The first time I saw the apartment building that I live in, my heart crumpled. I was moving in with my partner, D. We’d fallen in love in my hometown, Kathmandu, and had kept up a long-distance relationship after he moved to the U.S. Then he’d moved to his hometown, Toronto, to be close to his children, who lived here with their mother. We decided I’d move, too, and we’d set up together.
I didn’t know Toronto, and its name evoked nothing, though my family had lived in Ottawa when I was a child, and I had fond Kodachrome memories of snow and sunshine and the Rideau Canal. When I landed in Toronto, at Pearson Airport, I noted with bemusement how very flat the surroundings were. D assured me that I’d like the city, but when we turned off at Allen Road and drove up to our building, the sheer ugliness of that pile of brick-and-mortar shook me. D had rented an apartment here for its proximity to his children.
A decade on, we’re still in this building, a low-budget rental in a stretch of other low-budget rentals on Bathurst Street, which stretches north from Lake Ontario through the entire length of Toronto, ending in the farmlands of Holland Marsh, 57 kilometers away. I find it helpful to remember that Ernest Hemingway and Northrop Frye once lived in our neighborhood, since there’s nothing to say about our building. Built in the 1930s, it is squat, with not a single folly or flourish. Whoever painted the doors and windows didn’t bother to use masking tape. The windows are grimy with age. The backyard is cluttered with the lawn furniture of tenants past. Inside our apartment, the paint is chipping, the caulking is cracked, and all the fixtures are shoddy. The building has always struck me as a teardown, best suited to young, transient populations, such as students; yet everyone who lives here has, like us, stayed for years, making a go of it after divorce and other family reconfigurations.
I’m now fond of our building. Like Toronto, its charms were un-obvious to me at the start: they came into focus only gradually, after I learned how to look for them. I have come to value our indoor garage in the wintertime, our backyard in the summertime, and our landlord, a soft-spoken, philosophical Lubavitcher who has never once raised the rent. Our building has sheltered us from Toronto’s housing market, boosted by the city’s status as one of the most “livable” in the world. It has more than met our needs. Yet I still don’t love it, and I don’t love the city it’s in.
I do, however, love D, and this love both pleases and confounds me. I had only ever had one- or two-year relationships before, and had resisted settling down—though I did, naturally enough, want love. If you are an independent Nepali woman, Kathmandu is not an easy place to meet people, not unless you want an arranged marriage with a Nepali man of the “right” caste: and then it’s all too easy. All of my relationships there had been ground down into joylessness by the inescapable Nepali imperative to marry. In my mid-30s, I’d given up on love when I met D.
It can strain a relationship when one partner moves—in our case, across the world—to be with the other. The task of orienting me to Toronto fell squarely on D, who was capable enough: he is one of the few Torontonians who were also born here. (More than half this city was, like me, born abroad.) When I wasn’t going to government offices to fill out the paperwork of the newly-arrived, D showed me the sights, starting with the flamboyant Honest Ed’s, a discount shop whose founder had lavished funds on the theatre, polishing up Toronto’s image as a center of culture. Over time D took me to Kensington Market, Toronto Island, Queen Street West, the Danforth, the Beaches, the Junction, Parkdale, St. Jamestown, Roncesvalles—all the on-trend neighborhoods. So much about a city is explained by its hinterlands. On weekends we took road trips through Ontario’s rolling farmlands and small towns, and we swam in the freshwater of Georgian Bay in the summertime. In time I came to see how Toronto arose out of a patchwork-quilt of glass, concrete, asphalt, and brick, and rivers, lakes, escarpments, and glacial moraines.
There are still neighborhoods in the city I’ve never been to, including Cabbagetown, whose working-class history I’ve read about in the eponymous novel by Hugh Garner. I simply haven’t had the time or a reason to go everywhere. In his book Frontier City, Shawn Micallef points out that Toronto is more Los Angeles than New York: it sprawls on for 44 kilometers. Right from the start, I relied on books to help me imbibe the city’s spirit: when I first took the subway line over the Don Valley, I conjured up Michael Ondaatje’s diaphanous lost world from In the Skin of a Lion. I saw Alice Munro’s sharp and individuated women in downtown Toronto. As a newcomer, I shared the disorientation of the 19th-century protagonist of Michael Redhill’s Consolation. Madeleine Thien was the only Canadian writer I had met before moving here. I felt Canada’s worldliness in her novel Certainty.
