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Our bookseller Sara got the chance to ask one of her favorite authors five questions. Tania James is the author of The Tusk That Did the Damage, one of our Best Books of 2015.
The Tusk That Did the DamageTania James
Aerogrammes: And Other StoriesTania James
Atlas of UnknownsTania James

1. Tusk   is set in India on a wildlife park, which is a pretty exotic locale. One of its narrators is an elephant. Did you have to do a lot of research for this novel? Were you surprised by anything you found out?

I did a lot of research for Tusk, at every stage of writing and revision. I found research to be invigorating and empowering, allowing me the authority to write about a scientific field that I don’t often see in fiction and to deepen my connection to the characters. I like what Andrea Barrett has to say on the latter, that “research is a way of understanding what our characters understand.” And I was constantly surprised by what I was learning, but the details that stuck were the ones that contributed to a living image of what I was trying to portray. Like the fact that an Asian elephant has a “finger” on the tip of its trunk, deft enough to pick up a lima bean. It’s such a delicate organ on the end of a hugely powerful organ, which to me suggests something about deftness and grace, traits that elephants aren’t often known for. (The African elephant has two such fingers.)
Tania James quote

2. When observing animals, we run the risk of simply anthropomorphizing them, but your elephant is very clearly not a person, despite our ability to relate to him. Can you share a little about what it was like to try to write from the perspective of an elephant?

Writing about the elephant, I tried to maintain a precision of language that was true to what I’d learned about elephant behavior. The more I read, the more it seemed to me that the word “anthropomorphism” is based on outdated knowledge of animal behavior and psychology, and perhaps literature has to catch up with science. (Not that I’m the first to think so. There’s a novel that works even further into the elephant mind called The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy.) Still there were times when I tried to keep a respectful distance from the elephant, so that I could speak to the gaps in our knowledge about elephants. It was something of a balancing act.  

3. The American filmmakers in Tusk   have preconceived notions about their subject, and are perhaps the least sympathetic characters. Are we, the American reader, implicated in this story?

Everyone, to some degree, is implicated, but maybe the worst offense of the filmmakers is the judgment they pass over the people they’re filming, people who have been working in conservation for years and who occasionally have to make choices that aren’t necessary right versus wrong, but wrong versus less wrong. The filmmakers come from a country with a long history of wildlife crimes, yet they can’t make a film about elephant conservation in India without forming their own opinions. I had my own discomforts about writing a novel on this subject, being an American myself, but I’m also older than the filmmakers, who are in their early twenties and somewhat understandably naïve. So I find myself implicated as much as anyone else.
Tania James quote

4. Not to give anything away, but did you always know how the book was going to end?

No, and in fact I wrote a completely different and maybe less risky ending before reworking it entirely. I always have to write the bad ending, sometimes a few times, before getting to the right one.  

5. Your novel packs extraordinary depth into a small package. Its characters are both archetypes and individuals. You explore the complexities of man’s reverence and abuse of the elephant, of the circumstances perpetuating the ivory trade, of the roots of love and violence for people and elephants. Did this poetic brevity come from being an accomplished short story writer? Were you ever tempted to be more expansive? What in a story dictates length and approach?

That’s a great question. I think I’m always tempted to be expansive, even in my short stories. In this case, the compression was a by-product of the interweaving structure. It’s just harder to be expansive when I’m keeping three distinct storylines in my head. If I stayed in any one too long, it would throw the other two off balance. And also, my editor was wonderful at suggesting cuts and places where the story would be strengthened by what was left unsaid. Short stories are often hurtling toward a specific point, which is what allows for their compression. This novel is doing something similar, moving toward an incident that affects all three of the protagonists. My intention was to write a thriller dressed up as a science novel (or maybe the other way around.) I wanted the narrative to be propulsive.
Tania James quote
Thursday, December 17, 2015 - 4:00pm