The Bear began as a story I used to tell my young sons about a bear who helped my father and me find our dog when I was a boy and he (the dog) was lost in the woods. As my sons got older, the story evolved from a quick bedtime vignette to a tale in which the boy of the story became much more attached to the bear. Then my daughter was born, and the boy became the girl.
At around that time, on the heels of the publication of my first novel, The Sojourn, Bellevue Literary Press Publisher and Editorial Director Erika Goldman sent me a copy of Randall Jarrell’s The Animal Family as a gift for my three children, and after reading that book to each of them, I wondered whether my story of a bear might be something to write down.
We have a house on a pond in New Hampshire, and anyone familiar with the area will recognize the landscape in The Bear. Mount Monadnock, the name of the mountain that I can see from our front porch, was a favorite of Emerson and Thoreau’s. In a loose translation, the name means “the mountain that stands alone.” A great deal of the inspiration for the environment in The Bear, and the struggle within nature that it describes, came to me as a result of watching nature in those New Hampshire woods. It’s not grand and majestic scenery, which is to say, it’s not the Rockies or the Tetons, but it can be breathtaking.
Every day I spend time in those woods, or fishing on the pond, I see or hear something among the animals that surprises me for its sheer beauty. A bald eagle diving into water and emerging with a fish in its claws. An otter chattering away because her young are near. A bobcat slinking silently and almost unseen from the forest into a bog. The eerie howling cry of the prehistoric loon, my favorite sound. I remember when we drove up to the house on the first night it was ours. My children got out of the car and heard that beautiful yodel-like keen rising up from out of nowhere on the water, and they stopped dead in their tracks. “Is that a wolf?” they asked, looking terrified. “No,” I said. “It’s just the loons. It means they’re happy.”
I went to sleep that night wondering what the Earth—this same land—would look like and sound like if no one were around anymore. What would it be like if there were only two people left in the world and they lived right here? Would the world really be a place ravaged by war, and covered in darkness and destruction, like so many works of fiction now imagine it? Or would nature have reclaimed everything but what the last two carry with them, sole reminders of their past? So, as an answer to these questions, I set out to write a novel about a father who teaches his daughter all he can about how to live and survive in a world Edenic yet empty of others. For, without ever saying it, they know that one day she will be alone in this world. And when that day comes, the girl faces a test greater than she ever imagined. Enter the bear, who has always been there, and the veil between humans and nature lifts. The ancient struggles remain: loss, journey, coming of age, and love. But they do so now in a way unique to the last, just like the embers in a fire will give a quality of heat right up to the end that no previous part of the fire has given, and this before it fades as ash into the ground from which it came.
Many influences play their part in what I write. But in style I see The Bear as something of a cross between Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. Both are powerful novels that focus on a single character journeying through an arc of time in a kind of becoming, and in the end bring the reader to a resolution that is not a bow-tie ending, but rather has the feeling—even if it is unsettling—of having come to that place where one time ends and another begins. Again, like the way in which a fire will die down when it has burned what wood it’s been given, and the ash becomes part of the soil from which will grow something new.
My ideal reader has always been someone who will put a book down after the first page if they can already tell how it will end. And if I were to imagine a specific reader for The Bear, it would be someone who, upon finishing it, sends the novel to her grown child with a note that says, “Always be this strong. I love you.”
By calling the novel The Bear, I am suggesting that there is hope all around us, if we step back and see ourselves as part of—not the center of—a larger, ever more beautiful and animate world. I hope readers will see and hold on to both the beauty and the struggle. Look around. There is struggle everywhere. But there is also beauty. The novel is not meant to be a post-apocalyptic story so much as a cautionary tale. The beauty is still here. The question is: What do we do now while the chance is ours to protect this world, to remain with it, and perhaps become an even more intimate part of it?