When Elephants Fly
is the story of Lily, a young woman genetically at risk for schizophrenia who avoids anything that might trigger the disease. But when she bonds with Swifty, a baby elephant violently rejected by its mother, Lily risks her freedom, first love, and sanity on a desperate road trip to save the calf and find her own wings.
Every novel is woven through with inspirations and When Elephants Fly
started with my first job out of college as a traveling writer for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
In many ways writing for a circus was an incredible experience. I traveled to different arenas around the U.S. interviewing performers to place articles in local newspapers. I wrote a story about two clowns getting married and families ranging from trapeze artists to teeterboard acrobats, to high-wire performers passing their skills down generations.
I wrote very few stories about the wild animals at the show. When I had to walk past the Bengal tigers in their steel cages, my biggest concern was not getting sprayed (the “fragrance” is impossible to get out of clothing!). I tried not to get too close to the elephants in case they sneezed, or the llamas because they spit.
It’s distressing now, but I didn’t give much thought to the animals. I knew that PETA was always protesting the show, but I was 21 and just trying to survive my first job. No one involved with the circus thought the show’s animals were treated inhumanely. On the contrary, performers told me that the elephants were smart and loved to be challenged by intricate performances. Tigers were in danger of extinction and the circus was making sure they were protected. Plus, the trainers loved their animals, bonded with them, and wasn’t it obvious they were loved in return? I mean, why else would tigers, whose instinct it is to run from fire, leap through rings of flames?
Then one day a visitor was walking through the backstage area of Madison Square Garden and asked me why the line of elephants, chained by one foot until show time, was swaying. I said what I’d heard countless other members of the circus say: “Because they love the music.” Later that day, as I watched those majestic creatures poop on command and then file into the arena with sequined showgirls on their backs before returning to their shackles, I knew by the sickening feeling in my gut that I had lied. Those elephants were slowly losing their minds from boredom and the destruction of their spirits. I quit my job a few weeks later.
Living in the moment is really all we have.
I’m embarrassed that it took me a year to figure out what anyone could have objectively seen on day one. After leaving the circus, I promised myself that someday, beyond the donations I would make to animal organizations, I’d do something to shine a light on elephants and all wild animals in captivity.
My hope is that When Elephants Fly
is a compelling novel that will awaken readers’ compassion and encourage involvement in the fight to protect elephants. These majestic beings need our help. One wild elephant is killed every 25 minutes in Africa and in the last decade, a third of all elephants have been wiped out. In Asia, the situation is even worse. There are only about 40,000 Asian elephants left in the wild. Both Asian and African elephants face extinction in the next 20 years if nothing is done to save them from poaching and habitat loss.
I support the work of Space for Giants
, an organization battling to secure a safe future for elephants and their landscapes, and Reteti Elephant Sanctuary
, a community-owned elephant sanctuary in northern Kenya that rescues and ultimately releases orphaned and abandoned elephant calves back into the wild.
But When Elephants Fly
isn’t just about Swifty. The first sentence in my novel, “Crazy is genetic,” is protagonist Lily’s mantra. The one thing she knows for sure — her mom had schizophrenia, all of the women in her mom’s family experienced mental health conditions — is that she, too, will be struck down unless she lives a careful life. Lily develops a 12-Year Plan, a way to avoid triggers during the ages of 18 to 30, when the condition tends to manifest in women. No drinking, drugs, stress, or boyfriends. Basically, hide in place and try not to grow up. But is that truly living?
My dear friend Bea (not her real name) was another inspiration for When Elephants Fly
. When Bea was a child, her mother was in and out of mental health facilities. There were frightening moments, public embarrassments, and challenging interactions with a parent who at times couldn’t function. Growing up, Bea was all too aware of her own risk factors — 10% if you have a parent with a mental health condition. While that seems like a low number if you’re tipping a waitress, when your mind and future are on the line it can be overwhelming. Bea, like Lily, avoided triggers like alcohol and drugs, but she also made a choice to truly live. She pursued her education, fell in love, got married, and had a child despite her own fears.
Bea’s ability to view her situation rationally and overcome her fears is moving and powerful. It also made me wonder about all the things, real or imagined, that hang over our heads. Fear is a universal obstacle. Whether it’s a genetic predisposition for a physical or mental health challenge, the thoughtless comments of others that shape self-perception, or our own insecurities and anxieties, fear keeps us from pursuing dreams. How, then, do we put it aside and live in the moment?
Bea’s experiences and Lily’s journey provide some answers. Bea realized that life wasn’t fulfilling without pursuing her passions and finding someone to love. She put aside a future she couldn’t control and embraced the present. Lily, when faced with the overwhelming probability that she will have a mental health condition, finds a cause to fight for and someone who matters more to her than herself: Swifty.
Living in the moment is really all we have. The past is gone. The future isn’t promised. The struggle to be present can be difficult and at times impossible. For those who have mental health conditions, it’s a constant battle. My wish is that Lily’s journey will inspire readers to fight for their dreams, find a cause dear to their hearts to advance, let go of fears, and embrace the moment whenever possible. The most important message of all: Please don’t give up. There is always hope.
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Nancy Richardson Fischer
is the author of When Elephants Fly
. Fischer has authored multiple sport autobiographies and Star Wars books for LucasFilm.