Micallef became my go-to writer on matters Toronto. I used his book Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto to venture into unfamiliar terrain. It helped me look past the city’s surfaces: even the University of Toronto’s bewilderingly hideous Robarts Library seemed less so once I learned of Toronto’s flirtation with Brutalism. I found the city’s pretty parts charmed, and yet there were many plain, and even jarringly unattractive parts in between. They always stopped me, and prompted me, futilely, to speculate: was this because all of Canada’s funds went into healthcare? Was there a Protestant aesthetic at work here? Was this the legacy of some essential Canadian frugality? One year, at a party at the publisher Coach House, I came across Full Frontal T.O. by Micallef and Patrick Cummins, a picture book on Toronto’s houses in their full eclecticism and unsightliness. I loved that book so much I took it to Kathmandu, so I could puzzle over it when I was there. That book altered my view of the building that D and I lived in. What I had initially found ugly now revealed itself as, if not beautiful, then at least endearing.
“Where would we be if we hadn’t met?” D sometimes asks me.
I suppose I would still be in Kathmandu. I have held on to an apartment in a family home there, going back at least twice a year to spend a few weeks or a month to write and catch up with family and friends. The apartment is sunny, with windows looking onto a garden dense with tropical plants: camellia and poinsettia flowers, guava trees and kumquat shrubs. The city beyond is overcrowded, and bursting out of its rickety infrastructure; but it contains many of the people I love most in the world. And Nepal—troubled, dysfunctional and full of friction—gets under my skin in the way that, by comparison, orderly Canada doesn’t. Also, it has mountains. I miss D when I’m there. But on clear days, I can see the tall blue hills that ring the Kathmandu valley, and if I’m lucky, a Himalayan peak or two.
By comparison, Toronto is flat to the point of insipid. In Cities of the Interior, Anaïs Nin’s characters feel at home when a city matches their inner geography. Toronto’s geography does not match my inner geography. The flatness here makes me desperate, and drives me, some days, to fantasize about leaving: heading north to some small lakeside town, or striking west to the Rockies, or settling in close to the ocean out east, or even leaving Canada entirely and going back to Nepal. I crave sightlines, topographies, geographical markers: some drama. Our building is near the Cedarvale ravine, and I walk through it regularly, seeking reprieve in its few slopes. D and I also walk the Bruce Trail, and once, in the woods near Kolapore Uplands, summited Mount Dhaulagiri, a 459-meter hummock named after Nepal’s 8,167-meter Mount Dhaulagiri. For someone from Nepal, that does not even feel like a hill.
But such are the decisions we make in life: the decision to exchange something valuable for another: in this case, love. Love is a rare enough thing. The longer D and I stayed together, the more precious our relationship felt. Life is, after all, fleeting. We can’t hold on to anything for too long: everything slips away soon enough. Over the years D and I lived large, scrapped, made up, got along like a house on fire, introspected, questioned, debated, comforted each other, and grew older. We learned to put up with each other’s most irritating habits, and remained strangers enough to enjoy some intrigue. Time did what time does. D’s children grew up, and a few years ago D became a grandfather. I lost my brother to a heart attack. My parents in Nepal aged and grew frailer. Through all this I felt enlivened by being with D, by touching him, feeling his breath, and taking in his intelligence and brightness and sparkle and wit. It felt like great good fortune to be able to revel in our relationship, and to revel more, and even more, to the end of our days.
Yet no matter how fulfilling, a relationship does not extinguish the world. When anyone asked me why I was in Toronto, I’d say, “Love,” and then muse over the love I didn’t feel for the city after all these years of living here.
“User-friendly” was how I described the city to family and friends abroad. When you have lived in Kathmandu, you do not take electricity or running water, or public transport, libraries, and parks, or clean, breathable air, for granted. I was grateful that Toronto was so “livable,” but did not know how to further deepen my feelings for it.
Then, walking down Davenport Road one day, I came across a memorial to what was described as an “ancient trail” along the shoreline of a lake that no longer exists: the Iriquois glacial lake from the last ice age, which used to span over all of today’s Great Lakes. The trail once connected the rivers marking Toronto’s boundaries: the Don in the east, and in the west, the Humber. This memorial struck me as rare. In my years here I’d noticed that Canada had a penchant for celebrating its brief colonial history and ignoring its much longer Indigenous, Métis and Inuit pasts. This marker moved me, it stayed with me. I asked others about it afterwards, and read more about it, and realized, with a pang, how acutely I missed living with a larger sense of history here.
