From the Zoo to Kenya: My Journey as a Writer by Roland Smith
I've wanted to be a writer virtually my entire life. When I was five, my parents got me an old manual typewriter for Christmas and it was my favorite possession. I spent hours in my room clacking away. Even before I knew how to read, I always loved books. I used to go down to my parents' library, pull books off the shelf and sniff them. I just loved the smell of books for some reason, and this hasn't diminished.
With the goal of becoming a writer, I attended Portland State University [in Portland, Oregon] as an English major, and in a roundabout way this led me to working with animals. I needed a part-time job and happened to find one at the children's zoo in town. Shortly after starting, I ended up catching two escaped agoutis (a large South American rodent). Another time a myna bird had just flown out of its cage and I jumped up and caught it with my bare hands. These lucky captures were pure chance in my opinion, but the zookeeper was so impressed he offered me a full-time job!
The zoo would give me good material for a book, I thought, so I figured I would work there for a few years. As it turned out, I spent over 20 years working with animals all over the world. Throughout this period I kept writing, but the animals took a lot of time. Eventually I left the zoo to write full-time. Most of my novels are a result of my travels and experiences in the field.
My first book, Sea Otter Rescue, was about the environmental disaster of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. It was horrible. We lost over 5,000 sea otters and 250,000 birds. But we did manage to save a few animals — 300 sea otters. We would go out in small boats for two weeks at a time, following the oil. When we saw a sea otter lying on shore shivering, we knew it was covered in oil. We would rush to the shore in a Zodiac (an inflatable boat), try to trap it, and then scoop it up with a net.
My most interesting trip was to Myanmar (formerly Burma). I spent a month living in the jungle with the elephants and the “oozies” who work with them. Oozies are men who train elephants to work in the teakwood harvest, hauling lumber from 200-year-old trees to the riverbeds. The elephants are treated like members of the family. They're turned loose in the jungle 18 hours a day. Although they can wander wherever they want, they often wander into the elephant camp to see what the oozie and his family are up to. The relationships the oozies form with the elephants they ride sometimes last a lifetime. I wrote a nonfiction book about my adventures, called In the Forest With Elephants. And I'm working on a novel that takes place in Burma during World War II. Many of my experiences are going to be in that book.
I thought of Thunder Cave during a trip to Kenya. The way elephants are treated in Kenya is a whole different thing — it's like apples and oranges. In Southeast Asia, where Myanmar is located, Buddhists consider the elephant sacred. In Kenya, where elephants are not trained for work, they are neither useful for labor nor sacred in the religion, and we see illegal poaching going on. I wrote about this in Thunder Cave. As for my main character, Jacob Lansa is a composite of people I know, people I've read about, myself, and a little bit of imagination thrown in to round him off.
Writing is like any skill in life — the more you practice, the luckier you get. If you want to become a writer, you need to write every day, even if it's in a journal or diary, and you need to read everything you can get your hands on all the time. I know hundreds of authors and all of them are fanatic readers. You learn to write by reading other people's words.