My Ill-Fated Elephant Detective Novel
Everyone has a mistake or two hidden in their closet. Mine just happens to be elephant-sized.
A number of people have very kindly (and probably untruthfully) expressed an interest in seeing my ill-fated elephant detective novel. This was the first book that I attempted to write, and it was a disaster.
I had grand plans for this book — it would feature a pachyderm detective who would unravel a series of mysterious deaths at a Chinese circus. Unfortunately I ran into a lot of logistical difficulties with my hero. He was constantly lurking around, extending an ear around the corner and forced to eavesdrop in order to get vital information about the crime. I just couldn’t get anywhere with the book because there was (literally) an elephant in the room. The final blow to this endeavour was when Water for Elephants was published. Despite the fact that it wasn’t a detective novel, there were so many similarities (circuses in the 1930s, crime and punishment amidst pachyderms) that I had to abandon it.
Now that I look back on this first book, I can’t imagine what I was thinking. It was so enormously complicated that I could barely keep track of all the various plot points that, like an overloaded circus train, threatened to careen off the rails. Not to mention the fact that when people asked me what I was up to (I spent years writing this book, in a very dilatory fashion), the conversation would invariably go like this:
Them: “So what’s your book about?”
Me: “It’s about an elephant detective!”
Them: “A what? A person who finds elephants?”
Me: “No, a detective who IS an elephant.”
Naively, I stumped along, believing that the world really needed more first-person narratives told by elephants. Of course, I turned out to be wrong, but not before I had sunk enormous amounts of time and energy into it.
I can’t tell you what a relief writing The Ghost Bride was in comparison. Now when people ask me what my book is about, I can launch into the fact that it’s about this peculiar historical practice of marrying the dead that Chinese people used to occasionally do. At this point they often still look interested, a sentiment that I hope will mysteriously compel them to rush off and read it, or at least, not back away quietly from me.
The funny thing about it is that some of the events in The Ghost Bride actually started out as a subplot for this first novel. I happened to be digging around in the archives of our local Malaysian newspaper when I came across a sentence which alluded to the decline of spirit marriages amongst the Chinese.
“What is this?!” was my first reaction. Never mind that there wasn’t anything about elephants in the article.
Then I realized that this must refer to the marriage of the dead. I’d vaguely heard of this before, since ghost stories are the weapon of choice for Chinese grandmothers, but this matter-of-fact reference was so intriguing that I sat down and wrote the first chapter pretty much as it appears in the book. I then put it away with all the bits and pieces of unfinished writing, but there was something that kept drawing me back, even though I clearly couldn’t use it because it wasn’t written in first-person pachyderm.
Still, I was tempted to try to shoehorn this whole notion of a ghost bride back into my elephant novel (please don’t do things like this). In fact, Li Lan and Tian Bai were originally characters from that first book – Tian Bai was one of those Chinese acrobats who spin plates on sticks and form human pyramids. It was a truly terrible novel. I cringe when I reread bits of it. But I’m glad that I worked on it because without that long, strange sojourn, I might never have written The Ghost Bride, which thankfully shaped itself into a tale that was worlds away from where I started.
So whether you’re writing or reading, I’d like to encourage you to keep going. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes, even ones that weigh several tons and are unable to squeeze themselves into crime scenes.
P.S. Yes, I am writing another novel, which necessitates many trips to and from the refrigerator in search of “inspiration”. There are no elephants in it.
- Gerald Durrell’s Rosie is My Relative - a much better book about an elephant which is (intentionally) hilarious.
- Peanuts, sugarcane, and bananas.
Photo credits: Photo 1 - http://www.livelimitless.net/tag/wild-pygmy-elephants. All other photos link back to original webpages.
Have you ever had the horrible suspicion that the project you’re working on is misguided?