Welcome Lynne Kelly to the Mixed-Up Files! Her debut novel, CHAINED, released into the wild today! Lynne grew up in Houston, lived in a couple of much colder places, then returned to the Houston area, where she works as a sign language interpreter and writes novels for children and young adults.
About CHAINED: After ten-year-old Hastin’s family borrows money to pay for his sister’s hospital bill, he leaves his village in northern India to take a job as an elephant keeper and work off the debt. He thinks it will be an adventure, but he isn’t prepared for the cruel circus owner. The crowds that come to the circus see a lively animal who plays soccer and balances on milk bottles, but Hastin sees Nandita, a sweet elephant and his best friend, who is chained when she’s not performing and hurt with a hook until she learns tricks perfectly. Hastin protects Nandita as best as he can, knowing that the only way they will both survive is if he can find a way for them to escape. (from IndieBound)
What inspired you to write CHAINED?
The idea started when I was at a presentation and heard the tale “Don’t Be Like The Elephant,” about how a small rope or chain can hold a full-grown elephant because once they give up trying to break free, they never try again. It’s meant to be an example of learned helplessness or self-limiting behavior, but I got the idea then to write a picture book manuscript about a captive elephant that breaks free and returns home. After taking it to a couple of critique groups, some people noticed that the story needed to be told as a novel, not as a picture book. At the time I couldn’t imagine writing it as a novel, but now I can’t imagine it any other way. So little by little I worked on expanding the story into a novel, with lots of revisions along the way, changing from third person to first person point of view, past tense to present tense, the elephant from a boy to a girl, and more revisions.
There have been so many versions of the story; it’s unrecognizable from the first picture book draft, although you’ll still see that big elephant held by the same small chain that held her when she was first captured.
I was surprised by the elephant behavior described in the story. I had no idea an elephant could be mischievous, like filling the bell tied around their neck with mud so it doesn’t ring and they can’t be found. Or that they’d attach to a human so much that they’d follow them around. How did you discover so much about their behavior?
Elephants are so smart and have such personality, so they were a lot of fun to research! Thank goodness for DVRs and the Internet. I did a lot of reading about elephants, online and in books, and recorded any elephant documentary I could find. Plus I talked to some people who’ve worked with them; the Houston Zoo has had some “Elephant Open House” events, and I went to a few of those to see the elephants close-up and talk to the keepers about how they take care of them.
The child labor that 10-year-old Hastin is forced into at the circus, with little hope of ever leaving, is tragic. Is there anything being done to protect children like Hastin?
India has laws forbidding the hiring of children, but in some areas the laws are loosely enforced. There are parts of the country where families live with the kind of poverty most of us can’t even imagine, and many families are desperate enough to send their children to work. New laws have been enacted more recently to expand the restrictions on hiring children, and advocacy groups in India are fighting to protect the country’s children. Until 2010, circuses were exempt from child labor laws, and just last year the Supreme Court in India ordered the government to better enforce the new ban by raiding circuses and rescuing underage employees.
Nandita the elephant is taught circus tricks and is often subject to harsh punishment with a sharp hook when she fails to perform as expected. Was this based on real life? Are there safeguards for animals like Nandita?
Like the child labor laws, there have been laws in India to protect elephants, but the laws haven’t always been enforced. There’s a long tradition in India of having trained elephants in circuses. It isn’t easy to train such a large animal, and although there are kinder ways of working with them, some trainers are more violent in their approach. It’s only been since 2009 that elephants have been banned in Indian circuses. Of course things don’t change overnight, so there are people in India working to enforce the laws and move the elephants to new homes in the wild or in sanctuaries. Elephant Aid International is one group that works to improve the lives of captive elephants and “retired” elephants from circuses and zoos in India.
How did you write so convincingly of India?
That was probably the biggest challenge in the book–writing about India, without having been there, in a way that would be clear to readers who didn’t know anything about it, yet authentic to those who were familiar with it. Again I did a lot of research by reading and looking at pictures online, but the best research was talking to people who’ve lived there. A reporter in India helped me come up with what Hastin’s house would look like, and I asked questions of several people who’d lived in India. Before my agent search, I had a full manuscript critique from author Uma Krishnaswami, who read it again more recently to vet it for publication.
I read on your blog that you made your own book trailer. Was that difficult? Any advice to other writers contemplating doing the same?
It took some time, but it wasn’t difficult; mostly it involved dragging pictures into iMovie. For writers who want to make their own trailer, I think it’s a good idea to take a little time now and then to browse through stock photo sites and save pictures you might want to use later. Then when it’s time to make the trailer, you won’t be so pressed for time and it’ll be easier to put the trailer together. Most sites let you download a free comp photo so you can see if it’s what you really want, or you can take a screen shot of the sample photo. Make the trailer with the comp photos to see how it’s working, and get feedback from friends and your editor and agent before purchasing the final pictures, video clips, and music.
What’s next for you?
Something completely different–I’ve been revising my novel Reasons For Leaving, a humorous YA with some mystery to it. Then I’m back to middle-grade for the next novel, about an amateur forensic scientist with cryptozoologist parents.
And what’s your favorite middle-grade book?
Oh dear, just one? Umm…let’s see…I’m reading books all the time that become new favorites. But the first middle-grade novel I remember falling in love with was Norton Juster’s THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH.
To learn more about Lynne, check out her website: http://lynnekellybooks.com. Leave a comment to win a copy of CHAINED!
Karen B. Schwartz writes humorous middle-grade novels and raises humorous middle-grade kids.