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February 26, 2014

Guest Post by Eliot Schrefer: But Does He Survive in the End?

Posted by Shara

When asked what makes a book good, most people will tell you that the characters are hugely important --- you want to be able to relate to them, care about them, see them overcome adversity and meet the love of their life. But what happens when your main characters are animals? Eliot Schrefer tells us in his blog post --- his book ENDANGERED deals heavily with bonobos, and his newest book THREATENED (out February 25) features a family of chimpanzees. Read on to get a sense of Eliot's thought process when writing about animals --- and to see a mesmerizing video he took of a chimp at a zoo in Singapore!

“But does he survive in the end?”

It’s the first question I get at readings --- no one wants to read the chimp book where the animal bites the dust. Believe me, I know what you’re thinking. We’ve all been moved and scarred by OLD YELLER, WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS and CHARLOTTE’S WEB. Books with animals at the center can be powerful and riveting, and totally desolating if things turn out bad. Animal stories figure high on any list of tear-jerkers.

My last two novels, ENDANGERED and THREATENED, have focused heavily on animals. And it’s often been on my mind, the additional emotional wallop animal stories have. We have all sorts of defenses up about how humans are treated, but animals break through to a more purely emotional state. It’s a big reason MAUS is so moving --- by switching human characters out for animals, the tragedy of the events comes right through to the heart, bypassing all the defenses we’ve spent our lives building around humans. 

For a writer, it’s a power that comes with responsibility. There’s something easy about animals in jeopardy  --- it ratchets up the reader’s emotions so quickly that it’s easy to overdo it, to fall into melodrama or manipulation. We all want to feel deeply when we read, but we don’t want to be brutalized. The only solution I’ve come up with is to try to be as accurate as possible to how animals truly behave in the wild. I do my best not to inject additional drama into the situation, and let the actual victories and losses of life in the wild form the framework for the drama.

For example, last summer I was in Singapore for a research trip, and I spent some time at the chimp exhibit in the zoo. I was transfixed by a young chimp working on a game, in which she could manipulate a piece of fruit through the various chambers of a box in order to eat it at the end. It seemed like not much at first, but then I noticed the intense focus she had, how completely she was trained on the task at hand. It took her ten minutes to get one piece of pineapple, but in her moment, in her existence, it was the most important thing imaginable. Seeing the amount of intelligence and dedication she showed reminded me that I don’t need an exaggerated situation to make readers feel deeply for an animal --- I just need the right forum for the animal to show who he or she is.

Eliot Schrefer is a resident of New York City and an honors graduate of Harvard College. A contributor to The Huffington Post and a reviewer for USAToday, Eliot has been profiled in Newsweek, New York Magazine, the New York Post, WWD, and NPR's "Leonard Lopate Show." His first novel, GLAMOROUS DISASTERS, became an international bestseller. He has since been writing for young adults. His books have been translated into Russian, Polish, Romanian and German.