Interview with Eliot Schrefer, 2014 National Book Award Finalist, Young People's Literature
Adina Talve-Goodman: Threatened is the second book in your Great Ape Quartet series in which you are researching and writing four novels, each focusing on a different primate. Where did you get the idea for this series?
Eliot Schrefer: To be honest, I started off on this project by accident. I bought a pair of pants that were Bonobos brand, thinking it was a nonsense word, and then lost an afternoon to YouTube videos of apes. At first, I was fascinated by the boundary crossing apes represent—many of their behaviors are things I thought only people could do. But as I began to write about them, I realized how well suited they are to narrative. Apes have such pure, unmediated emotions, and they’re unembarrassed about them. Writing about them means capturing the same range of feeling there is in human relationships, but without the duplicity and misdirection of language. Apes are all proof in action, and I love the clarity it gives to a story.
ATG: You've done quite a bit of research for both Threatened and Endangered. What is your research process for each book like? Is it difficult to weave all the information you've gathered into a fictional narrative?
ES: It can be deadly for a novel if the young reader starts to suspect it’s the results of research, so my main goal is always to keep the story central. But plenty of what I read about winds its way into the books. My research went similarly for both Endangered and Threatened. In Threatened, for example, I started by reading non-fiction accounts of chimps from a variety of sources, with special emphasis on Jane Goodall’s books and memoirs of jungle survival. As I was reading I started a computer file where I logged moments I found inspirational, or details that might be useful for the book. I was simultaneously outlining the plot, and once I was ready to write I organized my research into a separate outline that followed the plot outline’s path. That way, if I wanted to write about the strategies juvenile male chimps use to challenge older males, say, I’d have that info in front of me once I got to that chapter. There was a lot of upfront energy spent in working this way, but it freed up the actual drafting process.
ATG: One aspect of Threatened that I found fascinating was how you managed to create a humane, beautiful story while staying true to how violent chimpanzees can be. You write, "What did any chimp know of hatred? Nothing. The closest they knew was anger." Was it difficult to negotiate the violence of the chimps with the rest of the story?
ES: When I do school visits for my books, something I like to explore with the kids is the cute factor. It’s too easy, I think, to worry about an animal’s welfare because it’s adorable. After the more peaceful bonobos of Endangered, I looked forward to examining a more difficult ape, one famous for its aggressiveness rather than its lovingness. In some ways writing about a more surly primate made my writing process easier, because when Luc was terrified by the chimpanzees I didn’t have to worry about sentimentalizing them. When I had my main character staggering through the forest, fleeing for his life, I wasn’t worried about portraying the non-human characters as mere vessels for human emotions. It was a relief, because it was a constant effort in Endangered to peel back and complicate the easily won sympathy of animal stories.
ATG: Now that you are halfway through your Great Ape Quartet, can you pick a favorite? Bonobos, Chimpanzees, Orangutans, or Gorillas?
ES: Everyone says you’re not supposed to pick favorites. But then again, the apes will never know, so I’ll go ahead! I haven’t even started researching the gorillas yet, so I’ll have to reserve judgment on that front. But of the other three, I think the bonobos win. Their “make-love-not-war” image is overplayed, I think—they have their fearsome and aggressive moments, just like chimps—but when I spent time at a bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo I really got to know some of them. They have such specific personalities (like chimps), and they lend themselves to being seen as individuals. And they’re matriarchal, which is so unusual in the animal world—what’s not to love? Orangutans, on the other hand—you could spend hours with one and feel like you didn’t know it at all.
ATG: You've said that your next book will focus on orangutans. Can you give me any hints or teasers about what might be in store?
ES: Turns out that orangutans are trickier to figure out than chimps and bonobos are. Chimps and bonobos live in groups, so expressing their emotions on their faces is a very useful adaptation as they navigate their relationships. It makes them an easier read, as I have a good sense what an ape is thinking just by looking at his or her face. Orangutans, though, live solitary existences, and don’t have as much need to express their feelings. They’re just as intelligent, I think (and are infamous escape artists in captivity), but they’re far more inscrutable.
I can tell you that the next book is the story of an American boy whose father comes home from a business trip with an infant orangutan, and the two grow up alongside each other. They’re almost like brothers… until something happens. That’s all I can say for now!
Adina Talve-Goodman is the managing editor of both One Story and One Teen Story.