I began writing The Last Animal many years ago, on a snowy day. After finding refuge from the cold in the public library, I wandered between the rows of books, and after a while I found myself thumbing through Jacques Cousteau's Octopus and Squid: the Soft Intelligence, a funny little treatise on his love for creatures with tentacles. I did not realize I was brainstorming a new story until I went home and wrote five pages about an octopus specialist. My best stories come out of research like this. I tend to find my characters through their passions.
As a writer, I am always researching. When I am lost without a new idea, or else stuck in the middle of an unfinished piece that began well but has since died on the page, I do research. It is the other that fascinates me. My characters have interests far beyond my own experience. They were raised on continents I have never visited and subscribe to religions I know little about. As people, they are generally unlike me; I tend to write from the point of view of a blind gardener in his sixties, a teenage runaway, or the adoptive parent of an autistic child. All of this requires still more research.
In the end, of course, it is my own story I tell, as all writers do. I discover mine by traveling away from myself. In reaching for the unknown—in that middle realm, somewhere between what I understand and what I have never before imagined—I feel the spark of inspiration begin to glow.
For my stories, I have studied ostrich farms, the stages of pregnancy, the lives of missionaries, schizophrenia, the history of the city of Karachi, the various types of drowning, and slugs. I have read about the Kel Tagelmust—"the people of the veil"—and the battles fought by Shalmaneser III in Syria and Palestine. I ransack libraries for information on sharks. I buy books about hieroglyphics, earthquakes, and Indian cooking. I interview aquarists. I interview twins. I stay up late on YouTube to find videos of the Nigerian delta. This research may or may not make it into the finished draft. It is the searching that matters. Through the analysis of tarantulas and giraffes, ballet and gardening, my stories are born. Some people say that you should write what you know, but I am driven to write what I learn.