One of us lives on the east coast. One of us lives on the west.

One of us lives in a rural community. One of us lives in a city.

Both of us wander. Both of us witness. Both of us write.

This is a record of what we find.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Guest Interview: Eliot Schrefer and THREATENED

We are honored to have Eliot Schrefer with us today.  Eliot is the author of many YA novels, including Endangered, which was a National Book Award finalist.  Endangered is about bonobos and Threatened is about chimpanzees.  They are books 1 and 2 in Eliot's "Great Ape Quartet."

Tam: I say in my review of Threatened (which will be featured in BookBrowse's March 19 ezine): "With gorgeous descriptions indicative of Schrefer's thorough research, the sensations of the jungle pop off of the page. The thumping palms of the chimpanzees on tree trunks, raindrops fat as flies, and pungent over-ripe mangos…" Threatened is so rich in its attention to landscape, Eliot. It was impossible to NOT feel like I was right there with Luc. How did you gather and then articulate the details of this landscape?

Chimp in Lekedi Park, Bakoumba, Gabon
Eliot: First of all—thanks! I’m so glad you particularly enjoyed the jungle descriptions—it's easy for the chimps to overshadow everything else. The early stages of my research were disillusioning; my expectations about life in the jungle were all from movies or trips to Busch Gardens. One of the earliest concepts I came across while reading first accounts is the idea that the jungle is, contrary to popular opinion, a “counterfeit paradise”—we assume it’s full of things to eat, but there’s very little nutrition to be found there. Another thing I hadn’t realized is that the jungle often isn’t very hot. When I was in Congo doing research in June, the temperature was in the low 70s, largely because of the abundant tree cover.

On the nuts-and-bolts level, I try to focus on smaller details rather than larger. I find a hanging glowworm more interesting than a panoramic view. It also prevents me from overusing the word “green,” a danger in writing about rain forests.

Tam: Yes!  Okay, it's so cool to hear you say this about the detail versus panorama choice.  I didn't think about that as I was reading Threatened but it is so clear as I think about it now.  This is a credit to you, for sure. Your choice feels so organic.  And (again, now that I ponder this) it allowed me to form a relationship with the landscape.  It is much harder to connect with a wide view…but offer a vivid detail, and I want to touch it, smell it, see it and, yes, connect with it.

I wonder if this is true in life too.  The more we focus in on the details, the more connected we feel to a landscape?  What do you think?

Eliot: I lived in Italy for a year, and one thing always cracked me up about Italians: the first thing you’d hear when they entered a new place was “che bello.” (“How beautiful.”) What they actually meant could have been many things—beautiful light, nice view, attractive people here, etc.—but it always came out as che bello. It’s charming in the Italians (and there are plenty of beautiful things to admire there), but in writing I think we can’t get away with it. No one wants to hear that the jungle was beautiful, or mysterious. They want it proven to them. Then the reaction gets generated inside the reader, and it’s more powerful. I also think concentrating on details makes us more mindful, and might avoid falling into preconceived notions. Especially important for an American writing about Africa. 

Tam: What is your personal relationship to the Gabon jungle?

Rainforest in Gabon
Since Threatened largely takes place outside civilization, and Gabon’s wilderness is so similar to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s, I didn’t feel the need to make a separate research trip after my voyage to see the bonobos for Endangered. So in Threatened I was writing about places where I hadn’t actually been, though I’d been to similar locales. But the jungle has always held such a fascination for people that there are plenty of firsthand accounts for me to draw inspiration from. Gabon has set aside more of its land for national parks than any other African country—10%. It’s one of the least populous countries on Earth, and there’s really a sense there that human presence is the exception, not the norm.

Tam: Wow.  I imagine it feels really different to be in a place where human presence is not the norm. And how do write about such a place?

For me, in my own writing, I approach landscape almost as a character.  What do you think of that idea? And if you have any beliefs or thoughts around it, can you explain that a bit here?  Why is this so?  How do you manifest this belief in your work?

Eliot: One of the things that gets talked about soon after character, when writers are concerned, is change. As in, for characters to be believable and intriguing, there has to be some variability in them, and a sense that they’re growing and adapting. Luc gets dropped into a world with a history to it. The chimps are timeless, but he uncovers evidence of old logging roads, grown over: humans had once been there, and might return. The Inside, as the Gabonese call the jungle, has altered over time, and will continue to do so. I suppose I bring this up because I think it’s a danger when writing to think of setting as a static tapestry before which characters act, when the best sorts of settings are the ones adapting to the characters within, both directing—and suffering the consequences of—human interaction.

