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Inbali Iserles : The author who thinks like a fox

Interview: Inbali Iserles

    Inbali Iserles with Michi
    Inbali Iserles with Michi

    Foxes are "the bad guys of children's literature" according to author Inbali Iserles, who is determined to redeem their reputation.

    "I've always has this fascination with domestic and wild and the line where they cross," she says. "You see something that feels familiar but has that magical quality."

    Iserles expressed this passion from an early age. Born in Jerusalem, she moved to England aged three. The family spent many long, carefree summers visiting the grandparents in Israel, where Inbali and her sister Tali would slip out and buy cat food while the grown-ups were napping; lay out a picnic and admire the feline crowds at the free buffet.

    Foxes came on the scene later, when Iserles had grown up and was living in north London. "I started to see foxes a lot, particularly when I got a puppy, because I was walking at twilight - that's fox-time.

    "Foxes are flexible, they are survivors," she adds. "Despite this, they are terribly misunderstood and the misunderstanding has been used to justify persecution. I got the desire to tell the story from the foxes' perspective, to rewrite the narrative."

    Some of her artwork for the Foxcraft books
    Some of her artwork for the Foxcraft books

    Her atmospheric Foxcraft trilogy centres on a cub called Isla, who goes on a quest to find her family and learns ancient magical fox skills. Although she stresses that the books are not allegorical, Iserles sees parallels in the way foxes and Jews were represented in history.

    "There's a medieval story told in verse and translated into numerous languages, Tales of Reynard the Fox. It tells how the court of the lion king and all the animals came with a terrible complaint against the most wicked, least trustworthy."

    And guess who the villain was? The tale shifted the public view of the fox from the itinerant trickster of Aesop's Fables into someone much more evil, she says. "He has no territory. He has no family. He has no loyalty and allegiances. He kills for fun. In Britain, we're obsessed with land and ownership of land and place."

    The first Foxcraft book came out last autumn. Writing in the first person, Iserles enters as fully as she can into the fox psyche. "It's all about being close to the land; the olfactory aspect; sound; the feeling from the earth… I love thinking in that way when I walk, whether along a street or in the countryside; everything feels sharper. It's enormously good fun; I encourage you to try it."

    Her dog Michi, a Japanese Spitz who looks like an arctic fox, is an inspiration, although she is careful not to write the characters as dogs, which are neither as gentle nor as light-footed as foxes. "In stroking Michi's muzzle, I am able to use it as a talisman to enter the canid world," she says.

    "For me, part of the world-building is finding a new language to characterise the experience of these animals. Some words feel fine, like grass and sun. Some feel far too human - car, road - so for those I use fox words - mangler, deathway."

    There is also special vocabulary for the skills of foxcraft - for instance wa'akir is shapeshifting, in a similar way to the kitsune (fox) of Japanese legends; slimmering is disappearing.

    "The fox magic was drawn from my observations of fox behaviour," says Iserles. "Once, I was out walking Michi and a magnificent fox appeared in front of us. I saw the fox slip through the bars of the park. I went up to the railings and looked through but could not see the fox. Then I turned and saw the fox behind us. It is almost like they're able to make themselves invisible."

    She has a strong instinct for homing in on "small, cute things… If there are 100 people and a single whiskery creature in a room, I'll find my way towards it."

    The small cute thing most prominent in her life is her son Amitai, aged 19 months - known as Matty and an ardent picture-book fan. Iserles loves picture books but her own favourite reading choices as a child were the Moomin stories of Tove Jansson. She adored, "the otherworldliness of the characters and the way the landscape fed into the story, both brutal and beautiful." This influence is clear in the evocative terrain of Foxcraft - from threatening eerie woodlands filled with poisonous fungi to rainbow cliffs. The landscape divides into Wildlands, based on the Norwegian fjords; Greylands, the city, influenced by but not sharing topography with London and the Snowlands - inspired by Iceland - because "for me nothing is scarier than the cold - spoken like a true Israeli."

    Like Jansson, Iserles illustrates her books with detailed line drawings that show her affinity with nature. Although, now that she lives in central Cambridge, she rarely sees a fox.

    There are foxes to be spotted in Israel, where Foxcraft is to be published by Books in the Attic early next year. "But the canids in the Carmel, at my grandparents' kibbutz, are jackals. When I went out recently for my grandfather [David Argaman]'s funeral, I could hear the crying of the jackals. The most heartbreaking sound…"

    She wishes Argaman could have lived to see Foxcraft in Hebrew. He, too, was a writer, researching the kibbutz movement (he was one of the founders of Kibbutz Ramat Ha'Shofet) and publishing his experiences as a British Army volunteer in the Second World War.

    Iserles' dyslexia complicated her reading as a child but she enjoyed listening to stories read by Tali. She wishes there was more of an oral storytelling tradition in this country and, when writing, reads all her work aloud.

    "The metre of each sentence is so important. A book needs to work on several levels. Each syllable, sentence, paragraph, chapter."

    Care must be taken with commas, she says, because each one is a breath. "I'd like a campaign to bring back the semi-colon," she adds. "It's so misunderstood."

    Just like the fox.

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