The richest stories reflect the heart of humanity and the wisdom of nature. Author Irma Gold’s debut novel The Breaking is a vessel for both. The effervescent story keeps a thrilling pace and captures the indomitable spirit of a woman unearthing the dark side of elephant tourism in Thailand. A heroine of gravitas compelled to ensure the welfare of these gentle animals. It makes an absorbing and thought-provoking read; taking a novel approach to conservation. Join the author as she describes the journey which shaped the story and issues a personal invite to draw inspiration from nature and help give wildlife a voice.
What informed the narrative of The Breaking?
I was not long back from a trip to Thailand when two characters, Deven and Hannah, just showed up one day. They were so fully formed and such a joy to write that I just fell into the narrative. The first draft tumbled out, almost effortlessly. I’m sure I will never have that experience again!
On that trip to Thailand I’d been volunteering at an elephant sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park, in Chiang Mai, surrounded by twenty-something travellers. Though I have not based Deven nor Hannah on any of the people I met, but I feel certain that being in that environment subtly influenced my thinking about these characters and their lives.
I imbue The Breaking with my love for Thailand, its people, and elephants. I can’t tell you why I love elephants so, only that I do. My love affair began when I was eight. My parents took my brother and I to a circus with clowns on teeny bikes and a menagerie of ‘exotic’ animals. I didn’t realise then what a terrible life circus animals led, and I remember little about it, but I do clearly remember what happened afterwards. We had our photograph taken with an elephant, and as I stood beside this enormous creature — feeling a little nervous and a lot awestruck—her trunk brushed briefly against my cheek. It was corrugated but gentle, and I fell in love.
Like many people, I wanted to ride an elephant. It was only later in life, when I was dreaming of visiting Thailand for the first time, that I started googling where to do this and quickly realised that if I genuinely loved elephants I couldn’t in good conscience ride one. Pre-COVID, 40 million tourists visited Thailand each year and riding an elephant is on many people’s bucket list. Most tourists do not know that elephants used in the tourism industry have been through a breaking process as a calf. In Thailand it’s called the phajaan, but it happens the world over. Torturing a calf day and night, often for a week, until they completely break its spirit. Then it’s ready to serve tourists, and will spend its life being controlled by a bullhook.
All of this is only the tip of the iceberg. In The Breaking, Deven and Hannah set out to rescue elephants and ultimately make a decision that leads them into dangerous territory. I hope readers enjoy the ride, and that it gets them thinking.
What are the vital parts of writing about human relationships with nature?
Research for this book meant I needed to spend a lot of time with elephants (tough gig!). Every time I was in Thailand, I kept a diary. Not the kind that you might usually keep with a record of events. It included some of that, but I also recorded snatches of dialogue and all the tiny details that make up a place, paying particular attention to the sounds and smells and taste. It might be the feel of an elephant’s flyswat-like tail or the zing of papaya salad on the tongue. This brings a place to life in fiction, and I constantly returned to these diaries during the writing process.
I also obsessively took photos and videos. Most of them were not the kind you put in an album; they were again of aspects that I wanted to remember. When I was back in Australia writing, I found that watching even a minute of a video took me straight back to Thailand. I could immediately feel myself inside the place, which was vital for this book.
Irma Gold (@irma.gold) is an award-winning author and editor. Irma’s debut novel, The Breaking, won the NSW Writers Centre Varuna Fellowship and was awarded development grants by artsACT and CAPO. Irma is Ambassador to Thailand’s Save Elephant Foundation and has worked with rescued elephants in Chiang Mai, Surin and Kanchanaburi.
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