him cause to consider pursuing the theme further: “Maybe a children’s book along these lines – taking these animals and putting them in a very accessible manner for young children.” There’s also a host of other weird and wonderful animals, both extinct and living, that Fox expresses interest in tracking down. The Cape lion, dodo, quagga, king cheetah and white leopard all seem to be clamouring to be on his next “impossible” list. “I do seriously consider a possibility that I’m going to continue looking for strange animals,” he reveals.

I ask him which, if he had to choose, would he say was his favourite animal or most rewarding experience during this project. “Certainly the most adorable and the one that captured my heart was the aardvark,” he answers, somewhat to my surprise – I had expected the magnificent white lion or the elusive pangolin, his original quarry, to top the list. “Largely because it looks so cute and ridiculous,” he explains. I concede he has a point in describing the aardvark as “a cross between a pig and a rabbit, with a long hoover snout”. It did look like it should have been knocked off the evolutionary ladder a long time ago. But as for the one that gave Fox the most trouble to find, “it was probably the pangolin. I spent night after night waiting outside a hole for the bloody thing to pop up!”

I ask Fox if there is any chance for a reader to track down any of these animals, but he replies despondently: “I’d say zero chance on all fronts. Your best shot is the white lion, if you can get in with Linda Tucker, though she doesn’t generally take guests. To see the other four, you really need to be with a scientist and tracking them with telemetry. Even then, you really are in the realm of pure luck. I set out to find these animals in three months, and it ended up taking me three years.”

So, did that mean he wouldn’t be traipsing around the Cederberg on the trail of a Cape mountain leopard any time soon? “I think I’m done with these five for now,” Fox says with a rueful laugh. “I’d like to go and find another bunch, though. There are a whole lot of animals that I still haven’t seen, like the black-footed cat and the Knysna elephant. They could be on the next list.”

The Impossible Five is published by Tafelberg.