The Malta Independent 20 June 2021, Sunday

Marie Benoit's Diary - Born to write

Marie Benoît Sunday, 9 May 2021, 09:00 Last update: about 2 months ago

TREVOR ZAHRA is an author and illustrator of books for adults and children. He has published over 130 books and won the National Book Prize 18 times. His books have been translated into English, French, Russian and Norwegian. Last February was the 50th anniversary of his first publication. Here he shares his Covid battle scars and successes with us. Website:

Trevor – a man of books and flowers not forgetting Spag Bol
Trevor – a man of books and flowers not forgetting Spag Bol

"In a previous life I must have been a snail ... or tortoise ... or hedgehog; because I still love to curl up and retreat into my shell, my land of dreams.  And the pandemic means I can withdraw, guilt-free, into my own world.  I am used to being alone, in my study - my sanctuary - but as the famous Michael Morpurgo once exclaimed 'I work in isolation but I create characters to keep me company!'

Between 2010 and 2012 I published a children's trilogy set in the fictional country of Kartaksan.  With the spectre of Covid-19 looming, I pondered the idea (after a suggestion by my friend Kit Azzopardi) of a fourth book about a strange and grotesque pandemic that takes over Kartaksan.  And so, No Coughing and Sneezing Allowed in Public was born.  I spent months engrossed in its creation, writing and illustrating it with over 40 illustrations.  Chris Gruppetta (Merlin Publishers) was so bowled over that notwithstanding the huge difficulties the publishing world was (and still is) struggling with, the book was published nonetheless.


I must confess my writing was interrupted by frequent hand-washing with sanitizer, a change of shoes to nip out and collect the post, an ear cocked to Prof Charmaine Gauci's daily bulletins and trying my partner Catherine's patience with my constant need to read every chapter to her.

Two of Trevor’s over 130 books

Before the pandemic started I had already been working on a set of short stories inspired by flowers.  My childhood home had a big garden with around 40 fruit trees.  My father and elder brother were avid gardeners, and between March and April the garden was transformed by a rainbow of gladiolas, stock, freesias and roses into a veritable perfumery.  So it is inevitable that flowers are part of my life (and will no doubt be part of 'my death').  In these stories I wanted to explore and understand how flowers become part of our lives without our conscious realization.  And so, from the deep darkness of the pandemic came the splendour of colour and flowers that is Sempreviva - a collection of 37 short stories - published at the very end of last year.  One of the best surprises ever is the book's original design; Pierre Portelli, Merlin Publisher's designer, used different coloured papers to transform the book into a paper bouquet of flowers.

I am used to working on different projects at the same time; projects that are diverse in nature, or at different stages of progress.  For example, I might be researching details for an adult short story while illustrating a children's novel.  Before the pandemic, I had started working on illustrations for a children's book that would appear animated through augmented reality.  Every illustration had to be not only drawn, but also animated.  Although much of the work had been completed, some details need to be seen to.  Technically, this book requires a complex process because augmented reality is a relatively new genre, and we had teething troubles.  However, thanks to pandemic-imposed isolation, the Merlin Publishers team and I were afforded quieter time than usual to complete this project.  The book is now at the printer's and will be launched soon.

For the past three years, the singer and songwriter Corazon Mizzi, the actor/director Joseph Galea and I produced song, dance and literary evenings called 'Storjakanta'.  These evening performances were well-received and the three of us formed a strong and lasting friendship.  In fact, last year we were really looking forward to the planning, organisation and rehearsals for 'Storjakanta Tal-Milied' in mid-December.  The script had been ready for a year.  But we were faced with a new hurdle; since I am considered vulnerable, it was not wise for me to attend rehearsals, or indeed to perform.  Much to my dismay, I had to withdraw.  I must admit that this was one of the worst disappointments brought on by the pandemic.  Neville Refalo took my place and did a brilliant job, but being part of this project from afar really cost me.  Nonetheless, I set to work on the props and created a pair of angels in stained glass style that, rest assured, were more beautiful than any to be found in heaven [Thank God!]  'Storjakanta Tal-Milied' was put up at SpazjuKreattiv at St James Cavalier, for a limited audience due to the public health restrictions because of the pandemic, and was enjoyed by all .... While I had to look on from afar, longing to be part of it all.

So it's quite evident that I was not idle during the pandemic, but it wasn't plain sailing either.  I needed to be swabbed around three times because of a persistent cough that I felt I needed to check out.  The results were always 'negative', but I hated the nose prodding.  Tickle me all you want, wherever you want, but my nose is off-limits.  Could I do anything about this?  No, I had to put up with it.

I miss family and friends.  Every Saturday my children and grandchildren usually come over for lunch - spaghetti Bolognese, every week - one of the simplest dishes, and one I am able to cook.  We all looked forward to Saturdays very much, most especially me.  But the pandemic has robbed me of my spaghetti Bolognese; I can only relish it when we are all sitting around the same table. But at last this is slowly changing. I am also missing concerts, the theatre, cinema, literary evenings, exhibitions, meeting up with friends, jokes, laughter, smiles.  I'm glad for Skype, Zoom and Teams, but a photo can never replace a person.  At the moment I am also meeting schoolchildren virtually.  I am spared the car journeys and the stress of parking.  But nothing will ever replace the direct contact with children and how energized these encounters left me.

It could be that I was a snail, tortoise or hedgehog in a past life, but in my next life I want to be a butterfly, so instead of turning into my shell I can fly off to the Sempreviva flowers, far, far away ... And forget that I was once living in the grasp of a pandemic cocoon."

Editorial Note: If you wish to contribute your own Covid diary please email [email protected]


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