Boxes are for packing with Nancy Richardson Fischer
Interview by Gillian St. Clair
Written by Juliet White
Seven seconds. That’s how long it takes to form a first impression of someone. Unless you’re giving bull riding a whirl or you just farted in a quiet yoga class, it’s no time at all. But we’re much slower to adjust our existing opinions, even when they’re inaccurate or someone has changed. It’s easy to get trapped in a box by others’ perceptions of us—and sometimes even by our perceptions of ourselves.
This theme of self-definition weaves through author Nancy Richardson Fischer’s novels. In her personal life, the author has refused to be defined by other people’s perceptions or her own stumbling blocks, and her characters are equally invested in forging their own identities.
At the start of Fischer’s new novel, The Speed of Falling Objects, Danger Danielle Warren (nicknamed Danny) shapes her identity as a response to other people, telling herself that if she were less flawed, then her TV survivalist dad, Cougar, would be more present in her life. Misplaced blame provides the illusion of control because, if we’re at fault, we also have the power to fix a situation. But when the plane carrying Danny, her dad, and Gus—a teen movie idol— crashes in the Amazon while they’re on the way to film an episode of Cougar’s show, that illusion also smashes, leaving Danny to reassess her own identity and opinions of those closest to her.
Fischer craves creating characters that ask big questions. “I think we’re defined really early in life by what our parents tell us, or by what we see reflected in the eyes of other people,” she mused. “In The Speed of Falling Objects, Danny allows her mom’s bitterness, her dad’s abandonment, and her perceived disability of having only one eye define how she sees herself. We’re all guilty of creating who we are on faulty building blocks. Those definitions follow us into adulthood. If we can question our perceptions earlier in life and say, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not—in Danny’s case—defective, inferior, or an embarrassment, those are somebody else’s issues and hang ups that have nothing to do with me,’—then we can create ourselves based on who we truly are and who we wish to become.”
"It’s up to each of us to question who we are, ask who defined us and then, if we don’t like that label, to create our own story." - @nfischerauthor #yaauthor
The Speed of Falling Objects is a contemporary standalone with a romantic subplot. A plane crash in the Amazon may not seem like the ideal circumstances for a new relationship, but the inopportune timing contributes to the tension. “People are dying and I had to strike a balance between Danny acknowledging the horrors, and also allow for the reality of living in the moment,” Fischer said. “My editor and I worked hard on the nuance of those moments.”
nuance of those moments.” Fischer said creating the romance between Danny and Gus required a light touch. “After the plane crash in the Amazon, obviously Danny is not going to flirt with Gus. But she does feel something as time passes and thinks, ‘Here’s this gorgeous movie star and despite the tragedy surrounding us, maybe we’re not that different. Maybe we both feel an attraction.’ It’s this terrible situation, but part of Danny’s evolution is realizing that the future isn’t guaranteed, so allowing herself to have feelings—whether they’re romantic feelings or anger towards her father—is important and realistic.”
Every story starts with a rough draft but the journey to a finished novel takes time. Fischer relished the editing process. As a result, she forged a strong relationship with her editor for The Speed of Falling Objects, Natasha Wilson of HarperCollins/ Inkyard Press. Fischer explained, “When edits come back, I have a knee jerk reaction of, ‘How the heck am I going to do this?’ Then I realize that those edits make my book better, which is the greatest thing ever!
Inkyard has been a good fit for Fischer. “They take risks on books. They stand behind their authors. Natasha in particular allowed me to explore in a way that isn’t always the norm. Inkyard [tries] to keep in mind the things that are important to readers and not cross a line into anything that could be harmful, while also remembering that the people who read young adult novels are at a time of exploration in their lives.”
It’s not only the final part of creating a novel that requires time and collaboration. Even in the research stages, writing is a less isolated experience than you might imagine. “For The Speed of Falling Objects, I did my research online or in conversation with people who had spent time in the Amazon,” Fischer revealed. “I also read tons of articles. For the plane crash, I spoke with doctors and nurse practitioners to find out what types of impact injuries would immediately kill passengers, and the kinds of injuries that might occur that wouldn’t be initially obvious but could turn deadly.”
