A Strange and Methodical Thing, an interview with Tania James, author of The Tusk That Did The Damage

Tania James

Tania James approaches the narrative in her second novel with a twist. In The Tusk That Did The Damage, three voices braid together to tell the story of those involved in killing, preserving, and documenting the wild elephants of South India. Although all are remarkably developed and command their own distinct identity within James’ fluid pages, one character stands head and shoulders above the others — both figuratively and literally. It’s The Gravedigger, the menacing elephant to whom James gives voice in Tusk.

As James says in our conversation, The Gravedigger’s voice was always her starting point; the narrative spawned from there, wrapping in years of research and interviews conducted in India. In the Knopf offices at the Random House headquarters, I spoke to James about the novel’s germination. She wore a shirt spotted with panthers — she’s had her fill of elephants for now.

Meredith Turits: What did you start with: an idea or a voice?

Tania James: I started with a real-life elephant who would trample his victims and then bury them. Sometimes he’d carry the body on his back for a mile and protect the burial site. I just thought that was a really strange and methodical thing — it sounded like someone out of Tell-Tale Heart, a kind of macabre distortion, but also a tender act.

I thought, I want to write about this elephant. But then I was inhibited by the rule of anthropomorphizing: you don’t want to give human traits to animals. I tried to write from a first person perspective that was consciously anthropomorphizing and sort of fanciful, but it didn’t quite work with the other voices, because those are rather contemporary. Then I tried to write around the elephant, but I was concurrently doing this research on elephant behavior, and it seemed to me that there was a lot of potential in exploring elephant interiority.

I thought maybe I could use a close third person, but also jump into the minds of the keepers when I needed to and have a sort of flexible third person. That’s when things started getting fun for me.

MT: When the voice of the elephant actually revealed itself to you, how did the format on the page become apparent?

TJ: Nobody’s asked me that — that’s a good question. I was reading Hologram For The King, and that also had interesting spaces between paragraphs, and I just felt like that was a way into the elephant’s mind. It also reflects the distance between the humans and the elephants: there are pockets that we can understand, but there are also white spaces that we can’t.

MT: You said in another interview that you didn’t want to write an elephant that stood in for all elephants — that you wanted the elephant to be a uniquely informed elephant. Is that referring to a particular issue you see across fiction, where a writer tries to create a character representing all members of a set, in order to make a commentary?

TJ: There’s a lot of Indian-American fiction out there, so it’s not so much the case anymore, but it is the case that if you’re not writing about someone who’s been represented before, or who’s rarely been represented, they just tend to be viewed as a symbol or a stand-in for every member of that group. I didn’t want that to be the case here. I was trying to write an allegory. I assumed that people might bring that perception, because people have strong opinions and feelings about elephants. They just pull on your heartstrings in some way. You empathize with them. I just thought, This is the challenge: to create a character who has been shaped by experiences.

MT: You have a background in film, and I was wondering if you think that informs your writing — the way you construct visual scenes or landscapes?

TJ: I did documentary film and I probably have more experience in editing than anything else. Editing is more about paring down and cutting and cutting and cutting. If anything I learned from documentary has bled into my work as a writer, it’s that ‘kill your darlings’ mentality. This used to be a much longer book. I’ve had the help of editors, but I also have the sense myself — how to tighten up dialogue and let silence or a look convey the meaning.

MT: What do you think is markedly different about the two mediums?

TJ: Well, the obvious difference is that when you’re making a documentary, at least from the editorial perspective, you’re working with just a mountain of material, so you’re trying to see the beautiful shape that’s in a block of marble. You’re trying to pare down. In fiction you’re working from the ground up. Working in editing, there’s a narrative flow and structure. I didn’t learn about documentary storytelling in a regimented, three-act structure. It was in this more intuitive sense, focused on ‘what leads into the next?’ I think that’s how I approach structure in terms of the novel, also.

MT: Do you think the writer and the filmmaker have the same kind of responsibility going into a work? Are you dealing with the same moral weight?

TJ: I think that there are bigger responsibilities with documentary filmmaking, because you have responsibilities to your subjects and to your viewer, but then also a responsibility to your own artistic vision. I haven’t even watched this thing called Jinx, but there are these repercussions to what you’re showing. Are you going to harm the subject? How do you stay true to your vision without causing harm? That’s one of the questions that the filmmakers in my book grapple with.

But then also, in fiction, there can be a responsibility if you’re representing a group of people who don’t necessarily speak for themselves. I was trying to write from the perspective of a poacher in a fictionalized village but I still felt that there were people I’ve met who would be able to recognize details of their lives in that story, so I felt a responsibility to them. Even when these characters were doing questionable things, I wanted those things to be true to the world I was creating.

MT: How did the nature of your research or the way you perceived the project change when you actually went to India over the course of your several trips for the book?

