The Closest of All Possible Encounters

John Wray describes how a wilderness survival guide taught him to face his fears while completing his most challenging book yet.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

John Wray might have never finished his new novel, Godsend, if he hadn’t stumbled across a technical manual on bear attacks, abandoned on a Brooklyn street. A harrowing primer intended more for wilderness backpackers than for struggling writers, Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance is the furthest thing from a literary self-help guide. But in a conversation for this series, Wray explained how it came to redefine his approach to writing, helping him complete a book that posed profound creative challenges. We discussed what writers can learn from the strategies used to ward off grizzlies, and why sitting alone with a manuscript can be like playing dead as the ultimate predator looms overhead.

Godsend is Wray’s fifth novel, but the book’s fraught subject matter could scare off even the most experienced writer. It’s the story of Aden Sawyer, an 18-year-old woman who, in mid-2001, decides to leave home and join the Taliban, swapping the languid California of her childhood for the remote villages of Afghanistan. For her father, a professor of religious studies, the Muslim world has been a source of academic interest. For Aden, Islam represents something else entirely: beauty, ritual, revolution, and an overpowering sense of the sacred that she’s rarely felt in American life.

Godsend is a 9/11 novel unlike any other—one in which the cataclysm at the World Trade Center registers as a far-off rumble, something rumored in hushed Pashtun rather than replayed infinitely across TV screens. The New Yorker’s James Wood writes that Godsend offers “a profound understanding of the demands of religious practice—of religious submission, especially—which has eluded almost every serious contemporary American novelist” since the towers fell.

John Wray is the author of four other novels, including Lowboy, The Lost Time Accidents, and The Right Hand of Sleep. He spoke to me by phone.

John Wray: When Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance entered my life, I was in a period of real despair and self-doubt concerning the book I was hoping to write next. I’d stumbled on what I felt was a good, sound idea for a novel, but I was deeply afraid that I was the wrong person to write the book that I had in my mind.

It started when I was traveling in Afghanistan for Esquire magazine about four years ago and came across this fascinating scrap of information: a rumor about a girl—American or Dutch or British, depending on whom I spoke to—who’d been involved in the army of the Taliban right around the time of 9/11.

I was trying to write a story from the point of view of someone like the person I’d heard about: a girl, probably a teenager, who felt such passion for religion, and for Islam specifically, that she abandoned a cozy life in suburban California and the Christian religion of her parents to do this borderline-unthinkable thing: travel to Pakistan, and from there into the mountainous tribal regions of Afghanistan, to throw in her lot with some of the most extreme and uncompromising militants on the planet.

The mind-boggling nature of this decision was exactly what most made me want to write the novel I was dreaming of. But when the initial excitement wore off, it was also what made me uncertain that I could write the book at all. I had a clear idea of what the project was and where it needed to go in terms of structure—much clearer, in fact, than I normally do. This time, the challenges related to identifying with the protagonist. This was the first protagonist I’d ever attempted to write who was a woman, but it wasn’t just that. I’d only spent a few months in Afghanistan, which is an extremely diverse, heterogeneous society with a long and complex history. It’s a very difficult place for an outsider to understand. And I couldn’t have been more of an outsider.

Most daunting of all, there was the fact that I’m not Muslim. I wanted desperately not to add to all of the misrepresentations that are already flooding the market—with regard to Islam, with regard to the concept of jihad, with regard to extremism of any kind. I didn’t want to add fuel to the fire, so I froze. Basically, I think I just got scared.

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.

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.

That sounds pretty dramatic, I know. But I was in a melodramatic state of mind: I really felt I’d lost my way, that I couldn’t do my job. As I tried to work, I found myself returning to Bear Attacks again and again. The book opened up something for me. The concept of a bear attack itself, at different points in my reading process, came to represent various aspects of the writing process. Over time, the text took on an I Ching–like quality, and I started opening it at random, searching for something on whichever page I opened that might speak to me.

There were passages I found, on certain hopeful days, in which the bear clearly represented this great unwritten—and borderline unwritable—novel that I dreamed of writing. There were times, on darker days, when the bear represented failure, self-doubt, even self-disgust. There were times when the bear was something to be sought for, contacted, engaged with; and others when the bear was a thing to be avoided at all costs.

But the definitive moment for me—the real eureka moment of Bear Attacks, and the one I’ll remember as long as I write—came when I reached the chapter about playing dead.

