Author Q&A: Dawn Reno Langley - The Mourning Parade

Single mom and veterinarian Natalie DeAngelo lost everything the day her two sons were killed in a school shooting. Following her psychiatrist's advice, she decides to sell her once-happy home to  escape the immense pain and grief of living there alone.  Desperate to find relief from her unspeakable loss, Natalie impetuously commits to honoring her boys’ memory and volunteers to assist philanthropist Andrew Graham at his elephant sanctuary in northern Thailand.  All she wants once she gets there is relief.   But she soon realizes she may be in over her head when she faces three major challenges: her debilitating PTSD is creating night terrors; Peter Hatcher, the sanctuary’s irascible in-house vet, has a longtime grudge against her and wants desperately for her to fail; and Sophie, a female elephant with a raging leg infection and PTSD caused by human abuse, is demanding that Natalie use every trick in her veterinarian’s black bag to heal her.   Dr. Hatcher wants to euthanize Sophie, as he claims she's a lost cause, and Natalie knows she must find a way to convince the others to let her keep trying. Can she and Sophie find a way to heal together and learn to love life again? Or will another tragedy shatter Natalie's progress?   This deeply emotional novel explores the capacity of a mother's love, the challenge of overcoming a devastating loss, and the long, tiresome journey to healing.

The Mourning Parade is coming soon! We spoke with the brilliant Dawn Reno Langley to learn more about her inspiring adventures, terrifying experiences, relationships with elephants, and how she brilliantly brought them together to create this masterful and powerful book. The Mourning Parade is an incredible story of endurance, vulnerability, and the beauty of unconventional friendship. This book will forever change your heart.

  AJ: The Mourning Parade is an immensely powerful story with so many beautiful elements. Can you tell us about how your own time spent abroad inspired and influenced your writing of Thailand’s culture, countryside, and society?

DL: First of all, thanks so much for the compliment! I loved writing The Mourning Parade, but the best part is that initial researching when the story idea comes alive.  That happened in Thailand.   I’ve traveled a lot and whenever I visit a new place, I take notes.  Sometimes I write down only a few words; sometimes I copy down full quotes.  I knew when my friend Beth and I went to Thailand that not only would I be taking a vacation that would provide enough memories for a lifetime, but I would also have to make sense of a country where I wouldn’t have any prior knowledge of the language, the food, vegetation, or the people.  How exciting to be given that opportunity!   We traveled from Bangkok to the ancient temples of Ayutthaya, up the River Kwai, into the jungles and mountains, through cities, rice paddies, green jungles, little towns, and huge farms. The intense heat coated us with a sheen of sweat from first thing in the morning until late in the evening, but in spite of the discomfort, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard or often as I did with the Thai people.   One day, we stopped on the side of the road at a shack where they cooked and served rats on skewers (not something I want to experience again—and no, I didn’t eat them), and another day, our guide brought a prickly white fruit for us to taste.  We never would have had that experience in a Thai restaurant back home.   While we were in the country, the rest of the world heard about a political coup in Bangkok. In spite of the worldwide attention, it never felt dangerous. In fact, the most exciting thing that happened was that the TV stations shut down and a message flashed that the “Ministry of Peace” asked for patience during the unrest. I told Beth that the “Ministry of Peace” had a better intention than Ministry of Defense.   The highlight of the trip was the visit I made all by myself to an elephant sanctuary located deep in the mountains where wild elephants still roam.  I took a long boat down the river from the jungle resort where we stayed, and at the other end, a little gentleman waited with a claptrap truck.  I sat in the open back for almost two hours as we drove to the sanctuary.   When we pulled off the pitted highway onto a dirt road, I sat up straight, imagining I saw elephants in the distance.  They weren’t elephants though.  They were oxen.  Still, the excitement made me feel like I did as a kid when we went to my aunt’s summer place on the lake in New Hampshire.   I met some of the characters who made their way onto the pages of The Mourning Parade at the sanctuary. I based Ali on one of the old bulls there (though he ended up with his own distinct personality) and some of the mahouts became the inspiration for the ones who ended up in the book. The fact that they all wore soccer jerseys is true.   I questioned the volunteers who worked there, stunned to find out some of the facts about elephants that I had not known. I hadn’t known about their bone structure, didn’t realize they were able to pick up very small objects with their trunks, and had no idea that they suffered from PTSD.   Naturally, once I returned home, I needed to do more research and that’s when the other elements of the story blossomed.  I gave names to vegetation and trees, enjoyed looking up Thai recipes, and learning even more about Thai culture.   Next time I visit, I want to see the beaches!   AJ: You’ve spent significant time yourself with elephants! Did you have a special relationship with an elephant like Natalie did with Sophie? What is one of your favorite memories?