Tam: Yes!  I've never thought about landscape from that angle—change.  I wholeheartedly agree with you.  And this is why, perhaps, character and landscape are (or can be) so similar.  The best kinds of stories bear witness to characters changing and, as you say, growing and adapting…and, perhaps, the best kinds of stories allow their landscapes to do just the same.

Bonobos (from Eliot's research for Endangered)
What do you think about the idea that landscape holds stories? The way a piece of land is, for instance, itself shaped over time (like where I live, for example, from sheep pasture to forest) and what that means for the people (characters) walking and breathing within it. Life happens over and over again on the same piece of land. Do those life stories get told?  Or are they felt?  And in Threatened, in particular, what does it mean when the land has, for the most part, only held animals?

Eliot: Something that surprised me during my chimp research was that the chimps have individual cultures. Some communities will form war parties, for example, while some are peaceful. Some will use rocks to open nuts, while others will ignore rocks but instead use leaves to sop up water. It fascinated me because these were behavioral variations on the group level within the same species. We tend to think of animals as monolithic uniform entities—one chimp is like another, much as one jungle is like another—when there’s actually a tremendous amount of variation. These variations in behavior come from the environment, of course—over the years, a family of chimps with different resources will develop its own culture. The chimps aren’t aware of it, but they are creations of their world.

Eliot and bonobo bond!
Tam: In a way, its easier to see how landscape has an effect on the chimps, isn't it?  There is a clear physical reason for their adaptive behaviors that comes directly from their landscape.  I have a hunch it's the same for us humans, only on a more subtle level.

And speaking of humans…what does landscape mean to Luc?

Eliot: At first Luc is terrified of the wilderness; when he was growing up his mother would warn him about the “mock men”—aggressive chimps who lived in the jungle. It’s the Inside, where people aren’t supposed to go. But once he’s stranded there, he adapts to his world and starts to finally find a sense of home. I was intrigued by that idea—that for someone who has had everything taken away, home and security could actually be found far from human beings.

Tam: Eliot, that theme of finding a sense of home is so palpable in Threatened. Your intrigue, and that idea, and the way you ultimately put it all on the page…it works. 

I am curious about your take on the relationship between landscape and home.  Luc's deep quest for a sense of home was so palpable, and the process of him growing into a comfort and familiarity in the jungle was so moving.  Do you think landscape helps create home?  Do you believe our inner landscape and our outer (environmental) one must be in synch?  (What does that even mean??) 

Eliot: One of the interesting things I learned about life in the jungle was how short anything lasts there. Nothing manmade will last more than a few years, max—and if it’s clothing, it will go much quicker. Luc’s time in the jungle is a slow stripping away of everything that symbolized his life in the city—there’s less to separate him from the chimps, by the end. And ultimately, the chimps show such an emotional depth that he comes to feel an attachment and love that’s very real but also apart from human culture. In that way, I suppose his physical merging into the jungle, his loss of all his effects from his old life, mirrors his merging into the chimp society. I don’t think that our inner and outer landscapes have to be in synch—but I believe they’ll come to find equilibrium over time. We’re accumulations of choices, and choices are always influenced by the environment.

To me landscape is the cumulative effect of what’s around us. It has a huge effect on our lives and our dispositions, but it usually works on the subconscious. It’s a hard thing to actually see. But trying to do so is an important work.

Tam: I absolutely agree.  And I will leave it at that.  I can't thank you enough for sharing some of your process with us, Eliot.  It has been a pure pleasure to have you here.

Eliot: Thanks so much for having me, and for the great questions! This was very fun.

Eliot Schrefer is the author of Endangered, a 2012 Finalist for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature which the New York Times, in naming it an Editor’s Choice, called “dazzling… big-hearted.” He is also the author of two novels for adults and four other novels for children and young adults. His books have been named to the NPR “best of the year” list, the ALA best fiction list for young adults, and the Chicago Public Library’s “Best of the Best.” His work has also been selected to the Amelia Bloomer List, recognizing best feminist books for young readers, and he has been a finalist for the Walden Award and won the Green Earth Book Award and Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. He lives in New York City.  Visit his website here.

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