Today, I could not be more thrilled to welcome Abi Elphinstone to my blog. Abi’s debut book, The Dreamsnatcher, is an amazing adventure story and was published yesterday. It is a brilliant book and I can’t recommend it enough. The main character Moll has a very special friend; over to Abi to explain…
The Only Animal That Can’t Be Tamed…
Although Moll is an orphan, she has a lot of people looking out for her back in camp: Oak and Mooshie, Sid, Cinderella Bull and even Hard-Times Bob. But it’s the wildcat from the northern wilderness that perhaps looks after Moll the most. Whether she’s trespassing into the Deepwood to get her cob back or racing over the heath away from Skull, Gryff is never far from Moll’s side.
Gryff – hunting for food in the winter
It’s funny to think that when I wrote a very early draft of The Dreamsnatcher, Moll’s animal companion started out as an owl called Cobweb! He was a cute little tawny owl who could swivel his head full circle and do a shuffly backwards moonwalk, but as the story developed, I realised I wanted a wilder animal – one who could race through the forest by Moll’s side and protect her if danger lurked close. At first, I wanted that animal to be a snow leopard, one of the most secretive wild animals in the world – and one I fell in love with after reading Jackie Morris’ The Snow Leopard. But I needed my story to be believable and although I never say where The Dreamsnatcher is set, in my mind it’s in the New Forest in England – and there aren’t any snow leopards there, that’s for sure…
The Snow Leopard in Jackie Morris’ book
I grew up in Scotland and I remember glimpsing a wildcat once in a wood on the moors and my father saying how rare they were (they are currently a critically endangered species with an estimated 35 left in the wild in the UK) and how they were ‘the only animal that can’t be tamed.’ Moll is about as feral as kids come so a wildcat seemed a fitting sidekick for her – and in my head I could imagine one coming down from the ‘northern wilderness’ to the ‘southern parts of the country’ to protect Moll. It then took me ages to come up with a name for my wildcat and after weeks of thinking, I sent this email to my husband, Edo: ‘Which of these names do you think is the best name for a wildcat? Silver, Skylar, Fly, Pace, Grey, Bry. The wildcat is solitary, intelligent, fiercely protective, stealthy… And it’s male.’ Edo replied: ‘None of those. I like Gryff.’ As soon as I heard it, I knew Gryff was perfect – the name even sounded like a growl he might make.
Gryff looking over to check up on Moll
It was a freezing day in January when I went to watch the wildcats in captivity at the New Forest wildlife park. But I sat shivering in the snow before their huge cages, watching them sleep, eat, stretch and slink around their territory. I listened to their greeting call and watched them leap, like ripples of silk, from the tallest branches to the ground. The wildcats’ warning growls sent shivers down my spine and watching them rip apart meat with razor-sharp claws made me understand that Gryff, although a friend to Moll, would have to be wild at heart. And after seeing all this, Gryff went from being a page on Wikipedia to a fully-drawn character.
Me holding baby Gryff (I found him in Burma!)
Gryff is large, even for a wildcat, with a muscular body and long, banded legs. His coat is thick and grey with jet-black stripes and his tail is long and bushy, ringed with bands of black and ending in a blunt tip. His eyes are large and bright yellow/green (a bit like Moll’s but with vertical black pupils) and he has white whiskers and sharp claws on all four limbs. Usually he sleeps inside hollowed trees, beneath fallen branches, inside rocky cracks or in the abandoned nests of other large animals like foxes or badgers. But because Skull’s dark magic is growing stronger, Gryff starts to sleep beneath Moll’s wagon so that he can guard her at night. Gryff hunts at dawn or dusk, patrolling forest glades and woodland areas and he can leap from the highest branches of trees to the ground unscathed when hunting other animals. He uses his camouflage and patience to stalk as close possible to his prey before reaching a full speed sprint and catching it. He crouches on alder branches overhanging the river when he’s after a duck, he waits above rabbit warrens for rabbits to emerge and he kills by grabbing the prey in his claws, piercing the neck with his fangs, then consuming almost every part of the kill. Gryff’s night vision is seven times better than our own and his hearing is active 24 hours a day, even when he’s sleeping. He can detect minute changes in air currents with his whiskers movement, he can smell meat 200 metres away and in sprints he can reach up to 30 miles per hour!
Gryff hunting in the mountains
Gryff is powerful, agile, intelligent, fearless, loyal and patient and although he is by nature a solitary animal full of secrets, he forms an extraordinary bond with Moll and she learns to read his movements…
· Whiskers twitching: he’s heard something
· Ears swivelling: he’s listening for something
· Ears flattened to his head: he’s scared
· Tail down low: he’s seen something
· Stamping forelimbs: he’s angry
… and his noises…
· Brrroooooo: his greeting call (like a dynamo throbbing deep in the earth)
· Urrrrrrrrrrrr: he’s seen something that could be a threat
· Hisssssssssss: he’s angry or feels threatened
· PAAAAH: he’s angry (often comes with growling, spitting and snarling)
· Noine, noine, noine: he’s content (like a purr but wilder)
If you’re interested in helping protect the critically endangered Scottish wildcat, check out the fantastic school workshops and assemblies Wild Intrigue offers: www.wildintrigue.co.uk/wildcat-warriors