Tania James is the author of The Tusk That Did the Damage (published in March by Knopf), a powerful novel about elephant poaching in India that has been critically acclaimed for its three-voice narration, including that of the Gravedigger, a marauding elephant. [My review is here.] Her previous books include the novel Atlas of Unknowns and a short story collection, Aerogrammes. She graduated from Harvard with a BA in Film and went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia. From 2011-2012, she was a Fulbright fellow to India living in New Delhi. She currently teaches creative writing at George Washington University.
One thing I never properly learned in graduate school: how to do field research. I learned a great many other things about craft, about books, about how to maintain a benign expression while being critiqued by your personal nemesis. And I went on to write two books—a novel and a short story collection—that had mostly grown from my imagination. When they didn’t, I extracted what I needed from safe, silent sources—nonfiction books, online articles, microfiche.
Those were the sources I used when I began researching my current novel, The Tusk That Did the Damage, which concerns human-elephant conflict in a South Indian wildlife park. Unfortunately my sources were limited; the subject was too fresh, the terrain of wildlife preservation and imperiled elephant populations constantly changing. I quickly realized that I’d have to “go into the field,” a phrase that seemed to me kind of romantic and adventurous and altogether terrifying.
It’s not so much that I’m intimidated by strangers; I’m simply sensitive—or maybe hypersensitive—to the potential for offending my interview subject, for coming across as the nosy, exploitative, story-monger that I kind of am. My discomfort was especially acute while preparing to interview a former poacher at the Periyar Wildlife Park. The Forest Department had hired this gentleman—let’s call him “John”—to work for them as a forest guide, due to his extensive knowledge of the forest interior. John had long left poaching behind, but I assumed he still carried a residue of shame.
A forest officer had arranged the interview on my behalf, and on the day in question, I waited for John in a conference room. Before me was a legal pad of numbered notes and questions; I was probably muttering my way through them as if rehearsing for a performance. Preparation was the only way I could maintain a level of control, and therefore comfort, over the proceedings.
So there I was, muttering, preparing, when a platoon of fifteen dudes trooped into the room and halted before me. Their faces were hard, expectant. They wore beige button-downs, except for the smallest one, who was wearing an oversized Dad sweater. The forest officer ordered the men to sit, then introduced me as “a writer from America,” then told me to ask my questions.
I probably cleared my throat a half dozen times while leafing through my notes.
“Well?” my mother said, or something to that effect.
Did I mention that my mother was sitting beside me? I guess her presence, at the outset, sort of detracted from my romantic, adventurous notion of field research, but I needed her to make some sense of my rusty Malayalam, and put my questions into words these Tamil-speaking men would understand. Also, and I only realized this when the men walked in, I was bone-deeply grateful to have her by my side.
I probably asked two of the questions on my checklist. The stories these men volunteered—unabashed and matter-of-fact—were far richer than any answer I could have tried to predict. They spoke about tools and slaughter and how to cook wild game, bickering like brothers over the details. One man showed me the bullet wound in his shoulder, the puckered skin of his scar. My pen could hardly keep up.
Of all the lessons I learned from that interview, here are three:
1) I didn’t have to step so carefully around the subject of poaching. It was a mistake to believe that these men shared my revulsion for killing elephants, that they’d left their former jobs because of some kind of moral epiphany. They stopped poaching because there were better, safer economic opportunities available to them. Simple as that. My caution was a kind of judgment that prevented me, at least at the outset, from seeing these men on their own terms.
2) I didn’t have to prepare so much for that interview. My checklist of questions was based on the assumption that I knew what I was looking for, when in fact, it’s far smarter to work from a state of unknowing, to be flexible along a line of inquiry, to pursue the threads of truth that capture your interest. To rest easy in the belief that you will know what you’re looking for when you find it.
3) Trilingual mothers can make for good sidekicks.