“Humanity’s true moral test, its fundamental test,” wrote Czech author Milan Kundera, “consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.” This theme is graphically explored in Gila Green’s latest release, No Entry, in which a Canadian teenager signs on to an elephant conservation program and ends up coming face to face with violence, greed, and murder. Though targeted to young adults, this gripping environmental fiction novel will resonate with anyone who has a passion for wildlife conservation and the protection of endangered species.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: Tell us a bit about your journey as a writer and the influences on your particular style of storytelling.
A: My journey began when I was pregnant with my fourth child and I had three children under the age of six at home. I had my hands full but intellectually, I was restless. Then an MA in Creative Writing program opened in Israel. I’d always dreamed of doing such a program, but assumed I’d have to wait until my kids were old enough for me to study overseas. Suddenly there was an opportunity an hour away from my home and I took it. I got the list of the professors and phoned each one, asking if I could bring my baby to class. Israel is very child-friendly; there are nursing rooms on campus. Second semester, my three-week old was most often being held by the professor who lectured while the rest of us took notes. (It wasn’t easy to get her out of their arms after class either). By the end of that degree I was already sending in (remember stamps and envelopes?) and publishing my stories.
As for influences, I only read what people called literary fiction for years, but thankfully, around the age of 30, I realized that was an old, stale, academic snobbery and I’ve been reading everything ever since. I force myself to take something from a combination of genres when I choose a book. Of course, I have my personal interests and favorites. I’m particularly influenced by international fiction. I like reading writers from Ireland to Jamaica to South Africa to the American South.
Q: Did you know from a young age you wanted to be an author or did this passion develop over the course of different career choices?
A: Yes, I always wanted to be an author or related careers: librarian, linguist, screenwriter, always coming back to language. I never saw “author” as a realistic choice in terms of supporting myself, which is why I chose journalism as the practical option at the time (hahaha -way back when before internet and when people paid for newspapers and it became entirely unpractical). But here I am for a decade teaching EFL at several colleges—something that was never on my list but is very practical. I also edit manuscripts as a freelancer, which I love. I really enjoy helping other writers get where they want to go.
Q: Your bio reveals you’ve done quite a bit of globetrotting over the years. Which place, though, do you most strongly associate with your personal definition of “home?”
A: I think a person can have more than one home just as they have different “best friends”. Your husband can be your best friend along with a sister and a girlfriend you grew up with—these are different types of best friends, right?
Israel is my home and has been for decades and there is nowhere like it. Israel is always humming, alive. It’s where my children were born and where my paternal great grandparents came when they walked from Yemen in North Africa to Port Said in Egypt and finally, took a train to Jerusalem and lived under Turkish rule. My family has been in Jerusalem since the 1880s.
I’m also proud to be fourth generation Canadian where my maternal great grandparents found refuge from the pogroms in Russia. I once read somewhere that the country in which you obtained your post high-school education becomes the one that shapes your values (vs. high school or primary school) and in my case, I would say that is correct. If you’re asking if I have real maple syrup in my fridge, the answer is yes; it’s next to the humus and my husband’s biltong from Johannesburg.
Q: What was the inspiration behind No Entry?
A: No Entry was inspired by my desire to write about South Africa and highlight an aspect that is often overlooked by the important subject of Apartheid. That’s an extremely necessary issue to write about, but it’s not the only one. There are other things going on in South Africa that need to be brought to people’s attention. I was also interested in connecting animal poaching with global terrorism as these are often the same network of cruel people, another overlooked and important point.
Q: How did you choose the title?
A: No Entry is my only novel that didn’t ultimately take my original title which was Shen (which means ivory in Hebrew). Even when I chose Shen (which I still prefer), I knew it would be too foreign a word for English-speaking audiences. It’s the first time I took the advice of an American marketing team and they convinced me that No Entry was a name teens would like and that my titles are “too subtle.” So, I tried listening to someone else for once.
Q: What governed your decision to pen a novel in a part of the world (South Africa) from which you did not originate? Accordingly, what were the challenges you encountered in depicting the setting and events with accuracy for your readers?
