For this post, the Wild Authors series travels back to North America as I talk with Andrew Krivak, author of The Bear. Andrew tells me that though the entire setting is fictional, the landscape of the novel was inspired by the mountains and woods around Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire. Thanks so very much to Andrew for talking with me about his newest novel, which I was thrilled to read.
ABOUT THE BOOK
According to its publisher, The Bear (Bellevue Literary Press, 2020) is a cautionary tale of human fragility, of love and loss, and a stunning tribute to the beauty of Nature’s dominion. It’s a story of a girl and her father surviving on the side of a mountain. In story, Adam and Eve might have been the first two characters on the planet, but in The Bear are the last two. The prose is simple but complex, delicate but strong. If you like to read stories set in Nature – where humans connect strongly to their natural habitat – this book might be for you. Stunning descriptions of landscape and wildlife, survival wisdom, love, sadness, and joy splash page after page. It’s a lyrical fable for humankind, with elements of magical realism.
CHAT WITH THE AUTHOR
How did you come up with the idea for this novel?
The Bear came together for me over time in two parts. The first was inspired by Randall Jarrell’s children’s story The Animal Family, which my editor Erika Goldman at Bellevue Literary Press sent to my three kids when they were much younger and which I read to them out loud. She thought they would like it because I had told her once that I had made up a story to get them to sleep about a bear who helped my father and me find our lost dog, Troy, in the woods of rural Pennsylvania where I grew up. What those two stories got me thinking about was how to understand not just animals but Nature as protagonist. But, I have to say, my kids really loved that story about the bear – made up on the fly just to get them to sleep! They would ask for it even after they were old enough to know that bears couldn’t talk.
Then, about six years ago, we bought a house in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. The place has really taken me back to the kind of nature I knew as a kid myself, and which I’ve tried to share with my own children. So, after I published my second novel, The Signal Flame, I had a really strong desire to write something in which Nature was treated as though it were a character itself, and a first iteration of The Bear was a version of that children’s story. But I wasn’t happy with it. It was too simple. Too thin. I wanted something that challenged me as a writer, as well as pushed the envelope of literary fiction. Then one day, when I was out fishing, I was looking around at the shores of the lake, trying to imagine how the landscape might have looked to the first people who saw it, and – almost automatically – I wondered out loud in my boat, What is it going to look like for the last? Then it hit me. I rowed back to the dock, walked up to the house, and went right to my writing desk, where I wrote the first line of the novel: “The last two were a girl and her father who lived along the old eastern range on the side of a mountain they called the mountain that stands alone.”
When reading this story I was struck by your knowledge of plants and animals and how to survive in the wild. Have you had experience doing this yourself? What kind of research did you do when writing?
I’m no survivalist, I’ll admit to that. But growing up in Pennsylvania in the 70s my younger brother and I were outside in the woods all the time, hiking, fishing, sleeping out in the summers, making snow caves in the winter. It was the kind of childhood in which we seemed to spend more time outdoors than in school (thankfully). In fact, he and I were just reminiscing on the phone about how we used to get up at four o’clock in the morning in the summer, walk over to our uncle’s pond with a friend of ours, and fish until we got tired, then walk home, and our mother would say, without any anger in her voice, “Where’ve you been?” We’d tell her we were at Uncle George’s pond fishing since sunrise, and she’d say, “That’s nice. Did you bring me anything?” On those days we’d have fresh bass for dinner, along with what was growing in my father’s garden. Zucchini, tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, radishes, all depending on the season.
To answer your question, though, being accustomed to the outdoors and being able to survive in Nature are two different things. Still, I think that when you’re comfortable in Nature, there’s a shorter learning curve when it comes to understanding the things necessary to live and survive there. So yes, I did a lot a research on plants to eat and where to find them (some of them I already knew and used to eat as a kid), how to make a selfbow and arrows, how to make snowshoes. And then I would come to a place in the story where all I had to do was remember what it was like to build a fire in the winter, how it burned, what it felt like in the cold, and what it smelled like. The thing about research is that you can get caught up in doing more than what you need to move your story.
