Q&A: Tears & Trauma in Claire Cameron's 'The Bear'

Since 1990, 62 people have been attacked and killed by bears in North America. Sure, bear attacks are rare, but they're tangibly feared — especially during camping trips. The horror and mystery of one such attack is the basis for Claire Cameron's second novel, The Bear (Little, Brown). One weekend, 5-year-old Anna's family camps in Ontario's Algonquin Park. Anna tries to sleep next to her brother Alex (whom she calls Stick) while her parents cook bacon over a fire outside the tent. In a matter of moments, Anna's world is turned upside down. She hears her mother scream, and her father quickly locks Anna and her brother in a bear-proof box. Anna and Stick listen, fully terrified, while a huge black bear mauls and kills on their parents.

Her dying mother commands Anna to save herself and her brother and paddle away in the family's canoe. With remarkable bravery for so pint-sized a narrator, Anna explains all that she sees, feels, and lacks as she navigates her and her brother's survival alone in the woods. Anna's perspective and innocence despite the horror of her reality is what will endear the reader.

Claire Cameron told me about her powerful novel of survival and hope.

BUSTLE: In your introductory note, you write that The Bear is based on a real life bear attack that happened in 1991 with no clear reason. Tell me what about this attack struck you and compelled you.

CLAIRE CAMERON: When I first heard about the attack, I wanted to find out the reason that it happened. It was reported in the newspapers, but there was little detail about why. I worked in Algonquin Park, the wilderness area where the attack took place, the summer after. The other counselors and I would swap stories about it. I think we were all seeking consolation by trying to find out what the couple who were attacked did wrong. This is a common reaction to a tragic event. If you can isolate a reason why it happen, or a mistake that the people made, then perhaps it’s only a matter of not repeating that mistake to keep yourself safe. As I came to learn more about the attack, I understood that the couple did nothing wrong. It was just a tragedy. This was the scariest conclusion of all. It stuck with me.

Did you toy with telling the story from a different point of view? Why/when did you add the children?

I didn’t really think about adding the kids or anything else while doing the first draft. I had the child’s voice in my head. It followed me around for some time until I realized that it was developed enough that the voice could tell me about anything (I am a runner and have these crazy conversations with myself while pounding the streets). I had finished another book, so I thought I would just see what it might be. When I sat down to write, the idea of a bear popped to mind. By that point, the Algonquin Park attack was etched into me. I used my memories of it as a structure. All the thinking and questioning came in later drafts when I rewrote and edited … rewrote some more.

What questions did you ask of your child narrator to articulate her point of view?

Once I had the voice, it was more a matter of challenging Anna, the child narrator. I know the setting, Algonquin Park, so well that this felt quite natural. The process of writing was much closer to acting than anything I’ve done before. Each morning I would slip into a role and write.

When I think of it, I was in Anna’s world almost entirely as I wrote the first draft. Maybe the acting part came more at the end of the day when I had to pretend to be present for my family. I didn’t tell my husband what I was working on, but after I finished the first draft I confessed that I’d been writing something intense. He laughed and said, “Yeah, no kidding.” Maybe I’m not such a great actor after all.

Did you create rules or standards for developing Anna’s narrative?

Not during the writing of the first draft. While I was rewriting and editing, I kept a sort of style sheet to make sure that terms and language were consistent, though I let some things vary as I’d observed my son doing the same. My editor at Little/Brown, Sarah Murphy, was very thorough about pointing out places where I’d slipped.

The syntax of some of your sentences are so great. “I open my mouth and she turns the spoon and it goes plop and there is a little bit of Tang but then it goes wiggle wiggle and oh yuck that’s weird and my tongue says no thanks and tgggguffff I spit.” Are sentences like these based on real five-year-olds’ dialogue?

Yes. My son was five when I started writing. We had many conversations and I taped a few of his rants to get the rhythm. But, it didn’t take all that much research. He was going through a very chatty stage, so I had his speech patterns were pretty much seared into my brain. As I wrote, Anna separated from him and became her own character, but quite a few of the funnier lines are directly from his mouth.

What have you learned from Anna?

I noticed that my son at age five could swing from tears of distress to belly laughs in seconds. This comes from the ability to live in the moment. It’s a great coping mechanism and something that we, as adults, often struggle to do. And this is what I learned from living in Anna’s world for a while. Each moment can have a value of its own.

The Bear by Claire Cameron, $8, Amazon

Image: Nancy Friedland