By Ngozi Kemjika
NEW YORK (Reuters) - American writer Vicki Constantine Croke has a special place in her heart for animals and their magical connection and friendship with humans, which inspired her latest book, "Elephant Company."
In the book Croke, 56, chronicles the life story of World War One veteran J.H. Williams (1897-1958), who was dubbed "Elephant Bill" because of the unique relationship he developed with the huge creatures while working in colonial Burma for the Bombay Burma Trading Company.
She weaves historical accounts with scenes between Williams and the elephants, and uses his personal writings to tell his story.
Croke, who lives outside Boston, spoke with Reuters about her fascination with animals, the aim of her latest book and her secret agenda.
Q: You have been exploring animal life for more than two decades. Why have you continued with it?
A: My entire career has been one big excuse to pat animals. I came out of the womb this way and it is a dream come true for me to spend my life focussed on writing about animals. There isn’t an animal that I don’t like.
Q: In your book “The Lady and the Panda” you told the true story of American Ruth Harkness, who brought the first live giant panda to the United States, and in “Elephant Company” you write about Billy Williams. What is it that attracts you to writing about human and animal relationships?
A: At the very centre of what fascinates me is our connection to the animal world and that connection isn’t always as intimate as these two people’s. Both of these stories are like fairy tales for adults to me. Some people grow out of stories about animals, but I never did.
I am not spiritual, but I believe there is a divine connection between people and animals. I am intrigued by those who can enter the world of wild animals and emerge unscathed.
Q: How did you research the life of Billy Williams?
A: He wrote so many memoirs but I was lucky enough to be able to pore over the family archives from Treve Williams, his son. I found new, unpublished writings that contained important details. I had the original manuscripts for 'Elephant Bill' and Susan, his wife’s, memoir. I also found that he was able to express much more of his emotion in the movie treatments that he himself wrote rather than in the actual published memoirs. That helped me get to the emotional root of his feelings.
Q: Did you study elephants or visit any of the places you detail in the book?
A: I went to Tasmania where Treve Williams lived, but I felt that the heart of the book was the elephants themselves.
I was fortunate enough to be given permission to visit a zoo, with my videographer every other week. Once there, I would spend the whole day with a pair of elephants. It was a gift to be able to scratch them behind their enormous ears and know them in a way that Bill got to know his elephants. I quickly began to know their quirks, understand their personalities, sounds and vocalisations. This intimate sense of elephants was both a personal and professional gift.
Q: What was your aim in writing the book?
A: I wanted to tell a good story ... It was important for me to just get out of the way and let the story be told.
Q: Why should people, animal lovers or not, read “Elephant Company?”
A: I naturally have this love of animals and I have always felt that if people just knew them better, they would fall in love. I guess I have a secret agenda, and that is to make everyone in the world fall in love with animals.
(Editing by Patricia Reaney and Steve Orlofsky)