But then, when I most needed it, a book came along: a how-to book of sorts, an unexpected source of insight. And it came in the most unexpected way.
I distinctly remember it being a sunny spring day in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, where I was living at the time. People put the most outrageous things out on the street in Park Slope—Danish modern furniture, fur coats, priceless first editions. And that day, literally on my own block, right there on the curb, one book in particular caught my eye. It was far from a priceless first edition, and a bit the worse for wear. But it appeared at a moment when I was feeling, well, the kind of feeling when it seems you have nothing to lose. So I impulsively picked it up.
The book was called Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, by a certain Stephen Herrero—an expert, apparently, in animal behavior. I remember thinking, Oh, this might be fun to have lying around the house. I took it home for its novelty value, basically. It was destined for the stack of random books on my coffee table, or for the bookshelf in my guest room, full of books I’ve never read, and never will.
So I took Bear Attacks home. For weeks, if not months, I didn’t open it again. But one day—I’m not sure exactly why, or when—I began paging through its first chapter. Its gag aspect faded quickly: This was a serious text about a serious subject. And as its novelty receded, Herrero’s book began to make a profound impression on me.
Bears can be scary—everyone knows that—but Leonardo DiCaprio’s rotten luck in The Revenant notwithstanding, I don’t think I’d fully realized the true horror of bear attacks before. It should be said, at this point, that attacks are extremely rare, and that the vast majority of interactions between bears and humans, even with grizzlies, result in nothing more serious than an exciting glimpse of a beautiful animal. But when grizzlies do attack, the danger is extreme. When bears do battle with each other in the wild, their first instinct is to disable the weapons of their opponent, and a bear’s primary weapon is its jaws. This means that what fighting bears try to do—what their sense of self-preservation directs them to do—is to target their victim’s mouth. This applies to humans, too, under certain circumstances. An attacking grizzly bear may very well attempt to take your face off.
Read: Grizzly bears have a human problem.
The book held me spellbound, for a time, purely with its gore factor—but my relationship to the text continued to evolve. And this paradigm shift was accelerated by one line in particular, a description of grizzlies from a man named Henry Kelsey, one of the first European bear hunters in America: “He is man’s food and he makes food of man.” For some reason, that quotation seemed to capture the fear, and the joy, of the creative process for me. For a novelist, writing is the one reliable source of creative nourishment, not to mention our financial bread and butter. Yet there’s a sense, at times, that the work is somehow pursuing you—and it’s a quarry dangerous enough to disfigure you forever, or pick you clean, down to the bones.