I first met Laurel Neme at a Picture Book Boot Camp Alumni lunch several years ago and I’ve been grateful to know her ever since. She’s thoughtful, engaging, compassionate and writes beautifully. I’m thrilled to welcome her to Writer’ Rumpus!
Kirsti Call: Your book, THE ELEPHANT’S NEW SHOE is a powerful story of hope and empathy. What inspired you to write this story?
Laurel Neme: When I first learned about Chhouk—an orphaned baby elephant who needed a prosthetic foot—I connected with him on a personal level. In high school, I broke my back and pelvis in a bad accident and didn’t know if I’d ever walk again. During my months in the hospital, I felt alone and it would have helped if I could have read about someone else who had gone through something similar and ended up okay. Chhouk’s story would have provided that, and maybe it can help someone else who is struggling.
KC: You’ve said THE ELEPHANT’S NEW SHOE is a personal story for you. Why?
LN: Nick Marx, who rescued Chhouk with help from the Cambodian Forestry Administration, is a personal hero of mine because over the years I’ve seen how he never gives up on helping an animal in need. Chhouk is just one of many examples. At the time, making a prosthetic foot for a young, growing elephant was a crazy idea, but Nick kept at it and refused to take no for an answer.
At its heart, this book is about tenacity and resilience. Like Nick, Chhouk also refused to give up despite his constant pain. In Khmer, Chhouk means lotus – which is a powerful symbol of triumph over hardship and also the ability to create something beautiful out of bad conditions. It was Chhouk’s fighting spirit that helped him push through bad times and adapt to his new leg. I like to think that we all can have a little bit of Nick and Chhouk inside us.
KC: How did you decide which details to include?
LN: Deciding what to include and what to leave out is always hard for me because I’m so fascinated by these stories that I tend to think every tiny detail is important. Usually I start a manuscript by putting in every detail and then pare it back during the revision process, I like a woodcarver whittling a piece of wood. Typically, I find that less is more and the story becomes better with fewer details because it has a stronger “spine,” and all of its parts support that.
Of course, I can’t get rid of ALL of those super-interesting details, so the best ones will often end up in an author’s note.
KC: What did you learn from your research for this book?
LN: Even though I’d known Chhouk and Nick’s story for years, it wasn’t until I dug into the research that I fully appreciated the challenges and trial-and-error involved in making Chhouk’s prosthetic foot.
The Cambodian School for Orthotics and Prosthetics, which volunteered to help design, fit and redesign Chhouk’s shoe, still helps Chhouk today by building him a new shoe every six months or so. Elephants are hard on footwear!
KC: What other projects are you working on?
LN: I always juggle several writing projects at the same time. Currently, I’m working on several book manuscripts as well as researching a new series of articles on wildlife innovations for Mongabay.com, and also some news pieces for National Geographic.
KC: What advice would you give aspiring authors?
LN: There’s room in this world for a lot of stories. Take advantage of your unique perspective. The way I approach a story will differ from how you would do it, so go ahead and put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard!). People can’t read a story that’s still in your head.
KC: Thank you, Laurel. To read Kirkus’s lovely review of the book, go here. To get a signed copy of THE ELEPHANT’S NEW SHOE, preorder at Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, VT (https://www.flyingpigbooks.com/) or Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, VT (https://www.bearpondbooks.com/).
Laurel Neme has always loved animals. As a young girl, she wanted to be a veterinarian. Later, she planned to be a scientist, like Jane Goodall. Eventually, she decided to help animals in her own way—by telling their stories. She’s the author of three books so far: ANIMAL INVESTIGATORS: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species, ORANGUTAN HOUDINI, and her latest, THE ELEPHANT’S NEW SHOE. She also writes regularly for National Geographic and Mongabay.com. You can find her at http://www.LaurelNeme.com.