ELIOT SCHREFER is a New York Times-bestselling author, and has twice been a finalist for the National Book Award. In naming him an Editor’s Choice, the New York Times has called his work “dazzling… big-hearted.” He is also the author of two novels for adults and four other novels for children and young adults. His books have been named to the NPR “best of the year” list, the ALA best fiction list for young adults, and the Chicago Public Library’s “Best of the Best.” His work has also been selected to the Amelia Bloomer List, recognizing best feminist books for young readers, and he has been a finalist for the Walden Award and won the Green Earth Book Award and Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. He lives in New York City, where he reviews books for USAToday.
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ELIOT SCHREFER is the author most recently of The Lost Rainforest, a middle-grade series about rainforest animals saving their land from a mysterious invader. After a childhood spent in Illinois, Connecticut, California, Maryland, and Florida, Schrefer attended Harvard University, where he graduated with High Honors in French and American literature. After a year teaching at a boarding school in Rome, he settled down in New York City.
Schrefer’s first novel, Glamorous Disasters, was a somewhat autobiographical tale of a young man living in Harlem and paying off college debt while tutoring Fifth-Avenue families. After writing another novel for adults, he turned to young adult fiction with The School for Dangerous Girls, about a boarding school for criminal young ladies. That book was selected as a “Best of the Teen Age” by the New York Public Library, and his next novel, The Deadly Sister, earned a starred review from School Library Journal.
Endangered, his fifth novel, was a finalist for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature, one of NPR’s “Best of 2012,” and an editor’s choice in The New York Times, which called it “dazzling, big-hearted.” The book was also a finalist for the Walden Award and won the Green Earth Book Award and the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. Schrefer journeyed to the Democratic Republic of Congo while researching the novel, and has since traveled wider as he’s embarked on a quartet of novels about the great apes, one book for each primate, detailing a young person’s relationship with that animal. His follow-up, Threatened, was also a National Book Award Finalist, among other honors.
His works have been translated into many languages including German, Russian, Polish, Taiwanese, Bulgarian, and Japanese. Most recently, Schrefer joined the faculty of Fairleigh Dickinson's low residency MFA program, as well as the MFA in writing for children at Hamline University. You can find him on Twitter @EliotSchrefer, and online here at www.EliotSchrefer.com.
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I started writing fiction in 2004, after a bracing winter when I failed to get into the Comparative Literature programs I applied to for the second year running. Around the same time I was having dinner with friends and offhandedly mentioned that anyone with unlimited time and money would become a novelist. Being met by blank stares, I realized that I'd just casually discovered what I was supposed to do with my life. So I began work in earnest. My first publishede book, Glamorous Disasters, was about my experiences living in Harlem and working off financial aid debt by tutoring the wealthy kids of Park Avenue. My second, The New Kid, was a darker, more literary follow-up that was alternatingly described as a new Talented Mr. Ripley (Publishers Weekly) and a perverted Richie Rich (those particular bon mots courtesy of Kirkus Reviews). Around then I met the extraordinary David Levithan, who introduced me to the world of young adult literature. I wrote two books for him, The School for Dangerous Girls and The Deadly Sister, before beginning my latest project, the Great Ape Quartet. Endangered, about a girl surviving wartime in Congo with an orphan bonobo, came out in Fall 2012. Threatened, about an orphan learning to scrape by in the jungle alongside chimps, came out in Spring 2014. The orangutans and the gorillas finished out the quartet in 2016 and 2018.
DEPTH: 100 inches:
A Q and A between Eliot and Eliot, circa 2010
ELIOT: We'd like to welcome Eliot Schrefer to the computer.
ELIOT (coughs): Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
ELIOT: Eliot, if I may call you Eliot, I'd like to start by asking you a few questions about what brought you to this point. I understand, for example, that you were born premature. A caesarean section, I believe.
ELIOT: Yes. Though I can't really see why--
ELIOT: It's hardly underdocumented that those who are smaller than their peers in early stages of their lives feel deep needs to exert their personalities later in life. In such desperate need of a caregiver as an infant, you learned to please others in order to survive. This drive develops to such an extent that producing work for the outside world becomes the most authentic way, paradoxically, of being yourself.
ELIOT: I was told that you'd start by asking me my favorite color.
ELIOT: I chose not to.
ELIOT: Clearly. I'm a bit thirsty. Would you mind...?
ELIOT: Of course not. Have a sip.
ELIOT: Thank you. It's yellow, by the way. My favorite color.
ELIOT: Now, Eliot. Let's continue with a couple more ice breakers. You're a Pisces, no?
ELIOT: A Sagittarius. But I don't believe in astrology.
ELIOT: Of course. That's in my notes somewhere, I'm sure. Tell us a bit about your childhood.
