On the writing of The Elephant Keeper

'Exactly where The Elephant Keeper spilled from isn't easy to say, but its origins seem to lie a long way back. If it is, to some extent, a celebration of the English countryside, it must be significant that I was brought up right on the edges of London; that, if I walked up a nearby hill, I could look in one direction over the vast expanse of the city, dark and, in those days, still subject to dense smogs, while the other direction offered a view of unbroken green breached only by the spire of a distant church. The novel also emerges from a fascination with the exotic, and as a little boy I used to fantasize about zoo animals roaming the English countryside. In my bedroom I had a long procession of carved elephants, and downstairs, on the hall chest, lay a curving ivory tusk, half a meter long, fashioned into a paper-knife and engraved with the Nicholson coat of arms. I still have this grotesque object.

'In 1984 I visited Nepal to walk round the Annapurna mountain bloc, and afterward traveled to the Chitwan National Park, where I rode on an elephant for the first time. It was during this period that I made a series of radio documentaries for the BBC on the relationship between humans and animals; this work helped develop my thoughts on the differences between human and animal language. About the same time, I happened to visit the stately home of Longleat, in southwest England, where a safari park had been started, and I remember how excited I was at the sight of giraffes grazing in the park, which was landscaped in the mid 18th century. They looked perfectly matched to their surroundings. Although there were no elephants at Longleat, it was easy to imagine that there might have been; and maybe this thought eventually gave rise to that part of The Elephant Keeper set on a country estate.

'During my twenties and thirties I began to collect old natural history books, especially those of the 19th and late 18th centuries - which I loved (and still love) for their eccentric illustrations and wonderfully romantic language. When I began to write the novel, one of my aims was simply to enjoy swimming in some 18th-century language. A first draft probably took no more than six months, but there was a lot of reworking and rewriting. I carried out a good deal of library research into obscure 18th-century texts on such matters as veterinary science, horse-breeding, and gout, and I visited a number of 18th-century estates for descriptive detail. The great country house and deer park at Petworth, in southern England, had some influence on the deer park in the novel. I also spent time with two elephant keepers at a zoo that held, in addition to several female elephants, a very large male. Male elephants are dangerous creatures; this one was not only ill-tempered but half-mad. I learnt a lot about the phenomenon of "must" or "musth," in which male elephants are attacked by a kind of frenzy; I used this in the novel.'

Christopher Nicholson February 2008

Link Read reviews of the novel
Link Read the first chapter
Link Read Christopher Nicholson's endpiece on the early history of elephants, with pictures of historic elephants

Listen to a 2009 interview with Christopher Nicholson about The Elephant Keeper on: