Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Heather Momyer’s fiction piece, The Great Bear
Sommer: The second person point of view is such an interesting perspective because it has the unusual effect of being specific and omniscient at the same time. With this perspective there is a keen sense of a storyteller behind it all, which brings with it a fascinating tension between encouraging the reader to inhabit the “you,” and gently pushing the reader back in order to see the whole story. I think it works beautifully in this fable-esque story, and I wonder how you decided upon it and if it took you some time?
Heather: I recently saw a Tweet from Amber Sparks about use of second person that resonated with me. She wrote, “here’s a secret: the ‘you’ is often not the reader, but the protagonist busy disassociating from trauma.” In this story’s case, it isn’t exactly trauma. It’s guilt and grief. I think the “you” felt right as I imagined a collective, social “you,” even though I tried to ground the actions in a singular character. In a sense, it’s me, some other “not me,” and often “us.” I definitely feel safer in the woods in the Midwest and Atlantic states than I do in the Pacific Northwest where we occasionally hear stories about people being attacked by starving mountain lions. I enjoy the Pennsylvania woods more, and I feel guilty about that kind of pleasure and safety.
One of my favorite quotes is by Flannery O’Connor: “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” One of the reasons why I love your story is that it focuses on a very difficult truth about our species that we need to understand: we are obliterating life on the planet. “You” struggles in this story between action and inaction—will s/he be able to save the dying bear, be able to right the world’s wrongs? Or, as the baby boomers do at the end, will “you” just walk away, shaking her head hopelessly? What do you think?
There’s apathy, and there’s exhaustion. The thing about action versus inaction is that there is no break. Maybe “you” rescues the bear and takes it to a sanctuary, but there are thousands of other bears, or thousands of other animals, or thousands of refugees, or thousands of pounds of plastic that “you” does nothing about. It’s a rigged system; you probably aren’t doing enough, and you never can do enough. Knowing that, you can see the temptation of allowing yourself to become apathetic or willfully ignorant. There is some finger-pointing here, but there’s also some empathy. I have no idea how to commit to the kind of action required while maintaining emotional, mental, and physical health, but I do know there are fewer animals in the world than there were when I was a kid, and I do know that the wilderness is home to more plastic than most of us would like to imagine.
Would you tell us a little bit about the article in Esquire that inspired you to write this story? And do you think most stories are inspired in one way or another?
I lived in Armenia for two years, right in the middle of a national forest halfway between the capital city and the Georgian border, and I can tell you exactly how many wild mammals I saw in that forest: two. One time I saw a squirrel; another time I saw a vole. Other than that, there were cows who would trek to the meadows above the tree line, often unattended, and near the roads, there were street dogs. The woods were conspicuously absent of wildlife. There was speculation of over-hunting, and there was definitely some illegal logging because the cost of heating a home was too high for many people. There were also a lot of neglected and abused animals in the country: dogs were shot in the streets. I knew a puppy who was stabbed in the neck with a stick. (She survived and now lives in Pennsylvania.) Then, after Nikol Pashinyan became the new prime minister, there was a push for the enforcement of animal welfare laws. I saw a story about a rescued bear that had been kept caged behind a restaurant and was taken to a sanctuary. I see similar stories from Serbia semi-regularly as well. But then I remembered the Zanesville zoo story and the subsequent Esquire article. There was also the documentary I watched about states with few-to-no laws on exotic animals—there was footage of a pet cougar that lived in a Texas trailer with a six-year-old girl. Then I remembered the tigers at a roadside zoo at a gas station in Louisiana that I saw sometime in the early 2000s. There is a wolf sanctuary near where I live now. One of their wolves was purchased over the internet by a teenager. Having people with zero expertise in animal behavior or health who own and display wild animals isn’t limited to Armenia or Serbia. Roadside zoos are here in the U.S. So is dog fighting and cock fighting. Teenagers can buy wolves, which are often euthanized before they turn three. People get drunk and do terrible, violent things to animals. It happens. The Zanesville incident was probably the most horrific in terms of loss of life and public endangerment, and outrageous because it was in Ohio where there is no significant wilderness and most animals are farm animals. So, yes, I do think stories, art, and all ideas are inspired from something in the world around us.
The fight scene in the middle of the story between the bear and the “long, lean” man is riveting. How did you write this scene, and do you have any advice on writing action scenes like this one?
I’m glad you liked that scene. I generally don’t write many action scenes. One of my favorite directors is Sofia Coppola and one of my favorite film shots is that moment when Stephen Dorff is on a raft in a pool in Somewhere, and the camera holds that shot much longer than expected, so long that Dorff begins to float out of the frame. I love the audacity of that kind of stillness. But not much happens in this bear story either, and I knew that I needed something to balance that stillness. It helps that I trained as a kickboxer for a brief moment in my early 20s. I have all kinds of feelings about fighting as a spectator sport (I mostly think it’s pretty terrible), but learning to kickbox was very similar to my experience with learning how to ballroom dance or salsa, the way you learn to watch and feel another person’s body, to know what will come next. It’s very intimate, and it can be very elegant, until something really violent happens … but isn’t that how life goes? You’re waltzing along, and then BAM! You get punched in the face.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
Ha! I have been known to handle rejection with whatever is the opposite of grace, though literary rejections are easier than other kinds. I have no advice.
Thank you for doing this interview with me, and congratulations!
Thank you! I loved working with you, Sommer.