Monday, October 15, 2007

The Towering Monarch of His Mighty Race - by Cat Rambo

As part of my free-lancing existence, I write the occasional encyclopedia article, with topics that have included Technology and Science in the 80s, Lydia Pinkham, modern Christian philosophy, poetry, video games, Thenmuli Rajaratnaam, and Dean R. Koontz. I love the grab-bag quality of these assignments – the press sends me a huge list, I send back a much shorter list of perhaps a dozen of the things I'd be interested in writing about, and then I get assigned one or two.

No matter what I end up writing about, it's a chance to do some fine-tuned research of the kind that uncovers story ideas. Many of the articles focus on a period of history that fascinates me: late nineteenth century America. I love the era as a font to draw story ideas from – it's the collision of a number of social movements, including abolition, women's suffrage, spiritualism, free love, temperance – the list goes on and on. And characters abound there, including Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Elizabeth Blackwell, Lucretia Mott, Sarah and Angelina Grimke. I've written several stories so far written in a fantasy-influenced version of that period and I have a rough idea for an alternative history novel centering on the figures of Victoria Woodhull and Lucy Stone somewhere down the line, in which Barnum may play a part as well.

I discovered Jumbo as the result of one such assignment, for an encyclopedia of historical events: a brief essay on the acquisition of the Ringling Brothers Circus by Barnum & Bailey. The more I researched circus history, the more interesting the stories became, until one in particular pushed at me to become fiction as well. The majority of the details are modeled from the oddities of real life history: Jumbo's end is true to life, as well as the details of what happened afterward. Barnum's telegram is taken in its entirety from one he sent, and Matthew Scott did raise the elephant from the sickly infant he rescued from a Parisian zoo. The original title was taken from Barnum's billing for Jumbo: "the towering monarch of his race, whose like the world will never see again," which Edmund made me cut in half.

Feelings about the rights of circus animals cover a wide range, and I tend to fall on the liberal side of the fence, but here I've presented Jumbo as one of the characters because the story is primarily his. At the time I wrote it, I didn't think that writing from an elephant's pov was particularly daring – I'd just seen a friend's story from the pov of an intelligent weapon published and received well. I make no pretense of knowing how an elephant thinks, but research for the elephant part included Temple Grandin's ANIMALS IN TRANSLATION and THE PIG THAT SANG TO THE MOON by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. Some readers who've seen my work elsewhere may remember the picture painting elephant, Khwaam, in "Foam on the Water" – there will undoubtedly be more elephants in works to come, and I'm hoping to see another Barnum-related piece or two as well.