Friday, May 24, 2013

How and why a NYC girl came to write a book about a baby rhino.

ZURI—the word means "beautiful" in Swahili is a story with an unusual setting: an animal orphanage in Africa—and I’m a million-copy New York Times bestselling author of women’s fiction and, with my husband, thrillers.  I live in New York City, have never been to Africa and have never seen a rhino except in a zoo, so what happened?

The initial spark for ZURI, which reviewers have called “masterful” and “wonderful,” was set by an unplanned convergence between the movies, my news junkie habits inherited from my Dad and my love of animals.

The movie, Out Of Africa, is based on the memoirs of the Danish writer, Isaak Dinesen who is also known as Baroness Blixen. Set in Kenya in the early 1920’s. the film stars Meryl Streep as Isaak Dinesen, and Robert Redford as a white hunter. One of my favorite movies, I watch Out Of Africa every now and then and had just seen it again when, while casually flipping thru TV channels one evening, I happened to see a clip of a baby rhino. I was blown away by the little rhino’s appeal and gracefulness.

Baby animals never fail but a rhino? Could a baby rhino actually be adorable? Yes, indeed. Very much so.

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I was also aware via newspaper and internet articles that poaching had become an extremely lucrative international crime. The slaughter of rhinos and elephants is decimating the wildlife populations of Africa to the point where they are now endangered species. Between the glamor of Africa, the vulnerability and appeal of helpless animals and the sweeping Streep-Redford romance, the germ for the book was firmly planted.

The need for research was obvious. I had to find out about the people involved in the dangerous work of animal rescue and protection, the newest scientific discoveries in animal communication as more and more is learned about their high intelligence, the gory reality of poaching and the ruthless criminal gangs who profit from its bloody endeavors.

Then there were the details of rhino husbandry and veterinary, the amazing work being done by African animal orphanages, the risks involved in wildlife care, the details of rhino and elephant behavior—Zuri, the orphaned baby rhino who is the story’s heroine, meets elephant and other animal friends at Kihali. I also needed to find out about the local language, Swahili, Kenyan cuisine & wedding rituals—and I needed to use my research in a way that fit in naturally with the narrative flow of the book.

The research was fascinating. Did you know that the illicit trade in wild animals is third only to the illegal trades in drugs & weapons? Or that rhino horn—it’s actually keratin, the same material found in feathers and nails—is thought to cure cancer, maintain sexual vigor and is considered a miracle medicine in Asia, although it is, in fact, of zero medical value? The price of rhino horn, driven by demand in booming Asian economies, is now more expensive than gold as is the ivory from elephant tusks, used not for “medicinal” purposes but to make carved trinkets.

Inspired by Out of Africa, I also wanted to include a love storyl. Therefore: Renny Kudrow, the sexy scientist and expert in animal communication, who is the moody Alpha hero. Renny is the Director of Kihali and Starlite Higgins is his newly-hired vet, a talented doctor who hides a horrifying secret.

Their relationship gets off to a rocky start when Starlite panics and almost causes Zuri's rescue to fail. The two who must work together to save Zuri and the other animals in their care must also work their way through their initial very rough beginning to a much-deserved happily-ever-after ending.

 By the time I finished writing ZURI, I thought of the book as love story in its broadest sense, meaning the love of beauty, love of nature, love of animals, and, of course, the romantic and transformative power of human love.

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