Playing dead is a concept that doesn’t have a particularly attractive ring to it, at least in our culture. It connotes giving up; we tend to think of it as an act of timidity, even cowardice. But I changed my mind about that in a hurry after I’d read a chapter called “Sudden Encounters With Grizzlies.” It includes the first-person account of a man who was attacked by a bear in Montana’s backcountry, and how he survived:

I had only moved maybe 20 feet when [the bear] saw me, let out a most electrifying vocalization that I could only call a “roar,” and bolted after me … I began to run for the heavy timber but, after a few steps, realized it was futile. The choice was then to get knocked down or lie down myself and play dead …

I lay absolutely still. At the time, I fully expected to be mauled or at the least bitten a couple of times. I also knew quite well I might be killed. I was terrified at my circumstance but calm in that I knew what I was trying to do. The difficulty was going to be to carry it out if things started to get painful.

The bear ran up and stopped by my left leg and stood there for a moment. Then it nosed my left leg and I tried to brace myself mentally for the beginning of a mauling … There was no sound … except for the heavy breathing of the bear. I could hear the saliva bubbling in his mouth as he breathed. I lay still, face down, eyes closed, while my heart threatened to leap out of my rib cage.

What ends up happening, to the man’s astonishment, is that the bear chooses to move on after this close encounter. Herrero then writes: “Not everyone would have the mental toughness to play dead under such circumstances. Given the choices of running, getting ready to fight the bear, and playing dead, I feel that [this man] did the right thing. Although he could have been mauled, he played the odds and won.”

I had never thought of playing dead as something that takes courage and fortitude and strength of character. But, of course, it’s incredibly difficult not to run away or to try to hit this thing that’s essentially considering whether or not to consume you.

Later in the book, Herrero explains how, in order to play dead effectively, one has to be extraordinarily present—and even, strangely, open—to what is going to happen, while still having the clarity of mind to protect all of one’s most vulnerable areas from mauling. I started to think that the process shouldn’t be called “playing dead,” really, but “remaining alive”—it’s so much more active than I’d always imagined. If you just lie there, letting your body go completely flat and limp, you’ll most likely get eaten. You have to interact with your potential killer in a very conscious way. I came to realize that playing dead is, at its heart, a creative act—and for me it became a kind of artistic ideal.

I tried to imagine myself playing dead while this enormous, all-powerful entity sniffed around my motionless, fetally curled body. I tried to imagine the sound of the saliva bubbling—that amazing, very writerly detail—in the mouth of the thing I most feared. I’d even say to myself sometimes, embarrassing as this is to admit, “Can you hear the saliva bubbling?” In other words, are you allowing this terrifying force to get close enough that you can actually hear it breathing?

Sometimes that helped. Sometimes it didn’t. But for me, playing dead came to mean not resisting, not running away from anything in my work, no matter how much it might scare me. And I can’t think of a more valuable survival rule than that.

I was just down in Austin for the Texas Book Festival, and in a Q&A after one of the events, someone in the audience asked our panel what we thought about writer’s block. All of us had the same reaction—namely, that writer’s block does not exist. The mystique around the concept and the term writer’s block makes it seem as though some kind of magical condition can just pop up out of nowhere, like an aneurysm or a food allergy, and that there’s nothing you can do about it. But what we’re really talking about when we talk about writer’s block, all of us agreed, is fear. It’s unbelievably difficult for us—any of us, no matter what our job happens to be—to open ourselves up to judgment. That’s why houses have blinds. It’s why we don’t walk down the street naked. And it’s why writing is such intimidating work.

Writing, simply put, is the most frightening thing that I do. This is my fifth book, and that hasn’t gone away. Sometimes I fool myself into thinking that I don’t fear the judgment of every last individual who might potentially come across the book I’m writing, but of course I do. But that’s exactly what playing dead is about, to me, as a writer. It’s about not trying to escape the thing that you fear, and also about not trying to fight it. It’s about learning not to flinch from whatever scares you shitless. It’s about learning to tolerate proximity to an alpha predator—one that is stronger than you are, faster than you are, essentially omnipotent, as far as you’re concerned—and allowing the closest of all possible encounters to take place.

The possibility that, at the very least, you could conceivably emerge from this experience enriched—rather than disemboweled—is just so incredibly useful to me as a writer. Because the bear, of course, is inside your own head. You can’t escape it. Not ever. Being alone with yourself, trying to do something very difficult, means being alone, for long stretches of time, with the bear. What writing is—and what meditation is, not to mention what musical composition is, or thinking about anything intensively, really—is learning to be alone with that terrifying silence. Which, once you learn to calm down and listen, reveals itself as full of sound and light.