At more than 250 years, Nepal is the oldest extant nation in South Asia. It was founded on nations that predated it. Though Kathmandu is now overrun by outsiders, as happens in any capital city, the Indigenous Newar community, who bequeath the city its distinctive art, architecture, culture, and language, remains central, even existential to the city. Markers of even older civilizations abound. Not far from my family home is Andipringga, a town dating back to the first century B.C., the city’s oldest site of archaeological significance. It lies buried beneath Handigaun, a neighborhood of middle-class homes, some built traditionally, with brick and wood, and others renovated along modern lines, with iron and glass and concrete. Andipringga is not visible on the surface. But archaeologist Sudarshan Raj Tiwari, author of The Brick and the Bull: An Account of Handigaun, the Ancient Capital of Nepal, talks of how often artefacts are unearthed when families renovate their homes. Handigaun also has a stone marker with an inscription from the first century A.D., when the Licchavi ruled Kathmandu: they were the ones left behind records about Andipringga’s builders, the Kirat.
In Kathmandu, I always got a measure of my brief lifetime to be surrounded by reminders of the nations that predated Nepal. This does not happen in Toronto. Canada is in its 150th year of confederation. Toronto is built on the traditional lands of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca and the Mississaugas of the Credit River nations. The latter two nations remain in the area—displaced to territories of another nation, the Six Nations of the Grand River, 100 kilometers away, in Brantford. The displacement of the Mississaugas of the Credit River remains deeply controversial, though newcomers can be forgiven for not realizing so. There is little indication that the First Nations are still around, much less that they are regenerating from centuries of exploitation by a far more powerful settler-colonial state. Toronto’s name is itself a Mohawk word that means ‘where the trees stand in the water.’ Years passed before I learned this.
In those years I read up on CanLit, as Canadian literature is called, gravitating towards Indigenous authors, whose work most moved and educated me. I fell in love with Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach, a spiky contemporary story that invokes Haisla myths from the Pacific coast. Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse imbued me the romance of hockey, a game I’d never much cared for, and showed me the losses of residential schooling. Tracey Lindberg’s Birdie showed me how healing can take place after individual and collective violence. Waubgeshig Rice’s Legacy gave me an in into areas I’d traveled to blindly in the summertime, near Parry Sound, north of Toronto. It made the entire area, and Toronto’s hold over it, come to life in my mind.
One day, D told me about a Toronto-based project by Hayden King and Susan Blight, to give Ojibwe names to the city’s streets: Spadina Road, nearby us, became Ishpadinaa, or “a place on a hill,” in the street signs that these Indigenous activists erected in 2015. I went to see the street sign and followed the project as Davenport Road became “at the old portage,” or Gete-Onigaming. College Street, near the University of Toronto, became Gikinoo‘amaagegaming, or “place of learning.” Both D and I wished the city would make those street names permanent. “Why couldn’t they?” we asked each other. “Yes, why?”
This larger sense of history was helpful, and orienting, and humbling. It taught me how we—all of us—were positioned here; and I saw my own complicated placement as an immigrant in a settler-colonial state. A fourth-generation Canadian, D was as much of an outsider to Indigenous Toronto as I. Once we came to frame Toronto, in our minds, as a city of Indigenous, settler-colonial, and immigrant communities, we both wanted to be “allies” to the Indigenous communities, but did not know how to do so, beyond educating ourselves and staying open.
Meanwhile, our landlord suddenly decided to move, with his family, to Israel. He sold our building and disappeared from our lives this spring. By summertime, our new landlord, a developer, had posted notices about the permits he had applied for to replace our building with six million-dollar townhouses. We began scouting, half-heartedly, for another apartment. “Should we buy?” I would ask D from time to time, and we’d slip into that most Torontonian of conversations, about buying or renting or moving away entirely.
Our new landlord was uncommunicative to the point of hostility. We couldn’t find out how much longer we had to stay on in our—his—building. So I went to City Hall on the day he was scheduled to apply for permission to carve up the building’s lot into six. My downstairs neighbor also showed up. Late in the afternoon, we sat through a dozen other applications—most of them swiftly approved—before city officials asked if anyone needed a deferral. Two applicants asked for three-month deferrals; then a lawyer representing our landlord asked for one too—not for three, but six months. City Hall’s planners, our local representative, and our neighbors had all asked for consultations, she said. “Even after all that, it’ll take more time,” she huffed, before breaking off. Upon obtaining the referral, she stomped off. My neighbor and I followed, consulting among ourselves, and confirming that we had at least a year, possibly more, left in our building.
