The self-taught artist and writer James Norbury was living below the poverty line and volunteering with a cat charity when his self-published book was snapped up by a leading publisher in 2021.
After repeated rejection by literary agents, a six-figure deal was all the more astonishing for him being a debut author and he vowed to invest money he earned in creating a sanctuary for animals.
Now, having seen his first book sell hundreds of thousands of copies in more than 30 countries, he is fulfilling that pledge. He and his wife, Ruth, are opening a sanctuary in their home city of Swansea – for both animals and people.
He said: “It’s a place of peace, healing and wellbeing. We need hospitals for the soul, if you like.”
Funding the project has been made possible by the proceeds from Big Panda and Tiny Dragon, a collection of drawings of a panda and a dragon who overcome life’s obstacles as unlikely friends. With the charm of Winnie-the-Pooh, the drawings are captioned with life-enhancing messages inspired partly by Zen Buddhism.
Norbury said: “Zen stories can be very cryptic. Some of them are almost impossible to understand – and that’s often the point because it causes the reader to think non-logically and discard their western mindset to try and understand the story. They’re quite beautiful at the same time.”
He was also inspired by his experience of volunteering with the Samaritans for almost two years, speaking to callers about everything from depression to thoughts of suicide: “That’s one of the reasons I started doing the drawings. That’s perhaps why my pictures connect with people. I understand sadness.”
Some people found solace in his drawings and proverbs after spotting them on his social media accounts, and he was inundated with requests for calendars and postcards with those illustrations. That in turn led him to self-publish a book, the mainstream publishing potential of which was spotted by a literary agent, Ludo Cinelli of Eve White in London.
Before the publication of the book, Norbury and his wife had never been on holiday together as they had no money. Since the global publishing success, he has received invitations from publishers all over the world.
He said: “I spent years writing books and no one [was] vaguely interested in them. I always just dreamed of being able to go into Waterstones and see a copy of a book I’d written. What has happened is really mad.”
His next book is dedicated to his feline friends. The Cat Who Taught Zen, which will also feature illustrations and proverbs, is about a cat who uses his wisdom to help fellow creatures, including a tiger.
He writes: “During the cat’s travels he meets many animals and although he aids each one by sharing a version of an ancient Zen story, he is also helping himself, for all life is connected, and when we benefit others, we cannot help but benefit ourselves …
“If you could take one thing away from this book, I would ask you to try and remember that good things often come out of seemingly bad things. Lotus flowers are significant in Buddhism – in part because they grow out of filth.”
“The tiger’s problem is his ego and his desire to be stronger and better than those around him. But, through the cat, he comes to realise that he enjoys life so much more if does not try to be better than everybody else.
“‘Have you always travelled alone?’ asked the Tiger. ‘In my heart, yes,’ answered the Cat. ‘But I am learning to change.’”
Norbury, 47, studied zoology at Swansea University and wanted to work as a park ranger, but there were no jobs. He says he wants to help animals because dedicated charities are so overwhelmed.
The sanctuary is within a five-storey Victorian townhouse. For humans, it will offer everything from courses on meditation to vegan cookery. The building’s renovation is yet to be completed, but he is already fostering wild or abandoned cats and kittens “until they’re big enough to get new homes”.
Some of the cats he has looked after over the years survived terrible abuse by previous owners, he said. “A lot of the cats are neglected rather than abused. But we had one that had been kicked in the jaw. Its jaw and teeth were all smashed, which is obviously very upsetting.”
The sanctuary will also take in small mammals, from unwanted pets such as rabbits to injured hedgehogs.
The Cat Who Taught Zen by James Norbury, published by Penguin Michael Joseph, is out on 28 September.
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