Author Nizrana Farook sat down with her editor Kirsty Stansfield, to discuss her debut middle-grade novel, The Girl Who Stole an Elephant – a thrilling adventure of friendship, flight and writing wrongs, featuring a band of animals and set in an enchanting jungle setting.
Chaya, a no-nonsense, outspoken hero, leads her friends and a gorgeous elephant on a noisy, fraught, joyous adventure through the jungle where revolution is stirring and leeches lurk. Will stealing the queen’s jewels be the beginning or the end of everything for the intrepid gang?
The Girl Who Stole an Elephant is such a great adventure story! Did you always want to write something with loads of action?
Not really! To start off with, I was very interested in writing a mystery and that’s what I did. It didn’t have the kind of action that The Girl Who Stole an Elephant has. But I do love writing unexpected twists, and that’s something both stories have in common. I learnt to write lots of action on the job. The character of Chaya, the setting of Serendib, the situation that she was in, they all demanded that there be lots of action. How could I not take advantage of that waterfall, or the leopard, or the bandits!
Chaya is so brilliantly headstrong! Was she inspired by anyone in particular?
Chaya is very much an aspirational figure for me. She’s everything I would have found cool and exciting as a child (although not the thief part!). She’s so brave and confident but at the same time highly principled and knows her mind. I would have loved to be her when I was that age. Or if not, at least be her friend. And that’s very much where the character of Nour comes in…
Have you always written?
I suppose I’ve come quite late to writing, after enjoying it a long time ago during my schooldays. I did have a lifelong dream to be an author, but it was more of a fun thought, not something I realistically expected to happen. When I started to write seriously and aim for publication I didn’t tell anyone. So it was strange that, when I got my book deal and told people about it, nobody seemed very surprised. A lot of people said to me, ‘That was always your thing, wasn’t it?’, even those who haven’t known me that long. So I guess yes, it has always been my thing somehow.
What other books or authors have influenced you?
Without a doubt, Enid Blyton. She made me fall in love with books. Her books don’t make for very comfortable reading as an adult, but as a child I loved them with all my heart. When I read her books, and I mostly had access to the old editions with Eileen Soper illustrations, it brings back so many memories. I read a lot of the classics too – books like Little Women, The Secret Garden and Heidi have always stayed with me. Some of them are strongly associated with particular times and memories in my life.
Have you ever ridden on the back of an elephant?
Yes. It’s not very unusual in the part of the world I come from. I wouldn’t do it now. There was this one time we were on holiday in a rural part of Sri Lanka and the house we stayed in had its own resident elephant. She had been part of the dowry of the lady who owned the house. The elephant seemed quite happy mooching about the large grounds with her mahout, but she must have led a very lonely life as elephants are such social creatures.
Did you always know the role Ananda would play in the story?
No! When I wrote the first chapter I didn’t know this was going to be a book at all. I ended the chapter with the king’s elephant trumpeting into the sky because I felt it was a nice finishing image for the chaos Chaya had caused at the palace feast. When she ends up being back there later and having to escape I got an idea to bring Ananda in again. So I had no advance warning that she was going to steal an elephant! I also didn’t anticipate how much of a starring role he would finally have. He ended up being in the title and on the cover!
What part of the book did you most enjoy writing?
The dialogue. I love how confrontational Chaya is with Nour, and I had great fun writing the conversations between them, with Neel trying to keep the peace. Some of the action scenes were a pleasure to write too, although I did feel quite tense when writing about some of the more dangerous situations they got into. Sometimes I’d come to the end of a scene and realise how rigidly I was holding myself, and have to tell myself to relax! You can get so carried away in the middle of the action.
The landscape is so beautifully done. Even the leeches are appealing! How easy was it to bring Sri Lanka to life on the page?
Thank you. Bringing the landscape to life was actually one of the easiest parts of writing the book. And because it is a work of fiction I could take some liberties with the geography and features to serve the story.
I’m surprised you found the leeches appealing! Not for me, they’re not! The leech scene actually happened. I went on a school trip a long time ago to a rainforest in Sri Lanka. I wrote all the jungle scenes in the book from just that experience because it was well before there was any commercial nature tourism on the scale it is today. Inexplicably, we had bare legs and flip flops! So we were barely more protected than the barefoot Chaya. We had a guide who was a local girl not much older than us (we were seventeen) and who seemed completely unfazed by the whole thing. She said things like, “Don’t worry about the leopards – they run away when they see people.” For anyone lucky enough not to know, it doesn’t hurt when leeches are attached to you and sucking your blood. There’s a sort of itching and you look down to see the horrible, previously skinny creatures ballooning up on your leg. Still, you can imagine the screams from a group of schoolgirls! Unlike in real life, the leech situation in my fictional jungle had to be completely toned down. In the book they were only in certain parts of the jungle; in reality they were everywhere.
Thank you, Nizrana! I will read that leech scene with new eyes next time. And thank you for taking time out from writing your next book to answer these questions. Hope it wasn’t too much time, mind.
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