I have a little story about this post: About three years ago, I asked Irma if she’d like to write a post for the attic. She said words to the effect of: ‘I’d love to, but would you mind waiting until my novel is published?’
It’s been a long time but I’m thrilled to share Irma’s post today, along with the news that her novel, The Breaking, is now published (Midnight Sun 2021) and earning rave reviews.
So read on to learn about how Irma’s love affair with elephants turned into a book.
Irma Gold’s début novel, The Breaking, was released in 2021. She is also the author of a short fiction collection, Two Steps Forward, and her short fiction has been widely published in places like Meanjin, Island, Westerly and Review of Australian Fiction. She has published three children’s books, with two more due out, and is co-host of the writing podcast, Secrets from the Green Room. Irma works as a freelance editor and for a decade was Convener of Editing at the University of Canberra. She is Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge and Ambassador for the Save Elephant Foundation.
The Ideas Tree
I’m not the kind of writer who has a billion ideas and is constantly distracted by the next bright new thing. I’m in awe of people whose brains are tumbling with more ideas than they possibly have time to write. For me, something sparks my curiosity and I follow it into the deep. I don’t let go until I’m done. And then there is space for a new idea to enter.
Writers always get asked where their ideas come from, as if they were plucked fully formed from the Ideas Tree. But, for me at least, they arise from the compost of life. A series of moments that coalesce with something that has captured my heart and mind.
I often say that the first seed for The Breaking originated from a brief flicker in time when I was eight. Back then I was living in England and my parents took my brother and me to a circus where they used performing animals. I remember nothing of the show, only the smell of the sawdust and the swell of applause travelling around the tent like a Mexican wave. But it was what happened after the show that I will never forget.
My brother and I queued up to have our photo taken with an elephant. We stood either side of this enormous animal and I remember feeling awe mixed with a little fear. We were flanked by a clown and a ringmaster holding a bullhook, used to control elephants. I don’t remember noticing the bullhook back then, and I didn’t yet know that a circus was a traumatic place for elephants – all of that was yet to come. But as I stood there, the elephant’s trunk brushed against my cheek. It was only a fleeting touch, but I fell in love.
Many years later, in the early hours of a morning I gave up wrestling with sleep and watched a video [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-77wtMxT3-M] that was to lead directly to travels to Thailand and, eventually, the novel. It showed a reunion between two elephants, Shirley and Jenny, at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. They had both worked together in a circus and formed a deep bond, but had not seen each other for 22 years. Their reunion was so moving that tears came.
The sanctuary in Tennessee doesn’t take volunteers but I resolved to find a way to work with rescued elephants. Eventually I discovered a sanctuary in Chiang Mai — Elephant Nature Park run by the extraordinary Lek Chailert. Later, I worked on other projects run by Lek’s foundation in Kanchanaburi and Surin. The more I came to understand the complexities of elephant tourism, the more invested I became in writing about them, in an attempt to explore and tease out the grey areas, and come to a better understanding within myself.
I love what Ta-Nehisi Coates has to say about this: ‘I think my only real responsibility is to – as much as possible – interrogate my own truths. This is to say not merely writing what I think is true, but using the writing to turn that alleged truth over and over, to stress-test it, in the aim of producing something readable.’ This is what I did constantly during the writing process. Turning over alleged truths, challenging my own understandings, and always trying to go deeper.
And yet I never set out to write a novel about elephant tourism, at least not in the beginning, and this is, I think, important. The story was always character-driven. After returning from a trip to Thailand these two young Australian characters, Deven and Hannah, just arrived in my orbit. They were so vivid, so real to me, right from the start. And they delighted me. Deven was brash and audacious and a little nuts at times. Hannah was in thrall of all that, and outside of her comfort zone in a new country, wrestling with issues of identity and sexuality. I enjoyed spending time with them immensely, especially as it took me back to the rich sights and sounds of Thailand. But at first I didn’t even realise elephants were going to play a part in the story. Or that I was writing a novel.
I took what I thought was a short story – and what eventually became the first chapter – to my writers’ group. They wanted to know what happened next, so I went away and wrote what I thought was a second linked short story. But when I brought that to the group the same thing happened. ‘Perhaps you are writing a novel,’ one writer suggested. It seemed I was. I was already 20,000 words in and my characters were firmly leading me where they needed to go. The rest of the book spilled out. That first draft was such a delicious pleasure. I’m sure I will never have an experience like that again.
So for me there is no Ideas Tree. I don’t think, I’m going to write about X, and then sit down and apply myself. I can now look back and identify some of the experiences that led to me writing The Breaking – all that lovely compost – but it only seems clear in retrospect.
Irma has kindly donated a copy of The Breaking to giveaway.
To enter, simply comment on this blog or any of the social media posts about Irma’s book.
The winner will be drawn 12pm (WST) this Thursday, 25th March, and will be chosen randomly.
International entries are welcome, but we can only post to an Australian address.