ELIOT: I was born in Chicago, during the blizzard of 1978. My mom's British, my dad's American. I've got both passports. We lived in Norwich and Cheshire, Connecticut, Santa Rosa, California, Columbia, Maryland, and Clearwater, Florida.
ELIOT: Quite a few places. Was your dad in the military?
ELIOT: Nope. He just wasn't very good at his job.
ELIOT: Awkward. You're aware that Michael Chabon grew up in Columbia, Maryland as well? He's written about it.
ELIOT: Yes. I just finished his essay on it. And I'm a big fan of his novels.
ELIOT: Whom else do you like?
ELIOT: My favorite writer for adults is E.M. Forster. Particularly Howard's End. His language is unpretentious, his plots engaging, and his paragraphs will crack open with these profound, unexpected insights. For similar reasons I'll also read anything by Lorrie Moore, Edith Wharton, Michael Cunningham, Julia Glass, Nicola Griffith, or Dorothy Parker. That would be some dinner party, wouldn't it?
ELIOT: I don't follow.
ELIOT: No bother. Continue.
ELIOT: Where do you live?
ELIOT: In New York City. The Upper West Side, near the Museum of Natural History.
ELIOT: When did you start writing?
ELIOT: I wrote a fantasy novel when I was in eighth grade, which featured loads of glowing blue swords, archers in green leather, and monsters rearing in anguish. Then I wrote some plays in high school, many of which are terrible and one of which is still produced to this day. During college I didn't really write. Which was good, because it took me a few years afterwards to purge enough academic self-awareness to be able to create readable fiction.
ELIOT: Your first novel, Glamorous Disasters, was about a young man from the South who becomes an SAT tutor to the scions of Park Avenue. You also happen to be a young man from the South who became a Manhattan SAT tutor. Coincidence?ELIOT: Not really a coincidence. But I will say my real students are a lot sweeter than the ones in the book.
ELIOT: Did you work for a company? How did they feel about your writing Glamorous Disasters?
ELIOT: I either quit or got fired, to this day I'm not sure. I work for myself, now.
ELIOT: I'll put you down as "fired."
ELIOT: Sweet of you.
ELIOT: And your second book?
ELIOT: I sublet my apartment in the summers, pack a big backpack and wander around sleeping on friends' couches. I was in Barcelona when I wrote The New Kid.
ELIOT: It was quite a departure from your first book. Much darker fare.
ELIOT: Any swords?
ELIOT: No. But monsters did rear in pain, I guess.
ELIOT: Your third book is an SAT guide called Hack the SAT?
ELIOT: That's right. It was a finalist for the National Book Award.
ELIOT: That's a joke, right?
ELIOT: You're on the cover.
ELIOT: Sort of. We hired a manga-style artist to sketch me. Since we sent her my author photo, which goes down only to my shoulders, she didn't know how tall to make me. That guy on the cover is, oh, half a foot taller than I really am. You know how people have "dream jeans" they hope to fit into someday? That guy's the "dream me."
ELIOT: I see we're back to the short thing. How short are you?
ELIOT: That's more "average" than "short."
ELIOT: Eh, I was a short kid. It sticks.
ELIOT: And now we have The School for Dangerous Girls. How did that come about?
ELIOT: I went to lunch with my friend, David Levithan, a great author who also happens to be an editor at Scholastic. He said he had a killer title for a book, and wondered if I'd write it. So I did. It was a perfect setup, really. I'm terrible at titles (case in point being The New Kid, many would argue), and I got to start with a title that works and build the novel from there.
ELIOT: What's next?
ELIOT: I'm working on another young adult novel for Scholastic.
ELIOT: What's this one about?
ELIOT: It's not totally formed yet, so I'd rather not say. But you could call it a spiritual successor to The School for Dangerous Girls.
ELIOT: Are you planning on writing more adult fiction?
ELIOT: Yes. I'm halfway into a book that might end up being called The Nephew Season. It's about a young man who grew up in rural France in the 1870s, showed tremendous aptitude for the piano, was the toast of Parisian high society, then offended the wrong man and disappeared from history at the age of 19. He was supposed to become France's Mozart, but he just vanished. He was an actual person. I spent last summer at the French archives doing research. Really heartbreaking story.
ELIOT: A cautionary tale, perhaps?
ELIOT: I'm terrible at piano.
ELIOT: We just don't understand each other, do we, you and I?
ELIOT: That's the key of writing, I guess, isn't it? Constantly building bridges, both to reach the minds outside and to connect the parts within.
ELIOT: Stop being so pretentious.
ELIOT: I don't think I was. I was just trying to answer your question.
ELIOT: People wonder why, since you're a writer, you don't brood more.
ELIOT: I really like my life. I feel really lucky. There's not much cause to brood.
ELIOT: Eliot, thanks for stopping by.
ELIOT: Always a pleasure.
DEPTH, 1000 inches:
It's gross down there. Come back out.