TJ: I am a bit of a control freak and planner. This is why I would not be a great documentary filmmaker — you have to be able to just go with the flow and react to what the person’s saying. Partly because I was meeting people who were just so far outside my realm, I had a list of things I was supposed to ask, and I had preconceived notions of what these people were going to be like. For example, if I was going to meet a poacher, I had this anxiety about it — I didn’t want them to think I was exploiting them, which I was to a degree, and I didn’t want them to feel like I was judging them.

…they were just matter-of-factly telling me these really gruesome poaching stories.

So, I had these anxieties, which were unnecessary, because they were just matter-of-factly telling me these really gruesome poaching stories. In their minds, it wasn’t that big of a deal. It’s not that different from hunting a deer. I can see the logic of that — this majesty and sacredness that we’ve ascribed to elephants, our empathy to these animals as opposed to others, those are somewhat arbitrary decisions. My life is sanitized of animal danger. I have an urbanized perspective. I was bringing these notions to all of my interviews. It was a challenge for me to loosen up and to be able to have normal conversations and to let stories develop along the way.

MT: Did the interviews change the direction of the project in any significant way?

TJ: Definitely. I did a lot of writing from the elephant perspective, but then I stopped writing and did all of this field research in Kerala and Assam, and while I was researching, I was thinking, ‘I don’t know what I’m looking for, but hopefully I’ll know when I find it.’ I was gathering, gathering, gathering, and then went back and pulled what I wanted to pull, and developed a story from there. And then I went back to do research to firm up what I had already written.

MT: Did your writing habits change in different locations?

TJ: I was in Delhi when I was writing this, and I would wake up, make my tea, and sit at my desk. I’ve since had a baby, so that has messed with my chi. But if I’m in a different country, I’ll adjust to the time change and then I’m just back at the desk in the morning.

The great thing about travel for writers is you can’t help but observe…

The great thing about travel for writers is you can’t help but observe, and you’re always making mistakes, so you’re always very self-aware and aware of the world around you. I think it was a good time to go to Delhi for me because, although I don’t know if I realized it at the time, I needed a bucket a cold water on the head — a total immersion of something I was totally unfamiliar with.

MT: What were you reading during the period that the project was in gestation?

TJ: Many books! I’m thinking off the top of my head of The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey, which helped me think about the poacher’s voice. It’s really funny. It’s about an Australian outlaw around the turn of the century or the late 1800s, which you would think is a dry, historical story, but the voice is from the perspective of this outlaw, and it’s filled with colloquialisms that are irreverent and funny and it helped me think about writing a poacher with that kind of voice, because you automatically think that with this label of “poacher,” it’s going to be a dark and humorless and depressing story. And it is dark — but the poacher has a kind of dry humor. That’s what allowed me to access him as a person, instead of just telling the story as a type.

MT: How do you come to find the things that you are reading as you write? Because I know what we choose to read as we write is very precious, since we can either be choosing works that inform us, or to read specifically what does not.

TJ: I’m always curious as to what my friends are reading — but in Delhi I had no friends really, just my husband. He works on enforcement of environmental law, so he was reading a lot of nonfiction, so I tended to read a lot of nonfiction on those subjects. It’s how this book came to be, because I was reading Caroline Fraser’s Rewilding The World. She talks a lot about corridors and how to allow these spaces for large wildlife to exist. We have to have these corridors and pathways for them to move through. I started thinking about elephants. That book led me to another nonfiction book called Elephants on the Edge by G.A. Bradshaw, so it was almost a domino effect — one book mentions another, and you kind of get deeper and deeper in the hole.

MT: Has the nature of what you choose to read while working on different books changed over the years, as you’ve published more?

TJ: This is a good question. It makes me want to go back and remember what I read but it’s all such a blur now! It feels so far away. From my perspective now, it feels random. Part of being in Delhi, I didn’t always have the books that were coming out new here, and I would just wander into a bookstore and there’s The Hungry Tide by Amtiav Ghosh, which is also about similar man versus nature issues. I guess I was trying to look for books that my book might be in a conversation with.

MT: What is the strongest pull to the page for you? Is it the desire to see the work come together, or to finish, or because you have to be there?

TJ: It’s a voice that makes the writing fun for me. There’s a lot of time spent revising the same ten pages of the story over and over and over when you’re trying to find that voice and that spark, and sometimes it just comes from an odd thing that someone says. I remember that when I was writing that poacher section, he says something like, “I wouldn’t touch her with a boatman’s pole.” I was reading this interview with Michael Fassbender and he said, “I wouldn’t touch her with a ten-foot pole,” and I thought, That’s a cool idiom, but how would Manu say that? What metaphors would be at his fingertips? And “boatman” occurred to me, so I had him say, “I wouldn’t touch her with a boatman’s pole,” and something about that snippet of dialogue made him come alive for me and also made him a pleasure to write. Especially with material that’s a heavy subject matter like this, it was important to find voices that were sustaining me in a certain way.