Today I’m introducing a fellow novelist – G. Elizabeth Kretchmer. Kretchmer is the author of two novels – The Damnable Legacy and Bear Medicine – and a collection of short stories – Women on the Brink (a great title, I think!)
We have been talking about her latest novel, Bear Medicine and also about books and writing in general. Here’s our Q&A:
Why did you write Bear Medicine?
I have to laugh when I’m asked this question, because the story has evolved over the thirteen years between when I first sat down to write it and when it finally came out. My life has changed and the world has changed so much during this time, so my reason for writing the story (actually the two intertwined stories) has also transformed.
One thing that has remained constant is my love and concern for the grizzly bear and what she represents, and it so happens the novel finally came out at a critical time for the grizzly, who has lost her status as an endangered animal in the Yellowstone area and who is now eligible to be hunted in some regions.
Another constant is the strength of my love for my kids, but what has changed is my maternal role as my kids matured, as well as my understanding of how parent-child relationships don’t always wind up the way we hope they will. The relationship between mother and child was always a part of this story but it is certainly quite different now than it once was.
The part of the story that emerged to become most critical stemmed from my growing commitment to the idea that women must help women in our male-dominated world. We must respect our contributions to humanity and put a stop to the idea that our innate roles of care and compassion are less important than roles that generate money or celebrate power. We need to honor women who have come and gone before us and who, except for a select few, have been deemed unimportant and omitted from our history books. And we must continue to raise awareness about abuse against women, both physical and psychological, until it’s finally stamped out of our culture for good.
In sharing what happens when people use power as a means to control others, and the healing power that comes from supporting one another, my book, according to one reviewer, serves as “a rallying cry for those believing in humane co-existence with all life on this planet.” While I can’t say I set out to write a rallying cry, I think I can honestly say my purpose was to evoke thoughtful consideration about the state of our world and particularly the status of women and grizzly bears.
Talk about a favorite scene or character in your novel.
One of my favorite scenes is the opening of the novel. Brooke sets off on a trail in Yellowstone National Park one morning to train for an upcoming marathon. The landscape is stunning but savage. She stops to snap a photo with her phone to send to her estranged college-aged daughter, and then this:
A horrible stench. A distinctive blend of musk and rot. A slow-motion image of my phone being jettisoned from my hands, bouncing down an embankment, and landing against a fallen pine. The subtle taste of sandy dirt. Followed by the stabbing penetration into each of my hips, blinding pain, liftoff from the ground. Heavy and helpless, I was hefted into the air like a tree stump raised by a bulldozer.
It’s a wonder that, in the midst of all my agony, I had enough wits left to figure out was was happening. But I did.
I’d been attached by a bear. A very big bear.
Can you describe your writing process for this novel?
After writing my initial draft and a few rounds of revisions, I secured an agent. But the book didn’t sell so I put it on a shelf. I got an MFA, created a writing workshop series for survivors of domestic violence, and wrote and published an entirely different novel and a short story collection. I never forgot about Bear Medicine, though, so I finally went back to it.
Rather than dusting it off for revision, I started from scratch. By now I had a clearer idea of what I thought the takeaways from the novel might be. I wanted to tinker with the historical genre and introduce some magical realism, but I wanted to retain the contemporary flavor, too. I embarked on a new round of research including a trip to Yellowstone for rich inspiration in the field. I spent a lot of time analyzing who I really wanted my characters to be and what stories they needed to tell. Finally, I came up with what ultimately became the final version, not counting numerous rounds of editing revisions along the way.
Can you share some books that you love? Not more than 3 though!!
I’m a sucker for stories about family, especially families with lots of flaws. It’s hard to choose only three!
Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng
This reminds me of Defending Jacob by William Landay, another great novel surrounding the mystery of a child’s death, how it destroys a family, and how mutually fragile each member of the family can be. Ng’s story also depicts how generations rebel against that which their parents most want for them.
LaRose – Louise Erdrich
You probably think I’m obsessed with stories about children dying. I’m not, but you’ve got to admit that’s a premise that immediately tugs on your heartstring. This novel weaves together three stories: how a boy’s death destroys the relationship between two families; what happens when more than one man is in love with the same woman; and the power of strength and peace that can be handed down through the generations.
Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty
I loved this long before it became one of the most talked about HBO shows in recent history. It’s another mystery as it’s written, but the guts of the story surround the unfortunate competition that can arise among young mothers who sincerely want the best for their children but who, in their quest for maternal perfection, let their ugliest shadow selves surface and take control of their lives.
(I think that’s 4 books really!!)
And what about a work of non-fiction/a TV show/a movie/an album?
Again, an impossible request, to recommend only one. So much to choose from! I was planning to recommend a memoir with the same structure and tropes as a novel, but then I got a wild idea to recommend a journalistic nonfiction. It’s so relevant to our society today and in all likelihood will ring true for some of your readers:
Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol – Ann Dowsett Johnston
I drank wine almost every night for my entire adult life, and just a year ago I decided it was time to give it up. Doing so was one of the greatest challenges I’ve ever faced, and this book was the final kick in the derriere that made me do it. It articulates just how pervasive wine is in our society and how the alcohol industry has specifically targeted women in its marketing efforts.
What is the best piece of advice you have for other writers?
“Never give up, never surrender!” That was actually a line from the film Galaxy Quest which wasn’t an inspirational movie in the slightest. But the line stuck with me. If you love to write, then you must do it. If writing makes you crazy and grumpy, you must also do it. If life throws you curve balls (which of course it does), then you must write about these flaming balls to help you process and figure out how you feel and what to do.
But along the way, you must also read, read, read. Devour books in your genre but explore plenty of books—both fiction and nonfiction—in other genres. (Joining a book club to be forced to read books you wouldn’t otherwise have chosen, and to hear how other readers analyze books, can be extremely helpful). And don’t forget craft books! There are too many great books about the craft of writing to mention here, but I will recommend four fabulous inspirational books that I highly recommend. In fact, I’m due to reread them again!
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – Stephen King
You don’t need to be a fan of his novels to appreciate his experience and advice.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Anne Lamott
A down-to-earth, touching, and sometimes humorous peek into one writer’s life.
If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence, and Spirit – Brenda Ueland
The author’s convictions that anyone can write, and that everyone has something important to say, can inspire the new writer to pick up the pen and the seasoned writer to put her butt back in the chair.
Gift from the Sea – Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Not a writing book per se, but a book that invokes our inner voices to express our observations and musings about life.
I have read 3 out of 4 of these! Definitely need to check out Brenda Ueland’s book after this recommendation!