Author Spotlight: Nancy Richardson Fischer talks When Elephants Fly
I'm so happy to welcome Nancy Richardson Fischer onto the blog today! Nancy has led an amazing (and very interesting!) career-----from the time she spent writing for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, to freelancing sport autobiographies for athletes like Monica Seles, Bela Karolyi, Nadia Comaneci, and Apolo Ohno, and she even worked at LucasFilm, where she penned a Star Wars: Junior Jedi Knights trilogy.
WHEN ELEPHANTS FLY is her Young Adult debut, released by Harlequin Teen in September. As an anticipated read, WHEN ELEPHANTS FLY made several 2018 lists, including:
A Parade Most Anticipated Book of Fall 2018 A YA Books Central Buzzworthy Books of Fall 2018 A Publishers Lunch Fall Buzz Book!
And now, here's my chat with Nancy!
Hi, Nancy! Welcome and congrats on When Elephants Fly. Can you share a little about the story and what inspired it?
Thanks so much for having me Megan! When Elephants Fly was inspired by my first job and by a dear friend. I’ll start with the job. After graduation from Cornell University, I was hired as a writer for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. I traveled to different arenas around the US interviewing performers. Those articles were then placed in local newspapers. My favorite part of the job was interviewing families ranging from trapeze artists and teeterboard acrobats, to high-wire performers, all passing their skills down generations.
I didn’t give much thought to the animals at the circus, which is embarrassing now, but true. PETA was always protesting the show, but I was 21 and just trying to survive a first job that involved a ton of travel and some pretty volatile personalities. So I avoided the elephants, whose sneezes were pretty gross, the tigers, because they would try to mark you through the bars of their rolling cages, and the llamas as I was told they looked cute but could spit a long distance.
No one at the circus involved with the animals thought they were treated inhumanely, or at least they never admitted it. When I’d reference the protesters, performers told me that the elephants were smart and loved to be challenged by intricate performances. Tigers were in danger of extinction and the circus was making sure they were protected. Plus the trainers loved their animals, bonded with them, and wasn’t it obvious they were loved in return? I mean, why else would tigers, whose instinct it is to run from fire, leap through rings of flames?
Then one day a visitor was walking through the backstage area of Madison Square Garden in NYC and asked me why the line of elephants, chained by one foot until show time, was swaying. I said what I’d heard countless other members of the circus say: “Because they love the music.” Later that day, as I watched those majestic creatures poop on command then file into the arena with sequined showgirls on their backs before returning to their shackles, I knew by the sickening feeling in my gut that I had lied. Those elephants were slowly losing their minds from boredom and the destruction of their spirits. I quit my job a few weeks later.
After leaving the circus I promised myself that someday, beyond the donations I would make to animal organizations, I’d do something to shine a light on elephants, and all wild animals in captivity. My hope is that When Elephants Fly is a compelling novel that will awaken readers’ compassion and that they’ll join the fight to protect elephants. One wild elephant is killed every 25 minutes in Africa and in the last decade, a third of all elephants have been wiped out. In Asia, the situation is even worse. There are only about 40,000 Asian elephants left in the wild. Both Asian and African elephants face extinction in the next twenty years if nothing is done to save them from poaching and loss of habitats.
The second inspiration for When Elephants Fly is my dear friend, Bea (not her real name). When Bea was a child, her mother, who had a mental health condition, was in and out of hospitals. There were scary moments, public embarrassments, and upsetting interactions with a parent who at times couldn’t function. Bea was all too aware that her own risk factor—10% if you have a parent with mental health issues—might mean she could face similar challenges in the future.
Bea, like my protagonist, Lily, avoided triggers like alcohol and drugs. However, early on she made the choice to truly live in the moment. She went to college, dated, followed her intellectual passions, and ultimately married and had a child.
My friend’s ability to view her situation rationally and overcome her fears is moving and powerful. But it led me to wonder about the things, real or imagined, that hang over all of our heads. Fear is a universal obstacle. Whether it’s a genetic predisposition for a physical or mental health challenge, or our own insecurities and anxieties, fear keeps us from living in the moment.
Bea realized that life wasn’t fulfilling without pursuing her passions and finding someone to love. She put aside a future she couldn’t control and embraced the present. Lily, when faced with the overwhelming probability that she’d have a mental health condition, found a cause to fight for and someone who mattered more to her than herself—the elephant calf, Swifty.
My hope is that When Elephants Fly will inspire readers to recognize the fears that create barriers in their lives; that they’ll live in the moment whenever possible (sadly, there are times when it isn’t), find love, and fight for something bigger than themselves.
You’ve said Lily’s journey is about learning to live in the moment. What are some things you do in your own life to nurture this?
