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Author Spotlight: Eliot Schrefer and the Great Apes

Festival Staff / March 2, 2017

  • Priya Patel

    Priya Patel

Eliot Schrefer’s first novel in 2006 was for adults, but since then he has made a name for himself in the middle grade and young adult world. He’s known for his contributions to the Spirit Animals series, and he was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for Endangered, his 2012 YA novel. Now known as the first book in the Ape Quartet, Endangered is about a girl who must protect herself and a young bonobo when guerrilla warfare in the Congo separates her from her mother and their friends. His third ape book, Rescued, was released in 2016.

What inspired you to write Rescued?

Rescued is the third in a quartet of young adult novels I’ve been working on, each about one of the great apes. As I was researching orangutans, I came across stories of apes held in private homes across the U.S., and I was fascinated. I started imagining two brothers, one human and one orangutan, and the bond that develops between them. When tragedy strikes, it’s up to John to do right by his orangutan friend. As I was writing, their love for each other, and the complexity of their relationship, started to take on a lot of the characteristics of our relationship with animals overall.

Have you always been an animal lover? Have you ever worked directly with animals?

As research for the books, I’ve been to Congo and Indonesia to spend time with bonobos and orangutans in rescues and quarantines. I’ve always had a deep connection to animals—as a little kid I used to look forward each week to the morning we’d get to go to the local pond to feed the ducks. Years ago I worked at the New England Aquarium as a sea turtle research assistant. We were working with Myrtle the turtle, trying to measure the effect of sonar on her ability to navigate. I loved that time I got to spend with her!

What other research have you done to write your books? Tell us the weirdest field research moment.

While I was in Sumatra studying the orangutans, there was one afternoon when I was doing a circuit of the orangutan sanctuary, handing out pieces of fruit. I ran out before I could give a piece to the last orphan, but she seemed not to mind. When I came back around half an hour later, I heard a phhbbt and then felt spit on my neck. She’d waited to get her revenge! But she’d never shown any anger on her face. It was the strangest thing, trying to read her poker face. I wouldn’t say orangutans are any smarter than bonobos and chimps, but they’re certainly wilier.

What does the day-to-day business of being a writer actually look like for you?

I can work for about four hours a day before my brain gets mushy. I start working first thing in the morning, then I usually do some sort of exercise, and go out to lunch with a writer friend. Afternoons are for reading or research!

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Take a long-range view. It’s easy to get hung up on one project, and start thinking that whether you’ll make it or not as a writer all depends on how this one book or story or poem does. But if you’re committed to the actual task of being a writer, it means surviving plenty of unsuccessful projects. Just see if there’s something to learn from each piece of writing you create, no matter whether it succeeds or not.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on the final book in the Great Ape Quartet! I can’t say too much about it yet, but it’s about gorillas, and set 600,000 years in the past, when gorillas first met early humans.

Find Eliot Schrefer on Twitter @EliotSchrefer or

Find Eliot Schrefer at the Festival: Global Connection: People, Place, and Possibility on Saturday, March 11; Conspiracy and Conflict; Taking Action/Making a Difference;and Journalism, TV, and Children's Books: Multiple Pathways as a Writer on Sunday, March 12. He will be signing after each event and books will be available for purchase.

—Sarah Hannah Gómez

Sarah Hannah Gómez holds an MA in children’s literature and an MS in library and information science from Simmons College and is working toward a PhD in children’s and adolescent literature at the University of Arizona. Find her online at or @shgmclicious.

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