Raise your hand if you’re pretty sure you’d die in your first week in a wilderness setting. Yeah, me too. Day four at best. Still, one way to improve your odds and know-how is by binge watching YouTube survivalist videos. Fischer used this resource to learn a range of skills: “How to make a shelter, build a raft, find and purify water, and start a fire in difficult conditions. I also learned about different plant life—what you could safely eat, what might make you sick or even kill you. But by far the most fascinating part of my research was the creepy crawlies!”
Fischer explained, “In the Amazon rainforest, there are millions of insects, 17 different kinds of super poisonous snakes, and myriad venomous spiders. I am afraid of crawly things, so when I first started doing research and a picture of a tarantula or viper was in an article or on my computer screen, I’d cover the picture so I could read about them!” Amateur exposure therapy did lower Fischer’s ick reaction. “I can look at snakes now, but spiders are still really challenging for me. If I see a spider in real life, I run.” Given her feelings, it’s probably smart that she didn’t gear up and head to the rainforest in person. “I don’t ever want to go to the Amazon,” she confessed. “But I did enjoy learning about everything there that sidles and slithers… from the safety of my office.”
Fischer has a history with insects and reason to hold a grudge. As an outdoorsy person who kite-surfs, rock climbs, and backcountry skis, she’s had plenty of opportunities to encounter them, but one particularly unpleasant experience stood out. “My husband and I decided to do a mountain bike ride when we visited Argentina. We rented bikes and the shop owner said something about horseflies. We thought no big deal, rode to the base of a ski area and started the long climb to the top. Horseflies instantly swarmed our sweaty bodies. SWARMED. They were big and their bites hurt and drew blood. The worst part was that those buggers were slow, so when I smacked them, they splatted on my skin. Imagine being covered with blobs of green-yellow-red horsefly guts. I can handle suffering physically, and I really enjoy hard bike rides, but the bug factor was too much! After an hour of climbing and countless bites, we raced [back] down the mountain. So, the Amazon is not an environment that I would ever choose. I want to save the Amazon from deforestation without ever going!
It’s not just the Amazon that Fischer wants to save. Her novels draw attention to causes close to her heart, such as animal welfare. After graduating college, Fischer found work as a writer for Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus and this steered the direction of her own advocacy. “The human performers at the circus were incredible and they passed their tightrope and trapeze artistry through generations. But the wild animals—tigers and elephants—were heartbreaking to see. I didn’t last very long at that job because I couldn’t handle the animal aspect of the show. When I left, I asked myself, ‘How can I make up for working for this circus? What can I do that would make people care about the captive animals?’
Fischer’s answer was to write the young adult novel, When Elephants Fly. The story revolves around a young woman named Lily who has an overwhelming family history of schizophrenia. Lily is trying to live a stress-free life to avoid triggering a mental health condition, but when she witnesses a mother elephant violently reject her calf, Lily becomes the calf’s caretaker and ultimately risks her own freedom and sanity to save that calf’s life.
Fischer said she hopes that when readers finish When Elephants Fly they continue to the resource section to learn ways they can make a difference for elephants in the wild and captivity. She explained, “Elephants are extremely intelligent, kind, family-oriented beings whose lives in circuses, roadside shows and many zoos are a torment. And elephants in the wild will be extinct in the next 20 years if nothing is done to stop poaching and human encroachment of their habitats.”
Novels, Fischer believes, can have a unique advocacy impact of.“I saw many animal rights demonstrations while working for the circus. What the protesters stood for was incredibly important, but watching them I realized that people who yell the loudest don’t necessarily have the biggest impact. An author has the chance to write something that resonates, stays with people, and encourages action. Fischer believes that readers, too, can fight for change. “A stone thrown in the water creates ripples that spread; you may never see where they end, but adding your voice can have a real impact.”
So what drives Fischer to tell stories like Lily’s and Danny’s? She mused that she tries to mine emotional issues in every novel she writes. “I like pointing out that everybody has a struggle and not just a struggle we can see. I attempt to create characters that readers relate to, who talk about things that the reader might not talk about in his or her own life.”