A: I had already written four Israel-based novels (King of the Class, Passport Control, White Zion, A Prayer Apart—the last as yet unpublished). Those novels took on various time periods from the Ottoman Empire, British Mandate to modern Israel and some migrated between Israel and Canada. King of the Class was written in a futuristic post-civil war Israel. I felt I had wrung out those settings– at least for the moment and I was searching. Then I had a coffee with a writing partner who said she feels many authors write the same novel over and over again only with different characters. She said if you analyze the novels they are really always coming back to the same themes, same ideas, same story; different characters.
This horrified me.
I knew she was right and I didn’t want to be one of those authors. I’m a location-driven writer and sought a brand-new location which I felt would ensure I wouldn’t be writing the same story again with different characters. My husband is South African and I’ve been there several times. I thought: let’s do it. I am not South African and, therefore, was not brave enough to have a South African heroine (their English alone is very different from Canadian English). So my first challenge to overcome was how to deal with that, thus, I made Yael a Canadian who travels to South Africa because her parents are from there originally. It’s pretty easy today with accuracy as we have Google and YouTube and I use Google maps a lot. I have a built-in South African reader at home who I’m married to. I also gave the manuscript to a South African friend to check for authenticity and I’m proud to say he only found one, small inauthentic element at Kruger for me to change.
Q: The young heroine of No Entry is Jewish. What was the significance of this choice for you?
A: I wanted to write about a Jewish heroine we don’t see often. In Passport Control, I have a Sephardic heroine—again a type of Jewish heroine we don’t often see unless she’s romanticized like Queen Esther or some other Biblical figure. Jewish heroines need to be expanded, don’t you think? Enough with the stereotypes. Judaism actually has a lot about nature built-in, something not often associated with Jewish culture but it’s there in spades if you look. We have Tu B’ishvat, which is a holiday celebrating trees every year when the stores are flooded with dried and fresh fruits, we have the holiday of Sukkoth where we live outside in a hut for an entire week, we have many prohibitions and laws about trees and fruits and vegetables, when you are allowed to cut trees, eat from their fruits and so on and on and on. It’s time for a Jewish environmental heroine, it’s overdue.
Q: Although technology and media have, in many respects, made the world a smaller place insofar as exposure to other countries and cultures, why has the extinction of elephants fallen off the radar of many people in North America?
A: I think it’s because we are so far removed from the natural world in North America and that’s a massive understatement. We’ve gone way beyond the old cliché of the concrete jungle. We simply don’t relate to animals in the wild on a visceral level the way many other peoples do. Animals are all Disney characters to us. It’s a simplistic reason but in a short answer that’s the truth. Before I went to South Africa the wildest animal I had seen up close and observed was a squirrel. Our food, clothes and so on are so removed from their sources that even when intellectually we know say that elephants are on the verge of extinction, it’s just too far from our lives and too easy for us to look away.
Q: A lot of research went into the development of this story. What were you the most surprised to discover that you didn’t know before?
A: One of the most surprising things I discovered is that the frozen land of Siberia is rapidly thawing due to climate change. As such, wooly mammoths that have been buried for 10,000 years are now accessible to tusk hunters. Tusk hunters are racing to retrieve them due to the very unfortunate demand for tusks, particularly in China. Inexperienced people cannot tell the difference between illegal elephant tusks and wooly mammoth tusks. This enables elephant ivory traders to pass off their tusks as “ice ivory” or mammoth tusks. It’s very bad news for elephants. It would mean we would have to ban trade in an extinct species (wooly mammoths), something that’s never been done as far as I know of to protect elephants and right now that’s not happening.
Q: Why does this topic so deeply resonate with you?