There was time enough to plan our next move. I was relieved, strolling away from City Hall. Offices were letting out. The streets were crowded. I made my way to the commercial heart of the city, Dundas Square, where D and I had arranged to meet. There was a market going on there: booths were set up, and I could hear music coming from a stage on one side of the square. D sent a message: he was running late. I wandered through the booths, which were selling jewelry, beadwork, t-shirts, moccasins, all around Indigenous themes. A sign announced that this it was Indigenous History Month. The Native Canadian Centre of Toronto had a booth to provide information about their programs, including Cree language classes and drumming socials. At another booth, I overheard a woman saying that that she was from the Six Nations of the Grand River. At another booth, I saw a baseball cap with an intricately beaded emblem of the Toronto Blue Jays. A 20-something woman was manning the booth. “Where are these beaded caps from?” I asked, assuming that her booth, too, was affiliated with a particular nation. My question puzzled her. “It’s—it’s just something I made,” she said. “Oh,” I said, wondering where she was from—meaning, which nation. Then I realized she was from here. She was just—from here.
I wandered around some more, then ran into an acquaintance from Nepal, and we chatted awhile. D texted, saying he was on the way. We were going for a drink to the bar in which he’d wasted his youth—the Imperial, almost certainly among the least renovated bars of the past 50 years. It was one of those places that had stopped me when I was new to Toronto, a place that had prompted me to speculate: why so drab? I now found that drabness endearing. Perhaps that is what love does to us, I mused, waiting for D. It imbues what is foreign with personal significance. It makes our affections radiate outwards. It softens us.
I ended up near the stage, tapping my feet as the singers sang to the tune of the fiddle. Dundas Square was beautiful that evening. I was glad to have come across this celebration of Indigenous History Month. Toronto’s deeper history almost made up for the things the city lacked—hills, for example. This city would never reflect my inner geography. But being able to see the troubled friction underlying it made me not quite love the city, but relate to it, understand it, and even, as I did that evening, feel quite tenderly towards it.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
“We’ve often thought First Nations and indigenous students — if they don’t see themselves reflected.. how engaged they can be with the educational system?” The Huffington Post reports that a school board in southern Ontario is making a native-focused literature course mandatory after learning that those books “were more interesting and engaging to students than the classics.” The class curriculum includes As Long as the River Flows by James Bartleman, Green Grass, Running Water and Medicine River by Thomas King, the 7 Generations graphic novel series by David Alexander Robertson, and Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese. (Story via Book Riot.)
“Canadian writers as a whole do not trust Nature. They are always suspecting some dirty trick.” – Margaret Atwood, Survival
Susanna Moodie’s 1852 Roughing it in the Bush was less an emigrant’s guide than a cautionary tale, and much early Canadian literature wrestled with the realities of that experience. Beautiful Losers (Leonard Cohen, 1966) finally freed Canadian writers from writing about the pioneer life and the implacable menace of the wilderness, but our anxiety about it never really went away (Elle, Solomon Gursky Was Here, The Orenda, and Indian Horse, to name a few). The land continues to demand our respect and attention.
The Bear, set in the early 1990s, rehearses that anxiety in a visceral way. Five-year-old Anna and her two-year-old brother Alex (Stick), survive a bear attack that kills their parents and then face the wilds of Algonquin Park on their own. “I need you to get your brother off the island,” her mortally injured mother whispers, when Anna and Stick emerge from the safety of the cooler. “It’s not safe.” With these words, Claire Cameron reminds us how tenuous is our mastery of the natural world.
I interviewed Cameron on a morning in early March. It was still too cold for a canoe trip, so we walked through the curated wilderness of High Park in Toronto instead. There was still snow on the ground but the cold snap had finally lifted and the birds were singing.
The Millions: In her study of Canadian literature, Survival, Margaret Atwood wrote that in the books she read as a child, “The main thing was to avoid dying, and only by a mixture of cunning, experience, and narrow escapes could the animal — or the human relying on its own resources — manage that.” Five-year-old Anna narrates your novel, and part of the tension in The Bear is the reader’s awareness of the killing indifference of the Canadian wilderness: we know the kids are not all right.
