At this year’s BookExpo, I was fortunate enough to get the chance to speak to Nancy Richardson Fischer about her YA debut, When Elephants Fly, which comes out today.
When Elephants Fly is the story of T. Lily Decker, who is terrified that she will develop schizophrenia like her mother. There is a chance she can avoid triggering the condition if she lives a careful life for the next decade or so, the age range when schizophrenia most commonly manifests. But then she witnesses an elephant trying to kill her calf, and she can’t let it go.
THE GEEKIARY: When Elephants Fly is your YA debut. You mostly wrote sports biographies before –
Nancy Richardson Fischer: Yes, autobiographies. So I wrote them in the voice of the athlete that I worked with.
THE GEEKIARY: How did you get into that?
Nancy Richardson Fischer: I was working as the the senior campaign adviser for UCSF (University of California at San Francisco), and I had a friend who was working for – I believe it was Hyperion, that bought the rights to the gymnastic coach Bela Karolyi’s story. She was collecting possible people to write that book, and she said, “I’ll just stick it in the pile with everybody else.” So I remember, I went to the library – it was microfiches, where you put a dime in to get the copy. I couldn’t look anything up on the internet at that point. So I wrote a proposal and Bela Karolyi read it and flew me to his ranch.
We spent the weekend riding dirt bikes and walking around his property, and at the end he took me back to the airport, and I said, “What do you think, Bela?” And he said, “Oh, you’ve got the job.” I was worried. I said, “Bela, I like you. I’m 23 and I’ve never written a book before.” And he said, “That’s why I’m picking you, because I never picked the gymnast who was the best gymnast. I picked the gymnast who was jumping up and wanted it more.” So he said, “You have never done a book before. You want it more. You’re going to work harder.” So that was my first one, and then all the other ones just fell in line after that.
THE GEEKIARY: What made you decide to switch to fiction?
Nancy Richardson Fischer: I always wanted to write my own stories. I always had so many stories in my head, but I was making a living. So, I just needed to write the books – not that it wasn’t fun – but I needed to write the books that paid my rent.
THE GEEKIARY: Is it an adjustment to go from writing sports autobiographies to writing fiction?
Nancy Richardson Fischer: No, it’s just way more fun.
THE GEEKIARY: Did you have to change anything about your writing process?
Nancy Richardson Fischer: No, I really didn’t. The process of writing autobiographies was super linear. I started with the beginning, went to the end, then looked at all my notes and decided how to put that story together. Writing a book is super linear for me as well, because I know where I’m going to start and where I’m going to go, and the middle is a little foggy. Usually, if you know your characters well, then they kind of inform you.
THE GEEKIARY: What inspired you to write When Elephants Fly?
Nancy Richardson Fischer: Two things. One, I worked for a really large circus when I got out of college, and that was super fascinating and fun, and the human performers are incredible. I was so young that I didn’t really think about the animals that much. I tried to avoid the tigers, because they spray you when you walk by them, and then you can’t get the spray off your clothes. And I tried to avoid the llamas and the elephants, because the elephants sneeze and things like that.
And then I was taking a member of the media through the back of an arena, and this man asked me why all the elephants who were chained by their leg were swaying. I said it was because they liked the music, which is what everyone at the circus said, and I went home that night and thought, “It’s not about the music.” I saw the animals kind of for the first time. Because I was so busy trying to keep my job and do a good job and be 22, and I promised myself that I was going to try and do something other than donating to PETA and different animals sites. This book is my effort to move the needle a little bit on conservation and animal protection in a way, hopefully, that isn’t vitriolic or loud or angry – in a way that just tells a compelling story, in the hope that people will care and want to do something to help save elephants from extinction.
The other reason I wrote the story is that I have a friend whose mom has a mental health condition. She had a really challenging childhood, and she grew up with a lot of difficulties; her mom was in and out of mental health care institutions. Talking with my friend, and hearing how afraid she was that that was going to happen to her, and how – while she avoided the triggers that might lead to mental illness – she decided to really live her life. She decided to go to college, get married, have a child. Those are things that a lot of people with genetic histories of mental illnesses don’t do, because they’re so afraid to live in the moment.
I wanted to write a story, because I think that’s very universal. I think we all have things hanging over our heads. I have a really dodgy back, and I could sit on the couch, but instead I move every day. I ride my bike, and I kite surf, and I do the things that could make it worse but don’t, because I’m living in the moment. So I wanted to write a story that inspired people to live in the moment no matter what’s hanging over their heads, and to realize that there’s beauty in being present, and there’s a hope for the future no matter what you’re battling.
THE GEEKIARY: What kind of research did you have to do to make this book relatable and believable?
Nancy Richardson Fischer: I was really worried about that. When you write a story and you don’t have schizophrenia, you could come under criticism. And of course, those aren’t the shoes I’m filling. I did a lot of research, I read a lot of books, I watched a lot of videos, I watched a lot of TED Talks and YouTube videos from kids who post. There are so many kids dealing with mental health conditions who post their stories. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s also inspiring, because they’re fighting. That was the thing that came across to me more than anything, is that when you have something to fight for that’s larger than yourself, it propels you forward, and it gives you hope. Through doing all that – this isn’t a book about schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is the means to tell the story. It’s a book about anything that’s hanging over your head that you’re trying to triumph.
THE GEEKIARY: Mental illness is both kind of a hot-button issue right now, but it’s also a very delicate subject to treat respectfully. It’s rare to find books, especially YA books, that deal with it in a way that’s respectful and well-written. What was the most challenging aspect about writing?
Nancy Richardson Fischer: Trying to make sure that I did it justice, and that I don’t hurt anyone in any way, and that I come from a place of respect for the condition and for people who are struggling and trying to survive and hoping to thrive. I’m not telling people what to do. I’m not a doctor. I consulted psychiatrists and doctors about everything I wrote, but I’m not a physician. I don’t want to step across that line. So really, just being really respectful and doing my best to shine a light without claiming to be an expert. The story is told in the hope of helping people, not in the hope of exploiting somebody’s condition.
THE GEEKIARY: What do you hope people take away from When Elephants Fly?
Nancy Richardson Fischer: I hope when they’re done reading the story that they look at the resources section for whatever they need to take away from When Elephants Fly. There’s a resources section for people who are struggling with mental health conditions. There’s also a resources section for people who want to do something about elephants protection and conservation.
There are three organizations specifically:
Patricia Sims, who started World Elephant Day, and does a great job educating the public.
Ellen O’Connell, who’s the Vice President of Space for Giants, which does an excellent job in Africa of trying to combat poaching.
And a woman named Katie Rowe, who started Reteti Sanctuary, which is the first community-run elephant sanctuary in Kenya and employs women to be keepers. Women who, before Katie showed up, weren’t educated and people never thought that they could work in any capacity and earn a living are now earning livings for their families and supporting their extended families through their work at the Reteti, and helping to save elephants that have been abandoned or orphaned and return them to their herd if possible.
I’d like to again thank Nancy for taking the time to speak with me!
When Elephants Fly by Nancy Richardson Fischer is published by Harlequin Teen and currently available wherever books are sold.
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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