Dr. Caitlin O'Connell has been called a modern renaissance creative. She is currently on the faculty at the Eaton Peabody Lab at Harvard Medical School studying elephant low-frequency hearing while also overseeing a non-profit foundation (Utopia Scientific), which promotes the importance of science and conservation.
She is an award-winning author and photographer and has been studying elephants in the wild for the last 30 years, having written dozens of scientific papers and numerous feature magazine articles and two memoirs about her experiences. She taught creative science writing for Stanford and The New York Times and co-developed the award-winning Smithsonian documentary, Elephant King.
O'Connell is currently developing a new elephant docu-drama, Elephant Crown, and working on several feature movies and television scripts aimed at getting real science into popular media. She has authored eight popular books about elephants, including an award-nominated thriller series about the ivory trade that is also being released as a graphic novel.
In this post, O'Connell shares what prompted her to write a book about animal rituals, what surprised her in the writing process, and much more!
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Name: Caitlin O'Connell
Literary agent: Tina Seelig
Title: Wild Rituals: 10 Lessons Animals Can Teach Us About Connection, Community, and Ourselves
Publisher: Chronicle PRISM
Release date: January 12, 2021
Genre: Nature Prescriptive
Previous titles: The Elephant's Secret Sense; Elephant Don; The Elephant Scientist; A Baby Elephant in the Wild; An Elephant's Life; Ivory Ghosts; White Gold
Elevator pitch for the book: Ritual forges new connections and strengthens bonds in both human and nonhuman animals. Engaging in rituals strengthens not just our own relationships, but rekindles our connection to the natural world.
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What prompted you to write this book?
In such a divisive time in human history, I felt compelled to remind ourselves of our similarities, not just between human cultures, but between ourselves and other social animals and how ritual is the key to bringing us together.
How long did it take to go from idea to publication?
From idea to publication was about two years, which may seem slow from the outside, but if you factor in all the steps, it's actually pretty fast.
I brought the idea to my agent and we iterated and developed a proposal that we pitched to publishers. Then there was the process of iterating with publishers and finding the perfect editor and home for the project. Then signing with a publisher. All that took about six months, which is pretty fast given how involved proposals often are.
The drafting took about a year in between professional responsibilities. Then came the process of editing and iterating to settle on the final narrative and tone. And then the artwork and captions and layout decisions.
And then there is the inevitable wait for printing and delivery—as you can see, there are a lot of steps to the final six months of the process, so from idea to publication for this book was actually remarkably fast!
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?
I learned more about the power of ritual and its importance than I had originally anticipated—particularly in relation to group rituals. For example, group rituals were thought to have evolved in humans to galvanize hunting parties so that they would be more successful at orchestrating and coordinating the taking down of very large animals. We needed the group cohesion that engaging in ritual provided in order to survive.
Rituals that bind groups together are so psychologically powerful, however, that wielding the power generated from these rituals requires our responsibility to steer that power for good and inclusivity. If group rituals that focus on exclusivity are unchecked, they can lead to malevolent ends such as racism and dangerous cults of personality, which have troubled many nations throughout our political history and have resurfaced today.
It surprised me that my explorations were so on point to current international and national politics.
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?
When I first came up with the idea for this book, I was determined that my vision was important, but I was nervous about exactly how I was going to pull it off. The surprise came when the connections that I was exploring between humans and nonhuman animal rituals turned out to be richer and even deeper than I had expected.
The examples that I had found with respect to mothers of many different species carrying or attending to their stillborn (or sick) babies long after death, and the psychological and hormonal benefits to doing so, were particularly striking. The lessons that I found for humans about grief and loss were equally as poignant.
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
I hope that readers will gain an understanding of just how connected we are with other social animals and discover new insights into the importance of ritual in our lives.
If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?
Write what you are passionate about because writing a book is a long journey and you have to enjoy the subject matter and the iterative process if you are going to succeed at writing something you are really proud of.