A: I’m starting to come around to the idea that I should write something light and humorous (it started when a clinically depressed friend of mine complained she had nothing to read because every book depressed her more and why can’t anyone write something light but good that made her feel better…and now with this pandemic I’m thinking even more so), but for my first decade of writing I was always motivated by the idea of writing something to wake people up. The idea that elephants will likely be animals our grandchildren will never see in the wild is shocking and an absolute abdication of responsibility between humans and nature. There is no reason at all for this to happen and is a portent of much worse to come. Look at what’s already happening with this corona virus. The connection is a direct one. We need to stop and think about what we are doing to the natural world and realize it is nothing less than suicide. I’m not an animal conservationist and have no background in animals…I didn’t even grow up with a goldfish. This is just common sense. You don’t have to be an animal lover or a nature lover or a vegan or any of those things; loving human beings is enough to realize we need to act and reverse course when it comes to our relationship with wildlife.
Q: Is this something you plan to extend to future books?
A: I already wrote the sequel to No Entry and it’s ready to go. Yael, Nadine and Sipho are back this time taking on a drone training camp. Sadly, Stormbird Press burned down in the Australian wildfires. They were evacuated and lost their homes, equipment, everything, all physical book copies. They were hoping to make a comeback in April 2020 –even a small one—but now they have been hit with corona virus. So, I don’t know what will be now with my eco-series. I’m open to suggestions! Please email me through my website (www.gilagreenwrites.com) if you have any.
Q: In writing about global environmental issues and animal activist themes such as elephant poaching, there’s a fine line between educating one’s readership and preaching to them. How did you achieve that difficult balance?
A: I try to keep the story at a personal level to avoid preaching as you say. The story is about Yael Amar and her losses and gains and growth as much as about anything else. She has a best friend, loving parents and a boyfriend who she feels forced to deceive—issues that are beyond the eco aspects of the story. But it’s still an eco-genre, so environmental issues have to be center stage to fulfill the requirements of this genre.
Q: What do you see as the takeaway message for No Entry?
A: Do you love people? If the answer is yes, you should care about elephant extinction and yes, teenagers can make a difference.
Q: Authors are often given the conventional advice to pick just one genre and stay with it forever in order to build an audience. Given that your prior books are largely Israel/Canada based, you seem to be openly defying that mindset and following your heart. Any worries about that?
A: This advice can be stifling as a writer. I wanted the challenge, I wanted to expand my canvas. In a way telling people to stick with one genre shrinks your canvas. It’s too reductionist for me. It depends on your goals—if they are purely sales, it’s probably the best advice. I also get bored of things easily and need change. Maybe it’s my journalism background, but I like researching new things, learning about aspects of the world I never knew before. If I had never written No Entry, I wouldn’t know anything about elephants beyond the grade one stuff most of us know. It brought me into contact with more people, more opportunities. In the same way, White Zion taught me so much about living under British Mandate in the 1930s in Jerusalem right down to how people heated their homes.
I have to be interested, engaged and not feel I’m recycling the same plots in the same places. It’s also not necessarily true advice. There are dozens of writers who have written in all different genres who are very successful: Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Lisa See, Roald Dahl.
Q: What’s your best advice to writers who are starting out?
A: Find a mentor who believes in you. Mentors should be talked about more. Much more.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: I’m at a bit of a crossroads because of what’s happened to Stormbird as I mentioned before. I had three novels come out between August 2018 and September 2019 and looking at 2020 right now, it’s probably not the ideal time to release a new book. My most honest answer is that I’m waiting to see what opportunities putting out three traditionally published novels in 13 months brings. I’m making more vlogs and trying to reach out and build my audience whether they are interested in heroines conquering their fears in South Africa or in Israel. I’ve been vlogging educational vlogs related to No Entry for parents/educators/teens/readers and hope to post more often.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share?
A: Yes, I also found publishing No Entry enabled me to join SCBWI, I’ve already participated in a webinar for the Israel branch and it’s enabled me even more opportunities. I recommend writers join such organizations, something I didn’t have time to invest in when all of my kids were little. Having said that, mothers and fathers do not feel badly about not doing such things. Your kids will only be young once. Join writing organizations and any other extras when you can. You don’t have to do everything at once. I only put up a professional website 10 years after I published my first story because with my family and earning a living, I couldn’t focus on everything and that’s allowed, it’s okay, it’s perfect.