The Bear is not a handbook for survival. It’s a story about a girl’s coming of age in a unique time. Nevertheless, the purpose of research is to achieve authenticity, especially in the genre of realist literary fiction, which is the genre in which I would place my novel. So, you see the balance necessary. There is one thing I experienced in the writing of The Bear, though, that is curiously relevant to your question and which I’ve never talked about. In the summer of 2018, when I was deep into the final draft of the novel, I found myself trying to live a kind of parallel life to my two characters, at least with respect to food. I didn’t drink any alcohol. I drank only herbal tea. I cut sugar, and bread, and dairy from my diet, and did all I could to consume only seasonal lean protein, fruits, nuts, and vegetables.
I wasn’t starving myself. I was simply paring back the things we take for granted, but are really just excess. And I found myself having really intense dreams about running through the woods, or along mountain passes high above rivers, or some extreme wilderness environment, and I was always moving quickly through it under my own power. The cool thing about these dreams is that I never felt fear in them. I felt exhilaration and strength, aware of the danger, but not being immobilized by it. I called them my elemental dreams, and they got so that I would crave them before I went to bed at night.
When I finished the novel, though, they stopped and only re-occurred last year briefly when I was training for a triathlon. After a day of a particularly intense workout biking or running along trails in New Hampshire, I would have an elemental dream. But only for one or two nights, and then they were gone. I think what they helped me understand was the man and the girl’s complete focus on their world. It wasn’t that they had to survive in Nature. It was more like this was simply how their lives were going to be lived out, right up to the end. They were a big influence, these dreams, on why I ended the novel the way I did.
I have read a lot of novels that try to imagine our future, and have seen many different approaches, whether dystopian or utopian. But your novel is rather unique in that it offers an alternative viewpoint of a future world wherein everything is different but it’s not exactly a world that is terrible. It reminds me of the movie based off Jean Hegland’s novel Into the Forest. If you had to imagine our future world right now – especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic – could you see your story playing out as a reality?
Sure. One thing I’ve said, and many friends and readers agree with me, is that while I’m worried about humanity’s survival, I think that Nature is going to be just fine. Which is to say, Nature is a lot tougher, bigger, and smarter in the long run than we are. One of my favorite books is John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, and when you consider how old the Earth – Nature – is, and consider the fraction of time hominids have occupied this Earth, the difference is sobering, if not mind-numbing. It rises to the level of unimaginable hubris to believe that we have been and will be, in the end, anything more than a blink of the eye on the face of this Earth.
We are fascinating creatures, there’s no doubt. The beliefs we’ve put forward, the problems we’ve solved, the stories we’ve written, the things we’ve made in this short stretch of our existence, are nothing short of sublime. Yet, I have to say, we seem sometimes, as the saying goes, like legends in our minds. I believe that right beneath our feet, the natural world has done, is doing, and will continue to do, things far more amazing than our minds could conjure or contemplate. Yet, more often than not we’re blind to everything but what concerns us. That’s the hubris. So, I think the future could absolutely play out this way, more so today than when I was writing The Bear two years ago.
As I answer your questions, I’ve been in my home with my wife and three children for three weeks because of the COVID-19 virus. This certainly won’t be the end of humanity as we know it. Not this one. But how the world has changed for us literally in a matter of days is astounding. And outside? Birds sing and flowers bloom and it’s coming on spring here in the Northeast, just like it always has, and always will. The only thing I do hope is that we don’t experience something that turns our twilight on this Earth, when it comes, into a nightmare, rather than a quieter dream of what once was. I was certainly aware of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as I was writing The Bear, and I harbor in my mind no comparisons whatsoever to that novel, one of my favorites. But I had also been reading Robert Alter’s translations of Hebrew Scripture as I wrote. That’s the reason why I imagined a return in the end to our mythic beginnings. An Eden for the last two, as it was imagined in the beginning for the first two.
One thing I love to remind readers of is the fact that the word myth did not always mean a story we believe is false or gets truth wrong. Myth just means story. In his Poetics, mythos is the word Aristotle uses when he writes that “action” is the most important element of tragedy. When we’re talking about what makes a story a story, with all its truth and characters and mystery, we’re talking about myth.
How important do you think it is for authors to connect their stories to the environment?
I think that depends on the environment a writer feels committed to. The Great Gatsby is committed to a certain environment in the same way that Blood Meridian, or Beloved, or Marilyn Robinson’s Iowa trilogy, is committed to a particular environment, not just in setting but in how and why characters live and move and have their being. But if you mean environment with respect to the current ecological and climate crises, I would leave that to the author and his or her own commitment to what is elemental about a story. But I think also that in our current climate, a growing awareness of environment as something that can potentially play a more dynamic role in a story will quite organically begin to enter into fiction.