Fischer draws from her own experiences to do this. “When I was a teen, I was a cheerleader and in the popular clique, yet inside I was riddled with self-doubt and certain that at any moment my popular friends were going to figure out that I didn’t belong. From my experience talking with other young adult authors, many of us excavate the issues we grappled with as teens. It’s actually a very cathartic process, and allows us to create the characters we probably needed to read about when we were younger or even need now to address unresolved issues. Maybe that’s why so many adults like to read YA—it gives us a chance to reflect, understand, and let go of the baggage we’ve carried for too long."
Given Fischer’s openness to self-reflection, it makes sense that she digs deeply into her characters and their inner landscapes. Her process is to ask, ‘what’s my character’s psychological flaw? What’s my character’s moral flaw? How does she hurt herself or others? Then Fischer begins to write. “I don’t work from an outline. A lot of authors are plot-point driven and they hit those marks, but when I do that—because I’ve tried it that way—I lose who my character is. So I know where the journey starts and where it ends. Then I create a three-dimensional character and allow the story to unfold organically. If I’ve done a good enough job, the character drives the story forward and I try to keep up.”
Fischer mused that novels also give authors a unique chance to create understanding for the challenges people face. “In When Elephants Fly, I wrote about how difficult it is to live with the threat of a mental health condition hanging over your head. The Speed of Falling Objects addresses the challenge of living with a perceived disability, and all the fears and misperceptions involved. Novels give us a window into other people’s experiences and allow us to have sympathy or empathy.”
For Fischer, one such novel is The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, which focuses on the AIDS crisis. “When that crisis began, I wasn’t old enough to understand what was going on,” she explained. “Reading Makkai’s incredible novel gave me a window into understanding the individuals, friends and families that were shattered by the disease. Makkai’s story was universal in that it created understanding and compassion for anyone who faces an illness where there are no initial answers and for their loved ones who feel powerless to help.”
Back in the sphere of YA, Fischer’s tastes span the spectrum of genres. “I always have a book in my hand and just finished The Liars of Mariposa Island by Jennifer Mathieu, Misa Sugiura’s This Time Will be Different and Jennifer Longo’s What I Carry. All were wonderfully unique stories with gorgeous prose. I’m also a fan of Laurie Forest’s Black Witch series. It addresses prejudice and the individual’s power to shape the future if they’re willing to risk everything.
willing to risk everything. Fischer also loves science fiction and horror. “The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is one of my all-time favorites. It’s about a Jesuit mission to an alien planet. One of the underlying themes, that everything you think you know about another person is potentially very wrong, really resonated and reminded me to take a beat before making any judgments.” As for horror, Fischer is a big fan of Stephen King. “SK’s imagination is mind-blowing and I root for his characters as they battle in the most desperate circumstances.”
Just as she’s constantly reading, Fischer continues creating. “I have a new novel that’s with my agent at the moment. The path of that manuscript is still being determined. I hope it finds a home where the story can flourish and I can continue to grow as a writer.”
In the meantime, indulge in an imaginary jaunt to the Amazon—entertainment guaranteed, bugs optional! “I hope what readers take from The Speed of Falling Objects is that they can be the hero of their own life story,” Fischer said. “And that it’s up to each of us to question who we are, ask who defined us and then, if we don’t like that label, to create our own story.”
The Speed of Falling Objects was released on 10/1/19.
Visit Nancy Richardson Fischer's site here.
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"I hope what readers take from The Speed of Falling Objects is that they can be the hero of their own life story." - @nfischerauthor #yaauthor
This article was originally printed in the Winter 2019 issue of Curiositales. If you would like to receive a free digital copy of the magazine, sign up for our newsletter at the top of this page! Then, confirm your email address (be sure to check your spam folder). Once you click the link in your welcome email, you'll get regular news from Curiositales, including notifications when the latest magazine is published. You can unsubscribe whenever you like. Or, you can read it for free here.
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