Thursday, April 23, 2015

Author Interview: Caitlyn O'Connell of Ivory Ghosts


Still grieving over the tragic death of her fiancé, American wildlife biologist Catherine Sohon leaves South Africa and drives to a remote outpost in northeast Namibia, where she plans to face off against the shadowy forces of corruption and relentless human greed in the fight against elephant poaching. Undercover as a census pilot tracking the local elephant population, she’ll really be collecting evidence on the ruthless ivory traffickers.

But before she even reaches her destination, Catherine stumbles onto a scene of horrifying carnage: three people shot dead in their car, and a fourth nearby—with his brain removed. The slaughter appears to be the handiwork of a Zambian smuggler known as “the witchdoctor,” a figure reviled by activists and poachers alike. Forced to play nice with local officials, Catherine finds herself drawn to the prickly but charismatic Jon Baggs, head of the Ministry of Conservation, whose blustery exterior belies his deep investment in the poaching wars.

Torn between her developing feelings and her unofficial investigation, she takes to the air, only to be grounded by a vicious turf war between competing factions of a black-market operation that reaches far beyond the borders of Africa. With the mortality rate—both human and animal—skyrocketing, Catherine races to intercept a valuable shipment. Now she’s flying blind, and a cunning killer is on the move.


1.    Does the wording "A Catherine Sohon Elephant Mystery" indicate that there will be more?

There will absolutely be more from Catherine! In fact, the next installment is set in China, where Catherine follows the villains into the steamy jungles of Yunnan to severe the main trade route between Africa and China. In the third installments, she returns to Africa and it goes on from there.

2.    What is vibrotactile sensitivity?

All mammals have vibration-sensitive cells in their feet, lips and elsewhere that detect vibrations and send a nerve impulse to the brain. Some animals use vibrations as signals or to detect trouble and respond accordingly. Humans have this ability as well. In fact, people with hearing impairments are much more in tuned to vibrations than those with normal hearing and use this sensory input to help them better navigate their environment. Hope this answers your question.

3.  What drew you to study elephants?

I never thought I’d be lucky enough to study a large social animal like great apes or elephants, but when the chance came up, I leapt at it. My husband and I were volunteering in Etosha National Park, Namibia in the early 90’s when we were offered a three-year funded position to study elephants. Over twenty years later, I’ve never looked back. I’ve always been interested in animal communication and acoustics. Elephants are a great subject or long distance communication studies as they have the lowest frequency call of any terrestrial mammal (closest is the blue whale). Over time, I got interested in the inner workings of family structure and politics within and between families and between males within their all-male societies. Since elephants can live as long as humans and have complex social lives, I have no doubt that trying to understand them will take a life time…and leave plenty for the next generation of elephant scientists to understand. Ivory Ghosts was born of inspiration while living and working for the Namibian government in the Caprivi region of Namibia in the early 90’s. I was inspired by the dedication of rangers and conservationists and also floored by the greed and senseless killing of elephants for ivory. I included some of these details in my first science memoir, The Elephant’s Secret Sense, but then later fictionalized the story to reach a broader audience of readers.

4.  How is your writing between the non-fiction and the fiction?

I never thought I’d write nonfiction, but 5 nonfiction books about elephants later, I realize the importance of conveying my elephant research to a broader audience and I have appreciated learning the art of incorporating storytelling elements from fiction into my nonfiction books. One is always growing as a writer and I enjoy teaching science writing as it helps me improve my craft as well.

5.  Tell us a little about Triple Helix Productions.

My husband and I started Triple Helix Productions in order to provide more accurate science content into mainstream media and stories. One of the science fiction fantasy stories that we wrote was designed to get girls interested in physics. Having spent much of my career working with physicists, I realize that there are very few female role models in the physics and engineering sciences. We structured a scifi society based on physics principles and hope to attract the next generation of female physicists through storytelling.

6.  Is there anything you can tell us about the novel meant to inspire girls to go into the study of physics?

This story was written (and the Catherine Sohon character developed) to inspire girls to break molds and take on courageous paths, to not be confined by convention, to be strong and confident both physically and mentally, to not be afraid to take calculated risks and enjoy the rewards of an unconventional life even though the uncertainty of it might be scary sometimes.

7.  How did you come up with the book's title?

When I spent most of my time in Africa and made a lot of friends there, I was struck by how much sadness the people around me had to endure. A close friend lost her fiancé to a buffalo and that is what inspired Catherine’s grief. I had my own share of grief to process in a very white environment where elephants would cover themselves in a slippery white clay during a mud bath, looking very much like giant white ghosts afterwards. Adding the word ivory is reflective of my desire to warn readers of the possibility of a future without elephants. For all these reasons, I conceived of this title very early on in my Africa life and have stuck with it ever since.

8.  Did you like the Disney movie "Dumbo" as a child?

Heart wrenching. Absolutely LOVED it!

9.  What are some of your hobbies?

Photography, scuba diving, swimming, reading, travel

10.  Do you have any writing rituals (favorite places to write, snacks or drinks, computer or paper and pen, etc)?

Getting as far away from anything that will draw me away from writing. When I sit down to write at my writing desk, I clear it off of any paperwork that might remind me of what I haven’t done in areas that I am procrastinating in order to make time to write. All that remains on the desk is meaningful artwork that helps me get into a creative zone. Often, I try to be in a natural setting with a view (ocean, desert, forest) to write, but every once in a while, I do well with the bustle of a coffee shop as a change of pace. Paris and other old cities have also been inspiring places and right now I am with Catherine in the alps as she dictates her next adventure to me. She can be quite demanding sometimes.



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I gained the opportunity of interviewing Caitlyn O'Connell due to participating in a blog tour of her book Ivory Ghosts, run by TLC Book Tours.  Click the logo about to go to the tour page, which features reviews (including mine tomorrow - Friday, April 24, 2015)


  1. Thanks for featuring Caitlyn for the tour. I'm SO looking forward to reading this book!