If Justin Fox had his way, life would be one big adventure. In his latest book, The Impossible Five, he comes pretty close.
Words: Nancy Richards
‘‘I can have up to ten manuscripts on my desk at any one time,” says Justin Fox, a man of many interests, many stories, many books. “Every book takes years to write so I need to have a few things on the go at the same time – I get bored easily.”
The desk load when we spoke included something on secret Cape Town, a World War II novel, a book of short stories and another of poetry, plus a pile of travel assignments, including an imminent journey to Azerbaijan in a Land Rover.
“I’m also a one-man-band so research takes a while – in fact I prefer the research to writing. I’ve just been in Kew wading through naval records. Fascinating.”
All this makes him hard to pigeonhole, but he self-defines as “primarily a non-fiction writer who dabbles in fiction. Main area is travel, but I range widely across genres and do quite a bit of nature. I’m a photographer too.”
Reflecting on the past he says, “As a teen I was always going to be a film maker, all the family was in film and TV. I even did a young film makers’ workshop,but then I got into literature, went to England, did a doctorate specifically on fictional islands as in The Tempest, Robinson Crusoe, Lord of the Flies, became a journalist and then taught at UCT. But I’ve always had itchy feet, travelled as far and wide as I could, so the idea of being stuck in academia didn’t fit.”
It’s easy to see how the deposits in his writer’s experience bank have accrued. Not least of all the childhood input, the reading and being read to, and a family Greek island-hopping expedition on little boats.
“I’m pretty sure I’m a travel writer because of that holiday,” he says. But it was a combination of all of the above and many trips to the Kruger Park that triggered The Impossible Five – In search of South Africa’s most elusive mammals.
“As a child it was always the leopard that was missing, then as an adult, the pangolin became the totem animal.” And it wasn’t for want of looking. For twelve years, Fox worked at Getaway magazine and spent plenty of time in the bush.
“I did an eco-ranger course in the Kruger, where I was dropped off without food, water or weapons – a sobering experience in lion country. But I was always told, it’s impossible to see a pangolin.”
Once he’d set himself this wild task of searching for the impossible, he narrowed down his quarry to creatures that were “distinctive, sexy and quirky: the Cape mountain leopard, aardvark, pangolin, riverine rabbit and (naturally occurring) white lion”.
But what he’d planned to be a six-month project eventually took three years. And a great deal of adventure. Reading the book you can get why research is a whole lot more exciting to him than writing – but in this case he sure has had fun with the words too.
The pangolin he describes as ‘a walking artichoke’, the aardvark as a ‘cross between a pig, a rabbit and a toilet brush’.
“I wanted to tap into my childhood imagination and appeal to a younger audience as well,” he explains. It doesn’t really matter what age you are, but if you cross the writings of Gerald Durrell, Lewis Carroll and Douglas Adams, then you’d be close to the wily Fox’s whacky and wonderful ‘impossible’ journey.
The Impossible Five (R230) is published by Tafelberg, www.nb.co.za
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