Friday, June 20, 2014

Eco-Fiction Friday! Interview with Eliot Schrefer

I had the opportunity to meet and speak with author Eliot Schrefer at the Red Hook Book Festival. His book, Endangered, was a National Book Award Finalist for Young People's Literature. It also garnered a starred review in Publishers Weekly and praise from Kirkus, ALA, NPR and a host of others. All well-deserved!  

Endangered is a compelling story set in war-torn Congo. Please share with us your experiences researching this story in such a dangerous place?

First, I want to say thanks for having me! It’s a treat to visit your blog. To answer your question, I traveled to a sanctuary for orphaned bonobos, called Lola ya Bonobo (“Bonobo Paradise” in the local language, Lingala), in order to research the book. Though I was visiting Congo, I think of it as “Congo Lite.” They picked me up from the airport, I stayed on the sanctuary grounds for two weeks, and then they drove me back. It’s a beautiful, well-run place. Each morning I would spend time with the orphans, then I would write in the afternoons. It was great to be able to spend extended time with them—what changed most during my research were the physical details, what bonobos feel like or even smell like.

What inspired you to write about bonobos?

A pair of pants! I bought a pair of Bonobos brand khakis, and thought it was a nonsense word. Then I looked them up and learned about this fourth great ape that I’d never heard about before. Once I knew their connection to us (98.7% DNA overlap) and their plight (struggling to survive in central Congo) I realized there was enough thematic information to write a novel.

You’ve managed to weave in so much information about the science of bonobos and their status in this novel without any “information dumps”. What challenges did you experience in doing this?

I always hate in a movie when the main character happens to walk by a college lecture hall, and pauses for a minute to hear whatever the academic is lecturing about—which is, of course, always germane to the movie’s events. Books have a little more leeway, I think, because there’s a chance to hear a character’s internal thoughts. But all the same, as you say, info dumps are a real problem. Most of the research that I was able to work into the book was about their physical lives—how they nest, how they fight, the texture of their hair, etc.—because those were things Sophie was observing, herself. I tried to minimize times where I’d go “Sophie remembered reading that...”. All the same, I think readers love feeling like their gaining new information. It just has to be presented inconspicuously.

Your next book, Threatened, focuses on another primate. Can you share the differences you encountered with your research on this book?

Threatened is about chimpanzees, and anyone who’s read Endangered knows they come off as villains there. But what helped me come around to them immensely were the memoirs of Jane Goodall. She writes about generations of the Gombe chimps she studied in Tanzania, and their stories are totally gripping. Her writing really encouraged me to look at chimp behavior as family stories above all. One chimp’s welfare has everything to do with how it was raised.

*Starred reviews from both Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly

What’s next for your readers?

I’m hard at work on the next ape novel! The orangutan book will be out fall 2015. It’s about an orang who’s been raised in the states alongside a human boy. I’m also writing an installment of the Spirit Animals series of books—mine will be out in January 2015.

I’m sure readers will be interested in learning more about the plight of these extraordinary primates. Can you point them to any organizations for more information?

Absolutely. There are two main organizations that work on bonobo welfare. One is Friends of Bonobos ( <> ), which helps run the sanctuary where I stayed in Congo. Another is the Bonobo Conservation Initiative ( <> ), which works on keeping the wild bonobos alive and well. Both very worthy organizations.

Thanks again for having me, Nancy!

It's been a pleasure, Eliot!  For more information about Eliot and his books check out his website

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