DL: I’ve visited elephants in Thailand and in Africa, and I must say that each of the elephants I’ve met has a distinct personality.  My favorite ellie is the old dude who tried to steal my ring in Thailand. I was feeding the big guy (who was blind in one eye and not a huge fan of dogs -- in fact, he tried to slap one with his trunk, and I thought it was funny then . . . but it’s not!) and really felt like he saw me. Truly saw me. He had patience with my inability to give him veggies quickly enough, and I have a photo of the two of us, eye-to-eye that continually reminds there was a connection there.   In Africa, I visited Dame Sheldrick’s elephant orphanage. I mentioned her in The Mourning Parade after reading about her work with orphaned elephant calves.It was so amazing to see her incredible success in Nairobi. It’s quite difficult to keep calves alive, and people have lost those babies even after several healthy years. Dame Sheldrick has worked for many years to find the appropriate foods and medicines to keep little ones healthy and now has a herd of really little guys, as well as some older (3-year) calves. She’s had great luck reintroducing them to elephant herds, as well, so she’s my hero!  While I was there, I adopted a sweetie named Tagwa. A real cutie!   So many of the African orphans are at the Sheldrick orphanage because they’ve lost parents to poachers or they’ve fallen down a well and lost contact with their social group. I could have taken them all home!   AJ: Which of your characters was the most interesting to explore?

DL: Hmmm, I really connected with Natalie, but I think the most interesting to explore was Mali. She’s a combination of several cultures and is both modern and traditional. She had to be a foil for Natalie but also play a role in the story that evoked her own place in a culture that embraces both Thai and English elements (all Thai children learn English in school).  I wanted her to provide some comfort for Natalie, but the more I got to know Mali, the more I realized she’s not a real warm, cuddly person. She’s strong and intelligent and independent. Much more fun to get to know.   AJ: Can you share a little with us about your experience with PTSD and the process of applying the effects not only to Natalie, but also to the elephant Sophie?

DL: My experience with PTSD is the result of a particularly violent dog attack. I’d been pet sitting a friend’s two Chows: one adult and one puppy. I knew the dogs well, so being attacked as I bent down to give the adult his food shocked me. He bit me 19 times all over my arms and hands as I tried to fend him off.  At one point, he got me down on my back and came for my throat. Somehow, I got to my feet and grabbed him by the ruff of the neck, lifting him up and off of me, as I would have with a cat.   But he kept coming for me.   My husband was home at the time, heard me screaming, and came through the gate to the backyard where I struggled with the dog.  In his hands, two bricks that he’d grabbed to throw at the dog.  But he couldn’t because the dog was still struggling as I held him off the ground.  Hubby grabbed the hose and shot a stream of water into the dog’s face, enabling me to get away.  I ran back through the house and collapsed, terrified in that moment that I couldn’t feel my hands and fingers.  I was sure I’d never write again, and at that point in time, my writing supported my family.   Surprisingly, it wasn’t the use of my hands I should have worried about.  I should have worried about my mental health.   For four years, I went through therapy.  Hours and hours of therapy.  Physical therapy for my hands, biofeedback therapy for the post-traumatic stress disorder, more physical therapy.   There were times I’d be driving down the street, and suddenly that dog was in front of my face, snarling and biting.  I couldn’t sleep because of recurring nightmares.  Every time I had any stress at all in my life, my memories of the attack kept me up.  To this day, if I’m away from home and in any kind of discomfort, the nightmares return.   Those memories are all too clear for me, and through the years, I’ve met other people who’ve experienced PTSD for various reasons, but their reactions to their terrors were the same as mine.  I mined those terrors for the book. I knew Natalie’s PTSD might be a bit different from mine, but the fact that her memories pop up at unexpected times reflected my own experience.   As for the elephants’ PTSD, it has been documented by many elephant caretakers, so I simply applied what happens to humans and adapted it somewhat for Sophie. I researched the ways caretakers are treating the disorder and combined several of the techniques to work for Sophie.   The heartbreak is that no matter how much therapy a victim of PTSD gets, there’s only so much that person or animal can heal. The pain is always there.   AJ: What is your strongest hope that readers will take away after their experience with The Mourning Parade?

DL: Boy, I hope that people can immerse themselves in the story and that it reaches their hearts. I hope that people with PTSD will nod and say, “You got it,” and I hope that people will understand the plight of elephants throughout the world and start to appreciate the amazing creatures they are.  

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