In my own life I’ve found that I can be truly present when I am challenging myself. Whether that’s tackling writing a novel, which can be all-consuming, or kite surfing in big wind and waves, which is exhilarating but at times terrifying, I try to throw myself into everything I do with not quite reckless abandon. And, just like everyone else, I have fears of my own that can sometimes make me stumble. When I feel frozen, I remind myself that the moment is all that’s guaranteed and try to reel myself back to the present.
What is your favorite thing about Lily?
Lily begins her journey as entirely self-involved, understandably, but as she realizes her friend Sawyer needs her, and as Swifty’s situation worsens, she’s there for them and ultimately willing to risk everything for love and what’s right.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that every story teaches the writer something new, so what did writing When Elephants Fly teach you?
I learned so much about mental health conditions, their challenges, and the bravery it takes to survive and thrive. The support of family and friends is vital, as is having something or someone you love to fight for. There are different kinds of happily-ever-after, but each one has hope at its center.
I also learned about the likely extinction of elephants in the wild in the next twenty years and how we all need to fight to ensure their survival. I’ve included ways to do that in the resource section of my book.
What part of the writing process do you find most challenging and how do you tackle it?
Great question! Starting a new novel is the hardest for me. The only way I know how to tackle that is to let my ideas build like water behind a dam, until the pressure in my brain, the need to start writing, overwhelms and I have to open the lock, write, or drown. Even then, there are so many options—zillions—that it’s a daunting process. I let go of trying to write a perfect first draft, allow myself big mistakes, and hold onto the belief that somewhere down the road I’ll get it right.
You’ve had some pretty amazing jobs—from working as a writer at Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, to freelancing for LucasFilm. How did these experiences help shape your voice as a writer?
Every new job I took was terrifying! I was absolutely certain I couldn’t do it—that’s the truth.
I was twenty-three and I’d never written a book when I got my first job co-authoring a sport autobiography for famed gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi. When he hired me, I told him he was making a mistake; that I’d never written a book before so he should get someone better. He said that when he was scouting for new talent, he never picked the best gymnast in a group. He picked the girl who was trying harder than the rest. Bela was sure I’d try harder, too, because I had more to prove. He was right.
That experience shaped me as a writer more than any other. When I was hired by LucasFilm to write a Star Wars trilogy, I had no idea what I was doing. But I knew I’d try harder than anyone else and ultimately find the right voice. I’ve brought that same determination to everything I write, regardless of whether I know what I’m doing when I start. Confidence that I can figure things out, eventually, has shaped both my choice of projects as well as my voice.
What are you reading, watching, or otherwise currently infatuated with?
I’m a HUGE Netflix, Amazon, HBO and Hulu gal. I spend my days writing, so I need a diversion in the evening that doesn’t involve words (I read while on vacation but never when writing something new as I’m afraid I’ll pick up another author’s voice or cadence). Right now I’m obsessed with Ozark, The Handmaid’s Tale, and pretty much every HBO documentary (real people are endlessly fascinating).
As for the novels I read when traveling … anything by Gillian Flynn, John Green, Robin Roe, Jenny Torres Sanchez, Laurie Forest, Diana Gabaldon, Julie Kagawa, Stephen King, Peter Straub, Clare North, Mary Doria Russell … and the list goes to infinity and beyond!
And finally, what’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned so far in your publishing career?
Patience. Even writing that word fills me with impatience! But it’s true. Publishing is a marathon, not a sprint, at least for me. The road to writing a novel and getting an agent was a LONG one. While the auction for When Elephants Fly was EXCITING!!!! That was just the beginning of bringing Lily and Swifty’s story to life. While HarperCollins/Harlequin Teen was working their production magic, I wrote a new novel, The Speed of Falling Objects, which will be out October 2019, HarperCollins/Inkyard Press. And while Speed is being line-edited by the incredible editorial director of Inkyard, Natashya Wilson, I’m hard at work on a new book, tentatively titled, The Book of Certainty. And it’s so very hard to be patient with that story as I’m so excited about it that I could burst! But I have to slow down, work through every plot point, develop each character, so that someday, if I’m patient, BOC will be given life through the publishing process!
Megan, thanks so much for having me! I really enjoyed your questions and hope that your readers will pick up a copy of When Elephants Fly and get lost in Lily and Swifty’s journey.
Many thanks go out to Nancy for taking the time to tell us the stories behind the incredible inspirations that went into WHEN ELEPHANTS FLY! Be to sure to add this compelling coming-of-age story to your Goodreads list, or order your copy (WRITE) NOW from retail sites like Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. And to further support the author (and your community!), don't forget to request this title at your library/local independent bookstore!
And, as always,