Interview with YA Author Eliot Schrefer, Author of Rescued

Portrait of Eliot Schrefer, smiling outside

Eliot Schrefer is a New York Times-bestselling author and has twice been a finalist for the National Book Award. In naming him an Editor’s Choice, the New York Times has called his work “dazzling… big- hearted.” He is also the author of two novels for adults and four other novels for children and young adults. His book s have been named to the NPR “best of the year” list, the ALA best fiction list for young adults, and the Chicago Public Library’s “Best of the Best.” His work has also been selected to the Amelia Bloomer List, recognizing best feminist books for young readers, and he has been a finalist for the Walden Award and won the Green Earth Book Award and Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award.

He lives in New York City, where he is the children's book reviewer at USAToday.

We had the opportunity to ask Eliot some questions about his book, Rescued, which tells the story of a chimp who is adopted by a human family.

Writing for Young Adults

What inspired you to write for young adults? What are the limitations and what are the freedoms of the YA genre?

ELIOT SCHREFER: The primary mark of YA Lit is that it’s invested first and foremost in the experience of being a teenager. That’s it. I came to YA from writing for adults, and I was surprised to find that there weren’t any real limits on content. Sex, drugs, bad language—if it serves the story, it can be in YA. That’s the rub, really—I’d say one of the markers of YA is that all elements in the fiction really must serve the story. That’s something we say about all fiction, I know, but the standards of story efficiency are stricter in YA.

It’s what’s drawn a lot of readers to the genre, I think: there’s less tolerance for authorial indulgence, and in general, readers benefit.

Researching for Children's Literature

In the fabulous New York Times review of your book, Sara Gruen noted how true to life your depiction of Raja (the ape in the story) is.

What kind of research do you do for your books? How important is the "truth" in fiction?

ES: Especially in children’s literature, research can be a bonus and a curse. Bonus because there is a lot of love within the kidlit world, among the “gateholders” (librarians and teachers), for stories that impart information about the world, that can be useful not only in language arts classrooms but also science and social studies classrooms. The curse is that research can really hogtie your writing. After spending so many hours looking up cool facts, I can be tempted to try to jam it all in. Kids have a really shrewd sense of when literature has a Message, and it turns them off. So my philosophy is to do the research, then write the draft while looking at the research as rarely as possible. Story first, son.

As far as writing about apes is concerned, I love the behaviors I read about because they’ll really demonstrate character. One ape I met has a tic of peeling the red paper off every peanut he eats. Another did lip-puttering every time I walked by. I love including ape quirks in my books, because a) they establish character, and b) quirks are something we often think only humans can have.

On Getting Published

What has your experience been with the publishing world? How did you first get published?

ES: I first got published with a very autobiographical novel called Glamorous Disasters, about my experiences tutoring wealthy families in NYC while paying off my college debt. It was 2006, and The Nanny Diaries had just hit big. I knew what an uphill battle getting published would be, so I thought of the most unusual thing about my life, and it was my tutoring stories. From there I wrote a dark literary follow-up that sold, um, not too many copies. I switched to YA around then, thankfully. My latest novels, about apes (Endangered, Threatenedand now Rescued) took me in an entirely new direction. I was a very “thinky” writer before, aiming for clever more than anything else. Writing about animals cracked something open in me, and started me on a more emotional course.

Advice for Young Writers

What advice do you have for young writers?

Take a look at what’s novel (so to speak) about your viewpoint on the world. What stories do you tell that get people at the party coming over to hear what everyone’s so fascinated by? What has happened to you that you’ve never read about? Sometimes having literary ambitions can also mean feeling like you have to match what already exists, that you need to learn to write a New Yorker Story or what you think will sell. But I know in my own experience that the novels I wrote to please the market are my novels that did the most poorly, and the novels I wrote that were different from everything else out there were the ones that did the best.

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