Claire Cameron: The real start was in the voice. It started to whisper to me. My son was five years old at the time and nattering incessantly. At five there’s that moment when their vocabulary catches up with their inner life. In the background was my ongoing interest in bears. I’ve spent a lot of time in the wilderness. I started to write with that voice and the wilderness stuff wrapped itself around that voice. A bear came to mind. I’m so well acquainted with the attack that happened in 1991 in Algonquin Park, where I’d worked as a camp counselor the year before and the year after it happened. It was a couple who were experienced campers and it was around Thanksgiving. As far as bears go, that timing is crucial. No one else was there to witness it, but in reconstructing the scene they think it was a predatory attack, and they think the bear attacked the woman first. There are signs that the man put up a fight. It was a young male bear, which is another important point. Young males get kicked out by their mums and they don’t have their own territory. They are the ones that are more experimental and willing to take a chance.
What took me years to come to terms with was that the couple didn’t do anything wrong, and the bear was just being a bear. The summer after, I and a lot of people who worked at the camp were searching for a reason, we were hoping that the campers had done something wrong, that the campers had done something to bring this on to themselves. There wasn’t much detail available. It wasn’t until years later that I came to terms with the idea that they’d done nothing wrong. It was quite chilling.
TM: You say the bear was just being a bear, but bears don’t attack people often.
CC: No. Some people call it a rogue bear, and I use that language sometimes, just to communicate that it’s very unusual for a black bear to do that. But there are biologists who say that if a bear, especially this young male bear, has made a successful kill of a young moose calf, that a human isn’t such a leap. It’s not a matter of them having taste for human flesh. It’s that it’s October and they need to hibernate and they need calories. A lone male is going to be struggling.
TM: When Anna and Stick reach the mainland and eat some of the “dangle berries” they forage, my mind went to the recent news about the neurotoxins in the wild yam seeds that Chris McCandless (Into the Wild) ate. If an adult, equipped with guides to edible plants, couldn’t figure out what might kill him, how could children be safe? Putting your characters directly in harm’s way meant simply letting them run out of food.
CC: Because I’ve taught Outward Bound courses, which were 30 day stretches in the wilderness with young kids who didn’t have much experience, I’m acutely aware of the boundaries, which are first and foremost hydration. And adults can really only go for three days. A lot of people worry about food but that’s just a distraction.
I love the wilderness for all sorts of reasons but my fundamental reason for being out there is what you learn about the people you’re with, especially when they come under stress. That section I was very much playing with those things, seeing how they’d react and what they’d do. What their priorities would be. A child is often stomach-led. I had this instinct that they would be wanting to put something in their mouth.
TM: Did you think of them getting hold of something poisonous?
CC: My son and I go hiking enough and one of the things we’re always talking about is, “Doesn’t that look tempting to eat? But you don’t eat that.” He can drone on about how he shouldn’t eat things. It’s one of my hobby horses. My intention was that her mother had been similarly on Anna about that kind of thing. I did feel that to be realistic and not fall into a heap, Anna needed some kind of prior structure.
TM: Earle Birney coined the term “bushed” in his iconic poem by that name to describe the way the wilderness does a number on our mental health. As the weather turned and the bush became something he knew he might not survive, Richard Wagamese’s young Ojibway character (in Indian Horse) put it this way: “The land around us was like a great being hunched in the darkness.” You give fresh meaning to being bushed when Anna imagines the darkness as a flesh-eating monster. Were you consciously working from that literary tradition? It’s hard to imagine in an urban park, but have you ever been bushed yourself?
CC: I’ve been bushed lots. I was working more from an experiential tradition than a literary one, probably, though I’m very attracted to all of those writers. I’ve done a lot of time outdoors. Some of the most interesting times, in retrospect, are when you get bushed, up against the edge. It reminds you of your place in the world, how small and insignificant you are. We love to put sentiment on nature, we love to give it human emotions, but it’s really about realizing your place, and how precarious your place is.
TM: Nick Cutter (aka Craig Davidson, the worst-kept secret in Canadian literature) recently published a horror novel about young people in the wilderness, The Troop. In an interview about it, he said, “I think for the boys in my book, they keep going because, simple as it seems, it’s impossible for them to believe that they won’t survive.” This childlike trust that the universe is benign is very much a thematic concern in The Bear, too. It makes it possible for Anna to endure.
CC: I loved The Troop for that point, that the young mind is flexible and can snap back. I feel like we had that observation in common. I picked up on that in conversations with my son, when I noticed he’d be so sad about something that he’d feel that his life was over and it was all ruined and then in the next minute be laughing hysterically. I was amazed at watching that, noticing how much protection there was in that, to be able to switch and be in a moment like that. I think it is a survival tactic.
