For me, the biggest inspiration for writing is travel and foreign landscapes. There’s something about being somewhere fresh, taking in new sights, smells, ways of living, people and ways of living that really zaps my creative process into life – even if the story I go on to write has nothing to do with the place I’m traveling. I’ve talked a lot about how much travelling around in East Africa influenced Unicorn Tracks, and there is a similar story to the background of Tiger’s Watch and the rest of the Ashes of Gold series.
Both of my parents, but my dad in particular, have always been afflicted with wanderlust. Although he had American parents, my dad was born in Toyko, Japan, and only moved back to the USA when he started high school. He always had a sense of not really belonging to either culture, a phenomenon that is now referred to as a “third culture kid” … where you grow up in a place where for reasons of skin colour or accent, you will always be perceived as a foreigner, and where you embrace elements of both cultures. When I was nine, my entire family left the US to emigrate to England. We travelled constantly, and the desire to experience new places and interact with as diverse a group of people as possible has stuck with me.
In 2014, my family traveled to Bhutan. Bhutan is a small country nestled between India, Nepal and Tibet, framed on all sides by the Himalayan Mountains. Until recently, it has remained isolated by choice – only allowing cars and TVs in the 1990s. Bhutan still only permits a small number of tourist visits per year, and has a truly unique, untouched quality to it. Almost the entire country are practicing Buddhists, and the Buddhist monastic rules in conjunction with the royal family. You can see how Buddhism integrates into every aspect of people’s daily lives there … the king lives in a modest house, he runs alone through the forest. Crime is almost non-existent. Beyond that, Bhutan is a country of colours and mountain landscapes, new animals, untouched forests and thriving communities. Education is free and almost 1/4th of children join the monastic.
What inspired me was thinking about what would have happened if an almost utopian place like this, found itself at war with a neighbour or if Bhutan hadn’t be able to remain in isolation for so long. It’s a fear shared by many Bhutanese people. Our guide told us that many of them worry about China invading them for natural resources and that they will become another Tibet. The other was a somewhat hilarious incident we witnessed at one of the monasteries. A young Buddhist monk was sitting on the steps, mixing paints and casually feeding crumbs to the local pigeons, when a beautiful wild Abyssinian cat burst down from one of the trees and went after one of the pigeon. The monk was up and on his feet like a shot after the cat, but he was too slow and the cat ran off with a pigeon almost the same size as she was, while the monk went and got a broom to chase her some more. We didn’t see the end outcome, but I did love the character of a peaceful, creative monk, juxtaposed with a blood-thirsty cat …
Thus, Tashi and Katala the tiger came into being …
I was also food poisoned by Holy Water in Bhutan, but that’s another story entirely.
In The Tiger’s Watch, there are a lot of parallels between Tashi’s world and Bhutan, but they are not the same place. Tashi is a Bhutanese name, meaning Luck and can be given to a girl or boy, which I felt was important for Tashi as a NB protagonist. His best friend’s name is Pharo, which is also a Bhutanese name. The aesthetics of their capital city mirror a lot about Bhutan’s architecture and the idea of a monastic body is important for them. However, Shien’s core culture revolves around a magic system, not Buddhism and their values are almost entirely different to the people of Bhutan. In a lot of ways, I feel like the book captures the aesthetic – the isolation, the mountains, the looming Zhongs – but doesn’t essentially draw from Bhutanese culture, beyond the large monastic element … and of course, the wild cat who can’t be tamed. Who I still like to imagine got away and ate her pigeon in the end.