How I came to write An Elephant in my Kitchen

15/08/2018 Off By Katja Willemsen

Do you want to write the sequel to The Elephant Whisperer?
A friend of my brother’s worked with Françoise Malby-Anthony, widow of the book’s author, and had told him that she was looking for a writer but I didn’t take him seriously. Yes, I was writing full time and yes, I dreamed of The Big Break. Just not this big.

For those who don’t know, The Elephant Whisperer is an international bestseller – the true story of a rogue herd of elephants that Lawrence Anthony and his French wife, Françoise, saved from being shot when they gave them a new home at on their game reserve in Zululand, South Africa. The book describes the magnificent, spiritual relationship between Lawrence and the herd.

What had happened to the herd?
Like readers all over the world, I wondered what had happened after Lawrence died of a heart attack in 2012. Had his widow gone back to France? Was the herd okay? I didn’t live in South Africa anymore and didn’t even know if Thula Thula still existed.

The idea of writing the sequel to that best seller seemed so out of my reach.

‘What the hell?’ I thought. ‘I’ve got nothing to lose.’

Françoise replied immediately to my email and spontaneous woman that she is, invited me and my husband Dave to Thula Thula. I was lucky to be in town for my mother’s 80th – only a hop, skip, and a jump away compared to the hamlet where we live in France!

Chemistry
We liked each other from the word go. Over dinner outside in the Zululand bush on a steaming summer’s night, Françoise and I discovered fascinating parallels in our lives.

She was an ex-Parisian, now living in the middle of nowhere in Africa, and I was once a city girl too, now living in the middle of nowhere in the Pyrenees. She speaks English with a French accent and I speak her language with an accent. We had both ditched corporate careers to do something more meaningful with our lives. We had a string of friends in common. The list went on and on.

‘There’s just one thing,’ I said. ‘I need to finish the book I’m writing first.’

That wasn’t as casual a request as it sounds. My father was diagnosed with lung cancer in August the year before and had been given two years to live. His greatest dream was for me to fulfil my dream of making a living from writing so the minute I heard how sick he was, I decided to start a new book and get it published before he died. He only lived another two months but nothing – not even this heart-thumping opportunity – was going to sway me from my promise to him.

‘No problem,’ Françoise replied. ‘I’m in France later this year. Let’s meet up and talk some more then.’

Chapter 1
A few months before we were due to meet, I offered to stop work on my book to write the first chapter. I figured it would give us both an idea whether we had the right magic to create a best seller together – and I could make sure that the jump from fiction to non-fiction was doable!

Françoise thought it was a great suggestion and immediately made herself and everyone at Thula Thula available to me. I got to work and on 19 July 2016, pressed send – chapter 1 of An Elephant in my Kitchen was on its way to her. The days that followed were the longest couple of days in my life!

She loved it. She didn’t just like it. She loved it.
And best of all, I had loved writing it.

The magic didn’t stop
I was planning a trip to Cape Town and suggested that the two of us meet with publishers in South Africa to talk about our project.

‘I’ve got a better idea,’ Françoise said. ‘The London publishers are reprinting The Elephant Whisperer. Why don’t I speak to them?’

A week before Christmas 2016, we sent our chapter to Pan MacMillan.
We had a book deal one month later.