When a writer goes deep – and deep necessarily defines what is involved in the process that consumes novel-writing – one isn’t simply connecting to a setting, as though it were a place lying around and the writer comes along and populates it. The place of a novel becomes of the Earth, even in the most urban of places, like Don DeLillo’s New York, or Roberto Bolaño’s Mexico City. But your question also raises a point I think we miss often in our need to shoe-horn fiction into market genres. I push back particularly hard against the category of so-called “historical” fiction. All fiction has its setting in some historical moment, no? Just because an author finds an interest in the intersection between characters who actually existed and characters created doesn’t all of a sudden mean that the history is what’s driving the action of the novel. So, I wonder, the same way, about the fate of the novel that treats Nature as a character itself, if not protagonist altogether. Do we just start calling these books “Environmental Fiction?” Or do we begin to read the re-alignment of Nature-as-character, or Environment-as-action in fiction in an altogether new and critical way?
Something I’ve begun to explore as a way of writing about the environment with respect to form as well as content is to limit the interiority of a character. In other words, how often in a story I go into the mind or thought process of a character, how long I stay there, and what I draw from that interiority for the sake of the story. I think most writers are really comfortable writing from inside the head of their characters, finding that place desirable, if not critically necessary, to moving a narrative along. But what if every time a writer was going to make that interior move into a character’s mind, he or she had the character look out and showed us what that character sees of the world, the environment. I mean really sees it. At the granular level. And then had that character act based on and being wholly within the environment around him or her, rather than acting based on what decisions were come to in the thought process of a moment. That would, I think, begin to raise the role of Nature out of a kind of passive setting (or at least a distant second to the setting of the character’s consciousness) and give it a more active role in the narrative, simply by having the writer signal that environment can and does play a part in the moral imprint of a character in a story. And that’s something I’ve tried to do in The Bear.
Great points above regarding genres. It’s something I’m always asking myself and appreciate when genres actually blur and reach out beyond whatever boxes people tend to put them in. I’ve heard the term “rewilding novels,” which I like quite a bit.
Which authors inspired you as you were growing up, and what are your hopes for younger audiences reading The Bear?
Books were everywhere in our house growing up. If I close my eyes and imagine the bookshelf in our living room, I can see Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare’s plays. Those books, though, I didn’t get to until I went to college (I was lucky enough to have parents who let me, and in fact encouraged me, to study liberal arts in college).
As a kid, I had a pretty eclectic reading list, influenced largely by my older brothers and sisters, who passed down everything I read, from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey, to Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us and Silent Spring. But I also read books that came to me via the usual school channel, like A Wrinkle in Time, and a young reader’s version of The Iliad. I’ll tell you, though, for as much as I loved the freedom of living and playing outdoors so much in rural Pennsylvania, I felt trapped too. Creatively, intellectually. So books became a way of traveling for me. A means of escape. Especially in high school, when I read writers as a way of seeing if maybe I could become a writer myself. I think for that reason the authors who inspired me most were authors who wrote books about journeys. Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez, J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit. Just to name a few.
Now, all these years later, after decades of studying literature, every character from the great books I’ve read and loved live still in my imagination, every place they’ve all traveled is mapped and logged there too. So that when I’m old and alone and slowed down, I won’t be lonely or sedentary, because I’ll have all of those characters to accompany me to all of those places they’ve been over and over, again and again. That’s what I hope a younger audience will take not just from The Bear but from any book read and loved and never forgotten. Companions of the imagination. Because – if I can add this to your question about survival – literature can be a means to survive. Not because of what a paragraph tells you how to make, but because of how a character in a story lives along the arc of his or her own becoming.
Are you working on anything else right now?
In our new (and I hope temporary) indoor lives, I am working everyday (I’m hesitant to say feverishly) on my third Dardan novel, the fictional Pennsylvania town I’ve mined for my first two novels. It’ll be a longer, more sweeping work than the other two (The Sojourn and The Signal Flame), but that’s all I can say about it right now in these early days, except that I’m really enjoying getting back to the work of shaping and chiseling and sometimes just hammering away at the story that lives inside the stone. We’ll see where it goes.
I’m looking forward to hearing more! And I deeply appreciate your time in chatting with me about The Bear, a novel I think is a must-read in this age. Your in-depth conversation is eye-opening and wonderful. Thanks so much.
Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change(Routledge). Mary lives in Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.
Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.
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