Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Falling in Love with Somebody Else's Work -- Isn't That What Readers Do?

Nonfiction writers fall in love with their subjects, and, just as when friends fall in love with people, sometimes I can’t identify -- at other times, I really can. I think lots of nonfiction writers develop topic buddies, writer friends whose work fascinates us, and from whom we can learn how to do our own work better.

Which brings me to my friend Ann Downer’s brand new book Elephant Talk: The Surprising Science of Elephant Communication (Lerner, due out any minute). In manuscript, this book wrung tears of envy from me: Ann interviewed scientists who learned amazing things about elephants. Ann saw Jumbo’s actual tail. Ann got to write about how elephants share information and feelings.

Elephant Talk fits into the science-in-the-field and how-science happens genre,” Ann says. “I’m pretty sure it’s the first time all the modes of communication in elephants have been tackled in this detail. There is nothing about elephants that isn’t interesting!” For example, “Elephants have the same ‘acoustic fat’ in their feet that dolphins have in the special ‘melon’ in their heads.” Or, “they have spindle neurons, the special cells that appear to help animals cope with complex social lives. We have them, and most great apes have them, and so do elephants.”

Every time Ann and I talked, I learned new things about elephants and the people who study them. Do you know how to ship an elephant brain? Ann does. Have you ever been patted down by an elephant? Ann has. It made me wistful. It made me want to write. The great thing about it? Ann ended up with a book – and I get to read that book – and then to move forward with one of my own, with new ideas about how best to do it.

In talking to Ann while she researched, I had a ringside seat to whatever was new – and an inside line on the challenges my friend experienced while working on her book. “One challenge was keeping the chapter about the human-elephant relationship under control,” says Ann, whose years of work on animal communication, sociality and intelligence as a science editor at Harvard University Press gave her the background and contacts she needed to write Elephant Talk. “I tried to rein it in by focusing on first-person accounts by a mahout in Nepal, and elephant scout in Kenya, and a zookeeper at the Reid Park Zoo.” Flush with such riches, Ann struggled a bit when it came to finishing her book – and her solution was tbe part that turned me the greenest shade of all.

She recalls, “I got to the end of Elephant Talk and I didn’t have an ending. And I realized that while I had spent a year researching and writing, I hadn’t actually seen a real, live elephant.”

How jealous can a topic buddy be? This jealous. Ann went to visit Bill Langbauer, the director of the Buttonwood Zoo, and the two elephants who live there. She says, “I was privileged to be close to Emily and Ruthie – close enough to come away smelling like an elephant barn!” She says the conversation with Bill – and her observation of the families coming to see the elephants -- allowed her to write the coda to her book. “Just being in the presence of an animal that obviously has a lot going on up in its elephant skull and looking into those brown eyes: it’s something.”

My topic buddies teach me so much about the craft of nonfiction-writing, how to pull together the story, the facts, and the quotes a book needs, and also to provide that little-something-extra of mystery and emotion that makes the story keep ringing in the reader’s ear.

What did Ann discover while standing there with Bill, Emily, and Ruthie? You’ll have to read Elephant Talk to find out. Even though I got to talk to Ann about her experiences, the book contains something extra from the heart that fell in love with this topic. And so getting to read the book is the best part, after all. There is much more to say about this book and about Ann Downer, so I’ll refer you to her website, where you can find an elephant cam, and to Lerner’s site, where a Google Earth tour lets you visit the elephant researchers mentioned in the book.

And besides, March 13 is National Elephant Day (in Thailand and wherever else we want it to be). Celebrate!


Melissa Stewart said...

Wow, this looks like a great book. I can't wait to read it.


Domenica Di Piazza said...

As the editorial director of TFCB, the imprint of Lerner Publishing Group in which ELEPHANT TALK is being published, I'm totally smitten with Ann's book too! I especially love the quiz in which she invites readers to match up elephant behavior with its various meanings. Give it a try and see how you score!

Deborah Heiligman said...

Oh, man, I wanted to write that book! I can't wait to read it!