There are some authors that we adore but have never had the chance to add on the site. Eliot Schrefer is one of those authors. Not only is Schrefer an amazing writer, but his work with animal rescues send a little flutter of happiness through my animal-loving heart.
Schrefer’s latest book is Rescued. Raja is an orangutan raised within the confines of an American home. John grew up with Raja. The orangutan was his friend, his brother – never his pet. But when John’s parents split up and he moved across the country, he left Raja behind. Now Raja is suffering. John can save Raja, but it will force him to confront his fractured family and the captivity he’s imposed on himself all of these years.
Tell us about your newest novel Rescued! Who are John and Raja?
First of all, thanks for having me! I’ve long loved this site, and it’s awesome to get the chance to talk to you and your readers.
Rescued is about John, a boy living in Georgia whose father comes home from a business trip with an infant orangutan. They become as close as brothers: playing video games together, developing their own private sign language, hanging out in the backyard. But when John’s parents divorce, Raja the orangutan gets sent to a terrible roadside zoo. John breaks him out, and they go on an epic road trip, avoiding the police and their parents while John tries to figure out a safe place for his orangutan brother to live.
You’ve been writing about the relationship between humans and animals – and what humans do to animals – for quite a few books now. Does that take an emotional toll? What sort of research do you do?
Often the first question I get after I do a reading is “Does the animal die in the end?”. We’ve all been traumatized by those books as kids, so I’m very careful not to take readers’ hearts and wrench them too hard. J That said, in our human-structured world, animals are vulnerable and voiceless. It’s part of why I write these ape stories, to give a voice to animals that we could overlook or ignore in our day-to-day lives. But that’s my motive for writing the books, not their purpose. I want to tell a good story, first and foremost. Any research I do, or thoughts I have about the human-animal relationship, come into a book like Rescued only when they also have a compelling reason for being part of the narrative.
These books are a blast to research, because I get to go to jungle field sites and meet and stay with conservationists. For Rescued I went to a Sumatran orangutan rehabilitation center, and also took a retrofitted fishing boat into the Bornean jungle to visit orangutans there. Going into the jungle and hanging out with apes—I mean, what could be better?!
How is writing books like Endangered and Rescued different than your Geek Fantasy Novel or The School For Dangerous Girls in terms of both worldbuilding and research?
Interesting question! I guess for Geek Fantasy Novel and The School for Dangerous Girls I set about creating a world from my imagination, coming up with a tone and a setting that would work well for the narrative. In the ape novels, I’m working from research. I read equal amounts about the ape in question and the country where they live, and then make a running list of cool things I discovered in my reading. For Rescued, for example, I was inspired by the sign language of an orangutan named Cheetah, and the elaborate escape attempts of an orangutan at the San Diego Zoo, and the experience I had with quarantined orphan orangutans in Sumatra. So I was a collector building a world from factual bits that I found, rather than a dreamer working from a blank canvas. The “collector” way of creating a novel has worked out to be a better for me in the long run, I think.
Both Endangered and Threatened were finalists for the National Book Award. What was it like to discover they’d made the list?
Totally bonkers and awesome. When Endangered was a finalist, I woke up to dozens of texts and missed calls on my phone, from friends who had heard the news. It was such a surprise and the deepest, most resonant version of delight I’ve ever felt. I just couldn’t stop smiling and laughing.
When Threatened was a finalist two years later, it was even more of a shock. I’d felt like I’d been struck by lightning when Endangered was selected. For lightning to have struck twice, well it caught me out of left field. Those sticker designations can take a book from obscurity and get it into readers’ hands. I’m hugely grateful for them.
What else do you want people to know about Rescued?
Rescued is fun! Imagine what it would be like to be on the run with a best friend and sidekick, to be on your own as a teenager, figuring out how to eat, live, travel, all while keeping the creature alive that means more to you than any other being. And, I mean, just look at this guy:
What YA books would you recommend to readers who are fans of Rescued?
Ooh! Recently, I loved Gary Paulsen’s This Side of Wild, which is a recounting of his experiences with animals, from dogs to grizzlies. (If you haven’t read his novel Hatchet, that’s another must!)
I also LOVED Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish. You learn a lot about jellyfish, but never in a heavyhanded way. Instead it’s truly about how we move on through loss, and how we figure out how to be close to people again after being hurt. You just also happen to learn a lot of cool stuff about jellyfish scientists. A really gorgeous book.
Ken Oppel’s Half-Brother is also about a kid who grows up with an ape! His is a chimp, but the story of Zan is beautifully told in Oppel’s hands.
Lastly, I’d suggest Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus, which was a non-fiction National Book Award Finalist last year. She looks into the question of consciousness itself through octopuses, which are endlessly fascinating and weird animals. A great read for adults and young adults alike!
It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me!