TM: Writing from the perspective of a five-year-old also means childish self-absorption. She laughs at her brother’s nakedness, notices the way her skin turns white from so much water, and worries about being in trouble with her parents. Meanwhile, she’s lost in the wilderness. Does her tunnel vision protect her from the larger terror an adult with greater knowledge of the world would feel?
CC: I think it does. That ability to be in the moment helps you keep relaxed. In a survival situation, being relaxed is one of the key things. I think it stops her from overloading with stress, which an adult might do. It’s a survival mechanism of its own.
TM: You’ve said that you were very much aware of Lord of the Flies while you were writing this book, and that you were consciously writing against it. Tell me more about that.
CC: I reread it sometime in the year before I started writing. When I’ve been working leading wilderness courses, there’s been a longstanding joke when things start to break down, everyone says, “Oh, Lord of the Flies!” So I reread it. I’d known it wasn’t exactly a kind take on human nature, but having two boys I was really struck by how it gave them no benefit of the doubt. It was quite a mean take on human nature. I saw so much kindness in my boys that I got angry that I’d let Lord of the Flies define so much. Why is that the reference point? That really frustrated me. So I started writing against that.
TM: So you said you were listening to your son’s voice, and yet you drew the character as a girl.
CC: The book was originally two boys. I was listening to my son’s voice and the character was a boy, and I had a much longer section when they were grown up and returning to the island at first. I was really struggling with that and my agent said, Well, maybe it’s a girl. I went into a three-day snit. Absolutely not! It was so foundational that I was writing against Lord of the Flies. I calmed down and I read through, and the older character was going on about popsicles and Band-Aids. I realized that she and I shared a lot of interests. I started to leave Lord of the Flies behind. Maybe that was a reason for starting, but why would that matter to the reader? I knew I’d write about a strong little girl really well.
TM: In your review of The Troop for The Globe and Mail you wrote about how the female character is always the one being eaten, and how that irritates you. Was that part of that character decision as well?
CC: It became a big part of that. Especially in wilderness and survival writing, there’s been, similar to horror, a damsel in distress role for women. My grandmother’s sister was a climber in the 1950s who was in the Kootenays (south-east British Columbia), a back-country skier, and I don’t see her story. There were quite a few Victorian rock-climbers, they went in skirts, but it’s not really established in the wilderness writing canon. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there. I was so glad that Craig Davidson didn’t have anyone skinny dipping at the beginning!
TM: Releasing children to their own recognizance is a common fairy tale trope. When she was small, I’d hear my daughter announce “we were orphans” during imaginary play. Like in fairy tales, that was always the start of everything: get the parents out of the way so something interesting can happen. There are clear narrative constraints when you limit yourself to the perspective of a five-year-old, but I think there are freedoms, too. Did you ever attempt this story from the adult perspective?
CC: I didn’t, because it started with the voice. One of the first times I’ve thought clearly about this was when Mark Medley interviewed me for the National Post and he said, You have all these tools but you’ve chosen to throw them to the side and essentially tie one hand behind your back. Why would you do that? And I had no way to answer. I didn’t sit down and think, I’m going to write from the child’s perspective, I thought, I’m going to use this voice. In my first few drafts I had many more signposts for the reader, days of the week, some articles, a section from the rescuer’s perspective. I was not confident in my ability to pull it off. As I got more into the voice and attuned to what I was doing, I started to strip that back and the last step was taking it all out. I thought, Ok, I think I can stand up. I had to be brave.
It was incredibly freeing. I stopped worrying so much while I was writing, and I stopped using that analytical part of my brain and I let it go back to this instinctual brain. When I was writing Anna’s voice I let myself write fast and I didn’t read back. I just let it rip.
TM: Your bear is very different from Marian Engel’s bear, but both animals seem to stand in for our relationship with the natural world. We understand it as benevolent as well as destructive; we love it and we fear it. Has the writing of this novel changed your relationship with wilderness?
CC: The review in People magazine said something like, “This could do for camping what Jaws did for beaches.” I thought, Oh, good lord! I actually loved the novel Jaws and I’d been reading about how Peter Benchley has such great regret about what he did to great white sharks. They weren’t understood when he wrote that, and the novel portrays them as killing machines. If you read the blurb about my book, and you don’t actually read the book, there is potential for harm. It’s made me realize the extent of my conflict. Of course when I go outdoors I’m very conscious of them and I’m scared of them in a way, but all of my experiences say that I don’t need to be. I think that part of writing this book was trying to reconcile those two things.