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The Inspiration for AMBA

This was an idea that I’d had rattling around in notebooks and on old 3-1/2” floppy disks (remember those?) for at least two decades, so the exact source of it is by now pretty hazy for me.

Circa 2000, maybe a little before that, I read an article, almost certainly in National Geographic, about Siberian (Amur) tigers and the challenges they faced, and still face, in the vast wilderness of the Russian Far East, which is the last place where they are still found in the wild. Classic Nat Geo, with stunning photographs of these beautiful, elusive creatures—all captured on film by remote motion-detecting camera traps, of course, as hypersensitive tigers would never allow a photographer to get close enough to take pictures. (With one notable exception: Sooyong Park, whose book The Great Soul of Siberia is incredible, and whose dedication to capturing footage of these animals is nothing short of superhuman.)

One of the challenges tigers face is the threat of poachers, who aren’t interested in their pelts so much as they crave the various organs and glands and other body parts for use in traditional medicines and libido enhancers. You can’t help but be outraged and repulsed at the thought of killing these beautiful, endangered creatures for this (or any) reason; accordingly, I envisioned a vengeful soldier who had taken it upon himself to watch over the tigers, a murderous angel of sorts who turned the poachers from hunters to hunted. An early short story draft from around that time was titled “The Demon of Primorski Krai.” (That remained the working title for this version up until the penultimate draft.) Early versions were heavy on the atmospherics—cold, dark, brooding, and bloody.

That article may have also described a pioneering attempt by Russian scientists and conservationists to train a pair of orphaned Siberian tiger cubs and “reintroduce” them into the wild. This is tricky, of course—thought to be impossible—without a parent in the picture to teach the cubs necessary survival skills and socialization. Nevertheless around the turn of the century it was attempted for the first time, and IIRC one of the cubs was known to still be alive one year after release—a success. I may have read of this effort in Nat Geo, but may also have learned about it in subsequent research, as I collected books and articles and videos on the topic. Occasionally I would come back to the idea, re-open the file and play around with the manuscript.

In 2017 I reconnected with Rittenhouse Writers Group after several years away from writing. (I’d been attending RWG on and off since the 1990s, not long after I first moved to Philadelphia.) After submitting a few stories and getting back into the writing groove, I dusted off those old “Demon” drafts and thought, maybe now I can actually write this story. I submitted the first half of what I thought was going to be a long story, and it just kept going and growing from there. So much so, that to get AMBA down to a reasonable length to submit to publishers I had to divide it into three books (I think), and so this is the first of a planned trilogy that will take the cubs Kamal and Vida through the time when they are ready for release into the wild.

So AMBA is loosely based on actual events and places. Very loosely: the first post-it I stuck to my monitor read “A graphic novel in prose,” and that one stayed there till the very end, as my guiding aesthetic. So, still pretty heavy on atmospherics and violence. But, I hope, somewhat more complex, more fleshed-out, than those early versions.

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